By now, most psychologists have thrown ole Sigmund on the pile of depreciated science. For now, his ideas live on in literary and cultural studies. His greatest gift – the terms id, ego and superego.
Even the most mediocre psychology 101 student, not knowing the difference between chomsky and b.f. skinner, could identify the trinity of psychoanalysis. Perhaps the reason Freud’s theories became so popular – and outlived their scientific relevance – is because they appear self evident
It’s easy enough to differentiate the stratifications of internal thought. In the battles behind the eyes – the armies often wave bright standards.
There’s the id – the base animal instincts to eat, sleep, drink and procreate. It’s self centered, reactionary, quick and relentless. The id is the voice of biology.
Then the ego – the functional part that negotiates conflicting stimulus of a dangerous and confusing world. The ego is the voice of reason.
And the superego – the whisper of morality, the sting of guilt, pity and remorse. It connects us with our fellow man, and in turn, suppresses the selfish desires of the id. The superego is the voice of culture and society.
So we have these three terms from a now-defunct theory that live on as effective descriptors of human thought.
One of the criticisms of psychoanalytic theory is that it’s not falsifiable – what experiments can be done to quantify the id, ego or superego? They don’t appear on brain scans or cadaver tissue. Can they be manipulated?
Freud’s dissidents might reply with a stern “no”, but I’m a bit more skeptical.
In my own personal experience, chemicals can certainly put “weight” on the three pillars.
Alcohol is a depressant, slowing the central nervous system. It slows the firing of neurons and the release of neurotransmitters. When consumed it also lowers inhibitions, increases confidence (and arrogance). In Freudian terms – alcohol strengthens the id and weakens the superego.
Cannabis is a hallucinogen, altering the way the brain works. The brain naturally contains cannaboid receptors. TCH – the active psychoactive chemical, binds with these receptors and alters the way they release other neurotransmitters (such as dopamine). Cannabis effects body movement, memory and higher cognitive function. Personally, it increases sensory awareness and empathy. And who could forget the munchies? In Freudian terms – cannabis strengthens the id and the superego, but weakens the ego.
Other hallucinogenic drugs work differently – impairing or altering the functionality of the body and senses. However, it is common for hallucinogens (and other drugs such as MDMA) to increase empathy and social awareness. So in Freudian terms – these hallucinogens strengthen the superego. Often the rational ego is completely destroyed.
Stimulants work similar to depressants, at least in my limited experience. Instead of being deadened (as with alcohol) the senses are heightened. Speeding everything up (the rate of neuron fire), will certainly strengthen the id and ego. It’s difficult to spot the effect on the superego; caffeine is a pretty mild.
Why would these various chemicals alter complex mental constructions such as the id or superego?
The id is probably the easiest to explain. The brain has lots of jobs – from solving math equations, to negotiating a traffic-choked highway, to constructing a convincing blog writeup. The most essential (and basic) job is maintaining the body – breathing, walking, eating, digesting. The control of these functions resides in the brain stem (as Terry Schaivo can well attest). But the rest of the brain is still connected to these functions in a feedback loop. The hypothalamus is the negotiator between the base functions the rest of the mind – releasing hormones to modulate and persuade the body. When your stomach is empty, this guy produces the gnawing pain in the gut. When your brain is running low on juice, he tells you to hit the hay.
So all these animalistic functions are controlled by a little chunk of brain matter, an organ in itself. Contrast this with the frontal cortex – a dense nest of neural pathways that create complex thought (ego/superego)
A depressant (alcohol) would quiet the neural chatter of the cortex and the signals of the limbic system would come through louder.
A stimulant would strengthen all signals (including those in the cortex), but a signal broadcasting “eat” or “fuck” might overpower the buzzing cacophony of thoughts coming from the thinking mind.
Hallucinogens work differently to strengthen the id, in that they alter the actual experiences of the body. Cannabis may cause the hypothalamus to increase appetite, but food also tastes better. By altering the way the brain processes stimulus, base functions and drives of the body become new and interesting. The id is not working through persuasion or force, but by appealing to curiosity and novelty.
The ego is the connection point between reality and the mind. Thinking logically is a function of the ego. Solving a problem, grasping a concept, learning a new skill – these all derive from the ego. An insane person lacks ego. If the hypothalamus was the part of the brain that “held” the id, memory “holds” ego. Without memory it is impossible to learn, solve complex problems, etc. So drugs that influence memory will certainly influence the ego.
Depressants affect all cells indiscriminately, so memory is lessened. Lack of judgment, rash decisions, illogical reasoning – all effects of alcohol decreasing the ego.
Hallucinogens can be even worse. Cannabis cuts into memory, resulting in “stoner talk”. This is the Freudian ego falling away. Stronger drugs disconnect the mind from the functionality of reason. This is the Ego Death – when rational constructions disappear completely. This is also why some hallucinogens appear to induce temporary insanity.
The superego is the influence of religion, culture, race, government, society and culture all chunked together. It is everything outside the mind that has been brought in – be it via conditioning, learning or osmosis.
Because it’s such nebulous concept (from a neurological standpoint), it’s difficult to pinpoint to a specific chunk of cells. The best bet is that it resides in the frontal cortex. There have been cases of people with damage to the frontal cortex who lack emotion or remorse. So the anecdotal evidence stands.
As mentioned above, depressants slow all cells, so the cortex would be hit the hardest. If a complex thought about religion or society requires a chain of firing neurons in twenty percent of the cortex, there’s a good chance the sluggish brain cells wouldn’t be able to complete the pattern. Yet something simple – an “on or off” pattern like breathing – takes a far stronger dose to alter. That’s why drinking can cause blackouts – the brain cells governing memory aren’t responding quickly enough to record memories.
Yet why do hallucinogens strengthen the superego? This is probably the most difficult of the Freudian/drug observations to explain.
What are complex thoughts? For the sake of illustration, lets say this is the neurological structure for the concept of The American Flag:
The famous photo from Iwo Jima:
As you can see, the concept of Patriotism contains the structure of the other concepts, much like a molecule of water contains hydrogen and oxygen. Of course in the brain, these structures are far more complex and contain many more “atoms”. But this “overlap” of mental concepts allows thoughts to flow from one concept to another.
In our above example, Patriotism “contained” the flag and the historic image. In a way, it was a Super-structure: a building block of the superego. The structures continue to recurse as you move deeper, reaching things like “self”, “life”, “death” and “god”. Something as deep as “god” could be connected to a vast multitude of thoughts and mental states, past memories, images, people, voices – and other Super-structures.
Hallucinogens alter the way each neuron communicates with other neurons, by affecting the release of neurotransmitters. The standard superego “chain” might be ingrained in habit. When sober, the pattern might move from the visuals of a moving flag -> stirring feelings of patriotism -> visuals of the president -> in church -> with other soldiers -> “God and Country”. The influence of psychoactive drugs will lessen or strengthen the connections with other neural structures. So the pattern could move from American flag visuals -> red colors bleeding through the cloth -> blood -> sacrifice -> death -> visuals of skeletons from Evil Dead -> rampaging through Wal-mart -> dueling with the yellow smiley face -> with lightsabers -> nostalgic feelings of Star Wars. And that was a sober “simulation” of the tripped out thought process.
One observation about the superego is that thought tends to move from the specific -> the generic. In essence, thoughts move towards higher Super-structures. Also consider the fact that neural communication strengthens connections. In a way, hallucinogens are “exercising” the superego – building new connections and creating new pathways to reach the Super-structure concepts that comprise the superego. Expand your mind, indeed.
Note: this essay was composed completely sober, albeit under the influence of kick ass music and an evening free of prior obligations.