Ego, Consciousness and Emotions: An Interactive Model
Vicente M. Simón
In this paper, a model of mental processing is presented using as protagonists three of the classic mental instances: ego, consciousness and emotions. After briefly expounding the author's conception of each of these three constructs, two different versions of their possible interaction are outlined. The first corresponds to the most usual working mode in our western cultural setting. The second finds its maximum representation in the oriental tradition of meditation, though it is also present in mystical traditions of all types, including those of the West. The essence of this alternative form of mental functioning consists of breaking the habitual identification of consciousness with ego and emotions, which is characteristic of the first mode. In this way, a new form of relationship between consciousness and the ego-emotions complex arises, by virtue of which consciousness is freed from its habitual strict dependence on this complex, so opening up a whole universe of unexplored human experience.
Translation, Mervyn Samuel
Over two centuries ago, Hume expressed his perplexity at the idea his contemporaries had of the ego and personal identity. Referring to a supposed interlocutor who defends what was then the usual position (and differs little from popular ideas current nowadays), Hume said: "He may perhaps perceive something simple and continu'd, which he calls himself; tho' I am certain there is no such principle in me." What he discovered in himself led him to affirm "that the rest of mankind ... are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement" (Hume, 1985). This disparity between what he perceived and what others reported to him aroused his perplexity. I, also, have shared his surprise, and attempt here to explain my manner of moving beyond it, or in other words, I try to draw the map of a certain itinerary.
In this enterprise proposed here, I shall inevitably make use of concepts and words. However, it should be absolutely clear that my intention is not to consecrate either the one or the other. My desire is to transmit an experience and a manner of understanding certain aspects of ‘reality’. That is to say, I conceive of concepts and words as messengers, clearly not the protagonists of the action but merely the couriers transmitting it. I shall consider myself well satisfied if the reader receives the message and, in this case, the words can then be discarded. Once their mission has been completed, they have no reason to endure beyond what may be necessary in the reader's mind, as words tend easily to supplant the message that in reality they should enshrine.
Therefore, it must be understood that if I make use of certain words - such as ‘ego’, ‘I’ and ‘consciousness’ - my intention is not to give them any new significance. The truth is that I do not aim to give them any meaning at all. My only objective is that, since these words are capable of provoking certain movements of the mind, certain subterranean transactions the mechanisms and laws of which we still understand only imperfectly, they may serve their function in a docile manner and, the remaining circumstances being favourable, lead the reader towards a different view of ‘reality’ and of his own relationship to it.
In this journey on which we are now embarking, the first stage is a brief outline of the three actors destined to play the main roles in the short representation of psychic life to be outlined in due course. These three actors are ego, consciousness and emotions, and I shall now go on to analyse the relationships between them. To begin, the most usual form of this relationship will be presented, and then I shall attempt to describe an alternative mode of interaction that may possibly represent an important advance in the functioning of the human mind.
Let us begin with the story of a dichotomy. Fernando Pessoa, in that marvellous, tormented volume he calls “The Book of Disquietude”, speaking of the impression he believes himself to have caused in the people around him, says: "No one imagined that at my side there was another, who was in fact I. They always supposed I was identical to myself" (Pessoa, 1987). Although in this text he refers to a misunderstanding by others, I believe that we are all afflicted by the type of confusion the Portuguese writer describes, though in this case referring to ourselves. I think we believe ourselves to be identical ... to our ego, to what in these pages I shall call ego . Thus, it should be understood that ego is a mental construct basically containing the image that one has of oneself.
The root of the ego has to be sought in the capacity of the brain (in this case, the human brain) to construct neural models of the world (both external and internal). The models are always artificial structures which supplant or replace the original. In the nervous system there are patterns of neuronal activity which copy or represent certain aspects of the external world, in such a way that these copies can be used as a species of virtual reality to undertake certain mental operations relating to the original object, even if this is not present. The brain's modelling capacity allows living creatures to try out forms of behaviour in the face of ‘reality’, without having to submit to the risks to life involved in true exposure to ‘reality’. In this way, it is conceivable that those living creatures capable of constructing good models and of using them well, will see a notable increase in their possibilities of survival compared to those of less brilliant ‘modellers’, thus increasing their ‘fitness’ in the evolutionary jungle.
Now amongst the multiple models of ‘reality’ that we construct, one of the most important refers to ourselves, to our own identity. It is this model of oneself that in this paper will be called ‘ego’. How is the construct of the ego formed? It is a painstaking and dilated process extending throughout the entire development of the personality. The backbone of the ego is formed by the accumulation over time of information referring to the individual who generates and deposits it in the form of memory. Here I should like to stress two formal characteristics of this process which later will prove crucial to the understanding of how this construct functions. The first is that the ego is basically a product of memory; more precisely, it is in itself recollections, organised memory. And the second is that this memory, which naturally is very extensive and ramified, consists both of areas accessible to consciousness and of others that are totally unconscious. Thus, we are speaking of a great quantity of information distributed through different areas of the brain, both cortical and sub-cortical, having accumulated over an entire lifetime. We have conscious access to an important part of this memory at any given moment, and it is this that we habitually believe to govern our lives. However, a concealed ego also exists, normally inaccessible to consciousness, though not for this reason any less influential (and made up of a considerable part of our emotions and personal experiences which have never become conscious).
Within this image of ourselves built up by the brain over time, we can distinguish between different types of information. It is useful (though to a certain extent arbitrary) to divide this memory of the ego into two parts. The first, which for ease of reference we shall call ‘extralinguistic memory’, includes all the information that has not been produced by the machinery of language and is therefore stored in what is known as the implicit memory. In the second place we find the "linguistic memory", containing information coded in the form of language and stored in the memory known as explicit. This classification has the advantage of coinciding in general lines with the division of memory into declarative (or explicit) and procedural (or implicit), a division that finds wide acceptance and is supported by neurophysiological and neuropsychological experimental data (Schacter and Graf, 1986; Cohen and Squire, 1980; Squire, 1992). The primary components of non-linguistic information are bodily experiences of all types, by which we mean not only the direct data of the senses, but also their subsequent elaboration, particularly emotional experiences, on condition that they do not become subject to linguistic elaboration. This extralinguistic memory constitutes the somatic or psychosomatic part of the ego. Precisely it is this memory which is usually to be found furthest removed from consciousness, though many of its contents may reach consciousness if suitable channels are found for the transfer of the information and this transfer is adequately stimulated.
