book review – hidden minds: a history of the unconscious

book review – hidden minds: a history of the unconscious

Hey everyone!

“Oh let the sun beat down upon my face

I am a traveller of both kinds of space”

from the song Kashmir, by Led Zeppelin (early 1970s)

Here’s the second of our 2 book reviews this week, and it deals with inner space.  As a bonus for you, we include a segment of “random musings” and a recent pic at bottom.  Forgive us, dear readers, this did get a bit lengthy (1,800 words), but is worth several minutes in reading and reflection on your part.  We took some time writing it!  (Should we try our hand at short, speculative and entertaining fiction?)

Hidden Minds – A History of the Unconscious, by Frank Tallis (2002, Arcade Publishing, New York, ISBN 1-55970-643-0, hardback, 182 pages plus bibliography and index).

This book of ten thought-provoking chapters we read in its entirety and in proper sequential order as it is a history in chronological order of events and developments.  (We had finished the first 6 chapters before surgery, and then during early convalescence we read the remaining 4 chapters.)  Due to the depth and specificity of the book’s treatment of the subject, we will need to keep this review at a high level, or it will become much too long.

Tallis, a clinical psychologist and a Ph.D. living in London, traces the history and development of the concept of the unconscious from Leibniz (late 17th century German mathematician and philosopher) to the present time (2002 when the book was published).  Romantic philosophers, poets and writers such as Coleridge and De Quincey accepted the idea of a hidden part of the mind that lay below the normal level of everyday awareness or consciousness.  Several of these writers in the late 1700s and early 1800s accessed this hidden area of their minds by the use of opium.  (There is a book from the 1970s by Alethea Hayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination, that speaks to this in some detail.  Her conclusion: For those writers that did not already possess some artistic imagination, opium did not help them to acquire such a creative imagination.  Opium may have enhanced the imagination of some writers who already were imaginative and creative in their writings.  The writer either had the talent and imagination, or did not have these.)

Early neurologists and psychologists took up the concept of the unconscious as the 1800s progressed.  The book deals with Freud and his contribution to the development of the unconscious as an accepted and important part of psycho-analysis and psycho-therapy.  It is pointed out that Freud was not wholly original in some of his ideas as other doctors of the period (especially the Frenchman, Pierre Janet, a review of whose work makes up one chapter of the book) had postulated the workings of the unconscious to account for various symptoms and behaviors in their patients prior to Freud’s writings.  (The same is true for Albert Einstein and the theory of relativity.  Einstein put it all together, yes, but other physicists of the late 1800s were coming up with aspects of relativity independent of and prior to Einstein’s work.)

Freud thought that he had delivered the “third blow” to man’s ego-centrism or narcissism with the concept of the unconscious.  The first 2 blows were the Copernican heliocentric solar system and Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Man was not so special after all.  With the existence of the unconscious, man was not even master of himself!

After Freud’s work of the early 20th century, the concept of the unconscious fell out of favor in the world of psychology for a few decades only to come back to prominence in the middle and final decades of the 20th century.  There was much physical experimentation on the brain and neuroscientists believed that they had identified parts of the human brain that are involved in the unconscious processing of stimuli and reactions to stimuli.  The unconscious now appeared to have a physiological basis (and existence) in the physical brain.

Dr. Tallis refers to the brain at one point as an “electrochemical jelly”.  He is illustrating what an extreme reductionist or materialist view would conclude about the human brain.  The fact is that the human brain is by far the most complex “thing” that we humans have ever encountered (or likely will ever encounter) in this physical universe.  Even today, it is not very well understood with all its billions of interconnections and neurons.

There are those in the neuroscience and psychology fields that believe that consciousness is solely based on the biochemical and electrical activity in the brain.  Some even go further and assert that the very rapid unconscious processing of stimuli and reactions to stimuli make our normal conscious level of awareness and sense of self a product of the unconscious.  The disturbing implication here is that we cannot change, we cannot alter our behavior, we effectively have no “free will”.  The example of the thief is used – one who cannot help himself, continues to steal and cannot mend his ways, and is thus not responsible for his behavior.  The author observes that this implication or conclusion is not easy for many people to accept.

We reject this pessimistic, materialistic determinism.  People can and do change their behaviour albeit it is not easy to do.  We also do not think that consciousness (or mind) is exactly synonymous with brain (protoplasm and neurons).  We have discussed this before in several previous essays.  You may say: “But, Larry, you old curmudgeon, iconoclast and gadfly, your assertion is incorrigible (cannot be proved nor disproved).”  To which we reply, yes and no.  A non-physical basis of consciousness is not provable by material or physical means.  But, sometimes, you can detect the presence of something indirectly by its effects.  (Pluto, the ninth planet, was inferred – because of observed disturbances in Neptune’s orbit around the sun – long before it was seen in a telescope (around 1930).)  When the soul (life force, consciousness) departs the body, the body dies.

