The Cognitive And Dynamic Unconscious
The essay tries to integrate the new discoveries in the field neuroscience, and the concept of the dynamic unconscious into a new conceptual framework The theoretical work of Dehaene, Naccache, Singer and others regarding conscious and unconscious processes, is integrated using elements of thermodynamics, chaos theory, clinical and social psychology.
In an essay summarizing the implications of developments in neurosciences Ramachandran (2006) states that “one of the last remaining problems in science is the riddle of consciousness” He notes that the problem has been addressed on many levels ranging from the electrophysiology of single neurons to brain imaging studies, but precisely mapping “function on to structure” remains elusive. We lack a unifying theory linking capacities, structures and brain activity.
The present thinking in cognitive neuroscience is that consciousness is not a function that can be localized, but a networking process, immanent and iterative in nature. Dehaene (2001) states that cognitive processing is possible without consciousness; that attention is a pre-requisite of consciousness, and that specific mental operations (named “type C processes), which include new combinations of operations and voluntary behavior, require consciousness. In order to be present in consciousness, an information must be actively represented, i.e. represented by the firing of one or more neuronal assemblies, and a “sustained amplification loop” must be established by “bidirectional connections between these assemblies and a set of workspace neutrons” (Dehaene, 2001)
However, Dehaene continues, the absence of the first condition (active representation) “excludes from consciousness the enormous wealth of information which is present in the nervous system only in latent form” i.e unconscious processes.
The occurrence of unconscious processing of stimuli is amply documented in “blindsight” experiments ( Marcel ,1983,Driver & Vuilleumier, 2001), semantic or arithmetic processing of subliminal stimuli ( Naccache & Dehaene 2001 , Greenwald 1995,1996) or by comparing the visual agnosia resulting from injury to the ventral and the dorsal visual stream (Goodale & Milner 2005).
Conscious and Unconscious
Trying to draw a distinction between the conscious and unconscious processes, Naccache (2008) focuses on the criterion of “reportability”: “being conscious of a mental representation means being able to report, to self or others, verbally or non verbally, its content” (p.229). He proposes a model of consciousness based on the concept of ”conscious global workspace” (Dehane, Kerszberg &Changeux, ,1998, Dehaene & Naccache, 2001, Dehaene et al, 2006): “a neural network whose content corresponds in each moment to the mental representation which occupies the conscious experience” (2008,p.272),.Of the many competing networks, only the one amplified by attention shapes the conscious global workspace, and becomes the content of awareness. According to this model, the state of consciousness is not fluid, forever changing, but rather “a succession of stable states” changing or being updated several times per second. The geometry of the conscious global workspace changes with each content held in awareness.
Based on the above concept of consciousness, Naccache (2008 p.305)defines four types of unconscious, each representing a category of unconscious processes:
-The structural unconscious: ”information coded in the very structure of the nervous system”, such as connections between sensorial and motor networks..
-The unconscious represented (by mental representation), but not connected to the conscious global workspace (GW)
-The unconscious represented and connected to the GW, but not amplifiable (by attention)
-The unconscious represented, connected to the GW, amplifiable, but not amplified”
To these we can add the conscious process : represented, connected to the GW, and amplified.
Naccache (2008) draws the following distinctions between the conscious and unconscious processes:
-The conscious processes are long term while the unconscious processes are “evanescent”. They subsist for very limited time in the immediate memory. Sperling (1960), has demonstrated that the number of letters recalled after seeing a set of 12 letters for a short period of time is negatively correlated with the delay between the presentation and being asked for a response: while initially able to recall 5 letters, after waiting for half a second the subjects were able to recall only 2. Greenwald (1996) has shown that the same effect applies to subliminal perception, Gentilucci et al. (1996) found that dorsal stream visual representations are also similarly short lived , and Clark and Squire (1998) have demonstrated that in the case of unconscious conditioning , delay between the presentation of conditional and unconditional stimuli weakens the response. As Naccache states, paraphrasing Lacan, “the unconscious is shaped like a decreasing exponential curve”(2008, p.235). This indicates that the formulations “represented” and “connected to the “GW” refer only to short term memory.
