Eric Fromm and the Social Unconscious

Eric Fromm and the Social Unconscious

The truth is often realized through balance, found in the middle ground between opposing extremes—a reality Fromm embraced when developing his theory of the unconscious. Fromm blended the ideas of both Freud and Marx, creating a compromise between the Freudian emphasis on the unconscious, biological drives, repression, etc. (the belief that the character is determined by biology), and Marx’s belief that people are a product of their society (particularly the economic systems therein).
Fromm’s theory was no mere derivative, however; he added the revolutionary concept of freedom to these deterministic systems, granting people the ability to transcend the various determinisms described by Freud and Marx. To Fromm, freedom was central to human nature.

Humans, according to Fromm, actually try to escape from this freedom through the following ways:

  1. Authoritarianism. Freedom, for all its promise of excitement, is also a lonely prospect; true freedom is associated with having no commitments, and nothing to lose—it is marked by a profound separateness. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that we seek to escape this freedom by fusing ourselves with others. One of the more primitive ways in which we do this is by becoming a part of an authoritarian system, either by submitting to it (joining an existing structure) or by becoming authoritarian (applying structure to others). Regardless of your chosen method, the result is the same: you escape your separate identity.

Fromm used the terms masochism and sadism to denote the extreme versions of authoritarianism, and observed that the sadist, no matter his apparent power, feels as compelled to act out his role as the masochist, and is thus not free to choose his actions.

Authoritarianism is by no means limited to dictatorships and other extreme examples, however; mild versions of it are found in many places—think of the relationship between students and professors, for instance: Students seek structure, and the professor adheres to his notes. As harmless and natural as this interaction may seem, for the students, it’s a means to avoid taking any responsibility for their learning, and for the professor, it’s a way of eschewing the real, challenging, and perhaps controversial issues of his field.

  1. Destructiveness. Authoritarians respond to a painful existence by effectively erasing themselves via the systems they inhabit; destroyers, on the other hand, try to erase the world around them so it cannot cause pain. Many seemingly random acts of brutality, vandalism, humiliation, crime, terrorism, and so on, can be accounted for by this manner of escape from freedom.
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Alfred Adler’s Personality Theory and Personality Types

Alfred Adler’s Personality Theory and Personality Types

The question of what drives us—what great force underlies our motivation as individuals, propelling us forward through all manner of trying circumstance—was a matter of longtime fascination for psychologist Alfred Adler. He eventually came to call this motivating force the “striving for perfection”, a term which encapsulates the desire we all have to fulfill our potential, to realize our ideals—a process strikingly similar to the more popular idea of self-actualization.

Self-actualization is perhaps the less problematic of the two terms, as one cannot process Adler’s ideas without immediately bumping up against the troublesome nature of the words “perfection” and “ideal”. While the idea of striving to be the best version of one’s self is an obviously positive goal, the concept of perfection is, in psychology, often given a rather negative connotation. After all, perfection likely does not exist, and therefore cannot be reached, meaning that efforts to do so are invariably frustrating and can come full circle to create an extreme lack of motivation (i.e., giving up).

Indeed, Adler himself balked at using “perfection” to describe his single motivating force, beginning instead with phrases like aggression drive (to describe the frustrated reaction we have when our basic needs, such as the need to eat or be loved, are not being met)—yet even this term had obvious negative connotations; aggression is, after all, seldom seen as a good thing, and using the term “assertiveness” may have served Adler better.

(Interestingly, Freud himself took exception to the term “aggression drive”, though not on the basis that it was overly negative in connotation; instead, Freud felt that it would detract from the pivotal position of the sex drive in psychoanalytic theory. Freud may have had a change of heart in later years, however, as his idea of a “death instinct” bore a great deal of similarity to Adler’s theory.)

Another, perhaps better, descriptor used by Adler to refer to basic motivation was compensation, which in this case was meant to denote the process of striving to overcome one’s inherent limitations. Adler postulated that since we all have various issues and shortcomings as people, our personalities develop largely through the ways in which we do (or do not) compensate for or overcome these inherent challenges. Adler later rejected this idea in part (though it still played an important role in his theory; more on that later), as he decided it was inaccurate to suggest one’s problems are the cause for who one eventually becomes.

