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Essay: Psychiatry and Human Experience

March 12th, 2015 by Robert DePaolo | Posted in Psychology | No Comments » | 54 views | Print this Article

By Robert DePaolo


This article discusses a modification of Freud’s tripartite theory of mind, in the form of a dualistic model in which only two essential tasks face the psyche; the search and accommodation of periodic conflict/uncertainty and the periodic resolution of uncertainty or conflict reduction. This model is described in the context of human evolution.

Freudian Functionalism..

Sigmund Freud’s structural model of mind (its topography as opposed to psychoanalysis per se) continues to exert an influence on clinical practice, (Dvorsky, 2013). While the clinical zeitgeist has shifted in recent times toward cognitive and behavioral methodologies, it seems the basic analytic premise of three aspects of mind either competing or meshing to produce both mental health and mental breakdown seems still relevant. Like a sturdy, massive tree trunk giving rise to various branch networks, the notion of a reality-modulating ego, a conscience-driven superego and an energy-fomenting, primal id is arguably so entrenched in even modern concepts of personality as to constitute a virtual tautology.

To an extent the triadic model of mind has been supported by neurological studies, (Miller & Katz 1989), some of which typically describe the human brain as part primal (the id function residing in the limbic system), part social-perceptual (the ego function residing in the cortical regions) and part ethical moral and self-conscious (the superego function residing in the pre- frontal lobes).

Despite the apparent soundness of this model, there is another way to look at the personality, which is consistent with both every day (and perhaps even unconscious) experience and also the neural functions on the human brain. It is a much simpler model consisting of only two components and it derives from the brain’s evolutionary development.

Advent of a noise-busting machine…

In the course of evolution, (evidently around 200,000 years ago) it appears the human brain rapidly added substantial neural mass (Fu, Giavalisco et. al (2011). it is possible, given the evidence of our remote ancestor’s cultural evolution that there was not a strict correlation between brain mass and cultural advancement – certainly not on the same progressive timetables seen today. In effect it seems the size of the human brain initially rolled over the domain of functional necessity.

Even today, it is arguable that our brains are too massive. This is more than a philosophical point. It is well known that after childbirth, the brain sheds significant amounts of tissue at various stages of development; a process typically referred to as pruning. Interestingly, the reduction in brain cells actually leads to more sophisticated cognitive abilities. The reasons why are two-fold. First, in child development neural circuits develop vastly increased interconnections. Vertical neural hookups (established in early development) come first, followed later by cross-grid connections. The latter correlate with language development so that categorical thought sets the stage for integrative thinking. That enables the brain to think economically and holistically. With the onset of what Piaget called operational cognition, a child no longer has to store separate memories in pathways, devoted for example to “apple”, “orange” and “banana.” He can now retrieve the memories of each by referencing the concept of “fruit.” Such linguistic bridge building is typically followed by pruning, both because having multiple access to memories precludes the need for sheer neural volume and because retaining such volume would create noise interference with regard to memory retrieval.


The above discussion is not intended to imply that as it passes through the several post- pruning stages the brain is absolved of noise interference. To the contrary, since the brain remains extremely large relative to body size there is still too much volume to process experience in simple terms. Add to that Lashley’s principle of mass action (Rutherford, Francher (2012) and it becomes clear that with each experience so much brain activation occurs that a super-sifting mechanism becomes necessary to find our thoughts and summon our best behavior. That somewhat deliberate, sifting cognitive style is what makes humans so…er… deliberative. We can (indeed must) pause, delay, contemplate, appraise and engage in many of the secondary thought-appraisal mechanisms described by Lazarus (1984) as a direct function of brain volume and interconnectivity.

That means human experience is characterized by fairly constant noise. Our percepts are not as clear and concrete as smaller brained creatures. In fact it is possible that what we call instinct (and often demean as beneath the parameters of human experience) is actually the neural norm; in the case of humans, not absent but rather eclipsed and camouflaged by competing, interfering inputs that rework instincts into more complex, multiply influenced cognitions and behaviors. In that instance it is conceivable- though highly speculative to think of learning as being merely the modification and enhancement of instinct. If that rings true then it is possible to think of the psyche as, not a triadic mechanism but as a dual process caught inexorably on a continuum between noise and resolution.