I believe that Naccache’s view of the “short lived” characteristic of subconscious processes applies only to the spontaneously arising brain activity that accompanies conscious processing. This view fails to take into account the general role of memory, which can be defined as the storage of past GW configurations, and the relationship between unconscious processes and long term memory. (The storage does not have to involve a great number of neurons: Gelbart-Sagiv et. al (2008 ) established that a single neuron is responsible for the recognition of a movie scene, and Dehaene established that single neurons are responsible for the recognition of individual numbers and letters.) I believe that the structuring and re-structuring of long term memories create a connection between unconscious processes and more long lived data. This point will be agued in the discussions of identity and of the role of memory.
-“The conscious processes are the only ones associated with capacities of strategic control and mental innovation, underlying the invention and innovation of new forms of mental representations”(Naccache,2008,p.260)
While this appears correct for deductive reasoning, the research into non linear creative thinking (the Eureka moment”), suggests that innovation happens specifically when one does not concentrate on solving the problem, i.e. when the problem is not amplified by attention, hence not conscious.( Beeman and Kounios ,2004, 2005)
-The conscious processes are the only ones capable of generating voluntary behavior. Naccache (2008) argues that despite the richness and complexity of unconscious mental representations, they do not lead to voluntary behavior, as demonstrated I the case of blindsight and subliminal stimulation experiments, where voluntary action occurs only when there is forced (i.e. externally imposed) choice.
I feel that this point should be stated differently: only conscious processes are reportable as the cause of voluntary behavior. Unconscious processes can- and often do – influence conscious processes. Furthermore, a conscious act can influence voluntary behavior in ways that we are unaware of. Ariely (2008) demonstrated how just being asked to consider a random number – such as the last two digit of one’s SSN - as a possible bid, influences the amount one subsequently bids (the higher the random number, the higher the bid) because the random number acts as a “anchor”, influencing one’s perception of what constitutes a reasonable bid. In psychopathology, Silverman and Weinberg (1965 ) proved that subliminal messages can influence behavior. Although Silverman’s methodology was questioned, even his critics, as for instance Sohlberg et. al. (2000) acknowledge that individually different unconscious associative networks and unconscious defenses can be activated by subliminal stimuli..
Naccache’s taxonomy offers a hierarchy of unconscious processes, based on the criterion of how close they are from becoming conscious. Based on the characteristics he attributes to the unconscious processes, namely short life time and the inability to get represented in innovation or voluntary activity, he views the unconscious processes as permanently changing configurations of neural networks that accompany the always shifting GW. As stated before, I believe that Naccache’s concept of unconscious process is limited to the particular category of spontaneously arising brain activity that accompanies a state of awareness, but it is not linked to it by long term memory. This raises the following questions: is the relationship between the conscious process and the unconscious processes which underlie it random, or systematic? What is the nature of the relationship between unconscious processes and long term memory?
Unconscious processes: evanescence versus permanence
Naccache bases his critique of Freud’s concepts of the unconscious and repression on the fact that they have the characteristics of conscious processes: they are quasi permanent, they involve new forms of mental representation that are at least in part conscious (such as symptoms), and they influence conscious behavior. I believe that this occurs because Naccache is considering the mental processes only from the perspective of the present, seen as a configuration of the neuronal networks at a specific moment. In other words, he looks at them from the perspective of attention and short term memory, of the here and now.
However, this poses immediate problems: some representations which are part of awareness at moment n, may not be part of awareness at moment n+1, just as other representations become conscious. Even if one accepts that consciousness is a rapid succession of static tableaux, the flow of consciousness involves a dynamic of representations changing their status from unconscious to conscious and vice versa. For example, Malach et al (2006) have demonstrated that in the case of a person perceiving a compelling content, brain imaging indicates that the perceiver‘s self related brain activity is inhibited (i.e. not part of the GW). The perceiver loses himself in the perception, so to speak. But the mental representations related to the sense of self do not get lost: they get stored in long term and procedural memory. Being connected to the GW by pre-existing or new networks, they are instantly recallable in memory. If one were to yell “fire” while somebody is involved in an absorbing activity, the self related brain activity will instantly become the focus of attention.
Using criteria similar to ones Naccache used for attention, I propose the following classification of mental processes in their relation to long term memory:
-not recallable (not directly connected to the GW, nor indirectly connected to the GW through other memories)
-recallable (connected to the GW, directly or indirectly), not recalled
- recallable (connected to the GW directly or indirectly), recalled.