If we had to establish quantitative aspects in this distribution of the memory of the ego, one would have to say that a large part of this construct is to be found in the form of linguistic memory, for which reason language assumes a fundamental importance in its genesis and maintenance, probably in all human cultures. This is why we have to consider the place occupied by language in mental functioning, as in practice it becomes a sort of filter or lense through which we see - and deform - all aspects of the world and ‘reality’. Normally, we are unaware of the extraordinary role played by language in our habitual form of consciousness, but language - whichever one we use - translates for us the world of experience into something else, which is no longer experience but a codified (and, therefore, simplified) version of experience. At this moment, for example, if I raise my eyes from the computer keyboard on which I am writing, in the room I can see a wooden table, an upholstered chair, an aluminium window and some shelves with books. In this brief description, the translation is already made. My original visual impression was composed of sets of colours and shapes; it was a rich image, continuous and with nuances, to some extent indescribable. After the translation the original has been divided, separated off and classified. It has lost its initial complexity, becoming transformed into a schematic caricature of the ‘reality’ from which it emanated. What we do with language is to force ‘reality’ to fit into the moulds we have for it, moulds which are words and concepts. We divide it up in accordance with these categories, prefabricated by us, which are words, and we convert what was a continuous polymorphous flow of impressions from the senses into a chain of domesticated words, which are familiar and laden with prejudices and emotional content. Throughout our lives we learn to see things in a certain manner, so losing the innocence of the initial perceptions. This is what Pessoa lamented when he wrote: "How I would like right now to be able to see all of this as one whose only relation with it was visual - to view everything like an adult traveller who has just arrived at the surface of life! Not to have learned ever since birth to attach certain meanings to all of these things. To be able to see them in the expression they have on their own, quite apart from the expression that has been imposed on them." (Pessoa, 1996).
This process of ‘cutting and packaging’ reality is clearly exemplified by the daily press. When an event is recounted in a newspaper, the long-suffering reader (who evidently was not present when the event took place) is served a dish cooked from a fragment of what really happened, in which all the flavour and complexity of the original event has been completely lost. What he receives is a string of words, a headline, in which certain facts are stressed, others are mutilated, many are ignored, and the whole concoction is spiced with an interpretation dictated by the ideological position of the journal in question. The reader of these lines may now be thinking that when we ourselves translate any daily experience (which we frequently do), we are following a process similar to the composition of a newspaper headline, though simpler and more direct. We are producing headlines and close-ups giving us simplistic, mutilated and tremendously biased versions of ‘reality’, but they are merely for internal consumption and with them we deceive no one but ourselves.
Fortunately, we are not always translating. We also pause and take rests which free us from this exhausting editorial labour. We may contemplate a sunset or, on occasion, simply become enraptured by any particular aspect of the world. However, it is undeniable that a considerable part of our waking time is spent submerged in an internal monologue, narrating to ourselves the ‘reality’ we are living, analysing it, intepreting it and making all types of speculations and projects for the future . In general, the more culture an individual possesses, a greater proportion of the ego is of the linguistic type. That ill-defined segment of the population which includes the so-called ‘intellectuals’, offers a good example of the linguistic ego. In a certain manner, its primary characteristic would be that of translating ‘reality’ into words, thus living in a world flooded by words, and offering the rest of the population different linguistic or symbolic versions of ‘reality’.
It must not be forgotten that the linguistic ego has, almost by definition, an eminently social origin. Language is learnt only by interaction with others, and it is during this long process of exchange with others that the structure (or structures, as we shall see) of the ego is forged. We can speculate that the developing brain of a young human being, while outlining models of the individual features of others as differentiated actors in a scene, experiences a need to define her own organism as one more of these actors, and thus she composes the hypothesis of her own ego. In this hypothesis she attempts to concentrate all the information she possesses on herself. This information proceeds from both her internal world (predominantly non-linguistic data) and from her external world (to a large extent, though not exclusively, linguistic information). Like a mirror, others provide her with an image of herself as they gradually supply her with impressions, replies, criticism or praise. All this enormous quantity of feedback which others emit on each one of us, is one of the principal materials we use for the construction of our own ego. Since a considerable proportion of this feedback reaches us coded in the form of language, it is logical that language should contribute and participate in a privileged manner in the structure of the ego. One might say that a great part of the ego ‘is’ language or memory of language, and certainly it is reached by using the highway of linguistic resources. In a fraction of a second, a single word can activate and give life to a whole network of images and ideas, and of emotions associated with such images and ideas. Here, we might use the simile of the chains of lights decorating the streets during popular festivities. When they are switched off, they can hardly be seen, yet when they are switched on at nightfall suddenly they appear in all their splendour. Similarly, the word acts like a switch capable of illuminating this whole fabric of the ego, with the result that where formerly there was nothing, a glittering framework shines forth.
