The Ego and The Id: Beauty and The Beast

There it is again: that feeling of purposelessness. What to do about it? I might go on with whatever it is that I’m doing right now, hoping that the feeling will eventually fade away. But I know that that won’t help: it never does. Or I might try to grab some sleep and possibly feel fresh and productive again when I’ll wake up. But I don’t want to waste my precious little time on this planet sleeping just to get through the day. I might go read something, and possibly become inspired by some great stories. But there’s not that much interesting stuff around to read, at least not much that really gets down to the core of where it’s all about. So, what choices do I have left? Not many. So I guess I just have to face the feeling head on. Get my head straight, figure out why it is that I have this feeling, and possibly – as in a therapeutic Freudian manner – calm down my unconscious drives by ‘channeling’ them through my Ego. The drives won’t leave by themselves, so it’s better to find a way to use them in a constructive fashion, than to suppress them and let them linger on in my life. So that’s what I’m trying to do by writing this article.

In a sense my entire blog is a quest to do just that: channel my uncontrollable and inexplicable drives by promising to give them what they want: answers. And even though my Ego knows that there are no answers, or at least no definite ones, my unconscious Id doesn’t know. My Id is retarded in the sense that I can’t think properly, given that it would be able to think at all. The Id is an iPhone you carry around all day and that starts beeping when a new message is received. And although you don’t want to listen to it, because you just want to go on with your life, you just can’t ignore whatever it might have to say. Because, although it might be smart, the Ego can’t set any goals. The Ego is like a calculator, calculating the most efficient route to whatever goal you might have. And this ‘whatever goal you might have’ is determined by the Id, the part of you that bases its decisions on evolutionary induced impulses, pushing you to the refrigerator and to the internet (if you know what I mean).

But what if they could work together? What if they could live happily ever after in harmony, dividing the mental labor as if Adam Smith was there to delegate it? That would be great: Beauty and The Beast working together. Beauty being so consciously aware of its environment, and the Beast just taking her wherever he wants to. Great, let’s do that!

What do you think?

Where do our Minds Go to When We’re Asleep?

Where does your mind turn to when you fall asleep? It must be still there, right? Somewhere, lurking between your unfilled wishes and animalistic desires? Maybe your mind is sleeping too…but then, who’s in control of you, the “thing” I’m talking to right now? Something must be in charge, right? After all, you wake up every morning, thinking to yourself: “damn, it’s early”. That seems to be the point where your (conscious) mind takes over control again, right? But taking over control of whom? And why is that we are so powerless when we try to get some sleep? What is going on here?

You might have seen the film Inception. It’s about the possibility of having a dream in a dream in another dream etc. But while Leonardo DiCaprio seems pretty much in charge of his dream-worlds, and the moment he decides to enter them, we seem to have much more difficulties doing just that. Because while it’s pretty clear that our brains are doing all sorts of things while we are sleeping – sorting out memories, paving neural pathways and throwing away awkward experiences the brain does not consider to be awkward enough – our mind, the entity that is “you”, is nowhere around. But where did he go? He probably handed over the key of our control station to our unconsciousness, the evil brother of our minds, the one still firmly rooted in our evolutionary longings, and the one totally uncontrollable. But it is still weird though how – and when – this “handing over the key” takes place exactly, right? It’s only when the unconsciousness wants to that “we” lose control. This shows again how powerless we are when confronted with Mother Nature and its compelling powers.

Still though, it’s interesting to ask “where” in our minds our dreams take place. Surely, we can point out in MRI-scans what parts of our brains are busy sorting our thoughts etc. while we’re asleep, but that doesn’t explain which parts of the mind are busy when sorting out our thoughts and producing our dreams? And does the mind even consist of “parts”? Parts like the “conscious” and the “unconscious” mind? Or is the unconscious mind not really part of the mind, but merely a biological tool helping us to function in life? Just like our arms and legs?

Let’s assume – for the sake of this article – that there is an unconscious mind and that it takes “control of us” while we’re asleep. But then, when our unconscious mind takes over control, “what” then becomes in control of what our memories will come to look like? Given that this would be our unconscious mind, and that our unconscious mind doesn’t want us to remember a particular thought, can it then just prevent our brains from laying down the corresponding neural networks? But wouldn’t that imply that our unconscious mind would be fully in charge of who we are/become? We are after all little more than walking bundles of memories. Our memories shape us into who we are. So being in charge of our memories, implies being in charge of us, doesn’t it?

What do you think?