By combining the classifications of mental processes based on their relation to attention, and short term memory on one hand and long term memory on the other hand, we can obtain a new, more complete taxonomy:
-the structural unconscious (Naccache)
- represented, not recallable (not connected to the GW, directly or indirectly)
- represented, recallable (connected to the GW, directly or indirectly) but not amplifiable by attention
- represented, recallable (connected to the GW, directly or indirectly), amplifiable but not recalled or amplified by attention (repressed)
-recalled (connected to the GW, directly or indirectly), amplifiable, but not amplified by attention (a special category, to be discussed later)
- recalled (connected to the GW, directly or indirectly) and amplified by attention
Repression becomes a decision of whether or not to recall a mental representation, and of whether or not to amplify it by attention. In this manner, the content of the representation does not reach awareness, but the connections linking it to the GW, directly or indirectly, remain intact. Recalling a past configuration of the GW brings back its content into awareness, but also re-activates its connections to the repressed representations linked to it. The locus of the decision to repress is a structure that is both conscious and unconscious: the Ego. The Ego is necessarily represented in any configuration of the GW. We cannot experience events impersonally since the “I” of the observer/participant is embedded in all our experiences. Therefore the repressed (unconscious) mental processes may become quasi permanent if they remain connected by memory, directly or indirectly, to the Ego, and implicitly to the GW.
The functions of the unconscious.
While the work of Naccache, Dehaene and others sheds light on the neurological characteristics of the unconscious processes, I believe that considering them from an evolutionary psychology point of view is equally important. Since there is a consensus that implicit (unconscious) mental processes are significant and constitute the majority of mental activity at any given time, what is their role?
I believe that the unconscious has the following functions:
1. The maintenance of identity and of its connection to symbolic reality
2. The management of conflicts and tensions: the dynamic unconscious.
3. The optimization of voluntary activity: pre-viewing and the establishing and maintenance of routines
4. Neural binding: Completing and combining the sensory input
We will address each of them in turn.
The maintenance of identity and its connection to symbolic reality
According to Erickson (2002), identity is a state of self sameness and continuity, integrated both vertically, historically, over the life cycle, and horizontally across situations. Identity is internally consistent and it is validated through interactions with others. It is a constant factor, the basis on which we decide the relevance of all our experiences, and embedded information in all our memories. However, we are not conscious of how identity is generated or how the sense of self is maintained. While not amplified by attention in its entirety, the self, and the sense of self are nevertheless part of all the configurations of the GW. Using Naccache’s formulation, most of the mental representations that constitute the self are unconscious: connected to the GW, recallable, amplifiable but not recalled or amplified. Some fall in the special category mentioned above of being recalled but not amplified, running in the background, as it were, of any conscious activity, giving it its meaning and integrating it in personal history, in the narrative of the self. The sense of self is one of the longer (if not the longest) constantly running mental process, an overwhelming proportion of which is taking place outside our awareness, and yet a constant influence in all our conscious decisions.
Ramachandran (2006) enumerated disorders which point to different components of the self: out of body experiences happening as the result of strokes, transsexuality, apotemnofilia (the desire to have a healthy limb amputated), anosognosia ( the denial of paralysis in self and others), the Capgras delusion (the belief that significant others have been replaced by like looking impostors), Cotards syndrome (the belief that one is dead). One can also add fugue states and dissociative personality disorders. Sacks ( ), describing the case of “Clyde” found that even when there is an absolute inaccessibility of long term memory, with the patient being able to recall only a few seconds of the past, the entire procedural memory is still retained, and the sense of self is not entirely lost..
Ramachandran (2006) hypothesized that mirror neurons (Rizzolatti,2004, Rizzolatti & Craighero,2005, Iacoboni et.al, 2005) mediated between the perception of self and that of others, evolving from an initial function to” adopt another allocentric visual point of view…to enable the adoption of another’s metaphorical point of view” (p5, italics in text).
The sense of identity is the result of ongoing self assessment, selectively recalling from memory material that is consistent with the demands of continuity and integrity, and tailored to meet the demands of a given situation. Another component is interpersonal: an interactive negotiating process with the goal of trying to minimize the discrepancies between the subjectively experienced sense of self and the socially presented one. This interpersonal negotiation involves both deception and self deception.
