The Curious Mind, Episode 4: A complex look at the human mind

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[00:00:09] Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Curious Mind podcast. My name is Gabriel Ellis. I'm a psychotherapist and Buddhist scholar. And in this podcast, I take deep dives into complex psychological topics that affect our well-being in general.

[00:00:27] Today's episode is about the three-fold concept by the French psychoanalyst Chuck Larcom, who was working mainly in the 50s and 60s of the 20th century. This three-fold concept consists of the imaginary, the symbolic and the real. Now, Larkhall was notoriously enigmatic in the way that he spoke. And if you read some of his writings, it even seems like he really didn't want to be understood easily. So you will find some recommendations to read below. And I purposefully don't include his original writings, but rather introduce you to some writings of American authors who are more capable to transmit some of his complex models to US readers today. What follows here and in the interview in which I will mention some more aspects of this threefold concept is my interpretation. I don't want to pretend that I fully understood all the facets of Larkhall, and he also covered some other psychological ground with his concepts. But I take some aspects where I'm fairly sure that I don't misrepresent his understanding and would like to make it a little bit more relatable to you the audience. A main concern of Larkhall was a proper description of the human mind. In his view, we are inherently fragmented. There is not one core that represents our essence, our personality in some way. But he rather believed and build his philosophy around the fundamental fragmentation that we always try to fix. For him, the beginning of the human mind, the human journey and identity is a lack of identity, a lack of identity that is inherently unpleasant and that we humans try to somehow fix by identifying ourselves with things that are outside of us.

[00:02:40] For example, our body, our appearance, our family system and the social structure around us, which is very much based on language. Now, listeners who have some background in Buddhist philosophy will immediately see the connections there. I have not seen that Larkhall himself was greatly influenced by Buddhist philosophy, but here and there he makes references to Zen, so he might have picked up some ideas or at least seen that they represent a similarity with the way he thought. But we can not maintain at all that he was in any way a traditional expounding of Buddhist philosophy. So if when we are born there is inherently only a lack some sort of a black hole with a gravitational pull that tries to get filled, then what is it that is available? Certainly sensory experience, pleasantness, unpleasantness. Not yet further concepts. Language is not there. And as you can imagine, so many parts of our experience and identity as adults gets transported to us or is connected to a language or language like system. Larkhall himself often referred to the dictum of Freud that the unconscious is structured like a language. And by this you can see already that for Larkhall the unconscious was not an unstructured mess, but was indeed structured, highly structured in a way that is language like, and that is therefore also decipherable for us and to be understandable in a certain way, comparable to learning a foreign language.

[00:04:38] So for the baby, there is mostly a chaos around the mind with his experiences. The body itself that the baby is exposed to is a treasure trove of a myriad different experiences, which at the beginning don't seem to obey to a specific logic and only with time. The organism understands that there is a connection between displeasure and how some objects around the baby, by which I mean the mother and then the father react to it and makes the connection between crying, for example, and then the soothing comfort of food or touch or shelter. Now this complete chaos, says Larkhall, will be interrupted at a rather early stage in the child's development in the first years, and he linked it to a very specific event in the child's life, which is the recognition of myself. In the mirror, which is the first time when I look into the mirror and realize that the reflection there is not another being, but is actually my appearance this fall, a car as the first time when my ex Tanjil Lack can be satisfied by an experience which he calls the imaginary. I see an image literally in the mirror, and that gives me some satisfaction.

[00:06:16] Why is it satisfactory? Because in contrast to my experience, which is absolutely chaotic and doesn't seem to be many rules, I see in the mirror a coherence of an image that I can strive to identify with, and hence to try to adopt, to be ask coherent. As the image in the mirror looks like. So this is the beginning, not only with a very fundamental identification with a body, but more specifically with the appearance of the body, just as the mother and the father are represented in the baby's mind by their appearance. Now the baby has another tool for self identification, which is something very parallel and symmetrical to the parents appearance, which is its own appearance, and thus by identifying with the possibilities of the body that is capable of movement and control. It tries to achieve much more coherence than what it had before, which was only comfort, discomfort, crying, little pieces of puzzle that it tried to somehow put together but didn't know exactly how. And now the baby has a tool. It has its mirror image, or a little bit later on, the representation of the mirror image in the baby's mind. Now we can go on a little bit further and see how that relates to our processing as adults in our adult life and this imaginary attempt of satisfaction. Thus, we will see represented when we are fascinated by the features of certain objects or bodies.