Up to this point, reference has been made to the ego as though it were a unique instance. However, what we call ego has a highly complex structure. The ego is, in reality, a multistructure. (The word structure, though often used in this context, is relatively inappropriate. It transmits a sensation of solidity and continuity which only in part is to be found in the ego). In a first approach, we can appeal to our own experience and discover, in ourselves or in others, the existence of at least two egos: an optimistic ego and a pessimistic one. We know that the same situation can be interpreted as favourable or unfavourable, depending on the mood in which we regard it. If our optimistic ego acts, we imagine a propitious turn of events; if, on the contrary, the view of our pessimistic side prevails, we overvalue the negative aspects and conceive a detrimental evolution. However, this simple dichotomy is presented only by way of example. If we look closely, we soon realise that we have not only two available egos, but many more. (This corresponds roughly to what Dennett (1993) has named a ‘multiple draft model of consciousness’). Observing aspects of the ego projected towards the future, we can see that various possible lines of action exist, several scenarios of life with which eventually we can identity ourselves. Of all these possibilities one or two become stronger, and it is these which, at a certain moment, inspire the trajectory of our decisions and of our consequent actions in relation to the external world. In any case, their hegemony is limited in time. The evolution of environmental circumstances, or internal changes in the interpretation processes, may relegate them to a second plane and mean that other patterns of action come to determine the path to be followed. These different egos may easily be imagined as patterns of neural activity competing with each other to seize control of the decision making mechanism and impose their plans of action. We could employ the simile of the film producer and the scriptwriters. Several scriptwriters submit their manuscripts to the producer, who is the one capable of taking them to the screen. The writers can supply the story lines, but they cannot convert them into films; they depend for this on the will of the producer. The scriptwriters would be the different potential egos, all desiring their script to be chosen. As only one scene can be filmed at any one time, only one of the egos can impose its script. The others will have to await the next opportunity and write a new script, more in accordance with the film being made. Thus, at any one moment there will be what we might call a ‘predominant script’, corresponding to the ego which has achieved acceptance for its proposal. In some cases, the producer might possibly risk setting a second film in motion at the same time, somewhat marginally to the main production, perhaps in the hope that the other might turn out better than the official film. However, in most individuals, the producer only dares to bring one script to the screen. (In this cinematographic simile now being proposed, the producer is none other than consciousness, as will emerge clearly later on).
The aspects of the ego just described are those referring to the future, and I have presented the ego as a project for the future. However, it does have another side which is no less important, and which looks to the past. In this second sense, the ego is more like a narrative providing us with a specific version of our life. Multiple versions also exist, both of specific episodes and of life overall. With the passing of time we up-date the image we have of ourselves, and we make versions incorporating new facts and reinterpret the old ones more in accordance with the overall view of the moment. Elias Canetti (1981), in his extraordinary biography (precisely in part one, "The Tongue Set Free"), tells us how he conceived different versions of a crucial event in his life, the death of his father, which occurred in Manchester when Elias was aged seven. The versions varied as his mother provided him with further details, until reaching what he calls “the ultimate version”. Sometimes there is an ultimate version, which is accepted as definitive, but frequently the versions are modified indefinitely as the vicissitudes of life oblige us to rewrite history. However, not only do we modify versions over time; we also produce different versions depending on the person to whom they are directed. If someone asks us who we are, for example, we produce differentiated (though possibly very similar) versions depending on whether they are destined for a child, a man, a woman, a colleague at work or a person we have just met casually on an aircraft.
As in the case of projections into the future, visions of the past produced by the ego are extraordinarily sensitive to emotional changes, and in the case of personalities suffering strong variations in their moods, the versions of their history they produce are carefully adapted to the state of mind predominating at any given moment. If they are feeling animated they stress the positive episodes of their life, their successes and achievements. If, on the contrary, they are depressed, they rummage about in their past to unearth all the darker aspects of their biography: failures, frustrations and those chapters of their life that make them feel guilty. Thus, states of mind act as selectors of argument; they are members of the panel awarding the prize to the best script, and from all the scripts available they choose the one most in accordance with the affective tone prevailing at that moment. Therefore, the memory of the ego is far from being an impartial register of information or memories. One might say that all the data stored in it carry some sort of affective label marking them for ever, and meaning that every time that particular piece of information is recovered by consciousness for some use to be made of it, the corresponding label unfailingly appears. Neutrality is no more than an intermediate point on an ample spectrum of affective tones, but there is always a certain nuance, an emotional imprint.
It is also evident that, from the viewpoint of how information is stored in our brain, what we experience as future in our mental experience is no more than one part of general memory that we arbitrarily place in the future. They are fantasies on the future constructed with experiences, meditations and inclinations of the past. They constitute a longed-for (or a feared) future, a memory projected towards a time to come, but being memory, belonging to and anchored in the past. The truth is that neither past nor future exist as such in psychic life, but only as a representation, as an adscription or as a model. For, all mental life (and, indeed, all life, if we go that far) takes place in the present and only in the present, past and future times being working models that help us better to understand and plan our actions on ‘reality’, though this ‘reality’ is always unfolded in the here and now. The relationship of our mind with these imaginary times is, in effect, one of the principal problems to be solved by the human race, at least at this moment in its evolution, and it is a subject worthy of consideration at greater length than is available here. For now it will be sufficient to stress the ‘memory’ character of all aspects of the ego. A memory which is not an accumulation of impartial information, but a matrix heavy with attachments and aiming to change ‘reality’.
Normally, this affective memory that is the ego places itself between ourselves and the objects we perceive, in such a way that what we see (or hear, or touch) is distorted by its emotional content. In the habitual mode of operation of human perception, when the images of objects become conscious they have already been transformed by the filter of memory, so that what reaches our consciousness is a modified image of ‘reality’; therefore, we are not conscious of ‘reality’ itself, but of a ‘memory’ of that ‘reality’. Edelman calls this enriched perception, "the remembered present" (Edelman, 1989). There is a Spanish saying to the effect that "everything depends on the colour of the glass through which it is viewed", and indeed, we do see everything through a glass, which is precisely that of the memory of the ego; this does not allow us to see things as they are, but as it conceives them to be, so creating a present strongly tinged by the biases accumulated in memory. This remembered present would occur in both animals and human beings, but in our case there also occurs a subsequent (and more radical) distortion of ‘reality’, appearing when the machinery generating concepts and language enters into action. This machinery manufactures its own conceptual version of things - the journalistic version mentioned above - with the result that, on these high levels of elaboration, the original experience is (to a greater or lesser degree) replaced by a new product in which there is hardly any room for the lived present. The real lived experience of now is replaced by an equivalent supplied by the memory (whether this be the mark of what was lived, or the decoy of the imaginary), in such a way that, in our daily experience, what exists is skilfully substituted by what does not exist.