Rembrandt and the Use of only One Canvas

What’s the link between Rembrandt and your life? I’ll give you a hint: it has something to do with a technology called Macro X-ray fluorescence. By using this new technology scientists have been able to detect paintings that have been painted underneath other paintings. Apparently, ancient painters – even the big ones – made mistakes, or were in any other way dissatisfied with their end product. Therefore they decided to change this ‘end’ product, either by painting an entirely new painting on top of the old one, or by changing a few details. But that’s not really interesting, is it? Everyone makes mistakes, so painters make mistakes as well, right? That’s true, but what is interesting is the fact that the painters decided to reuse a used canvas on top of which they painted their new painting: they deliberately didn’t use a new canvas. Why is that? Were canvasses very expense in those days, or might there be a deeper meaning behind this seemingly innocent action? Let’s take a look at that.

When you think about painters re-painting a canvas, you might see similarities with the manner in which we – human beings – live our lives. We also have a canvas – call it our souls or bodies, or both – which we have to re-paint in order for a new and revised work of art to appear. Even more than the painter we are forced to use the same canvas over and over again. Not because new canvasses are expensive, but simply because we only have one canvas. Like the painters we can decide to make minor adjustments to our paintings, or decide to radically alter the shapes and colors of our work of art. Layer upon layer, color upon color, we build and redesign ourselves until we are reasonably satisfied with the ‘end’ result.

But then the painful question shows it face: will we ever be satisfied with the end product? Do we ever reach the point at which we are simply done adjusting the colors and shapes? Probably not, right? There is always a new color to implement, a new technique to use, and a shape more appropriate. We keep on changing our minds, and this change is reflected in our paintings. And the painting process will go on until we die, until we cannot adjust anything any more, and the painting of our lives will get sold.

You could take the analogy ever further by saying that – by using a certain ‘technology’ – we can, just like the paintings’, unravel the layers of our own existence. That’s after all what Freud intended with his psychoanalysis, right? Peeling down the layers of our mind until we reach those layers buried and forgotten, the lake of the unconscious mind. Just like the painters we try to correct the mistakes we’ve made in our lives. But no matter how good of a painter we are, and no matter how bright the colors that we use might be, we can never erase the layers beyond our consciousness: we can merely masquerade them with fancy flowers and rivers.

You can take the analogy to the extreme by applying the painting metaphor to society as a whole. After all, what do you think Marx meant with his structuralism? What about his notions of ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’? Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?

So, what’s the conclusion of this article? Well, you could say that we’re all painters: painters of our own lives. And although we only have one canvas, we (have to) keep on adjusting our paintings, trying to attain that seemingly unreachable goal of perfection. And if we make a big mistake, unable to be corrected by a few brushes? We’ll start all over again. How to do so? Well, ask Rembrandt.

But what do you think?

The Link between Inspiration and Trying to Grasp Gas

Have you ever tried to capture gas with your bare hands? If not, I can tell you that it isn’t very effective. You might “sustain” a little gas after you’ve “caught” it, but the biggest part of the gas cloud will just vanish in thin air. But that’s no problem; at least, not if you aren’t dependent on gas to make your money However, it might become more of an issue if you are fully dependent on this gas in order to make a living, and especially if you don’t have anything besides your bare hands in order to capture the gas. Well, that’s how it is with artists trying to “capture” sudden bursts of inspiration.

People in creative professions – like arts and poetry – are dependent upon an intangible “well of inspiration” in order to come up with tangible results. Their inspiration is the fuel that keeps their “production process” going; pretty much in the same way that a construction worker needs food in order for him to continue doing his job. However, the main difference between food and inspiration is quite obvious: the first you can produce, take care of and provide, while the second “just” happens to you or “just” doesn’t happen to you. While you can water your plants, and cultivate the soil, all to make sure that your potatoes will grow; putting your head in the ground in order to “grow inspiration” might not be the best of options.

So what then? Are artists just doomed to wait on a sign from above in order for them to create their products? Well, that would be an imbalanced power-relationship to say the least, right? It nonetheless seems true that this “waiting for an (external) sign” is for a big part the manner in which artists go about their business. Why else are artists disproportionally often high on drugs, and exploring “higher spheres”, looking for that glimpse of inspiration? There must be some kind of correlation between the two, right?

However, maybe artists aren’t fully dependent upon the mercy of the Gods of inspiration. Maybe the artists can help the Gods a little by feeding them with suggestions; by pouring information into their own artist minds and hoping that the random connections in their artist brains might lead to a flash of insight. At least a little support from the side of the artists is needed, right? After all, who do you think would be more inspired: (1) the artist laying in bed all day thinking about how awesome it would be if he would become inspired, or (2) the artist that proactively takes part in his life, reads, observes and absorbs whatever the world has got to offer him? The answer seems pretty clear to me.

