A Unified Approach to Human Consciousness
Updating Freud's Topographical and Structural Models
Posted May 22, 2016
A recent OpEd piece reminded me how muddled the concept of human consciousness can be*. It also reminded me that we need an approach that blends the best of both psychology and philosophy. Careful attention must be paid to complicated issues of definitions and word meaning, conceptual analysis, and metaphysical claims about reality (things that philosophers tend to be good at). And we also need to consider the everyday dynamics of conscious experience and human behavior, the empirical research literature, and various clinical presentations (things that psychologists tend to be good at). The unified approach integrates both psychology and philosophy to offer up a modern, integrative approach to human consciousness.
Many Psych 101 texts do not touch on consciousness all that much, but there is one angle that the vast majority of textbooks include, and that is Freud’s topographical and structural models. The topographical model refers to how Freud divided up consciousness into unconscious, pre-conscious and fully conscious domains. The structural model refers to the forces of the id, ego and superego. Here is a very common depiction of the two models put together.
“Topography” refers to one’s map of the terrain and definitional system, and in that way is a bit closer to philosophy (getting the terms, concepts and logical relations between them correct). In contrast, the structural model is more the form and dynamic tensions between each domain and thus is closer to psychological theorizing. In this blog, I offer an update on Freud’s models, with Part I updating his topological model and Part II updating the structural model.
Part I: Getting Clear about Definitions and Updating the Topographical Model
Let’s start with a simple everyday scenario to set the stage for our definitions of the various domains of human consciousness:
I am in the kitchen doing the dishes, when my 15 year old son Jon comes in complaining that he is hungry and that we don’t have anything to eat. I look over at a stocked fridge and pantry and internally shake my head at the spoiled nature of our existence. “You can always make a PB & J”, I sigh. “Fine,” he says with a slight huff and then goes about the process of making himself a sandwich, as I proceed to put away the dishes, mumbling to myself why is it that I do all the work around here.
I will use this everyday example to illustrate the topographical and structural models. First, let’s divide the terrain of human consciousness up into the following three meanings: 1) observable acts of intention (as in, Jon was awake and aware and he consciously decided to make and eat a PB&J); 2) Experiences/feelings, which is the “first-person experience of being-in-the-world”, which can be broken down into (a) sensations and perceptions (we can consider these “input”, meaning they are about taking in and interpreting what “is”, as in Jon sees, feels and tastes the PB& J) and (b) drives, urges and emotions (we can consider these “output” feelings, meaning that they orient us toward action and what “ought to be”, as in Jon is hungry for a PB&J and feels satisfied after eating it) and (c) imagined or simulated sequences of events (as in Jon imagined several possible meals prior to deciding on a PB&J); and finally there is the 3) Explicit, Language-Based, Self-Conscious reflection (as in, when he says, either privately or publically “I guess I will have a PB&J”).
One of the most important things to notice about this breakdown of human consciousness is that it is only the experiential portion of consciousness that cannot be shared directly between us. Both of the other domains, the acts of intention and the language-based descriptions, can be shared directly (we can both watch him make the sandwich and we can both directly share in talking about it). In contrast, I cannot know directly or exactly how the PB&J looks, feels and tastes for Jon. With this in mind, let’s move to an updated topographical model of conscious, shown below in the form of nested domains.
Starting from the outside of the circles, you have an individual engaged in behaviors (the yellow circle) occurring in an environmental context (the red). Behavior(a) refers to overt actions that emerge as a function of energy expenditure from the individual. When Jon spreads the peanut butter on the bread, that is a behavior(a). However, if he knocks over the jelly, the jar falling to the ground is a physical behavior, but not an action (for more on the definition of behavior, which can be complicated, see here).
We can then move into the body. An individual human is a biological organism, and this is represented by the light blue circle. All of Jon’s actions for getting the bread out, spreading out the peanut butter and jelly, and eating the sandwich are mediated by his muscular system and the energy for those actions emerge from his body’s metabolism. Nested within his body is the nervous system in general, and the centralized control center of the nervous system is the brain (the light lavender). The brain is the “wetware” home of the mind, and it includes the biological-physiological components (i.e., the neurons, neuronal clusters, broad regions like the frontal lobe).
