Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

The Amplifying Unconscious (Part 2)

Originally posted on January 18, 2011

[Please see Part 1 for an introduction to this: I am suggesting a second type of unconscious process that is far more powerful, less rational, far quicker in processing, far more clever, and that this hypothesis accounts for many previously-inexplicable psychological phenomena.]

The Ordinary “Muddled Middle” Unconscious

I’m a psychiatrist who was trained in the late mid-20th century when psychiatrists were still exposed to if not psychoanalysis then at least dynamic psychotherapy. We learned about what most people do with their minds. First, instead of truly maturing beyond their childish fantasies, motivations, and expectations, they harbor them, secretly trying to satisfy them. The most common one is to hold on to as many of the privileges of carefree childishness while at the same time gaining access to and holding on to as many adult privileges and status positions as possible. To accomplish this, they engage in childish forms of magical thinking that can generate symbolic compromises that fulfill these wishes as much as possible. The outward manifestation of these compromises is what might be recognized as neurotic behavior. Finally, people engage in elaborate systems of denial and repression so that they avoid recognizing their internal conflicts, inconsistencies, and its childish resonances. (To do so would threaten them with shame.) These pathways have been mapped out and are pretty well known. Ordinary psychotherapy helps to untangle this process of self-deception and to restore the ability to make new choices based on insight.

It’s not easy, though, because the power of self-deception is surprisingly intense, and that’s because the unconscious mind is fueled not just by the pathways described, but also by the amplifying unconscious, which allows for the generation of the illusion that what is known feels as if it all makes sense, and that what is known on the surface is sufficient. This dynamic in effect throws a blanket of complacency over the workings of the mind, so that only those in great pain or those who (1) know they fool themselves and (2) seek to penetrate the veils of their own illusions succeed in breaking free of the general subtle self-hypnosis. The cleverness and intensity of the amplifying unconscious thus accounts for “resistance.” Two related forms of self-deception include confabulation and anosognosia.

Confabulation is the unconscious generation of memories of events conveniently distorted or selected or invented so that people’s version of the truth conveniently fits with their emotional needs.

Anosognosia is a word that expresses the defense mechanism of denial in a far more intense form. Some people with cerebro-vascular “strokes” really can’t recognize that part of their arm or leg is paralyzed; some people with mental illness cannot recognize that what they are perceiving are hallucinations, and what they believe are delusions.  Their “reality testing” is impaired—which means that they don’t bother checking out with others whether what they think or perceive jibes with what others think or perceive. (Yes, I’m suggesting that the intensity of these illusions is generated by the way the amplifying unconscious works!)

It has also occurred to me that just about everyone uses these mechanisms of illusion, though in far less flagrant forms. It’s more discernable in people we consider to be fanatics, but that’s a relativistic perception. (That is to say, to them we may seem to be the ones to be deluded.)  I suspect that in mild form these dynamics are part of the human condition. (I’m reminded of an amusing comment I heard about the enterprise of autobiography: Most of it is fiction written by mediocre authors.) In the psycho-spiritual traditions of South Asia, this tendency to fill our minds with illusion is called “maya.” It’s a spiritual force—actually in some cases personified as a goddess, because the power of illusion can be so intense that it seems to be trans-personal. I consider this deeply hypnotizing power to be another way of talking about the dynamics of the amplified unconscious.

It all gets fuzzy near the edges of various human activities such as those that involve love, faith, politics, war, and other human situations. I’m not sure that an absolutely clear way of differentiating truth from illusion can be determined. The closest thing that comes to mind is the willingness to imagine what it might be like to be in the role of the “other,” especially one who feels hurt, oppressed, or in other ways bothered by your view of things.  (However, there are some illusions and myths that are more uplifting, loving, opening to the light and others that tend to draw on the forces of negative emotions such as fear and resentment, and most of the time, if this is kept in mind, the difference is not all that hard to discern.)

Some people’s neuroses become problematical and lead them into seeking professional help, but even then, most want relief from their symptoms but don’t really want to call into question their underlying beliefs, expectations, desires, attitudes, or ways their minds work. Others are willing to question, but get bent out of shape when the analysis touches on something, well, “touchy.” (The amplifying unconscious is powerful, clever, tenacious, and protective of the person’s world-view.) However, for most people, many of these dynamics proceed without generating enough outward disturbance to motivate them into even superficial types of psychotherapy.

To restate my hypothesis. Although both types of unconsciousness are irrational, the second type, the amplifying unconscious, involves a more profoundly irrational, symbolic, rapid and powerful set of processes.

The first type, what I sometimes refer to as “the muddy middle,” represents a challenge not only for the psychotherapist, but also is a challenge for the culture, because many issues are sustained by obsolete social mores. Much more could be said about these dynamics, but they involve not just more self-awareness or psychological-mindedness, but also a call to developing critical thinking about how the culture colludes in and sustains manipulative and oppressive dynamics in education, in the unconscious “religion” of consumerism, in the appeal to simplistic answers in political propaganda, and so forth. So this kind of work involves more than “therapy” for individual problems, but also or even more importantly the moving into the mainline of social and emotional intelligence and the overall maturation of our species.

The amplifying unconscious is something else again. It involves deeper patterns of spiritual orientation, wisdom, self-discipline, and the subtle balance of refined intention and surrender. I find that understanding this dynamic requires the acknowledgment of psychic energy. This poses a problem, because psychic energy is not directly detectable by instruments, at least none that have been accepted yet by the mainstream in science. (Of course, we didn’t know about micro-chemical nutrients such as vitamins until a century ago! We hardly knew about electricity two hundred years ago, and only the slightest evidence for the existence of the microbial world existed three hundred years ago. And so forth.) Suffice it to say that the idea of psychic energy has been unacceptable to those immersed in the modern worldview of the 19th and 20th centuries. (Nor am I sure that I’m not creating a plausible hypothesis that will turn out to be significantly mistaken!)

The key to the concept of the amplifying unconscious is the notion that psyche can amplify the intensity and speed of the experiences associated with perception, meaning, importance, and the sense of will. However, just because it’s powerful that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily either wise or good. (We have a tendency—based on childish thinking—of idealizing as good that which is powerful, but it doesn’t logically follow!) More about these issues in the next essay.

2 Responses to “The Amplifying Unconscious (Part 2)”

  • Terry Teaters says:

    I am completely on board with you about this. In psychic energy I often think about Wilhelm Reich. Even though he was an outcast, and possibly a bit insane, it doesn’t mean he wasn’t onto something.
    While trying to understand the workings of this great subjectivity I have engaged in ecstatic dance, psychodrama, shamanism, art, sweat lodges, breath work, yoga, sun dance, peyote ceremonies, and much more. To me the existence of a universal energy source goes beyond even the words psychic, mental, or physical, and is no longer merely a concept. I am not saying I know what it is, and I cannot control its comings and goings, but I can tell when I merge with something that is beyond my three dimensional reality. It makes me want to take part in the development of a science of mysticism, or maybe a mystical science, in an effort to bridge the gap between the two.

  • […] earlier (January, 2011) blogs    on the amplifying unconscious, I also reaffirm the idea that much of human life […]

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