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The Psyche: A Biological Perspective

February 2nd, 2012 by Robert DePaolo | Posted in Psychology | No Comments » | 135 views | Send article | Print this Article |

By Robert DePaolo


This article proposes that the human psyche derives functionally and structurally from the same mechanisms that led to the origin and increasing complexity of life forms in the course of time. The mechanism is described as a sequence of events whereby organic entities first emerged through an initial separation process in which they were able to partition themselves from the outer (extra-cellular) environment via membrane structures and mechanisms. That first organism/environmental partition led to a capacity for self-regulation, whereby cells developed their own insular energy and information producing capabilities. The trend toward greater subdivisions continued, as cells proceeded to become more intra-distinctive and internally complex. To adapt to and regulate their own internal complexity they developed broader, more flexible systemic rules and psycho-physiological parameters to accommodate further intra-distinctions in line with the continued trend toward further subdivisions. This article proposes that this trend is the sine qua non of the biological world, perhaps even exceeding natural selection in importance and that it is a model that can be applied to brain evolution and the origin of psychic functioning in man.

A Concept of Life…Themes and Variations

While the advent of life forms has been viewed as a highly improbable occurrence (Crick, 1982) it might have been fairly predictable. (Ball, 2006). The amino acids arising from the tumultuous conditions on earth 3.5 billion years ago were prone to line up in chain sequences that comprise proteins, the building blocks of animal tissue. The combination of protein structures and the emergence of a heavily bonded, internally resilient macromolecule known as DNA created a prototype for an entity with resilient anatomical and reproductive features that we now refer to as “life.”

Many scientists believe that any planet with liquid water, atmospheric methane and other compounds subject to the bombardment of electrical charges could give rise to life forms. DiChristina 2010 (Rubin, 2011), (Tennenbaum 2008), (Chow 2011) On the other hand another factor might have been even more essential; one that takes into account not just emergence but resilience as well.

For the sake of argument, suppose organic molecular structures did arise regularly on the primordial Earth, yet due to lack of structural and/or functional staying power they fizzled out quickly. More specifically, suppose these organic prototypes did emerge temporarily but were unable to diverge enough structurally and functionally from the external environment to intra-systematize. That would make “life” seem somewhat irrelevant. Instead of being a powerful force in nature, life would constitute no more than an oscillation pattern wavering between fleeting emergence and entropic environmental re-immersion, and in so rapid a sequence as to preclude evolutionary sculpting.

On the other hand, if somehow the rise of life forms included a mechanism by which organisms could separate permanently (and semi-permeably) from the outside environment, establish their own systemic integrity and become increasingly independent of the outside forces of nature then evolution could begin to take its course because in that case nature would have a “target.”

That might alter somewhat the nature and influence of natural selection. Rather than being at the mercy of the Darwinian outside world, the relationship between organisms and the environment would be more competitive; a kind of tug of war in which the organism seeks to insulate itself from the environment while the environment determines not only winners and losers but also tends to re-gather organisms back in to a point of re-immersion in what amounts to a co-entropic process. In such circumstances only the capacity of the organism to insulate itself structurally and functionally against these powerful forces could override such influence.

In that context one could arguably define what is meant by “life” by including not just references to anatomy and reproductive capacity but also to an organic trend toward ever-increasing structural and functional distinctions.

A Biological Identity

It appears that such a separation process did occur several billion years ago. With the advent of cellular membranes (Cooper 2000), (Griffith 2007) came a trend with significant energy-conserving implications. After the first foray into organic distinction came more advanced intra-barriers – this time within the cell, as seen in the cell nucleus and organelles. The nucleus then developed its own intra-partitions so that organic complexity was further enhanced.

Cellular partnerships were formed as “infiltrators” became captured in the membranes, eventuating in host-parasite relationships and leading to larger cell conglomerates reflected in the greater mass and complexity of living organisms. The process continued, leading to another anatomical, functional differentiation in the form of a spinal cord. That new insular structure enabled creatures to react to their own bodies’ interpretation of external stimuli, rather than being at the direct whim of the outside world. As the membranes-within membranes process continued the spinal cord became more distinctive within itself as nerve nets and small brains began to protrude from the top end of the spine.

Once brains evolved, further distinctions occurred, with subdivisions devoted to reflex, voluntary movement, oldfactory, visual and auditory perception, emotion and ultimately to a cognitive pinnacle, whereby the human brain could conjure up a sense of self as separate from others within the human group and from aspects of the outside world. While those brain structures and functions emerged as separate partitions they were of course integrated by central processes or rules – as all complex systems must be – so that the various sensory, language, motor and emotional regulatory systems were both distinctive yet systemically the same. That was true for the following reason.

As a system becomes more internally distinctive it also becomes more complex. In order to prevent chaos and entropy (mostly in the form of interference patterns) it has to find ways to integrate all those new components so they coincide functionally with one another. That requires a degree of self regulation, i.e a capacity to make disparate components operate as one.