The next domain refers to the jump between the brain and the mind. According to the unified theory and consistent with the cognitive revolution (see here for a blog on defining the mind), “the mind” refers to the information instantiated within and processed by the brain. The distinction between computer hardware (the metal frame, the processing chips and circuitry) versus the software (the information processing programs written onto the hardware) is a useful, albeit not perfect, way to think about the difference between the brain and the mind.
Experiential consciousness (the dark purple) refers to the actual felt sense of perceptions and emotions and imagined wonderings that are on the current stage of experience. The look feel and taste of the PB&J were on the stage of Jon’s conscious experience through the process. What is the relationship between experiential consciousness and the rest of the mind? The metaphor of a theater works very well and this next figure offers a depiction of the New Theater of Consciousness developed by my doctoral student Mandi Quay that spells out the metaphor.
What we are experiencing is on the stage of consciousness. Of course, lots of stuff is “backstage” (i.e., in memory/storage) that could be brought on stage. If, for example, I say “grandmother”, thoughts about grandmothers in general and perhaps your grandmother in particular go from being latent to now emerging on the stage of experience. However, there is also stuff back stage that can never be brought onto to the stage. The "nonconscious" refers to all the information processing operations that one can never gain access to. For example, one can never introspect and see photons hitting the retina of the eye.
When folks talk about the “basic mystery of consciousness” or the “hard problem of consciousness”, they are talking about the question of how the flow of neuronal information (that is defined as “the mind” in this scheme) gives rise to the first person experience of being-in-the-world. The mechanisms by which this happens remain cloudy and difficult to get a clear grasp on. There are also many tricky and complicated philosophical questions pertaining to the experience of the world and "reality".
Animals like my dog Maggie almost certainly have an experiential consciousness. However, there is an important aspect of consciousness that humans have that other animals do not. This is the capacity to explicitly reflect on one’s conscious experience and share those reflections directly with others via the information highway that is human language. Human language allows for humans to have explicit intersubjective experiences. I can get a report from Jon regarding what his experience of eating his PB&J was. I can never get a clear sense of what Maggie’s experience of eating her food was; I can only infer that from her actions. And not only can humans directly talk to one another, but now because we have built technologies that can externally hold, store and transmit language (the first such technology was writing…from that ancient way, we now have smart phones and the internet), we have an almost limitless capacity for sharing mental information across time and space, which has opened up huge new dimensions of being. Explicit intersubjectivity is a new, human dimension of experience that opened up via language, and now, via technology, that capacity for it is expanding exponentially.
Because topography is about mapping terrain clearly, let’s review and clearly define our terms. First, there are overt actions, where someone is awake and aware and expending energy toward a goal or end. Second, there is the bio-physiology that is providing the organization and energy, and there is the nervous system and brain in particular that is processing neuronal information. Third, there is the form of information instantiated and processed by the nervous system, which we call the mind. There are nonconscious, subconscious, experiential conscious and self-conscious portions of the mind. The elements of the mind that are nonconscious cannot be accessed via introspection. Those that are subconscious are not on the stage at the time, but could be brought on the stage if attention was directed on them. When we look at the structural model in part II, we will divide the subconscious into the stored pre-conscious (which is equivalent to long term memory) and the dynamic subconscious, which is material that is blocked from awareness via defensive filtering. Fourth, there is experiential consciousness. This is the felt sense of being, the first-person view of the world. Recall that experiential feelings can be effectively divided into primary inputs (which we call felt sensations and perceptions) and outputs (felt motives and emotions) and imagined simulations. Finally, there is explicit, reflective, language-based self-consciousness, which can report on the experiential consciousness and do so either privately or publicly.
Part II: Updating the Structural Model
Whereas the topographical model is our definitional map of the terrain, the structural model refers more to the dynamic workings of each portion and how they relate to one another. This section is much more psychological, whereas the first part was more about metaphysical mapping of terms and terrain (i.e., philosophy).
Freud’s structural model was, of course, the id, ego and superego. The id (The “It”) was for Freud, the seat of animalistic energies, was at its core especially driven by sex and aggression. It was impulsive, demanded gratification and pleasure was the release of id energy. The ego (the “I”) blocked and redirected id energies based on the reality of the situation. Finally, the superego (“Above Me”) reflected the standards of society that were internalized and idealized.
Many of Freud’s ideas figure prominently in the unified approach. However, one must work to separate the baby from the bathwater in Freudian thinking. Many of Freud’s theories were way off base. But his fundamental observation, that there are reasons behind the conscious rationales we give for our behavior, is definitely powerful and on target. And we can also see that there are indeed more primal, emotional, animalistic tendencies that exist in tension with social expectations and societal demands, and that much of human psychology is shaped via the nature of these tensions.