Up to this point I have presented a quickly sketched outline of what I aim to include under this concept of ‘ego’. To summarize, one might say that it is primarily a memory or store which, for descriptive purposes, can be considered to be divided into imaginary compartments: linguistic and extralinguistic, conscious and unconscious, past and future. One thing above all should emerge clearly from this brief presentation, namely that the memory of the ego (whatever the limits and capabilities assigned to it) is in no case capable of taking any decision, or of acting on its own account. It is simply an organised accumulation of information possessing privileged connections with emotional life, an aspect to which we shall return in due course. The ego is not the agent; it neither decides nor acts. In order to explain these functions, we have to invoke the existence of another instance that we can now go on to examine.
Here, we should start by clarifying a doubt regarding terminology, and also in part conceptual, which has struck me while writing this paper. To designate the instance I now wish to present to the reader, two names are competing in my mind and, apparently, their merits are quite evenly balanced. One could simply call it ‘I’, but it could also be called ‘consciousness’. Both names seem correct, though on some occasions one of them appears superior to the other, while such a circumstance is compensated because, in other cases, the one that previously seemed more favourable now appears less so. The fact is that each of them stresses one of the particular characteristics of the instance I am attempting to describe. Finally, my choice has been for consciousness, though the reader might take the mental exercise of replacing ‘consciousness’ by ‘I’, and then go on to explore the thoughts provoked by such a change. The drawbacks of the term ‘consciousness’ come from the ease with which the activity of consciousness can be confused with its content, referring here not to content in general, but rather to the active instance governing such contents. Like Deikman (1999), I consider that the ‘I’ can be considered as identical to ‘awareness’, and that “‘I' is the observer, the experiencer, prior to all conscious content" . Not surprisingly, ‘I’ and ‘Eye’ in English have the same pronountiation.
Let us start the description of this second construct by stressing the characteristics speaking in favour of the denomination ‘consciousness’. Baars (1997) defines consciousness as "a facility for accessing, disseminating and exchanging information, and for exercising global coordination and control". All these functions can be attributed to the conceptual instance now being presented. Let us start with the first of them, the capacity for accessing information. This consciousness (or this ‘I’) is capable of evoking, or to put it more descriptively, of convoking into its presence, a large quantity of contents (of concepts, images, memories, etc.) which are potentially available in different circuits of the brain. Evidently, not everything that is stored is immediately available. Some contents can be evoked easily, others require a certain effort in the search, some appear by accident (capriciously; in other words, in circumstances not depending on our will), while yet others will always remain submerged in the darkness of the most absolute unconsciousness. The second function mentioned is that of disseminating and exchanging information. It refers to the possibility of relating some contents with others, a capability which results in what we call thought. The available contents are displayed so that it is possible to compare them and ‘see’ the relationships existing between them, relationships which prior to undertaking this activity had not been obvious. During this process new configurations ‘appear’, previously invisible images are ‘seen’, and discoveries are made. In this way new information is ‘created’, and in its turn this can be stored in the memory dispersed through different areas of the brain, enriching and modifying the information already there. The third and last function mentioned by Baars is that of coordination and control. This function (the mere enunciation of which is reminiscent of what we call will) could be said to be the logical result of the other two described above. The natural consequence of seeing and understanding something in a new manner is to take certain decisions, though this aspect of consciousness is not specifically stressed in the definition of Baars to which we are referring.
Another concept that is well-defined and useful in academic circles, and which is very close to the older concept of consciousness, is that of ‘working memory’, originally introduced by Baddeley and Hitsch (1974) and later developed by Baddeley. Working memory "is a system which, associated with conscious attention, allows the different channels representing objects of the world to be joined into a unitary experience, which in its turn allows the constituent elements in an episode to be linked in the memory, facilitating subsequent recall" (Baddeley, 1998). Another definition, more simple and straightforward, is given by Courtney and collaborators (1998): "Working memory is the process of maintaining a limited amount of information in an active representation for a brief period of time so that it is available for use". The concept of working memory has proved highly productive, and the current possibility offered by neuro-imaging technology of relating these functions to specific brain structures, means that this line of research is an extremely interesting field in contemporary neuro-science. However, I shall not pursue this matter further, as it is not the objective of this brief article. The interested reader can consult the works of Baddeley and those of Courtney, in order to follow progress in this fascinating line of research.
Let us now go on to examine the other name that I myself had considered suitable for this construct of consciousness, ‘I’. In favour of simply calling it ‘I’ is the fact that we may consider it as the agent, the instance equipped with the capacity for decision. If we were to decide for this alternative, it would obviously be necessary to avoid any confusion with what we have previously described as ‘ego’. (Precisely due to this risk of confusion between ‘ego’ and ‘I’, it seems to me more prudent to continue using the denomination consciousness.) The ego was, as we have already said, a matrix of memory incapable of any decision, while the I is precisely the instance from which decisions emanate. This (possible) double denomination merely reflects the dual aspect manifested by this conceptual instance. On the one hand, its capacity to bring together, sustain and relate pieces of diverse information. On the other, its decision making capacity, which is no more than the immediate and inevitable consequence of the foregoing functions.
A very important aspect of this instance is that it operates in time. By definition, consciousness lives in the present. It is not a long-term memory, as in the case of the ego, but a short-term memory. Contents achieving access to consciousness are maintained in it only for brief periods of time. Their presence in it is fleeting, their life ephemeral. If one wished to express this property in a figurative way, fire would be an appropriate metaphor. Consciousness is fire because the material reaching it does not remain, but is consumed. In this metaphor of incandescence, we can establish that the material feeding the fire proceeds either from sensorial input (and from its subsequent passage through the filter of the ego) or from the internal store of memory. This material, whatever its origin, is used (in the most habitual working mode) to inspire the decisions of consciousness. In any case, it does not last there for very long, as this is not permitted by its mode of operation. It is an instance living from moment to moment, second to second. The information reaching it, in the first place provokes a flash of understanding (in favourable cases), then the corollary of decision (where appropriate), and subsequently it disappears as an active content, yielding its place to a new content, which in its turn will follow the same process.