All of these factors; distinction, increased complexity and the need for internal regulation are considered here to be part of a central process that drives all biological phenomena from the origin of living cells to the functions of human personality, which, of course derives from the activity and development of brain cells.

In light of the last assertion, it might sound as though the normal or preferred state of the human psyche is isolation; a need to keep from blending in with family, trends and the mainstream culture for purposes of precluding entropic immersion. Obviously that is not quite true. We do require separate identities and our creative impulses are by definition, attempts to create separation from the mainstream culture. Yet we also need to interact with and derive sustenance from the outside world. Is that a strictly human thing? It seems not – the first molecular precursors to organic life encountered the same problem.

The solution was the semi-permeable membrane. This barrier insulated the organism from its surroundings yet was penetrable enough so the organism could interact with and receive sustenance and information from the outside world. Thus the template for life and for all subsequent biological (including biosocial phenomena) was established early on. It was not a strictly deterministic process but it did have a sequential direction and life sustaining criteria, which were as follows:

Barriers emerged to foster structural and functional distinctions to preclude entropic re-immersion with the outside world and give the life form a biological identity.
In line with the phylogenic trend toward increasing structural and functional barriers, organisms further subdivided. That enabled them to better conserve energy due to a systemic sharing of functions.

Those barriers were semi-permeable, which allowed for partial interactions with the external environment so that information and sustenance can be obtained without forfeiture of structural and functional independence.

As subdivisions continued, fostering an era of organic complexity, the need arose for central regulatory controls to orchestrate the internal complexity and preserve systemic integrity. Those controls took the form of broader, more accommodating parameters and rules that set the gauge for physiological, cognitive and psycho-emotional functioning.

Assuming membrane developments are a forerunner of resilient life forms and that over time organisms will tend to accrue increasingly complex layers of tissue that subdivide body systems, then it is possible to suggest the possibility of a unified theory of psychobiology to explain everything from increases in cellular complexity to enhancements in sensory and cognitive functions, to refinement of motor skills, intensification of emotional reactions, intelligence, and (for purposes of this argument) a sense of self. No need to presume distinctions between simple and complex life forms, to rank organisms on a continuum. To the contrary, the process governing the origin, development and advancement of all living things would be considered the same.


Since this is a somewhat unorthodox view, providing examples might be helpful. One would be seen in the comparison between gills and lungs. Gills are obviously a means of absorbing oxygen from the water. They are functionally and structurally separate from the external environment but less so than the lungs of land dwellers. Because fish must move over the water to extract oxygen their respiratory functions feature more of a dependence on and immersion within the external environment than is the case with land dwellers. The latter do not have to move to breathe. Their lungs do the moving and can extract oxygen more independently and proactively. That provides a distinct advantage with regard to the precious balance between energy expenditure and energy conservation. Thus lungs are more distinct from the outside world than gills and thus can be said to represent an enhancement of the separation/systematization trend.

Another example is homeothermy – the capacity to maintain a constant body temperature. Reptiles are not typically homeothermic. They have to lie in the sun to heat up their bodies and in colder temperatures are barely able to move. Mammals on the other hand can move in hot or cold climates because their internal thermostats are independent of the external environment – at least up to a point. Their temperature parameters are broader and allow for functional behaviors over a much wider range of climates. Thus the mammal physiology (and obviously their gene pool) can be said to be more distinct from the outside world than reptiles.

Still another example is homeostasis, whereby global bodily functions, including temperature, blood flow, motor balance and even emotional equanimity are kept stable despite external vicissitudes.
These are mostly physiological examples. However the argument can be extended to include the functions of brain and the psyche provided there is a concise definition of the latter.

Echoes of the Master…

The traditional Freudian definition seems a good place to start. Despite criticism by behavioral scientists of Freud’s cross-disciplinary concepts on human nature – which are replete with historical, cultural and evolutionary references – his general beliefs were quintessentially rooted in the hard sciences, specifically physics and biology. To him the psyche was first and foremost an energy conserving system; his reference point being the laws of thermodynamics. He felt that energy transformations comprised the roots of both normal functioning and psychopathological breakdown. He relied on the fact that in accord with the first law of thermodynamics energy cannot be annulled but could only change from one form to another – thus his concept of the id-ego-superego cluster as a triadic energy transfer mechanism (Hall, 1954)

While most textbooks on psychoanalysis describe the id, ego and superego in experiential terms, i.e. as features of mind giving rise to impulse, conscience and modulation, Freud’s true focus was not on mental phenomena but on the energy exchanges and distribution that took place among these three elements of mind. In that context Freud’s model of mind was conceived as a mechanism devoted foremost to the expenditure and conservation of energy. At the risk of over-simplifying, Freud saw pathology as a psychological manifestation of depleted or extreme skewed energy reserves. Conversely he regarded normalcy as indicative of adequate and well-channeled flow of energy. (Freud 1966).