The self evaluation is an iterative process, the result of which – the sense of self- can vary with the situation specific configuration of the factors described above, but which falls always within the same limits defined by the need for continuity, self sameness and validation through interaction with others. The result of the self evaluation at moment n becomes the major input for the evaluation at moment n+1, along with the change in situation between n and n+1. It has a fractal quality: you re-find yourself whole in each fragment of your experience, because the sense of self is embedded in all conscious activity. A good example is Proust: “A la recherche du temps perdu” is initiated by the aroma of a madeleine.
In chaos theory (Lorenz ,1963) processes with these characteristics are called strange attractors, changing constantly, yet always remaining within the same parameters. Furman and Gallo (2000) call the attractors with these characteristics “limit cycle attractors”.
The sense of self has significant cultural and social components, defining the status and role of a person within a given socio-cultural context. Both the establishing and maintaining of the links between individual and society takes place largely outside awareness, falling into the “recalled but not amplified” category.
By positing a universal need to find and integrate the meaning of human experience, Berger and Luckmann (1966) argue that reality is a social construct, fulfilling the functions of sheltering the individual from the “ultimate terror” of aloneness; and conferring existence its meaning and internal consistency. The emergence of socially constructed reality takes place in several steps:
-first, the constancies of everyday life within the shared reality are bridged together by language, which can “transcend the here and now” of immediate experience;
-second, institutionalized actions are bridged by roles, which can be typified and reified..
-finally the different spheres of reality – the subuniverses – are incorporated in the symbolic universe, an overarching universe of meaning “which constitutes the universe in the literal sense of the word because all human experience can now be conceived as taking place within it. The symbolic universe is conceived as the matrix of all socially objectivated and subjectively real meanings; the entire historic society and the entire biography of the individual are seen as taking place within this universe” (Berger and Luckmann 1966, p. 96).
These symbolic universes are sustained by universe maintenance mechanisms, “which ensure their internal consistency and continuity, and act as a safeguard against dissonance. Mythology, theology, philosophy and science are all universe maintenance mechanisms” (Dan, 2007).
As stated above, the creation and maintenance of the connection between the self and the symbolic universe is a process that takes place largely outside awareness Mirror neurons specialized in recognizing the expression of emotions (fear, pain disgust, anger, attraction) in the anterior cingulated cortex and the insula may play an important role mediating this connection by creating empathy (“Gandhi neuron”) One’s sense of identity and of belonging, of continuity, as well as the rules governing the validation of identity by others, are contained within the symbolic universe, and receive their meaning through it. Just as the sense of self is part of any configuration of the GW, the relationship between the self and the symbolic universe is part of any configuration of the self, and thus represented in any configuration of the GW.
This means that each conscious process has unconscious components to which it is systematically related. In effect, the conscious process, recalled and amplified through attention in the GW, is only a minute proportion of the unconscious processes that make possible its emergence in awareness, the “tip of the iceberg” so to speak. This does not mean that the relationship between the conscious and unconscious components of a process is fixed. The unconscious component is a fixed point attractor (Furman and Gallo, 2000), with the conscious component acting as an anchor and with its unconscious component changing constantly but remaining within the same limits. It may contain structural unconscious components, as well as combinations of recallable but not recalled, recallable but not amplifiable, recalled but not amplifiable and recalled, amplifiable but not amplified processes. The relative stability of the attractor is assured by long term memory: the retention of the direct or indirect connections to the GW.
The management of conflicts and tensions: the dynamic unconscious
Freud classified mental processes based on their availability to awareness: those which occupy the awareness at a given moment are conscious, those preconscious or subconscious, which although not in awareness, are easily recallable if needed (such as mother’s maiden name), and those not available to awareness, which are unconscious. However, most behaviors and a number of important functions are vertically integrated, meaning that they have conscious, preconscious and unconscious components. For example, defense mechanisms are unconscious, but are incorporated in the Ego, which is a conscious, preconscious and unconscious structure. The Ego also contains fully conscious coping mechanisms. According to Hoffer (1954, 1968) the defense mechanisms and the coping mechanisms form a continuum, a defensive organization ranging from fully unconscious to fully conscious. Depending on the situation, the Ego uses any mechanism, including repression, at any level of awareness
As mentioned above, repression can be defined as the decision not to recall and/or not to amplify by attention mentally represented content connected to the GW. According to Levine (2002), both attention and recall processes contain a “saliency determination” component: a decision whether a given representation is important enough to recall or amplify by attention. This determination takes necessarily place out of awareness, since consciously deciding not to recall or pay attention to a representation would bring it into awareness, rendering the determination useless. By manipulating the saliency determination, repression keeps out of awareness selected representations.