Let us briefly summarize what has been said up to this point about this consciousness or I. It is a short-term memory (the ego is a long-term memory) capable of obtaining access to very diverse information and of submitting it to a process of interrelation and synthesis, the result of which is the production of a new configuration of the elements that gave rise to it. This new configuration may: 1) be manifested to the exterior by motor actions of various kinds, including language; or 2) be deposited as new information in the long-term memory; or 3) simply happen, perhaps enriching the capacity of consciousness itself to manage information (here the simile of the mirror would be appropriate, as the contents would leave no trace, simply being reflected). Consciousness, like fire, is an unstoppable process (as long as the brain structures sustaining it remain intact). It can be detained only in the form of switching off or disconnecting, which is what occurs during some periods of sleep.
Once the most important aspects of the ego and consciousness have been stressed, we have to consider how the two instances are related to one another. Nevertheless, in order to study this relationship we must bring onto the stage a third actor, which will give energy to all psychic life. Here we are referring to the emotions. Though they have already been mentioned, several paragraphs will now be devoted to their more specific description.
Emotions may be considered as a powerful brain mechanism, emerging at some point in the evolutionary process, with the function of making a fast, efficient evaluation of the survival significance of an object that appears in the organism’s perceptive field, chanelling and directing its vital energy towards the behaviour most appropriate for survival at each moment. Emotions facilitate and accelerate decision making processes to an extraordinary extent, as due to their intervention the organism feels itself impelled to act in a specific direction and finds the energy to do so. Thus, emotions constitute powerful indicators of what has to be done. They signal the way, and they also give us the strength to follow it.
As emotions in some way show us the attitude to adopt regarding external objects, it is easy to deduce that two different types of emotion fundamentally exist: those impelling us to approach the object, and those inciting us to avoid it. In other words, appetite and aversion, which promote behaviours of approach and avoidance, respectively. The result is that throughout life we come to acquire a tendency to classify objects (and in general the different aspects of the world in which we live) into two categories: good and bad. The origin of this classification is, at least, threefold. Firstly, it is rooted in an inherited memory, in preferences or aversions with which we are born and which have been determined by genetic instructions. This inherited factor is joined by all the emotional features acquired over a lifetime, which we could call learnt emotions. These in their turn have a dual origin. On the one hand, the cultural memory reaching us through education and language, and on the other the result of our experiences with the different objects we have encountered. The organism considers desirable or attractive those objects producing pleasure or well-being in us (known technically as positive reinforcement), and pernicious or to be rejected those objects which have caused in us pain or suffering (negative reinforcement). Emotions help us to make this ‘classification’ (not necessarily a conscious one), inciting us to approach the ‘good’ and move away from the ‘bad’ ones. Thus, objects are labelled good or bad depending on the result of experience and of cultural learning (in addition to the labels assigned to them genetically), and this labelling information is stored in the individual memory of each one of us, in such a way that when an object is perceived, immediately the label corresponding to it is evoked and the emotion appropriate to this type of label is activated. However, emotions are not limited to the labelling process, as they also set in motion a series of bodily mechanisms appropriate to produce the reaction they consider advisable. If it is flight, for example, the emotions unleash the somatic changes appropriate to flee successfully, and for this purpose the emotional mechanisms are capable of activating different bodily systems such as the locomotive apparatus, hormones and the vegetative nervous system. Finally, if some or most of these brain and bodily changes are perceived by consciousness, what we call ‘feeling’ arises.
The sequence of events in which emotions participate can be summarised schematically in the following terms. A stimulus appears, which is perceived by the senses. This stimulus is elaborated at different levels of the nervous system and is assigned a specific value for our survival, a value which can be positive or negative. An emotional reaction is set in motion by means of which we are attracted towards the objects identified as positive, and repelled by those with a negative evaluation. Furthermore, the emotional reaction implies a series of bodily changes intended to face the consequences of possible contact with the object. We shall probably take actions or make omissions (conscious or unconscious, depending on the circumstances) with the purpose either of approaching the object or of drawing away from it. In either case, at some moment contact with the object will occur and we shall experience the consequences of such contact. This might produce pleasure or pain, and depending on this experience, our emotional disposition towards the object will be fortified (or modified), and this will become manifest on the next occasion that we meet it. To express this in a very few words, the chain of psychological processes involved is: perception, emotion and feeling, reaction, reinforcement, memory.
Having introduced the three main actors in the mental theatre (ego, consciousness and emotions), we shall now propose a hypothesis of how they are related to one another. This hypothesis is basically the result of free speculation, though it does fulfil three conditions. Firstly, it takes account of various sources belonging especially to Buddhist literature, which in many cases is not quoted with precision, as referring to subjects that are highly ubiquitous in that broad body of knowledge . Mention should be made particularly to the work of Henri Benoit (The Supreme Doctrine, 1998), which constitutes an extraordinary attempt, both profound and surprising, to formulate a coherent hypothesis on mental working as a whole. Secondly, it is in accordance with the scientific knowledge we possess on the subject at present. And thirdly, there is a coincidence with my personal experience and introspection.