Freud understood the connection between thanatos and entropy, i.e. the parallels between impoverished or skewed psychic energy and the decay that typifies an entropy-bound system. He also understand how the second law of thermodynamics pertained to psychic functioning, specifically that energy tends to flow into a vacuum – thus his notion of an automatic flow of energy from the primordial id to the newly emerging ego.

The question, answered in part by Freud, is how an energized system can remain resilient, and for how long. If as Freud also suggested in his writing on thanatos (the death instinct) the psyche is an energy sustaining system, then it should tend to proceed toward decay in that continual acts of thinking, emotion, fantasizing and self-monitoring should drain the individual, regardless of his or her ego strength or deft use of defense mechanisms. (Freud,Strachey 1961). Obviously that does not happen.

Freud’s answer to that dilemma is found in the ego, which he viewed as a psychological conservator of energy. The ego could determine how and when to diverge, integrate, whether and under what circumstances to seek separation from others or a connection to them. In effect he suggested that resilience was a direct function of good judgement.

The Freudian concept of the ego is useful but extremely encompassing. For that reason it is helpful to bring in theoreticians who espoused more concise solutions.
Carl Rogers was one. He suggested, humans can and should grow and remain creative throughout life, that entropy, despair, psychological decay could only be fended off in preventative fashion by working on expansion of the rules and parameters, particularly of the self concept. (Rogers, 1961) (Rogers, 1980)

Erik Erikson implied similarly that the psyche was entropy-bound throughout life and that resilience could best be maintained by self expansion. His discussion of the stage-dependent polarities of growth vs. stagnation in older individuals is particularly relevant in that regard (Welchman 2000)

Alfred Adler also advocated for a rule expansion approach. His thesis was perhaps even more concise than that of Rogers. He described a duality within the human psyche whereby humans tend to waver between feelings of inferiority and superiority. He viewed these as narrow, rigid and ultimately destructive mindsets that could deplete, rather than enhance human energy reserves. His solution was, like those of Rogers Freud and Erikson a kind of self expansion, In his case it meant rising above the competitive self and adopting a broader social interest and concern for others. (Adler 1938) (Slavik & King 2007).

The Parameters of Self…

Perhaps the most distinct system in the phylum in terms of its relationship to the outside world is the self. The word has many meanings. In the broadest sense it encompasses all phenomena coming under the rubric of “identity.” It implies a capacity to distinguish one person and all his or her traits from another. It is arguably the single most important driving force behind human culture. All artists, no matter what concerns they have or what muses they respond to are ultimately reflecting self in their work. A sense of self enabling them to distinguish between “myself and all the others” sets the stage for the development of unique concepts, sets the gauge for ego gratification and increased status that derive from the creative process. It forces comparisons with rivals, feeds into the expectations of others and perhaps most important of all, provides a systemic anchor point enabling the artist to endure despite his or her ups and downs.
The self is a constant, a barometer, a reliable guide to function and feeling which is reflected in the idea that… “This is me, this is how I typically operate, this is the template I rely on in interacting with the world.”

A broad set of self parameters can more readily handle change so that failure, as well as success can be assimilated into the self system as Sullivan described it (1953). That provides two advantages. First is that maintaining energy reserves depends on experiencing and creating change with regard to self image, attitudes and opinions. Having broadly flexible self parameters is thus energy enhancing. Secondly, a broad self image can assimilate unpleasant inputs, for example decline in self-perceived status due to failure and rejection so that the overall self-system does not become undone. Conversely, the individual with a rigid self concept will less likely be an efficient conservator of energy. As a result he will be more prone to depression, confusion and illness.

While the word psyche is typically described in terms much broader than the self, it is invariably conceived of as a mechanism devoted to maintaining stability in the personality. If the psyche is a stable system then it must have a gauge-function because without that focal point detecting deviations from stasis would be impossible. In that sense, the self might indeed comprise the fulcrum around which all psychological functioning revolves.

The ostensible connection between the most primitive forms of life and the human psyche suggests that life is kind of dance; a two step of sorts with a themes-and-variations cadence. Long ago nature called the tune, moving its creations toward increasing degrees of separation. Membranes everywhere. Distinctions everywhere. Complexity everywhere. Regulation everywhere. It began with the first prokaryotes, then proceeded to the eurkaryotes, then on to backbones, spinal cords, nerve nets, brains, minds and the notion of self.

What of Nature?

One of the interesting questions revolving around this idea is our relationship to the external environment. If in order to endure, distinctions within nature must be tethered to systems, is it possible that this can be applied on an inanimate level as well, and that in a way not discernible to the human mind there really is no true separation between life and the rest of the environment? Perhaps the advent of life forms did not comprise an internal vs external structural and functional distinction but was itself an internal distinction process analogous to those transpiring within the anatomy of a single organism.

Could it be that living and nonliving entities might actually be part of a single, integral system and that while animals and the environment are separated by membranes in the same way as are the different layers of skin on a body, they are ultimately trapped within the confines of a single pan-ecological entity? Such questions go well beyond the domain of science but it is interesting to note that such an assumption would lead to vastly different conclusions about life, death and human pre-eminence.


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