[00:08:12] When I, as a heterosexual man, am fascinated by the appearance of a certain woman, and imagine that if I could get her to be my girlfriend or my partner, then I would be perfectly content if I could just have her. I would be perfectly happy now. Obviously this represents a rather primitive processing in our minds, primitive in the sense there is nothing wrong with it, but it just doesn't meet the reality. When I finally somehow can get together with this imagined beauty, then I realize that there is much more complexity to her. She is not just an object, but she's a complex subject that certainly doesn't obey my rules. I can not dictate her what you think, and I certainly cannot dictate her to make me satisfied all the time. So this frustration with what I imagined my satisfaction to be. This frustration is what makes the functioning on this imaginary level so immature going on. We can also see that we apply the same way of functioning also to objects that we are supposed to by on which a good part of our consumerist society is based on. They are trying to sell us objects that look good technical gadgets, cars, fashion, makeup, accessories and so on, suggesting that if I would acquire something that looks that good, that it would substantially contribute to my satisfaction.

[00:09:57] And most of you will know the limitation of these as well. The imagination that I had of the satisfaction that I would acquire with a car ultimately probably will be frustrated. So the same logic that if I put my hopes on acquiring, so to speak, another human by attaching myself to them applies also to objects that will ultimately be a similar frustration. Frustration not with the object itself, but a frustration with the expected capabilities of this object to give me lasted continuous satisfaction. The symbolic goes beyond imaginary and is actually what makes us human for local. Because as I described it, you can imagine that some of the processes that are responsible for the imaginary satisfaction are also valid for the animal realm. For Lakhan, the unconscious is structured like a language. And what is happening in the symbolic is that the developing child gets a representation. Ofsociety communicated by and transmitted by language and language like communication structures. That means that the child starts to learn that the world is governed not by the features of objects alone, but by rules, regular meditations, agreements, and so on. Everyone who has seen children growing up also sees how they are fascinated by rules and laws. They are subjected to it. This is how parents exercise power over the child. This is what they teach them that there is a certain structure throughout the day that in certain contexts it's okay to behave in a playful way, and in other contexts they have to be quiet and more obedient.

[00:12:07] For example, this is how they are introduced to child play. And then it's quite easy to see how when children are among themselves, they will in a way replicate what they have learned, which is the application of rules, norms and laws to other children and the interplay as well. So this is the introduction of the child to the wider world of the rules of society. And this is the period of time when the unconscious of the child gets formed and in a more substantial way that stays valid throughout the adult life. Everything that society has to offer is encoded in this symbolic, for example, ethics and morals or aesthetics. Family life. Relationship satisfaction. The beauty of communication and so forth. Of course, that comes with its own frustrations. But essentially, what adults and people, when they mature, pick up and learn by time is that their development within the symbolic realm is the most promising approach to master life. So over time with the decades, this is what we usually try to figure out how to do better, which is to apply the rules and norms of society and the way that they suit me. And we try to manifest and come up with our own rules and regulations that allow me as an individual to maintain myself in a satisfactory way in whatever part of society I am positioning myself in.

[00:14:00] And actually, we could stop here and there would be no necessity for a third element because the symbolic basically covers the most important fields in the development of the human mind and our unconscious. So what is this? Suppose it real that is necessary as the third element. If you think about it, what society provides us is a very specific idea of how our development should be. It's a very specific proposition. If I teach my child that in order to find satisfaction, it has to navigate between the rules and norms of society and creating its own rules and norms. Then I give it a very specific idea of how life should be led. Now reality, so to speak, might not be really interested in me as an individual trying to figure out laws. There is the basic insecurity of our bodily life. It is our experience that things happen around us that don't care much about my plans. If I try to make a career over several decades with the idea to retire and then enjoy my life to a certain extent in a certain way, to do a world trip or to retire to my small house that I have bought somewhere nature, whatever the fantasy might be. Often there are elements that just obstruct my nice ideas that I have developed.