Possibly one of the most critical points of mental functioning is the relationship established between the ego and consciousness. We can start examining this relationship by assuming that, in the working mode usual in our own cultural environment, there is a high degree of identification between the two constructs. Consciousness (or the decisory instance) tends to act (is the agent) in accordance with the information proceeding from the memory of the ego . Consciousness takes its decisions on the prompting of the ego. To a certain extent, it lives in subjugation, seduced or captivated by the ego. This may be expressed in a negative (but highly illuminating) manner by saying that consciousness, which after all is a kind of machine for comprehension, does not comprehend, does not see, and is not capable of perceiving itself as distinct from the ego. It is essential fully to appreciate the meaning of this statement in order subsequently to understand the rest of the hypothesis. The same thing may be expressed by saying that the neural structures sustaining consciousness are incapable of identifying the memory of the ego as something distinct from its own activity. In this variant of mental functioning, no separation has been produced between the activity of consciousness and the information it receives from the memory of the ego. Consciousness simply assumes that the information of that memory is all the available input, and therefore, it takes its decisions based solely on this information.
Thus, we are faced by a situation of dependence, in which consciousness places its activity at the service of information originating from the ego. This relationship of subordination can be seen as a type of contiguity between consciousness and the ego, as an absence of any space, gap or cut-off point between the two functional constructs which, in this way, constitute a closed system. To use a mechanical simile, consciousness and ego could be said to work like two wheels connected by a chain, so that when one turns, the other finds itself forced to turn also. In this type of functioning being described here (and which we are presuming to be the most frequent one), consciousness presupposes its identification with the ego, or in other words, it never conceives even the possibility of acting on its own independent initiative without having to follow the instructions of the ego. The essential fact here is not that consciousness ceases to be active (which it is by its very nature), but rather that when it functions in this way, it subordinates its activity to the indications of the ego.
Having reached this point, it is natural that we should be asking ourselves at least two questions. Firstly, what role is played by the emotions in this relationship between consciousness and the ego? And secondly, does an alternative method of operation exist, in which consciousness can attain a certain degree of independence from the instructions of the ego?
Let us see the answer to the first question: How do the emotions intervene in the relationship between the two instances? The point has already been made that the ego is a memory, and now we can add that a large part of that memory is of an emotional nature. All the information accumulated in the memory of the ego is to some extent "marked" or "labelled" emotionally. The recovery of any fragment of this information involves the evocation of the corresponding affective nuance. The overall result is that all the influence exercised by the ego on consciousness is emotionally biased. Consciousness apprehends these contents already imbued with value, and reacts to them in the most direct and simplest manner possible, which is by considering this evaluation valid. Consequently, it rejects what has been classified as "bad", and desires what is defined as "good". The identification of consciousness with the ego, to which I have referred above, consists precisely in this absence of a critical (or any type of) barrier between ego and consciousness, a situation in which the latter accepts without hesitation the material supplied by the ego and operates in consequence, trying to achieve the desired object and freeing itself from the object causing it repugnance. The neural activity responsible for the phenomenon of consciousness is linked up to the information supplied by the memory of the ego. Earlier, this relationship was compared to that of two wheels turning in unison. Developing this mechanical simile further, we might say that the energy of the system is provided by the emotions (in reality, by complex mechanisms including nervous structures relating to motivation and to emotion, to which, however, I shall refer all together under the overall denomination of ‘emotions’). At this point the energising aspect of these emotions should be stressed. When an external stimulus is shown to be effective in unleashing a strong emotion (as in the case of receiving unexpected news, whether very good or very bad), on the one hand there is a sudden increase in the state of alertness, and on the other a great quantity of energy is mobilised (by nervous and hormonal mechanisms), enabling us to face the new situation. To a greater or lesser extent, any emotion wakes us up and gives us energy normally placed at the service of judgements given by the ego, judgements resulting in an approach being made to the stimulus or in a drawing away from it. Therefore, in this model emotions arise instigated by the memory of the ego, and their energy is channelled at the service of this memory. Consciousness acts like an executive mechanism, lending the ego its capacity to understand, to decide and to act.
I consider this to be the most usual manner in which consciousness, ego and emotions interact. I shall now try to respond to the second of the questions raised; that of whether alternative possibilities exist to this working mode. However, before going into alternative situations, it may be useful to describe some variations of action corresponding to the system already presented.
Two main working modes exist, and in abbreviated form I shall call them the ‘present’ mode and ‘non-present’ mode . Let us start by the first of these, the ‘present’ mode . In this, a type of line-up occurs between consciousness, ego (and its associated emotions) and actual ‘reality’. Thus, consciousness and ego occupy themselves with an event occurring at a specific moment. For example, if we are driving a car (during the moments when all our attention is concentrated on driving), consciousness is functioning in the present mode. Similarly, if we are completely immersed in reading an exciting novel, or enthralled at contemplation of a sunset, we are also functioning in the ‘present’. This working mode does not exclude us from consulting data stored in memory, nor from making forecasts of the future necessary to carry out the activity underway. Nevertheless, for the ‘present’ mode to continue active, these brief escapes from the now have to be subjected to the principal objective of attention, which must reside in the present. The essential element in this working mode is that there should exist a relationship between consciousness and some aspect of the ‘reality’ unfolding at that moment. Here we might mention that the circumstance of whether this ‘reality’ belongs to the external or the internal world of the individual, is a secondary matter. What is fundamental is the mode in which consciousness relates to ‘reality’.