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The Quest for Self-Actualization

The Quest for Self-Actualization

Terms like self-actualization and validation are thrown around a lot today; as our culture steadily moves more and more toward the celebration of the individual, these phrases are often used as catchy descriptors for the realization and affirmation of the self… But where do they come from, and what processes truly underlie self-actualization?

The term self-actualization owes its origins to the Humanistic psychological theory, most notably the theories of Abraham Maslow. Maslow coined the term self-actualization to describe the growth of an individual toward fulfillment of their highest needs, those most advanced concepts and “big questions” humans struggle with, such as the pursuit of the meaning of life.

Maslow believed in, and created, a psychological hierarchy of needs (many of us are already familiar with Maslow’s pyramid of needs), the fulfillment of which culminates in the realization of a person’s “being values”, the very top of the pyramid which symbolizes meaning.

Maslow believed that individuals who managed to become self-actualized people were able to resolve common ideological conflicts, such as that between determinism and free will, due to their enhanced creativity and psychological robustness.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs ascends in the following order:

  1. Physiological needs (physical, survival-based needs), such as the need for food, water, sleep and air. These are on the bottom of the pyramid and represent our most basic needs.
  2. The need for safety, security, and protection; the need for a stable and secure environment free from strife is next on the pyramid; human growth cannot progress beyond this stage without safety, as feeling safe allows people to cease thinking about their survival-based needs and move on to more intangible desires.
  3. The need for love and belonging comes next, love from family and partners, peer acceptance, etc. This love sets the stage for the next level of the pyramid:
  4. The need for self-esteem, self-respect, and respect from others; the fundaments of self-love, in essence.
  5. The “being” needs of creativity and the pursuit of meaning.
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The Jungian Model of the Psyche

The Jungian Model of the Psyche

Few people have had as much influence on modern psychology as Carl Jung; we have Jung to thank for concepts like extroversion and introversion, archetypes, modern dream analysis, and the collective unconscious. Psychological terms coined by Jung include the archetype, the complex, synchronicity, and it is from his work that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) was developed, a popular staple of personality tests today.

Among Jung’s most important work was his in-depth analysis of the psyche, which he explained as follows: “By psyche I understand the totality of all psychic processes, conscious as well as unconscious,” separating the concept from conventional concept of the mind, which is generally limited to the processes of the conscious brain alone.

Jung believed that the psyche is a self-regulating system, rather like the body, one that seeks to maintain a balance between opposing qualities while constantly striving for growth, a process Jung called “individuation.

Jung saw the psyche as something that could be divided into component parts with complexes and archetypal contents personified, in a metaphorical sense, and functioning rather like secondary selves that contribute to the whole. His concept of the psyche is broken down as follows:

The ego

To Jung, the ego was the center of the field of consciousness, the part of the psyche where our conscious awareness resides, our sense of identity and existence. This part can be seen as a kind of “command HQ”, organizing our thoughts, feelings, senses, and intuition, and regulating access to memory. It is the part that links the inner and outer worlds together, forming how we relate to that which is external to us.

How a person relates to the external world is, according to Jung, determined by their levels of extroversion or introversion and how they make use of the functions of thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition. Some people have developed more of one or two of these facets than the others, which shapes how they perceive the world around them.

The origin of the ego lies in the self archetype, where it forms over the course of early development as the brain attempts to add meaning and value to its various experiences.

The ego is just one small portion of the self, however; Jung believed that consciousness is selective, and the ego is the part of the self that selects the most relevant information from the environment and chooses a direction to take based on it, while the rest of the information sinks into the unconscious. It may, therefore, show up later in the form of dreams or visions, thus entering into the conscious mind.

