This is a tidied up transcript of an answer I gave in the Live Sessions in February 2021. Tamsyn mentioned her dislike of reading Freud during her therapy training, and I jumped to his defence…
The thing about Freud is, he is a stylist. Freud is a Viennese writer of the 1900s. He’s an amazing prose stylist. I mean, it’s unfortunate that the translation into English is often very clunky, but his German is very beautiful. He’s a great polymath, he’s drawing on myth and history and science. Yet he saw himself fundamentally as a scientist. And I think he said that the science wasn’t there for what he wanted to explore.
It’s all neurotic Viennese housewives, but nonetheless, he was an incredible thinker
And so a lot of Freud is just born out of his head. It’s not even based particularly on a very wide sample. It’s all neurotic Viennese housewives. But nonetheless, he was an incredible thinker at a time that was previously very stuffy and conservative. And what’s interesting, I think, is Freud’s basic notion about how the mind works. So if you don’t know this, there’s these three-parts… it’s this tripartite model. There’s the id, what he calls ‘das Es’, the ‘it’ in German. The “It” is our primal desires, which we could call Panksepp’s emotions, the affects.
And then there is the ego, (what Freud calls Das Ich, the “I”) which is the thing that stops the id from exploding and sops us from acting out all this crazy emotional behaviour. And then on top of that, there’s the superego, (das Überich) which is metacognition, the thinking about thinking. Tension in Freud’s model arises because of the societal and cultural imperatives of the superego, i.e. you mustn’t do this and men mustn’t love men, and that’s really sinful and you mustn’t kiss boys.
Something very similar emerges from neuroscientific discoveries
These are the superego things. Then these strong desires, these id or emotional desires are roaring up from below. And then sandwiched in between is the poor ego that has to modulate between these two things. And very interestingly, and you might be aware of this, in contemporary brain science, something very similar emerges from neuroscientific discoveries.
We have this, the ancient brain, the limbic system, with all these emotional patterns in it. That’s the id. And then we have the prefrontal cortex, that’s the rind of our brain, which evolved much later and which has all these thoughts and impositions and language-based ideas, which can be the superego. In between, we have what’s known as the default mode network, which is this modulating system which joins those two parts, the bits in the core of the brain and the stuff in the rind. In some ways, it’s very rough, but the default mode network is like the ego.
This is why our dream life is so crazy because the default mode network has gone offline
When we go to sleep, the default mode network stops, it goes offline. When people do psychedelics, the default mode network goes offline and we have this sense of everything goes. Like the id, the old brain, the emotions just go “whoosh!”. They spill out and you feel terror and you feel desire. This is why our dream life is so crazy, because the default mode network has gone offline.
And so in some ways, this balance between the very pernickety prefrontal cortex, that’s the superego and the very powerful id is played out in this middle ground of the ego.
So we need to let in a bit of emotion and let go when there’s too much control. There’s a very powerful new model in the therapy world at the moment around free energy. I don’t know if you’re aware of the Free Energy model?
We have high entropy states, which are when everything is really chaotic
It’s interesting, again this comes from brain science. Basically, it centres on the idea of entropy. This word entropy comes from physics. Entropy is the tendency for everything to become more and more disorganised. That’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics: any system, when you leave it will slowly become more and more disorganised. For example, a hot cup of tea. Gradually the heat will slowly disperse and will disperse through the universe. So the heat becomes entropic.
And there’s this idea that the brain is a bit like that, too. You know, we have high entropy states, which are when everything is really chaotic. So in a dream, for example, lots of entropy, everything’s like crazy, crazy, crazy: lots of feelings and emotions, for example. If you were doing psychedelics, it’s the same sort of thing. Psychosis is complete entropy, chaos.
In Freud’s world, it’s the male father energy that clamps down. That’s the superego
Then very low entropy is where everything is very strict. So, people with OCD, for example, or depression, really. It’s like everything is shut down. No emotions, no feelings, nothing. Everything must be controlled. Addiction too. It’s like everything is focussed on just getting this fix. So that’s very low entropy. It’s tightly, tightly controlled. And in Freud’s world, that’s the pain inflicted by an overzealous or over-patriarchal reality, (because in Freud’s world, it’s the male father energy that clamps down). That’s the superego.
And the other end, the id is the high entropy state. Everything’s free and crazy. And then in the middle, you’ve got the poor ego, which is what we work with in meditation. The ego is the balancing ground. We don’t want to be too high entropy because then that’s psychosis, nor do we want to be too low entropy because that’s OCD, depression and anxiety disorder.
