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Freud debated whether it might be more useful to conceptualise the difference between consciousness and unconsciousness in terms of a functional change of state of the psychic apparatus—as we might say, of the system of symbolic processes and internalised symbolic forms, explains Prof. Ashoka, in the second part of the three-part erudite research, in the weekly column. A Different Truths exclusive.
Twenty-four years later, in his essay, “The Unconscious,” Freud, now concerned with the so-called psychic apparatus, conceived of conscious and unconscious as two separate systems, each with its own distinct characteristics. Secondary process thinking, for example, was characteristic of the conscious system and primary process thinking of the unconscious system. (As you no doubt remember, he later abandoned this formulation for that of the structural theory—the id, ego, and superego becoming subsystems of functions within the personality system with conscious and unconscious processes possible in any one of the subsystems.) However, in this same essay, Freud debated whether it might be more useful to conceptualise the difference between consciousness and unconsciousness in terms of a functional change of state of the psychic apparatus—as we might say, of the system of symbolic processes and internalised symbolic forms.
Though apparently rejecting this last alternative, Freud later in the same essay distinguished between a conscious representation and an unconscious one in terms of the presence or absence of language as symbolic activity and the higher level of an organisation such activity makes possible. He supposed that a conscious representation comprises both thing-representation and the word-representation belonging to it. While an unconscious representation is a thing-representation alone. In the system unconscious, Freud thought, there was no language, but only the representations of things to which language refers. For thoughts or wishes to become conscious, thing-representations must be, in Freud’s terms, hyper cathected by becoming linked to word-representations. That is, thing-representations come to have greater value or significance with respect to the goals of the personality system and come to be associated with increased effort mobilised for the attainment of such goals through linkage with word-representations. According to Freud, then, the possibility of a “higher psychical organisation,” consciousness, in which primary process can be succeeded by a secondary process, depends upon a so-called hyper cathexis of thing-representations, which requires the introduction of meaningful symbolic activity.
A conception of the psychic apparatus or personality system as moving back and forth between different functional states or levels of the organization is implied in these formulations. I became especially interested in this conception while working with some schizophrenic patients. I was struck with the rapidity with which states of consciousness appeared to alter in these patients. Transitions from lucidity to confusion and back to lucidity again, from coherent rational communication to bizarre representation of thoughts in actions rather than words, from states of quiet to states of frenzied excitement, occurred often in the middle of a sentence or from minute to minute in a psychotherapy session. I found that I and the patient were soon in difficulty when I could not keep up if I failed to recognise such rapid alterations in levels of functioning when talking with a schizophrenic person. This is fatiguing work, about the most fatiguing I have ever done. (Pious has given an especially sensitive account of this process. I recommend to you his paper, A Hypothesis about the Nature of Schizophrenic Behaviour, which you might like to study after the case histories of Freud as a model of clinical research or of the integration of theory and clinical observation.)
In order to realise what “levels of organisation or functioning” means, think for a minute about the various degrees of wakefulness we all experience. Perhaps we rarely know the state of being fully awake to which Thoreau referred when he wrote: “Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep. Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been slumbering? They are not such poor calculators. If they had been overcome with drowsiness, they would have performed something. The millions are awake enough for physical labour; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?” There is no doubt that Thoreau meant that being fully awake requires an exertion of effort to move from one level of functioning to another. Compare with being fully awake your state of mind while listening to this lecture — occasional reveries and blanking out alternating with focused attention. Think of drowsiness — the strange, fleeting, compelling images that are so difficult to recapture upon reawakening.
Think of falling asleep — the gradual fading into the shadow of surrounding things, even as a heavy sense of your own body remains. Then part of your body too disappears, while other parts remain in ghostly isolation; your body becomes almost gone, an ache here or throbbing there reminding you of it — but does it seem quite your body? — before you fall asleep. Think of some dreams — the vivid, hallucinatory scenes, the intense feelings, as though you were many times more alive than in this muted world of sober thought. Think of other dreams — the terrifying nightmare in which you struggle trapped, from which you feel you will never awaken. Think of deep dreamless sleep.
(To be continued)
©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
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