For example, in Milgram’s (1969) obedience experiments, the choice not to obey authority was always present, but seldom taken. Milgram named this process “agentic state”. The agentic state is the opposite of autonomy and occurs when “a self regulating entity is internally modified so as to allow its functioning within a system of hierarchical control”. The subject cognitively structured the situation so that the choice to disobey, albeit present, was not perceived, not in awareness i.e. repressed.
Lifton (1983,1986) described two coping mechanisms – psychic numbing and doubling- which protect the individual from the effects of extreme situations and have the characteristics of both unconscious defenses and conscious coping. They contain both an element of free will and “as if” behavior, and fall in the “recalled, amplifiable but not amplified” category.
Numbing is the splitting off of feeling from experience. Stopping the symbolic function, the ability to inwardly manipulate the painful event, preempts the possibility of a compromise formation (i.e. symptom) being forged.
The psychological principle of doubling is, according to Lifton “the division of the self in two functioning wholes. In that way, a part-self becomes, in effect, an entire self” (1986). Doubling permits the creation of parallel self narratives and self deception permits these narratives to coexist. “The multiple layers of truth and lies permit the forging of coherent versions of reality and of versions of the past” – or self narratives – “consistent with them, at different levels of self deception corresponding to different levels of justification” (Dan, 2007). As Ricoeur (1967) has stated, at a deep level “the intimate core of personality”, one is aware of all self deception, but cannot stop it. The narrative that is not operational at the moment is kept out of awareness by cognitive restructuring. I propose that this type of repression is more common that the suppression of past traumatic events. The key element here is that the decision to cognitively restructure a representation, not to recall it and/or not to amplify it in order to keep it out of awareness, takes place out of awareness as well.
Repression has constraints: it has to respect the self sameness, continuity, and integrity of the self. For example I cannot forget my father’s suicide, although it is a very painful life event, because forgetting it creates too great a discontinuity in the narrative of the self. I can decide not to recall or amplify parts of my existence that are shameful, painful or make me feel guilty as long as their absence from awareness does not result in major distortions in the perception of reality, or the continuity and integrity of the self.
Concerning the effects of repression, Freud wrote (1957) that “we are inclined to overestimate their psychological content and forget too readily that repression does not hinder the instinct-presentation from continuing to exist in the unconscious and from organizing itself further, putting forth derivatives and instituting connections”. In other words, the emphasis is on combination and recombination of representations, not on the specificity of the content. The studies of Beeman and Kounios (2004) concerning the “Eureka reaction” prove that combinatory action goes on continuously outside consciousness, and that the outcome of this process can emerge in consciousness under certain circumstances.
The content of the repressed varies with the culture and the individual. Because the personality characteristics and the social rules are relatively stable, the conflict between the individual’s desires and the internalized social restrictions has certain constancies, the areas that create most difficulty with self regulation, which form the defining conflicts of a person. In turn, these act as a limit cycle attractors (Furman&Gallo, 2000), combining and re-combining the repressed content, trying to connect to the GW and emerge in awareness, in the manner described above by Freud. As already stated, certain memories are being kept out of awareness because they create dissonance with the self narrative.
Seen in this perspective, the dynamic unconscious is not a repository of repressed representations, unavailable for voluntary recall, but rather a different principle of organizing memories. As Naccache(2008) states, the conflict is not between repressed content and internalized social constraints on behavior, but rather between two narratives, one of which is the product of imagination. Self deception may allow one to chose either narrative. Where I differ from Naccache is that he considers the choice between narratives to be a conscious decision, while I believe that the narrative that conflicts with the continuity and integrity of the self is usually kept from emerging in awareness.
