W.H.R. Rivers was one of the first English psychologists to discover the unconscious. His work with ‘shell shocked’ soldiers during World War One is today well-known thanks to his appearance, alongside Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. Identifying the instinct of self-preservation rather than sex as the key to the psycho-neuroses of his patients, Rivers fashioned a version of Freudian doctrines palatable to a respectable English audience.

My intention in this post is to show how Rivers’ notion of the unconscious was derived from the psychological model introduced in my last post. This is not to question the significance of Rivers’ encounter with Freud. I am merely pointing out how easily some of Freud’s ideas could be integrated into the established Cambridge model of the mind.

We begin with the psychological model set out in Alfred Marshall’s 1868 Grote Club paper, ‘Ye Machine’. As explained in my last post, this model posits that innovative actions, if successful, are repeated, eventually becoming automatic habits and, ultimately, instincts. The basic idea is that over time we build up ever more automatic responses to our environment, thereby conserving our limited mental energy and allowing us to focus our attention on the unprecedented difficulties that life invariably throws up.

A distinctive characteristic of this model of the mind is its accumulative nature: over time all organisms build up an ever greater store of automatic routines. Ultimately, the individual of every species will contain within it the accumulation not just of a lifetime, but of the entire evolutionary history of that species.

Now let us place a group of humans so conceived into some remote location. We then assume an environmental change, say the climate warms up, one result of which is the migration into the region of hitherto unknown man-eating tigers. An unprecedented situation has arisen. At first, different individuals react differently: some try to pet the tigers, others take them for gods and bow before them, others run. Many of those who run live to run away another day, all the rest are eaten. Natural selection ensures that, over time, our population develops an instinctual tendency to run away on encountering a tiger.

But flight does not guarantee survival. Tigers also run, and they catch and eat a fair number of those who flee. As time goes by quite separate developments lead to the discovery of fire; still later some adults discover that if they stand their ground and waive a burning branch a hungry tiger will usually retreat.

But to stand one’s ground in this way means overcoming the older instinct to flee, and indeed overcoming also the feeling of terror that accompanies the older instinct.

Rivers’ point of departure from Marshall arises from the fairly obvious observation that psychological development will not always be straightforwardly cumulative; that sometimes new behaviours will clash with the old.

Rivers arrives at the idea of the unconscious simply by asking what happens to the incompatible older instincts and emotions.

Marshall had not stopped to consider the clash of old and new. To be fair, his psychological writing does not extend much beyond ‘Ye Machine’. But it is an obvious question that, as Rivers observes, applies across the whole evolutionary order.

When the tadpole becomes a frog its early aquatic instincts will only be a hindrance. The butterfly has no use for many of the instincts of the caterpillar. Consequently, the adult forms of these creatures must forget their childhood behaviours. As Rivers puts it, the instincts of the tadpole and caterpillar are suppressed. If mammalian development involves a less drastic metamorphosis, it is still the case that some behaviours do not survive beyond childhood.

Picture a litter of kittens and their mother on the approach of an unknown dog: the kittens all flee while the mother adopts an aggressive posture. Our population of humans is likely to display similar differences: on encountering a tiger the children experience terror and run while some at least of the adults experience a mixture of fear and anger and stand their ground.

So what happens to the childhood instincts (and their accompanying emotions)? Well, they are forgotten. But the accumulative nature of the model, in which all earlier stages in the history of both individual and species are simply confined to deeper layers within, makes forgetting a problematic activity. As Rivers explained in Instinct and the Unconscious (1920, p. 18):

Formerly psychologists were especially concerned with the process by which we remember, but they have gradually been coming to recongise that the more important problem is to discover how and why we forget… [Forgetting] is an active process in which some part of the mental content is suppressed.

Active suppression is required in order to remove an automatic response from the storehouse of available routines. Rivers posits the unconscious as a sort of secondary storehouse, containing all those instinctive reactions and their associated emotions that are incompatible with the most developed mental states. Put another way, the unconscious is an evolutionary waste paper basket that is never emptied.

Stored in our unconscious are a vast array of instincts and emotions associated with earlier stages in the evolution of our species and with our own individual childhood. All of these behaviours and emotions are forgotten; but that does not mean they have slipped into oblivion. Deep within all of us animal passions and childhood terrors lie dormant. Who knows what unlooked for trigger may cause them to erupt into the civilized routines of our everyday lives?

Marshall’s late-Victorian model of the mind has no place for the discarded flotsam of our less developed selves. But it takes just one small development of his serene and progressive psychological model to reveal the dog beneath the skin and to conjure up the phantasms of Edwardian nightmare.

Photo: (c) Simon Knott (used with permission)

2 thoughts on “Emerging unconscious

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