In the ‘non-present’ mode, attention and consciousness do not concentrate on a current event, but on some aspect of cerebral activity that codifies information on past events or imaginary representations of the future. The crucial point is that the system works ‘as though’ these non-actual representations belonged to the ‘reality’ of the moment. Of course, consciousness of the ‘unreality’ of the representation is not lost (if someone were to ask us at that moment, we would say that they were products of the imagination), but there does exist a kind of abandon or letting go, a sort of compliance to the fantasy that is unfolding, in such a way that the fantasy comes to control emotional life at that moment. What to some extent becomes relaxed is the temporal labelling applied (or which can be applied) by consciousness to the contents of the imagination. Instead of annotating the contents with something along the lines of "this is not present reality, but a fantasy of mine", consciousness abstains from any such comment and the system starts to function ‘as though’ what is imagined were a ‘reality’, or almost a ‘reality’. The main consequence is that the emotions are awoken in response to the imaginary representation, and the contents of the fantasy usurp the place of the real experience. Perhaps this situation can best be understood if we consider that it is possible to make use of our capacity to recall the past and to imagine the future in a manner that does not entail this emotional involvement or abandon. Think, for example, of what we do when we organise any type of meeting, whether for work or with friends. In this apparently simple activity, we have to make use of information which not only involves our memory (identity of the participants, their telephone number, particular preferences of each one, etc.), but also is the product of our imagination: the purpose of the meeting, problems that might arise, how to overcome them, and so on. However, in this case, when making use of memory and imagination, we do so like someone consulting a map or the data bank of a computer, without renouncing the ‘present’ working mode. We use the information obtained not to escape from the present, but to reinforce it. In this form of working with memory and imagination, the critical function of consciousness that allows it automatically to label information used as material not belonging to present ‘reality’, is not neglected. In other words, simply because we employ memory and imagination, we have no reason to abandon use of the ‘present’ working mode. What is characteristic of this mode is that consciousness at no time loses sight of the temporal attribution of the contents it is handling. It uses information from the past and the future, but treating it as such, without the least confusion arising in regard to its temporal location (and its character of ‘non-present reality’).
Let us now examine the differences existing between these two modes of functioning, especially from the viewpoint of what they both signify for the ego. In the ‘present’ mode, attention is concentrated on some aspect of the ‘reality’ of the moment (to simplify matters, let us suppose that it concentrates on an event in the external world). In this case, the script is imposed not by the fantasy of the ego, but by external ‘reality’ as it is perceived. Consciousness is obliged to occupy itself with affairs belonging to the current external world, and not with matters invented by the memory and the desires of the ego. For this reason, the work of consciousness in this working mode does not tend to increase the strength of the ego, but rather to diminish it. However, in the case of working in the ‘non-present’, the mental object on which the attention of consciousness is concentrated is, by definition, an imaginary product of the ego, and as such possesses two characteristics: a certain fixed nature, and a strong affective content. Fixed, because the ego tends to create products that satisfy its desires, and these products are repeated insistently. They carry the house trademark, so to speak, and they transmit the monotony of their underlying motivation. Furthermore, the products of the fantasy of the ego (idealised narratives from its own personal history) are charged with strong affectivity, as in them the ego believes itself to be ‘risking its future’. The ego lives in the belief (though false, no less immovable and effective) that the satisfaction of its desires at every instant represents an advance towards finding some sort of final solution to all its problems. Therefore, its fantasies have a high affective value, as they stage either definitive solutions to what it perceives as its vital problem, or alternative scenarios in which these definitive solutions break down, being lived, therefore, in anguish and anxiety. In either of these cases, the overall result of functioning in the ‘non-present’ is that the ego emerges strengthened, as its fantasies are given time and energy to develop and become established.
Having described these two (most usual) working modes, an alternative mode will now be presented, which though infrequent in practice is one of the possible forms, and which opens up novel paths for the solution of psychic problems. This alternative constitutes part of the techniques of meditation described with great precision in oriental meditative workbooks, and to a lesser degree in western mystical texts. Here I shall try to extract what seem to me to be the fundamental aspects of this working mode in the light of the model being developed.
A few paragraphs earlier, it was mentioned that, in the usual working mode, consciousness is identified with the ego in such a way that they operate like two wheels joined by a chain, following the mechanical simile to which reference was made previously. The essential feature of this manner of operating is the coupling together of consciousness and ego, the fact that, in practice, the former follows the instructions of the latter. However, in the alternative working mode described in certain states of consciousness of a mystical nature , the essential element is the decoupling of consciousness and ego, the absence of any identification between the two instances. In the new situation created, it is as though this chain of the mechanical simile were broken, consciousness being "dispensed" from following the instructions of the ego.
At this point, the nature of this ego-consciousness relationship must be set forth clearly, both in the usual working mode and in the alternative mode now being presented. The expressions ‘coupling’ and ‘instruction’ have been used, though neither of them fully accounts for the complexity of the relationship. Here we come up against a subject that, while difficult, is central to comprehension of this relationship. It is not only that a transfer of information occurs, or that consciousness assumes the opinions of the ego, but that in this delicate relationship emotions intervene in a prominent manner. Normally, the appearance of a mental image (whether originating in an external perception or as a product of fantasy) rapidly generates emotional activation, and this image-emotion conjunction is immediately integrated into what we have been designating as ego. The production of emotion occurs extremely rapidly, so that what is supplied to consciousness is the complete product: the image or thought already dyed with a specific emotional colour.
In normal conditions, it is very difficult for consciousness to perceive the image (or the thought) without the corresponding emotional label. Consciousness is inundated by the image-emotion complex, its attention being captured overall by the two components of the process. At this moment, before it ‘realises’, consciousness is ‘seduced’ by the emotional charge of the image. We might have recourse to another simile, of an aromatic nature. Imagine that someone receives a present wrapped in paper impregnated with a specific perfume. The person receiving the packet opens the wrapping and examines the present, but by the time he sees it the perfume has already left an impression on his sense of smell. In a similar manner, when consciousness contemplates the image or the thought (the contents of the parcel), the aroma of emotion is already producing its effects.
The only way to evade the effects of emotion, up to a certain point, is by creating a situation in which the image may be grasped as something different from the emotional charge, meaning that both components of the conjunction (image and emotion) can be perceived as separate phenomena. Instead of a single perception, there have to be two different perceptions. In this case, consciousness perceives the image on the one hand, and the emotion unleashed by the image on the other. But for this to happen, the emotion has to be apprehended at the moment it arises, before becoming joined to the image and being "dyed" with its particular affective tone. Only in this way can consciousness discern the emotion and consider it as something differentiated from the image, eventually escaping from its influence. This is without doubt a difficult task to undertake, as consciousness has to be trained to perceive clearly the generation of the emotive movement, but at the same time it is the only manoeuvre that can free consciousness from the servitude of emotion.