Voluntary recall is subject to the constraints of logic and reality: the memories appear organized in a temporal sequence and are connected to the GW in awareness by coherent associations. When one tries to relate a product of an unconscious process –such as a dream- in terms of a coherent narrative, the cognitive restructuring alters the material (this is what Freud called “secondary elaboration”)
The dynamic unconscious groups memories together based on the emotions they evoke, along semantic trees, and also based on illogical criteria such as assonance. Dehaene (2008) states that there are different neural networks for phonetic and semantic processing of words, and Paulesu el al (2000) have shown through brain imaging that when a native speaker of a phonetic language such as Italian, reads words in Italian, they are processed mostly auditorily, while English speakers reading English words process them both visually and auditorily, since merely hearing a word does not necessarily clarify its meaning (“bear”, “bare”, ”read”, “reed” etc.).These examples are indicative of some of the associative pathways along which unconscious memories can be organized and connected to each other, in Lacan’s (1966) words, “as rings of a necklace that is a ring in another necklace made of rings “ . The totality of these interconnected networks of memories and fantasies form a dissipative structure (Prigogine, 1977), whose function is to dampen the impact of significant events by re-distributing the emotional tension along associative chains, alleviating the stress.
However, at this level it is impossible to differentiate between unconscious memories and unconscious mental representations of wishes. Doing so would mean comparing them to the self narrative, an action which would bring them in the focus of attention, making them conscious. As Freud concluded, this means that unconscious fantasies may have the same dynamic effect as the repressed memories of actual events, and can organize along the same associative chains, trying to reach awareness.
According to Badcock (1994), who uses a neo-Darwinian perspective, the Id, Ego and Superego represent different adaptive strategies: the Id selfishness and the survival of the individual, the Superego altruism and the survival of the species, and the Ego a mixed strategy, using both self interest and the good of the species. A computer simulation of these three strategies indicates that the latter is by far the most successful in the long run.
One can look at personality as a system and order the goals hierarchically:
Subsystem Super Ego
Goal: Cope with new situations while continuing on going adaptations
Goal: find best compromise consistent with desires, self interest, history and values
Goal: respect internalized behavior code
Goal: unconditional satisfaction of impulses
At the level of each subsystem coping constitutes the fulfillment of the subsystem goal. There is no reflection of the system goal, or other subsystem goals, at subsystem level. If the Id goal, the unconditional satisfaction of impulses, is taken to its limit, the Id ceases to exist, since nothing is repressed. If the Superego goal, the absolute respect of the internalized behavior code is taken to its limit, the Id is forever silenced, since nothing repressed can be expressed. Only the Ego’s compromise formation goal permits the preservation of the system’s integrity, indeed its optimal functioning.
The content of the unconscious is changing because the nature of the repressed is changing. Anchoring (in Ariely’s sense) by what is seen as morally acceptable in a culture, changes the range of behaviors seen as permissible, and results in changes in the overt behavior. In many contemporary Western cultures, as opposed to Victorian Vienna, sexuality is much less likely to be repressed, since so much more is permissible. For inner city youth, the most successful human being, the model to be emulated (the Ego ideal) is the local drug dealer/rapper/star athlete. This person lives by the pleasure principle, never frustrated, indulging all his desires, a walking Id..The dynamic of the personality changes accordingly: inner rage becomes the major source of psychic tension, and frustration takes the place of signal anxiety. Being frustrated (unable get immediately what is desired ) means feeling powerless, producing dissonance between one’s self image and self narrative on one hand, and the devaluation of the self caused by the feelings of impotence and inferiority on the other hand. In turn this dissonance will trigger inner rage, activating the defensive organization. The change in the nature of the repressed leads to a new personality dynamic.
What then, constitutes therapy? Dehaene (2004), in a different context, proposed the concept of “neuronal recycling”: the ability to retrain workspace neurons, “to reconvert brain circuitry through learning”. He hypothesized (Dehaene , Kerszberg,& Changieux, 1998, Dehaene & Naccache, 2001, Dehane et al 2003, Dehaene 2004)) that “the radical expansion of prefrontal cortex and of cortico-cortical connection in our species… may have generated a new ability top mobilize existing processors in a top down manner within a conscious neuronal workspace. This new circuitry would enable us to tentatively try out new mental syntheses and select them according to their usefulness.”