[00:15:39] Just as an example, my relationship might have not worked out and my partner divorces me or I get sick and become somehow incapable physically of enjoying my life. I might be in constant pain. Someone dear to me dies, which robs me of a good portion of the joy that I experience in normal life. All these things are fateful events which just happen because all our attempts as individuals and as a culture to control our environments, to make it predictable so that with the right input, I get a guaranteed outcome. These are all things that reality does not much care about. Now, if you think back, if the unconscious and the conscious are fundamentally based on a symbolic representation, then this uncertainty of the real does not have much space there. It is not represented. And indeed, Larkhall claims that the real cannot be represented because what the mind has acquired over time, its symbolic structure, its symbolic representations are conceptual. They are artificial crutches to help me make it through my life. Reality is beyond that and has an infinite capability to disturb my ideas, to shock me, to give me an unpredicted depression, to have someone promoted next to me in my office that has not deserved it, according to my understanding and so forth. The possibilities are limitless not to speak of natural disasters, climate change and so forth, and all these insecurities that reality can provide without asking me are fundamentally so frightening to us that for the conscious and the unconscious mind, it is easier to leave it out and not to give it to big space in our mental development.

[00:17:59] If we were to do it, we would also not really accurately represent the real but mostly, for example, we would react with the depressed state of mind because of the consequences of the insecurity. Again, there is a similarity to Buddhist philosophy, because in Buddhism there is this principle which is called a nature and is in fact impermanence. So one fundamental aspect of Buddhist philosophy that supposedly, if we develop our mind around it, will help us to accept the basic insufficiency, insecurity of life. And the more we are able to do it, the more we can grasp a satisfaction in the moment, which does not depend either on the imaginary aspects of acquiring other people, a beautiful body, objects and so forth, nor on figuring out society and its rules or my own, but to somehow float upon the events of daily life and its insecurities and find something that is independent of the promises of society, that if we would abide by the rules, we would reap the results in the form of more lasting satisfaction. But we become independent of it, and can give the mind a freedom which then produces satisfaction on its own without specific objects or without a specific understanding to be acquired.

[00:19:43] In the Buddhist line of development, the only understanding that is necessary is the understanding of the mind and how to independently produce satisfactory state of mind without the help and the crutches of objects. As I mentioned, these topics are very complex and this was just a short introduction. I can recommend some books about Larkhall and these concepts. I think it is very fruitful to try to get further understanding of them because then what happens is that one can look at one's own life, see how my needs are structured, get an idea off in how far I am processing my life and my needs in a rather imaginary way or in another rather symbolic way. I can see how much I give those aspects of the real some place in my mind and in my life and get an idea off in which direction I probably have to develop as an individual so that the chances for a more independent and long lasting satisfaction in my life can become possible in the following conversation. I will try to elucidate some more aspects of this imaginary, symbolic and real, maybe by repetition and some examples. This admittedly very abstract concept becomes more familiar, and maybe it will lead you to be more curious and try to find out a little bit more for yourself.

[00:21:27] When we look at the original situation where the imaginary was described by Larkhall, it was and the stage of early childhood when children first discovered themselves in the mirror and realize that it's them in the mirror. And as he describes it, that comes along with a great satisfaction. Why is it so satisfactory to realize that it's you in the mirror? He says, because before you did that, your experience with yourself and then the world was highly fragmented. There is not a bracket that keeps it all together. Emotions are going here and there. There is a little bit of logic in life because of parents and because of, you know, repeating patterns over the day. But it's all falling apart again and again. There is little stability or metaphors that help me to keep it all and to form a certain logic. Now, my parents, when I see them, they seem fairly consistent because they look the same. So they come into the room. I identify them, but I don't have myself.

[00:22:32] The understanding that I have something similar to provide. I don't know yet that they see me as their child. I have only my experience. My experience that is that I myself completely disintegrated, that bad moods, hunger, pain comes and goes. Somehow satisfied. Sometimes not. It's very chaotic. But my parents, they seems to be stable like my mom is providing with food, shelter, security and so on. My dad has also something to give some sense of security and stability. But I am not.

[00:23:04] So when I discovered myself in the mirror, I discovered that actually there is something that is a counterpart to the stability of parents and other people that I have that myself as well.

[00:23:17] If you take a photograph, if I look into the mirror, it's not something that falls apart all the time like my feelings and my moods and my sensory experience. No, this seems fairly stable. When I discovered myself in the mirror, suddenly I discover an aspect of myself that is highly attractive because it is coherent. And then what happens? Because it's not intuitive. I had to discover my image. It's not something that every child knows intuitively. I had to see it. I had to recognize myself. I had to discover it. So it is something else than myself. Even though it belongs to me. But the relationship that I have to this mirror image is mysterious, which allows me to develop a very specific desire, which is to become my mirror image. I want to be I want to experience. I want the coherence of what I see in the mirror.