Freud was right, he was 100 years too early because if he was writing now, he would be totally like, “Told you so.”
So, it’s really fascinating, neuroscience draws attention to this mid entropy state, which in some ways is what meditation is looking at. It’s lowering the rigidity of the default mode network enough so that you can feel things as they are spontaneously happening. But not completely removing the ego, the default mode network, so that you become psychotic.
So in some sense, Freud was right. He was 100 years too early because if he was writing now, he would be like, “Told you so.” That’s exactly what’s coming out of neuroscience. And for me, it makes sense, it makes this a great model for living.
Perhaps Freud’s error – if I could be so grand as to say – Freud’s error was to claim that the id, the ‘Es’, the primal brain was primarily about sex. For Freud, it was all about the LUST spoke of Panksepp’s wheel of emotions. [The seven core emotions identified by the Estonian neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp are: LUST, RAGE, CARE, PLAY, FEAR, PANIC/GRIEF and SEEKING. I often arrange these visually as spokes on a wheel.] This is what he calls the pleasure principle or libido.
So it’s about having sex. All of Freud’s thinking was driven by this idea, this rather pneumatic idea of sexual energy rising and being repressed by the superego. So he understood that das Es, the id was full of sexual desire. But if you look at the spokes, lust is just one spoke of seven. And so you could say one-seventh of the id is made up of lust. But Freud didn’t consider the other parts.
The whole basis of attachment theory is that it’s not sex, it’s actually care and abandonment. These are the things that drive us
Later Freudians or later psychoanalysts, people like John Bowlby, did. They saw that caring and panic and grief were as important as lust. Interestingly, it feels now that the pendulum has gone a bit the other way, attachment theory says that only caring and panic and fear are the things that determine us, they are the new Id. The whole basis of attachment theory is that it’s not sex, it’s actually care and abandonment. These are the things that drive us. Attachment.
And there’s a lot of evidence, clinical evidence to show that that’s true. But I think that’s also a bit too extreme because there are other things that come out of Panksepp’s work. There are seven things that well up out of the Id. And seven things that the ego and the super ego deal with.
It’s very important that we are able to separate from our attachment figures at some point
There are other things: play, rage, sex, seeking. And the seeking spoke is interesting. (Sorry, I am really going off on one, now!) Because if you think about attachment, attachment is absolutely crucial in the first three years of human life, much longer than any other animal. We really need to be attached to our caregivers, otherwise, we will literally die.
But there’s also seeking: moving away from our attachment figures This is also very important as we develop. It’s very important that we are able to separate from our attachment figures at some point. Otherwise we become over-attached, which is the basis of a lot of psychological suffering. And it’s interesting that, again, Panksepp notices that particularly in males, that the feelings of panic (that is fear of being separated from caregivers) become much less strong as they get older, as they approach adolescence.
Think about this in terms of animals. I am not being sexist. This is just what comes out of the research. Male animals move away and leave the tribe. So they’re not so concerned about being ostracised, which is essentially the grief/panic spoke. They’re like, I don’t care, I’m going to break away.
They’re thrown out of the family in a symbolic way
And again, Freud had something interesting to say about this in the Totem and Taboo book, where he talks about how it’s essential that we kill our fathers – metaphorically speaking. We leave the tribe. We leave the system of being part of a tribe and break away. This is absolutely essential in growing up. In many indigenous tribes and societies they often make young men and sometimes young women go through initiation rites into adulthood. It’s an example of that. They’re “thrown out of the family” in a symbolic way.
That same thing happens with mother bears. When bear cubs are old enough to survive but they’re still very attached to their mothers, the mothers chase them up into a tree and then leave them. At some point, the attachment system has to stop mattering as much. It’s a slight distortion in the attachment theory world, that attachment is the only thing that matters. But it’s not the only thing that matters. It’s really important, particularly in our early life. But it’s not the only thing that drives human beings.
Freud’s German is very, very earthy. It’s beautiful, beautifully written
I think the trouble with Freud and this is going to sound really arsey, but the trouble with Freud is that he’s often really badly translated. Lytton Strachey, who first translated him, basically wanted Freud to be a scientist. So he translated it in this horrible Latinate cod scientific way and that became the standard translation. But actually, Freud’s German is very, very earthy. It’s beautiful, beautifully written. And there are some better translations.
I think Peter Gay’s translations are better. The more modern ones. I think Peter Gay uses the word the ‘it’ rather than the id. It’s nice to talk about Freud.
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