Here is one relevant quote near the end of the book (p. 175):

” . . . . Descartes’ account of the mind and body is described as ‘dualistic’ because it requires the existence of two quite different substances — ‘mind stuff’ and ordinary matter. Unfortunately, there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of ‘mind stuff’.  Regardless of how closely the contents of the skull are examined, nothing other than material substance appears to be present.  Thus, investigators are left with what the philosopher Gilbert Ryle derisively called ‘a ghost in the machine’.

“There is nothing ghostly or speculative about a brain.  Yet, belief in a gossamer mind, snagged and trapped in the biological machinery, remains an enduring and remarkably tenacious image.  . . . . .”

So, Dr. Tallis says that neuroscientists do not find anything immaterial in their dissections and examinations of human brains.  Forgive me, but that is hardly surprising!  Of course, a non-material “ingredient” or factor will not be detected by material instruments.  In other words, you cannot prove the existence of non-material consciousness with physical (material) science and physical (material) instruments.  (Science does have its limitations.)  But, it is equally true that you cannot disprove that consciousness (mind) transcends the physical brain.  (As we said in a previous essay, the brain appears to act as a filter for stimuli, and narrows the focus of consciousness.)  The non-material soul (or atman) can exist in both the material plane as well as on a spiritual plane of existence.

There is no closure here.  Each of us must choose – in the privacy of his/her own thoughts  – what to believe.

This has been offered as food for thought.  Exercise your minds as often as you exercise your bodies.  (My late father-in-law used to say “Eat more.  Be strong.”  I will say “Think, or your mind will atrophy.”)  Thanks for reading.

. . . . random musings . . . .(please read all the items to gain the full benefits)

Economy:  Markets do not work perfectly.  However, free markets are more efficient at allocating resources within an economy.  When you have a major run up in home values/prices (50 to 80+%) followed by a crash in prices as we did in the US between 2002 and 2008/9, the biggest (not only) culprit is government intervention.  Such government intervention (as to lending practices, criteria for credit worthiness, and most of all by interest rate manipulations by the so-called Federal Reserve) in the market distorts the free market’s signals, and thus the efficient operation of the market.  Economies naturally have some ups and downs as there is a “business cycle”.  But, the large amplitude of the ups and downs is caused by the government trying to manage the economy (sometimes in pursuit of social engineering goals).

Governments are not good at managing economies as there are too many variables to manage.  Millions of decisions are made each and every day in the US economy by buyers, sellers, producers/manufacturers, managers (purchasing, production, transportation, etc.), workers, vendors/suppliers, customers/consumers, investors, lenders, marketing executives, engineers in product design, entrepreneurs, farmers, etc.

Yet, we, in the USA, have 2 corrupt, political parties that are obsessed with and committed to big government with its detrimental and excessive intrusions into our economy and our lives.  The people put up with these parties year after year, decade after decade, and return them to power election after election.  Things that make one wonder. (end of rant)

Health:  Just heard on the radio today (1/29/13), that leafy green vegetables in the US are found to be contaminated with harmful bacteria or parasites more than other vegetables.  Here is our advice: continue eating bok choy, collards, broccoli, and spinach.  Just be sure to wash them in tap water in the kitchen prior to their preparation.  With bok choy, you are blanching or even boiling it any way in water on the stove top, but wash it first.  If you like your broccoli raw, then wash it more thoroughly!  These green leafy vegetables are cancer fighters.  As well, drink green tea as it has been found to lessen the risk of getting some cancers, and is rich in anti-oxidants.

Climate change:  Here is a recent video (with audio) clip of a few minutes that tells why forcing the US to reduce its emissions of so-called green house gases will not do anything to slow so-called global warming.  As we see that global warming has already been debunked in several places, we will not address the issue in an essay.  (Only former US Vice President Al Gore cannot see the forest for the trees.)

As for the Super Bowl on Sunday, February 3 (Monday morning in Asia), Lucy would like to see San Francisco win, whereas I am cheering for a Baltimore victory.  Let’s just say “may the best team win”.  And, let’s see the vivacious, curvaceous, and charming cheerleaders from both teams.  They won’t be cold as the game is being played indoors!  😉

The below pic is of Lucy (my spouse) at church on Sunday, January 20, 2013.

Lucy at church

See you in February!  Tell everyone you know about this blog!  Thanks much!!

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