The evolution of the psyche…

The evolution of all organic systems carries with it an adaptive mandate. While many anatomical mutations are probably inconsequential with regard to survival, such changes are tested in one way or another by nature. In the case of the human brain that was most certainly true. After all, the brain regulates cognition, emotion, vegetative functions and movements, all of which must be adroitly orchestrated for us to function efficiently. When brain mass reaches a certain point and noise interference creates a bottleneck on experience the human psyche must adapt to that. In some instances this occurs by cancellation, in others by compensation, in still others by using it to our advantage.

One way to accommodate a massive brain that modifies, blurs and embellished experience, while at the same time being able to perceive and react to the outside world with enough efficiency to survive is to develop a bi-modal mind; one part of which accommodates systemic noise by seeking out conflict, inconsistency, negativity and other irresolute aspects of the inner and outer environments, the other by resolving those uncertainties.

For this type of mind to operate would require equal capacity and proneness to seek questions and answers alternately via on ongoing, nearly constant flow of experience. To do otherwise would render us dysfunctional. For example if the human brain was wired/skewed toward seeking resolution, noise would lead to an overwhelming state of unresolved arousal – perhaps leading to what Pavlov called protective inhibition. It would be forced to shut down. By the same token, a brain attracted to noise or uncertainty would become mired in confusion, and unable to select efficient behaviors and thoughts. Thus the sheer size of the human brain might in a sense render it too vast for common experience,. Because it would be internally as well as externally driven it would have to adapt to itself and the outside environment in an inverse Darwinian scenario. It would have to adopt an “on the balls of its feet” basal status so that an obligatory search for noise could insulate it homeostatically against potential novelty-induced overload while the alternate search for noise/conflict reduction could provide temporary relief when uncertainty presented itself.

In that context, in order for the psyche to function optimally it would have to be dually oriented toward a sequential conflict-induction, conflict-reduction process. The net psychological effect would be for the human mind to sense states of discomfort both when there is a dearth of uncertainty (a mental state of entropy) and also when conflict/ uncertainty reaches a high threshold. Like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in physics, whereby the motion and location of particles, and the shifting wave/particle duality seem both separate and integrated, the mind could be viewed as caught somewhere between resolution and noise, with no capacity for a permanent emotional state.

The Libido…

One interesting aspect of Freud’s triadic model of mind is that it entails an energy source. Since all bio-information systems require that, so must this bimodal model of mind. The question to ask is, where does the energy source come from? Freud viewed the energy source as emanating from the primal id. Yet, taken to its logical endpoint, that argument raises questions. For example why should it be that a primal aspect of mind “allots” energy to the rational components of mind? Does not the process of ego-fostered rational cognition require acetylcholine and norepinephrine to conduct impulses? Isn’t all brain-psychic activity dependent on sodium/potassium differentials across the neuron membranes? To say the primal component of the psyche is the source of energy, would seem to skew the process of mentalism in a way that does not coincide with basic brain physiology.

On the other hand the dual model of mind can address that question in a bio-consonant way. If the source of energy is arousal – as it must be, and if it can be shown that arousal is some function of neural noise, i.e. a state of uncertainty, then the source of the libido will have been ostensibly found.

Studies on the correlation between perceptual and cognitive conflict and brain arousal are fairly well documented (Berlyne 1960) (Jepma, Verdonschot et. al 201 ), so the argument is at least plausible. Beyond that the dual model is more consistent with the nature of energy in metabolic terms. For example it is known that the human body operates by an alternating sequence of anabolic (energy build-up) and catabolic (energy usage or break down) mechanisms. Since mind and body are both physical systems the dual model mind would seem to be more in line with the body’s metabolism.

The Ego…

With regard to the above contentions, what are we to say about the ego – the structure responsible for the advent and propagation of human culture itself?