Here we might recall that Benoit (1998) distinguishes between two types of emotive processes. In the first place are the emotions arising in response to the events of the present, in other words the emotional dialogue established with what is occurring in the real world. These could be classified simply as ‘acute emotions’. Then Benoit refers to a lasting emotional state, to which he applies the term ‘emotive spasm’. More than on events in the real world, this state depends on the ideal vision that the ego has of itself, and it reflects the relationship that the ego dreams of having (or has) with the world. Due to the relatively fixed nature of the ego's attitudes, this emotive state usually endures over time, and we can refer to it as a ‘chronic emotional state’. The two emotional states are differentiated not only by their duration, but also by an aspect of enormous practical importance: their visibility for consciousness. What Benoit calls the ‘emotive spasm’ is very difficult to perceive, precisely due to its omnipresence over time. The other type of emotional movement (corresponding to the circumstancial vicissitudes of ‘reality’) is much more visible, appearing in acute emotional states that appear and disappear, so contrasting easily with the background of the affective setting. On the contrary, chronic affective states are hardly visible at all, as they blend together all our perceptions and our transactions with ‘reality’. They are camouflaged and confounded with the background of the psychic landscape, and to perceive them requires a considerable effort of attention and self-analysis.
This distinction between acute and chronic emotional states is of great practical importance, yet it should not distract our attention from the fundamental fact, which is that the management of problems offered by this alternative working mode is essentially the same for both modes of emotional activation. The novelty offered by this alternative approach is that consciousness will achieve separate relationships with the emotions and with the images provided by the ego, the emotion being perceived as something clearly different from the image, and with a genesis to some extent independent of it. Now, consciousness does not just react to the appeals of the ego with its affective concomitants; it allows itself the luxury of studying them calmly and, at least for the moment, it does not come down on their side. If a further simile may be allowed, this ego-consciousness relationship can be compared to that often arising between two friends when one of them asks the other for advice on a subject that worries her, but which is unknown to the friend being consulted. In such a case it is likely that, while explaining the problem, the first of them subliminally suggests to the other the type of reply she wishes to hear. Therefore, she does not ask a true question, but rather she seeks corroboration of her own opinion, an opinion on which, nevertheless, she still retains certain doubts. The friend asking for advice, in reality, wants to hear a reply that pleases her. This situation is similar to the usual relationship between consciousness and the ego. The ego explains matters to consciousness in the manner most convenient to it, and then consciousness, which is favourably inclined towards proposals of the ego, decides in accordance with the ego's interests (though by proceeding in this manner it may often take decisions later revealed to be mistaken). In the alternative mode presented here, consciousness does not automatically assume the postures of the ego, and neither does it allow itself to be moved by the ego's emotional manifestations. Indeed, it listens attentively, but takes time to understand the situation fully, and attempts to bring together all the information to which it has access. The emotions are taken for what they are worth, but as something separate from the reasons or images put forward by the ego. In this sense, a listening consciousness acts like a true friend, not as an accomplice, thus being able to put forward creative and original solutions. Only in this way is it possible to widen the worried friend's view of the problem.
Previously, reference has been made to the emotions as an energising element of psychic life. Now I shall try to respond to the question of what happens with this energy in the alternative working mode. In this mode, a radical change occurs in what we could call the line-up of the three actors: consciousness, ego and emotions. In the usual mode, the energy provided by emotion is placed at the service of the interests of the ego. When an image arises, it mobilises emotional energies in accordance with the memory of the ego, and what reaches consciousness is that image, already emotionally charged, whether negatively or positively. In the interaction between the three instances, we might say that the emotions are normally allied with the ego, and that emotions and ego use this alliance to influence consciousness. In the alternative working mode, the interplay of alliances changes. In this case, emotional energy is no longer at the service of the ego, as is usually the case, but remains available to profit the farsightedness of consciousness. To achieve this, emotional energy must not acquire the specific character (love, hatred, anger, sadness, etc.) conferred by its vinculation with the interests of the ego. And for this purpose, consciousness must be able to perceive objects of ‘reality’ stripped of their habitual emotional wrapping, or in other words to witness both the object and the birth of the emotion provoked by the object, a birth occurring in the depths of the ego and not within the object originating it. The idea is to ensure that the energy of the emotions is not monopolized by the information supplied by the memory of the ego (a memory that moulds energy, giving it the characteristic shape of love, hatred, etc.). If this is achieved, the energy of the emotions is freed and can be employed by consciousness to understand, decide and eventually to act in the way that consciousness itself considers most appropriate.
The link of consciousness with the contents of the ego is what we normally call ‘identification’. And the strength of the link is supplied by the emotions, which impose on consciousness a specific reaction to the perception of ‘reality’. To be freed from this emotional link (to be ‘disidentified’) means for consciousness the possibility of achieving direct access to ‘reality’ before it has been deformed by the lense of egoic emotion, and therefore of ‘discovering’ new aspects of that ‘reality’. And this signifies abandoning the narrow perspective suggested by the ego's point of view, and opening up the field so as to produce a vision of a much more complex and less structured world. Or, in other words, opening the door to intuition and creative capacity. Once it has caught sight of previously unsuspected horizons, consciousness can no longer remain faithful to the spirit of its old decisions, being destined to abandon a large part of its previous habits, and proceeding to shape the world in which it lives in a much more original manner.
This brief presentation of an alternative model of interaction between consciousness, ego and emotions, is no more than an outline of a possibility, which if fully developed opens the door to a whole universe of radically new human experiences. It is not a question of attempting to change ‘reality’, but of modifying the functioning of the brain which experiences this ‘reality’, as a natural result of which the experience of such ‘reality’ is totally transformed. Science has led us to accept that the richness of the perceived world depends on the discriminative capacity of the organ perceiving it, and in the same way, we shall have to recognise that the exhuberance and complexity of the life we lead depends, in the last instance, on the consciousness with which we lead it. The possibility lies in our hands - in the hands of our conscious mind - of remodelling our own consciousness, on which depends our whole existence and, therefore, our entire destiny.
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