In previous articles I’ve described the general algorithm that our mind – basically, our brain – is running, all the time. Here it is again – hoping this will make things clearer.
Our mind can basically be viewed as an impulse processing mechanism. It waits for impulses; these can come from several sources: from within the mind, from various neural networks, telling it it’s time to do one thing or another; from the parts of the nervous system that regulate bodily functions and carry out the communication between the brain and the various organs and systems; from the peripheral nervous system, usually indicating external occurrences.
These impulses are processed first by the subconscious parts of the mind (though some internal impulses might circumvent this step). There lies the wiring that defines us, that tells us we enjoy pleasure and fear pain, that translates various sensations into pleasure and into pain. Our basic attitudes to the world are genetically defined, but on top of this there exists an additional layer of fine-tuning, accumulated through experience, through learning.
Parts of this learning – discussed in The Second Brain – is stored subconsciously. It becomes inaccessible to the ‘Self’, to us, and a part of this subconscious wiring. Our subconscious also defines how regular memory works, and you could say that it does not operate fully on the conscious level, we can’t control it, we do not really understand its inner workings; but we are aware of it, much more aware of the existence of our conscious memories than we are of the subconscious ones.
You could say that our conscious memory lies somewhere between the subconscious and the conscious parts of the mind. They also take part in the processing of every impulse as it exits the subconscious. This processing gives the impulse a meaning and an emotional value, or a charge. The processed impulse then acts on the ‘Self’.
The ‘Self’ – discussed in Life, Evolution & Consciousness – is a central part of the mind, it makes us aware, makes us able to feel pain, pleasure – and all other feelings that stem from these 2 basic meta-sensations. It evolved when it became necessary for organisms to have behavior, behavior that was not a direct result of their physical structure and their chemical properties.
The most primitive mind – and there is a good chance that it evolved before nerve cells had evolved – contained a ‘Self’, which is the most central part of any biological computer. The ‘Self’ is there to receive impulses and to react to them, based on their pain/pleasure value. It receives the processed impulses – there can be one or more of them, impulses can come simultaneously from several sources – evaluates their pain/pleasure potential and generates a Secondary Emotion.
The brain is a unique machine, a computer that’s very different from the ones we are familiar with. It is very slow compared to modern machines: a nerve cell can generate no more than 1000 discharges, signals, per second (each such signal lasts one millisecond). A modern personal computer has several processes, each of which can make billions of simple operations every second.
The brain, on the other hand, was ‘built’ in a much mire sophisticated way, a way which reflects the complexity of the world it was meant to mirror and react to. In addition to all the various fascinating aspects of its structure, which we will not go into, right now, it also contain multiple neural networks that operate independently, in parallel.
Very often, impulses come in groups – an action, or an occurrence in the outside world, might generate several separate impulses, each reflecting a different aspect of it: a cat moving through the grass towards the smell of tasty food will be getting the impulse stemming from the smell of food (the promise of pleasure, goading it on), and it might also be getting impulses signalling various things happening in its environment, like objects – that might be alive and dangerous – moving, various sounds, etc.
Each impulse will be processed by the appropriate neural network and then act on the self. Actually, the same impulse might be processed by several networks and be ‘split’ into several impulses, each reflecting the evaluation and the interpretation of the network responsible.
Then, something akin to the way the Ancient Greek democratic process worked will happen: the self will act upon the impulse that ‘screams the loudest’. The most powerful impulse will determine the outcome, and which Secondary Emotion will be generated.
This process is interactive, of course: while an impulse chain is being processed feedback is received, in the form of new impulses, which can modulate the initial response.
Emotions (‘Secondary Emotions’)
This is how I chose to call the impulse as it exits the ‘Self’ and continues down its ‘chain of execution’, within our mind. It should not be called ‘secondary’, in fact, since it is what we call ‘an motion’ or ‘an urge’, ‘a feeling’. Our feelings are these reactions to processed impulses generated by the ‘Self’. They inspire our actions and, as such, are a central part of the algorithm governing the operation of our mind.
The next step in the execution of the impulse chain is, therefore, to carry out the action deemed necessary by the ‘Self’. This is an essential part of the chain. Every ‘Secondary Emotion’ carries a charge that can only be discharged by executing the action assigned to it. If this is not done, the tension will remain within the mind, urging us to act – evolutionarily speaking, we cannot be complacent about matters concerning our goals, the goals of our genes: procreation and survival (with procreation being the only goal, from a purely genetic perspective).