The personal unconscious

The personal unconscious arises from the interaction between the collective unconscious and one’s personal growth, and was defined by Jung as follows:

“Everything of which I know, but of which I am not at the moment thinking; everything of which I was once conscious but have now forgotten; everything perceived by my senses, but not noted by my conscious mind; everything which, involuntarily and without paying attention to it, I feel, think, remember, want, and do; all the future things which are taking shape in me and will sometime come to consciousness; all this is the content of the unconscious… Besides these we must include all more or less intentional repressions of painful thought and feelings. I call the sum of these contents the ‘personal unconscious’.”

Unlike Freud, Jung saw repression as just one element of the unconscious, rather than the whole of it. Jung also saw the unconscious as the house of potential future development, the place where as yet undeveloped elements coalesced into conscious form.

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Processing Information with Nonconscious Mind

Processing Information with Nonconscious Mind

The concept of nonconscious processing is not exactly new, Sigmund Freud introduced his model of the human mind in the essay “The unconscious” published in 1915. Yet, Freud’s view was that the principal purpose of unconscious and subconscious layers is storing the information rather than information acquisition and processing. Apparently, Freud underestimated nonconscious mind. According to a large body of psychological and neuropsychological research conducted in the past two decades (composed of data collected by 100+ independent researchers all over the world), what happens in our conscious minds is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg; our conscious thinking, perceiving, and learning accounts for only a small fraction of our total mental activity, with the rest being entirely nonconscious. This idea was first presented 35 years ago in “Cognitive Psychology and Information Processing” book by Roy Lachman, Janet Lachman, and Earl Butterfield:

            “Most of what we do goes on unconsciously. It is the exception, not the rule, when thinking is conscious, but by its very nature [i.e., because we cannot experience anything else], conscious thought seems the only sort. It is not the only sort; it is the minority.” (page 207)    

Our minds, as it turns out, really do function like the computers of the body; but the role of conscious mind is much more modest than thought before. It is certainly not a central processor (or CPU) but rather a set of peripheral devices, presenting an interface that interacts with the outside world. The actual bulk of the processing occurs in the nonconscious mind, which is the real CPU of our body. Our minds are also similarly proficient at multitasking; while we are busy experiencing a portion of what is going on around us, our minds are busy absorbing much of the rest of what is present in our environment.

Our conscious minds work much more slowly than our nonconscious minds, and are overall less adept at processing information, less efficient at the task. The nonconscious mind therefore can be said to be more intelligent than the conscious mind.

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Mental Disorders and the Limbic-cortical Theory of Consciousness

Mental Disorders and the Limbic-cortical Theory of Consciousness

No theory of consciousness can exist independent of the reality of human nature; its rules must go hand in hand with the experience of living a human life, and the way it is designed must logically connect to the products of the human mind.

As that experience of life differs so incredibly widely from individual to individual, encompassing unfathomable diversity, a unified theory of consciousness that incorporates all the elements of the human sphere (including dreams, myths, imagination, art, culture, and religion) is far from easy to create. This is almost certainly why none of the current prevailing theories of consciousness (along with most theories of child development) seem to have fully integrated the full scope of human nature.

<span”>This is in part likely due to how our understanding of the brain and nervous system developed: largely from a pieced-together knowledge of mental health diseases and pathology. This angle of assessment simply does not lend itself to a healthy overall grasp of consciousness, personality, and the experience of living a human life. No discussion of modular centres, genetic unfolding, epigenetic influences, etc., will yield a deep understanding of how the brain actually produces its greatest marvel: consciousness.

Neuroscience is certainly intriguing and at times revealing, but is often applied in a limited and dogmatic way far too rigid to be of use in developing a theory of consciousness. Then, one adds the influence of the pharmaceutical-psychiatric complex, which heavily pushes the concept that neurotransmitters and brain chemistry are the undisputed basis of consciousness and psychiatry, a profitable and therefore highly questionable construct. How scientific this system actually is has recently come under a great deal of scrutiny. A true theory of consciousness must take into account far more than simply neurotransmitters and brain chemistry; it must account for human nature, how it is manifest in the brain and body, how it is developed and organized, and how it evolved. More and more research studies find that many mental disorders listed in DSM5 could be successfully treated  by intentional deactivating of problematic limbic circuits in our brain. To understand this process we need to consider how limbic-cortical mappings develop in our brain.

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