When the ancient Greek philosophers attempted to explain the mind, thinkers like Plato and Aristotle presented theories with a common theme. Thousands of years later, when Freud put pen to paper, this same theme was present. What could cause thinkers to agree on a common point about our nature throughout the ages?
- What is it that characterizes us as people?
- What is the nature of human nature?
- What explains the commonalities between problems people face
What the theories of Plato, Aristotle, Freud and so many others had in common was one key element: conflict.
Plato and Aristotle presented ancient theories of personality that characterized man as driven by conflicting forces. According to their writings, mankind had a dual nature. On the one hand we are driven by reason, they taught. Each of us has a logical, rational side, a side of us that can reason and is reasonable. But underneath is what the ancients called the “appetitive” aspect of man. This other side is driven by desire, craving and emotion. It is our instinctual and animal side. To Plato and Aristotle, our every moment was characterized by the conflict between the sides of this dual nature as our faculties of reason work to curb our emotions and appetites.
Along similar lines, central to Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis centuries later was the idea of conflict. Psychoanalysis proposed three parts to the personality. The Id contained our basic and instinctual drives which the superego, the seat of morality and conscience, was to keep in check (with the ego stuck in between). To Freud, each of us, day by day, lived out an eternal conflict.
Are we really so conflicted?
On the surface, these theories ring true. We must each control our emotions and appetites to function in society. We all have emotions, impulses and desires we might like to indulge in, but we make the choice daily to behave as society dictates. We keep our appetites in check and live by society’s rules. But is there more going on?
Our Two Minds
We like to see ourselves as rational, logical and intelligent creatures. We think we make decisions by means of reason and that we are in control of our behaviour. Yet the neo-cortex, the part of our brain that has given us the gift of reason, is a fairly new technological advancement in our evolution.
Through the majority of human existence, it was the reptilian brain that dominated. This other side of human nature evolved over millions of years and helped us survive. Our primal side kept us avoiding danger, defending our territory and has us keep to what was safe. It evolved and adapted so matters of survival were ingrained. And it was this primal and instinctual programming, the seat of our instincts, emotions, impulses and cravings that has dominated human history.
And here we are today, with two brains.
Conscious and Unconscious
In the history of psychology, two terms have come to dominate the lingo for our two brains: conscious mind and unconscious mind.
The conscious mind is our logical rational side. It is the side we use to analyze, reasons and calculate. It let’s us discuss philosophy till the wee hours of the night and bequeathes us the faculty of language.
The unconscious mind is our more primal side. It is the seat of our emotions, impulses, urges and instincts. It stores our memories, knowledge and habits, runs the body and is responsible for our automatic behaviours and reflexes.
Which one is in control?
Although we pride ourselves on reason, most of our behaviour is driven by the unconscious mind. Marketing 101 teaches that people buy with emotion and justify with logic, though nearly everyone will claim that they’re the exception. Throughout the last couple centuries, when groups, corporations and governments have tried to influence the masses, it’s been found again and again that using logic doesn’t work.
And it’s for the same reason that we struggle to change.
When I began working with clients, a common theme quickly emerged in nearly every case. People came to me thinking the problem was one thing, but when they left they their ideas about it has completely changed. They’d gotten beneath the surface, beyond what they thought the problem was and discovered what was really going on. It was such a common experience with people that I drew up a work sheet that said:
What I thought the problem was:
What I now know the problem is:
Today, I know that when someone has been unable to solve a problem, this same thing is going to occur. Somehow they get fooled into thinking they know what the problem is while the truth is hiding. In reality, they are aware of the symptoms, but they can’t see beyond to the true causes.
What is the nature of human nature?
The reptilian brain that evolved over millions of years to ensure that we meet our needs and survive. It is this part of us that drives much of our experience. Now, the logical brain has come along and is helping us quite nicely, but there’s a problem:
The two brains don’t speak the same language.
Our two brains think in different ways, aim for different things and have different functions. They are like people from countries on opposite sides of the world joined as twins but with no common language, interests or aims. What does that equal? Conflict.
Our Two Minds, Problems and Change
Many of our problems arise from a conflict between these two parts of us.
- While we want to go enjoy the party, something in us is terrified and keeps us locked in a pattern of social anxiety.
- While we want to shed off those extra pounds, something keeps piling those chocolates in our mouth night after night.
- While we want to get those items checked off the to do list, something chains us down in front of the TV for one more night of reruns.
The conscious mind wants one thing, the unconscious mind wants another, and you’re stuck in the middle. What’s worse is that neither really knows the other exists and so they can’t even sit down at the negotiation table to talk. They each pull in different directions and you wonder what the heck is going on.
When problems arise, when we feel something we don’t like, when we can’t get ourselves to stop an unwanted behaviour or start a desirable one, we try to understand what is going on. We do our best to interpret the symptoms rationally, the conscious mind tries to interpret what’s occurring, but does a bad job. It gets it wrong! Often we do succeed at coming up with reasons, explanations and justifications, but they miss the mark. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is up to. The conscious mind doesn’t speak “unconscious” and there’s no interpreter around. Conflict and miscommunication.
A Vicious Cycle…
If we’ve misconceived the problem we’ll misconceive the solution. Based on our misunderstanding of the problem we’ll launch into a solution, but the solutions we try won’t work. Usually, knowing us humans, we’ll keep trying to impose those same ineffective solutions because reasons tells us it should or will work.
How do we decipher the unconscious?
It might sound surprising but the unconscious mind actually makes a hell of an effort to communicate. In fact, this is just what symptoms are: communication from the unconscious mind.
When we slow down and give the unconscious a voice, we can begin to decipher the symptoms and uncover what they’ve been trying to say. We can begin to listen to our “other mind” and understand what it wants us to know.
What do those symptoms mean?
What do you want me to know?
What’s the purpose of this?
If you could talk, what would you say?
When we begin to listen to our unconscious and understand what’s been lost in translation, we most often find that it’s actually been trying to do something valuable and has something valid it wants us to know.
The greatest healers of history and therapists of today are masterful interpreters of unconscious messages. They can decode the primal language of the mind and translate it into something the patient or client can understand. They find a way to negotiate between our two brains and bring harmony. And often, what therapists who are known for their results do makes little logical and rational sense. They talk to the unconscious.