One way to incorporate an ego function into duality theory is to view it not as a referee in a bout between impulse and conscience but as an arbiter doling out (and advocating for) just the right proportion between uncertainty and closure. In that context its main task – leading to mental health and overall social/intrapersonal adaptation – would be to ensure that the person is neither too assured or confused, neither too certain nor uncertain. A healthy, functioning ego would foment energy in the psyche by first looking out at the real world. In hyper-certain, experientially stagnant times it would seek out some degree of conflict. Conversely, in hypo-certain times it would shift gears and seek resolutions. Its version of consciousness, i.e. a higher order meta-cognitive state, would entail awareness of the fact that both conflict and resolution are interdependent. As information theory so convincingly attests, there can be no information without a prior state of uncertainty.

By that line of reasoning the logical endpoint of a mentally healthy life – to the extent that it can be defined beyond subjectivity, would be one typified by a sense of constant growth and a dual search for never-ending arrangements of challenges, conflicts and subsequent resolutions. Existentially this would take the form of trying new things, taking resolvable risks, never presuming there is chronic happiness or permanent closure, instead acknowledging that all emotional states are temporary points on a continuum; as conjured up by the brain via its natural proclivities.


In order replace the triadic model with a dual model something else would require subjecting it to certain tests; one of which could be whether it agrees with other, well accepted clinical ideas?
The idea of manageable conflict does coincide with Seligman’s dual notions of learned helplessness and hopefulness (1972). Indeed his idea that behavioral inoculation, i.e. exposing persons to challenges they can regularly overcome can build a resilient personality runs along the same lines. Jung’s dual concepts of growth and stagnation are also similar in nature, as is Erikson’s theory of personality with its bimodal, conflicting stages of development (1959). Even the concrete ideas conveyed in Skinnerian behaviorism leads to similar conclusions. For example, Skinner demonstrated that the variable schedules of reinforcement (particularly the variable ratio schedule) tend to provide the most enduring response patterns. While his findings were outlined in mathematical terms, the organisms he conditioned were subject to periods of uncertainty, which apparently enhanced their sense of hopefulness, their response energies and their persistence during these experiments.

Clinical Implications…

Another test of the bi-modal psyche has to do with clinical application. For example, how would a clinician use this model in diagnosis and treatment? Like the Freudian model, which gave rise to ego-therapy, rational and cognitive-behavior therapies, this model could be used in a variety of ways. All, like the C-B and rational models would probably require some degree of philosophy in the curative mix. Ideas about seeking out new ventures, inducing moderate conflict (what Selye referred to as eustress (1983), about avoiding stagnation, developing conflict resolution skills, would be grist for the therapeutic mill. Meanwhile realizing that happiness is episodic, rather than a psychological resting place, would magnify its importance. The clinical philosophy would propose that noise will recur, and that to avert depression, compulsivity and anxiety would require a preventive life style, whereby the client not only addresses immediate stressors but is coached to pursue a life style of reasonable risk, conflict tolerance and a sense that experiences like growth, achievement, success are momentary lulls on continuum that must and will shift back, simply because nature designed us in that way.


Dvorsky, G. (2013) Why Freud Still Matters, When he was Wrong About Almost Everything. Article of Daily Explainer 8/7/13

Erikson, E. H. (1959) Identity and the Life Cycle. New York. International Universities Press

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Jepma, M. Verdonschot, R.G. Fu, X. van Steenbergen, H. Rombouts, S.A. & Nieuwenhuis, S. (2012) Neural Mechanisms Underlying The Induction and Relief of Perceptual Curiosity. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. 6:5

Lazarus, R. & Folkman, S. (1984) Stress, Appraisal and Coping. New York, Springer Publishing Co.

Miller, N. Katz. J. (1989) The Neurological Legacy of Psychoanalysis; Freud as a Neurologist. Comprehensive Psychiatry. Vol. 30 (2) 128-134

Rutherford, R. & Francher, A. (2012) Pioneers of Psychology: A History 4th Edition. New York W.W. Norton

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Selye, H. (1983) The Stress Concept: Past, Present and Future. In Cooper C.L. Stress Research for the Eighties. New York, NY John Wiley & Sons pp. 1-20

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