Ramachandran (2006) links the evolution of the brain to the development of imitative behavior based on mirror neurons. Through imitation and empathy accidental discoveries spread fast through populations and are accumulated and assimilated (in the sense of Piaget) resulting in new behaviors. Arbib (2005) also emphasizes the possible role mirror neurons play in the formation of a “theory of mind” i.e understanding another’s point of view, playing an important role in the development of empathy, and Willams (2005) emphasizes the role language and mirror neurons play in communicating mentalistic concepts. Keysers et al (2004) consider mirror neurons the neural basis of social intelligence. All of the above described evolutionary developments facilitate the therapeutical process: the ability to communicate one’s state of mind and the ability to effect change.
In this perspective, therapy can be conceived as a process through which mental representations that have been kept out of the GW by cognitive restructuring (repression), are brought into awareness and integrated into the self narrative. The neuronal networks are retrained (recycled in the sense of Dehaene), and integrated into the GW, resulting in a new synthesis. As Freud (1965 )wrote, ”where Id was Ego shall be”: a set of behaviors which previously was not controllable by volition can now be managed by conscious coping mechanisms. Sampson, Weis et al (1972 ) have demonstrated this very point, showing how an unconscious defense mechanism can be changed into a conscious coping one as a result of therapy.
The optimization of voluntary activity: pre-viewing and the establishing and maintenance of routines
Suppose a speaker is giving a spontaneous speech in front of an audience. Several processors and routines are running outside awareness (recalled, but not amplified by attention) making the performance possible: words are being retrieved from the expressive vocabulary, sentences are formulated through syntax, and by use of cohesive ties and semantic structuring organized into a coherent discourse. The ideas that are being expressed are retrieved from long term memory, conceptualized verbally and elaborated verbally. The ideational density is monitored: too dense and the discourse is difficult to understand, too light and it is inconsequential. Feed back loops monitor the communication and trigger adjustments: routines for pronouncing words, for intonation, for gestures, are monitoring the manner in which the speech is delivered, and modifying it as needed (from Levine, 2002).
Most of this activity is not only taking place outside awareness, but it represents a different point in the temporal sequence of the activity. When the awareness is at point n, the activity described above is at point n+1: before being implemented, the sequence is pre-viewed. As the implementation of sequence n+1 starts, the speaker is pre-viewing sequence n+2 etc. Stated differently, the future configuration of the GW is pre-viewed, then, as it is amplified by attention, replaces the present configuration of the GW.
Pre-viewing allows for a continuity of awareness. In the case of a voluntary activity such as the speech described above, if represents the mechanism through which one GW is succeeded by the next one. If, as Naccache (2008), states the awareness is a static configuration of neurons in the GW amplified by attention, then by previewing and by recording in memory GW configurations, one can maintain continuity though the succession of awareness states.
Naccache (2008) found that when presented with a masked stimulus requiring a lateralized response (left or right), the subjects showed brain activity consistent with moving the correct answer hand before the activity representing a voluntary decision to do so was recorded. In other words, they were pre-viewing the action to be taken. In fact, the making of a speech presents an excellent opportunity to study pre-viewing: one needs multilingual subjects making a spontaneous speech while their brain activity is monitored by fMRI. When given a prompt, the subjects have to switch languages (one could also switch topics, or both topics and languages). This means discarding parts of the existing pre-views and substituting them with new ones. The changes in brain activity will provide cues about pre-viewing .
The establishment and maintenance of routines is another cognitive unconscious function, with the purpose to optimize cognitive activity by shifting from the voluntary supervision of an activity to the monitoring of the fit between the established routine and the activity. The monitoring occurs outside awareness, but if the fit between activity and routine is no longer satisfactory, the activity is amplified by attention and becomes part of the GW. I believe that our brains have a built in tendency to develop routines, since it optimizes the processing of the information in awareness. Mericle et al (1995), using a version of Stroop ‘s (1935)experiment, have demonstrated that subjects tend to create predictive routines by using congruent or even incongruent cues Writing is a good example of using routines: once mastered, one does not pay attention to how to write, but to what to write. If one were to take subjects who can write in languages using different alphabets, such as English and Russian, or French and Greek and, while monitoring their brain activity by fMRI, would ask them to take dictation, first in each language, then in each language using the alphabet of the other, the observed changes in brain activity would provide clues about the use of routines.