[00:24:13] Well, what's wrong with that? Because it's a fantasy. This is the problem.

[00:24:17] You can't stay living, like, fragmented.

[00:24:21] No, no. Obviously, the fragmentation is unpleasant. Right.

[00:24:25] This is what children want to get rid of. From day one when they get out. So this is how it starts. Keep it together. They tried to find logic and behavior. This is why. No, this is not conscious, of course. Right. This is why they develop a logic of crying. Because when there is a somewhat healthy family, when children cry, parents tried to appease them. Right. So then food comes and take care of the child. So it's a very simple conditioning that happens. Children do a lot of trial and error. Some things work. Crying works. The mom comes, the nanny comes to siblings. Whoever is responsible, they come and they take care of you. But it's not as consistent.

[00:25:08] It's still very fragmented. Still, there's a lot of open questions in the child's mind.

[00:25:14] It would like to control everything and children quickly when they get a little bit older. They are very consciously tried to control their environment. Every parent knows that. But it doesn't feel right. It doesn't feel unified. There is no complete logic. And that is still very frightening. Everything.

[00:25:33] So when they discover the mirror image, they have discovered something that seems to be attainable as if kind of saying, oh, that's me.

[00:25:41] Anyway, let me just try to be more clear the aspect of my mirror image that I had been before.

[00:25:47] There's something comforting in that the unity of the shape of the image. So it's flawed.

[00:25:56] It's promising because it doesn't seem very far away. After a while, don't need the mirror image anymore. I look down on myself without a mirror, and I recognize that the unity of the body is still there. The unity of the appearance is still there. So everything that I'm doing in these lines that I tried to look good, I try to look in shape. I try to have nice dresses and so on.

[00:26:24] All of these things that are very close to a basic sense of unity. This is what represents the imaginary and now a little bit expanded because you mentioned the apartment and the car. This is not too far away. It's actually when I see a beautiful car, there is a similar process going on there. It's as if my unconscious would say, Oh, my God.

[00:26:50] If I were to obtain this object, maybe I could become a little bit like it. I would get a part of the beauty of the car if I could call it mine.

[00:27:03] Of course, it's a more unrealistic than with the body. So as much as I cannot just be my shell, just be my appearance. Even though many people try right with plastic surgery and all the fashion craziness and so on. This is even more unrealistic. But the hope is that and certainly our capitalist system nourishes that. Be that, be your car, be this beautiful apartment. This is not very conscious, but our consciousness is processing in this way. We get dangled the carrot in front of us and it said like, okay, you know what? Maybe your appearance is not the most satisfying and you got not credit for how you look like. But here, society Daniels the character in front of us here, we provide you with a beautiful looking thing that if you can attach yourself to it, you will reap the results from the object and you can claim them as your own. So even though it's an external object, it's not very far from the aparents, right? So people who have the fortune and our fortune to be very good looking, they know this effect. People look at them. You see the admiration in their eyes, but you are immediately distanced from much like they don't even know me. They think I'm cool. A beautiful little. They don't know me. They don't know what is going on in my life. So we don't make the mistake as much as we find it pleasant that we get to acknowledge for our looks. This is why we dressed nicely in cumbo hair and so on, put on jewelry and rings. But we know that it's there's something superficial about it. We know that we are not completely our appearance.

[00:28:42] Now, this is you subconsciously know it because you don't consciously know.

[00:28:47] I tried. Like when you go out and buy a Tesla, you then enjoy the car. You take care of the car. You know, you. Right. So it's unconscious.

[00:28:55] Yes, it's unconscious. And because it is ultimately unsatisfying. Because of that, because it's not real, because it's imagined. This is why we need again and again an influx of new objects, because the promise of the old one has worn off. The strongest imaginary impact of the object is before I have obtained it. I see the car. Oh, my God. That is amazing.

[00:29:26] And that hope, this feeling is the hope and expectation goes on until you're born. And with the buying, it starts wearing off.

[00:29:36] Then you have it, then that's it. There is not much more to gain.

[00:29:41] Are you saying that even if you want to get a Tesla, for example, right. And you go and buy a car, you buy the car, but you keep in mind that this is not what is you. This is something you bought and you're going to play with it. But this doesn't define you.

[00:29:54] Yes. The question is, do I get this imaginary satisfaction out of it? Is this what I aim for when I obtain an object? OK. I want to get a little bit off the benefits of the beauty of the object for myself.

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