Folks familiar with my unified approach know that I offer the Updated Tripartite Model of human consciousness, consisting of (1) an experiential system (the first person experience of being); (2) a private narrator (a self-conscious, language based, reflective portion of consciousness); and (3) a public persona (what is shared to a real or perceived public). There are clear and strong parallels here with Freud’s structural model, with the experiential system loosely mapping on to the id, the private narrator the ego, and the public self the superego.
At the same time, there are some very important differences between the models. Highlighting them all would take too much space for a blog, but I will make a comment about the id/experiential self, as this is where the most basic difference is. First, it is important to make a note about terminology. Consciousness, for Freud, refers to self-conscious awareness and reflection, not to immediate experience, which is why it is key to get clear on our definitions!
The second key piece is that Freud gets the basic structure of the id largely wrong. The id/experiential system is much more sophisticated and is much less organized by sex and aggression than Freud supposed. It is a relational, emotional, motivational guidance system. The unified approach offers the Influence Matrix as a map of many of these processes. Thus, much as the neo-Freudians and attachment theorists argue, our core motivational needs are much more about relational value, power, love and freedom, than sex and aggression.
The final piece I want to highlight here is the dynamic relationship between the domains. Specifically, the unified approach argues that there are filtering processes between the systems. There are three such filters. First, there is an “attentional filter”, which filters what gets on the screen on conscious awareness. As this blog highlights, perceptual experiences emerge as a function of both “bottom up” sensation and “top down” schema or templates. This means you both need a template to understand what you see and you tend to see what you look for. For a cool, common example of the attentional filter, see here.
The second filter is between the self-conscious narrator and the experiential system, and this is called the Freudian filter in the model. The Freudian filter works via the process of inhibiting and banishing disruptive or problematic thoughts and rationalizing others to maintain a sense of psychic equilibrium. Here is a blog that describes in greater detail how we filter our thoughts and here is one on the defensive system.
Finally, there is the private-to-public filter (shown above in the Tripartite Model). This refers to the extent to which we share or do not share our inner thoughts because of the impact on the social field and our relationships. In the opening example, I muttered the thought “why do I do all the work around here” because if I said it out loud, Jon would have objected and we would have spent time arguing. And, if my wife were in the room, she definitely would have had something to say about that claim! We filter these kinds of thoughts all the time because we have a fundamentally different perspective on the world than others, and thus our thoughts and claims are experienced differently by others than by us.
If anyone wonders whether or not consciousness can be mysterious, just spend time with the literature. There are so many different angles and perspectives, confusion abounds. We do NOT need short OpEd pieces claiming that consciousness is “utterly unmysterious”. That simply adds to the confusion.* What we do need are maps and models of consciousness that combine the best of philosophy and psychology, that can explain in clear ways the various domains and their dynamic interrelationships.
*Note: The problem with Strawson’s analysis is that he twists the word “know” and shifts the normal meaning as it is used in this kind of context (to analytically understand), and turns it into the meaning of experientially observe and see. To see the difference, consider that if I come into the kitchen in our house and find it a mess and ask, “Who knows who made this mess?”, I am using the term know here in terms of experiential observation (i.e., someone left a mess in the kitchen I want to know who did). But if I say, “Who knows what messiness is and where the concept of messiness relative to cleanliness comes from and why?” That pulls for an analytic conceptual understanding of the word “know”.
Strawson engages in a bait and switch. We expect we are going to get a conceptual understanding of consciousness and then he uses the experiential observation meaning. The conceptual understanding of consciousness answers the questions: How is it that I have a brain inside my head and yet I have the experience of the external world of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and 15 year old hungry boys? What is the relationship between the activity in my brain and the external world?
Strawson then continues with his ironic angle by arguing that what we do not know is the physical world and cites Richard Feynman’s famous take on the mystery of quantum mechanics. But here Strawson does not mean the commonsense experience of observing, but a conceptual meaning of the term. Quantum mechanics is a conceptual mystery. However, that one of my kids messed up kitchen is conceptually not a mystery—they take crap out and leave it for others to clean all the time. The bottom line here is that Strawson mingles two different meanings of the word “to know” and, because of that his essay adds to the confusion rather than sheds light on the topic.