If a ‘Secondary Emotion’ is not discharged, tension will remain trapped within the system, until it is discharged. This is the source of our need to ‘vent’, to express the frustration accumulated over the course of a long day at work, for instance, or from any other activity that forces us to repress certain ‘Secondary Emotions’ in order to satisfy others.
I believe this ability is unique to human beings, to ‘complicated animals’: to be able to completely or mostly repress the carrying out of the action imperative of one impulse chain because another is telling us not to. For example, when someone upsets us and we get an urge to attack them (the conclusion made by one impulse chain) but we then get an urge, generated by a second impulse chain, not to do a thing that might damage our social status or get us arrested – which would be the result of following the action imperative (or Secondary Emotion) of that first impulse chain.
But we can’t just shut down that first impulse chain, the action it demands needs to be somehow carried out, or else, the emotional charge it carries needs to be discharged, somehow. I believe primitive societies had acceptable ways of doing so, natural, instinctive and/or traditional, ways. We have forgotten, as a culture, about that need – and this might have been finalized relatively recently, within the second half of the last millennium – and we frown on ‘venting’ emotions. We expect members of our society to be constantly repressing unwanted urges. These repressed impulses – feelings,urges – that accumulate within our system cause stress, and the stress can cause psychosomatic illness and exacerbate mental conditions.
The stress gives fuel to our neurotic patterns (the mechanism is described in the series of articles beginning with The Second Brain), which are, in fact, intended to be activated in times of stress, since stress signals danger to our survival, to our goal.
In a way, those neurotic patterns – traumatic memories – can themselves be viewed as impulse chains the execution of which had never been completed. And, I believe we could, once, to a degree, naturally, as part of our cultural traditions, express some of the pain of recently experienced trauma, thereby preventing it from accumulating too rapidly. One such (imaginary) ritual is described in Richard Adams’ Watership Down, and although its characters are rabbits, in the book, they may well have been a primordial tribe of humans – homo-sapiens or another species.
This ritual, of re-experiencing trauma through its re-telling, activates an ancient mechanism that allows us to ‘complete the execution’ of unfinished impulse-chains. This is also the mechanism utilized in regression therapy. It allows us to ‘complete the execution of the chain’ by contacting the trapped charge and releasing it. This is done by either dramatizing the action that would complete the chain or by expressing the frustration of not having been able to do so.
Among the many systems that regulate and control the operations of our brain, its numerous ‘fuses’ and safeguards, there is one that acts by pretending that an impulse chain has been completed successfully when it actually hasn’t been. We have no will, we cannot control the operations of our brain. Impulses happen automatically and if they do not ‘fix’ the problem that has generated them they will keep being generated, until the problem is fixed, the action has been carried out or the brain overloads and we die.
Let me give you an example: one of the main objectives our brain is constantly working towards is to identify all patterns in its environment. This is, understandably, an impossible task: some patterns – phenomena – the ones in our immediate environment, the ones directly pertinent to our success in achieving our goals, them we can understand at least to a degree that would allow us to create an effective strategy for dealing with them. Others we cannot, but we cannot consciously tell the difference between these two kinds.
So, when an impulse demanding us to identify a pattern persists and the actions we take to satisfy it are not doing the job, a mechanism kicks in that makes up an explanation, to prevent the brain from overloading. This explanation, this meme, becomes part of our belief system. This is how religions and ideologies are born.
Of course, the case of impulses that are related to identifying patterns – of analyzing the world around us – is only one example where repression might be needed. All unpleasant knowledge that we can do nothing about, that might harm our ability to accomplish our goals by generating a never ending stream of impulses demanding us to resolve the problem this knowledge represents, thereby overloading our brain, must be repressed. This is done by lying to ourselves, telling ourselves a pleasant story in which the problem has been fixed. Our brain’s capacity for holding conflicting beliefs without seeing the conflict between them – cognitive dissonance – makes this possible.
Repression works in many ways, the one described above being just one of them. In the case of traumatic experiences, for instance, it makes us partially or fully unconscious of the pain we endure during the experience, and it also makes us unaware of the memory of the pain, it makes it inaccessible to our conscious mind.
I’ll be getting back to the subject of repression in future articles, since it is almost equally pertinent to psychology and to social evolution. Until then,
Good night and good luck.