As stated above, most of these processes are directly or indirectly connected to the GW, recalled, but not amplified by attention. Since the focus of the attention is narrow, the use of pre-viewing and of routines optimizes cognitive functioning.
Neural binding :Completing and combining the sensory input
Neural binding has been defined by von der Malsburg (1999) as the process through which one characteristic of an object (such as color) is associated to another one (such as shape) to make a unified representation of that object possible. Binding can take place within the same modality (shape and location), across modalities (recognizing an object by touch), or in reconstructing an object from memory, Binding can occur between perception and perception, between perception and cognition, as for example in linking the seeing of a pepper with the information stored about it: it is edible, it can be cooked, it could be hot etc, or between two or more concepts (space, time velocity). One of the functions of neural binding is to make possible the unified representation of objects in spatial, temporal and symbolic context.
The severing or absence of frequently used neural binding can have pathological results: the Capgras delusion, the conviction that those close to the subject have been replaced by impostors, is due to the loss of connection (binding) between the structure specialized in recognizing faces- the frontal facial area (FFA, Kanwisher, 2000), and the amygdala, which processes emotions. Since the face of “mother” is recognized without the emotion usually accompanying her recognition, the patient draws the conclusion that he is dealing with impostor. Kiehl, (2005) has found that psychopathy is correlated with reduced amygdala activity when presented with aggressive stimuli, and with disruptions of the paralimbic region of the brain, .suggesting that the missing connections may be linked to antisocial behavior.
In Rorschach protocols, some of the answers requiring special scores in the Exner ( 2002) system, such as “looks like a sticky chicken” or “looks like the shadow of an oxwoman” may be examples of binding so unusual as to be pathological. The same can be said about unusual “blends”, such as “it looks like coagulating blood because of the thickness and the smell”.
Another function of binding is to complete perception with data from memory in order to get a unified representation. When one sees a horse behind a fence, in fact the visual field consists of slices of horse and slices of fence, yet one sees the entire horse: the missing parts are completed from memory. The neural signature of binding is synchronicity between separate areas of the brain. While some aspects of binding, for example between the taste and smell of food are easy to explain, the more complex aspects defy explanation: in the case of a new activity, how does binding occur? What is the sequence of different neural networks becoming bound to each other? How is it decided which networks to connect. How are “illusory conjunctions” being avoided? As van der Malsburg states:“ the issue remains to identify in the brain a neural architecture that has the capacity for learning and self-organization and is a fertile basis for all the flexibility and creativity observed in humans and animal”.
I believe that Naccache’s (2008) concept of “structural unconscious”-”information coded in the very structure of the nervous system” is similar, but identifying the structures that perform the function of connecting neural networks remains elusive. As Roskies (1999) writes, there is no evidence that binding is a unitary problem; to the contrary, most evidence suggests that it is a class of problems, ranging from the simple to the “the most mystifying binding problem of all: the problem of consciousness”.
Singer ( 2001 ) believes that awareness emerges from ”an iteration of self similar cognitive operations,… performed by cortical networks…of dynamic self organizing associations of distributed neurons” grouped by neural binding “into coherent assemblies” This self organizing process is facilitated by” attentional mechanisms”
Roskies(1999) wrote:”How does something as simple and mechanistic as neural firing add up to subjectivity, raw feelings, a self? Are the mechanisms that allow us to attribute the correct color and shape to an object the same ones that lead to the unity of phenomenal experience? Will the solution of the binding problem be the solution to the mystery of consciousness?” It remains, in Ramachandran’s (2006) words “ an astonishing hypothesis: the notion that our conscious experience and sense of self is based entirely on the activity of a hundred billion bits of jelly — the neurons that constitute the brain.” To this one can add that the fact that the wealth of our unconscious experience is also based on the same hundred billions bits of jelly is no less astonishing.
We have come full circle. This essay started out with the problem of consciousness and ends with it. I have tried to integrate the new findings in the field of neuroscience and the concept of the dynamic unconscious into a new conceptual framework, using elements of thermodynamics, chaos theory, clinical and social psychology. I believe that such attempts at synthesis are not an empty exercise. Rather, they are generative, uncovering new connections and putting forth new ideas. One hopes they will help interpret new findings and also generate new lines of research.
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