So maybe inspiration is more of a constructable product then we might thought it was; maybe there is some kind of “production line” in our heads, pumping out ideas, if only it would be fed with raw materials a.k.a. experiences. And although the raw materials might be intangible, and not capable of being exploited like mines, they are still there. But it’s only for the true artists to find.

But what do you think?

Note: this article has been published in the first edition of the Carnival of Inspirational Lifestyle.

The Inevitability and Arbitrariness of Signs

Linguistics is the study of language. And language is, if you think about, a beautiful and very intricate system. It has all sorts of rules or conventions that allow us to communicate with each other. Without these rules, no-one would be able to understand each other. I want to take a look at a central concept in linguistics: ‘signs’. For what exactly is a sign? Probably all kinds of associations with road signs and the like pop into your mind. But when used in a different context, a religious context for example, it can refer to ‘a sign from above’; a message from God. In other words: the notion of ‘sign’ is multi-interpretable.

There is something very peculiar about signs. Something that a man called Ferdinand de Saussure pointed out: the inevitable – but utterly arbitrary – connection between ‘signifiers’ and ‘signifieds’. But what does this mean? And why is this connection both inevitable and arbitrary at the same time? Let’s take a look at that.

According to De Saussure, a sign consist of two parts: (1) a concept or meaning (the signified) and (2) a sound image (the signifier). The signified is your mental image of – let’s say – a tree. When you hear the word ‘tree’, you immediately think about a big green thing standing in a park. That’s the conceptual level of language. The other is the phonetic level or the sound image of ‘tree’. When you write the word tree, you write a ‘t’,’r’, ‘e’ and ‘e’. And when you pronounce these letters in your head, the meaning or concept of a tree immediately arises. De Saussure claims that every sign we know of (whether it is a road sign or a sign from God) consists of these two parts: the thing representing and the thing being represented.

Now De Saussure points out the following: the connection between the word ‘tree’ and the concept (or mental picture) of a tree is utterly arbitrary. It is just because the English community has chosen to take the word ‘tree’ to stand for the mental image of a tree that this connection – or sign – exists. The concept of a tree could have just as easily been called ‘worm’ or ‘water’. You can see this arbitrariness at work when comparing different languages. The Dutch word for a tree is ‘boom’, yet  it still refers to the same mental image as the English word ‘tree’. It’s a convention. Nothing more, nothing less.

Furthermore, De Saussure claims that the fact that we know that ‘tree’ refers to the mental image of a tree is because we also know what other terms refer too, and where the word ‘tree’ doesn’t refer to. By that he means that we can understand the meaning of a word only in relation to other words. It is only because we know that the word ‘branch’ refers to a specific part of a tree that we obtain the mental picture of what the concept of a tree looks like. If we wouldn’t have mental images of ranches or leaves, and all the other parts making up a tree, we wouldn’t know what a tree would be.

So now you know that the connection between a “word” and a “concept” is arbitrary but necessary for the mental image to exist. We can “choose” the connection between the word “tree” and the mental image “tree”, but it nevertheless has to exist for us to grasp the mental image of a “tree”. Because our mental image of a “tree” only exists in relation to other words referring to other mental images.

This observation made me ask the following question: if we wouldn’t have the “phonetic sound” (the tones you hear when a word is uttered) of the word “tree” resonating inside of our heads, would that imply that we wouldn’t know what a “tree” was? In other words: if we wouldn’t have the word “tree”, or any other word referring the the mental image “tree”, would that imply that we wouldn’t know what a “tree” – in our every day conception of it – was? That we wouldn’t know what that big green thing standing in the park was?

Maybe animals can clarify this issue. Cats – for example – don’t seem to use words like “food” to refer to a mental image of “food”. However, they still are able to distinguish “food” from “non-food”. That is, when I put down real food in front of my cat, he runs straight to it. He doesn’t do this when I put a television in front of his nose. So he must have some “system of thought” that makes the concept of “food” different from the concept of “television”. The real question is: is this “system of thought” purely based on unconscious, intuitive and impulse driven forces – like “the smell of food” – that trigger him into moving towards the food, or does the cat have a “sound image” connected to his “mental image” of food that allows him to differentiate “food” from “non-food”?

I don’t know, but I find it pretty fascinating to think about.

But what do you think?

People Spend 1/6 of their Lives In Front Of the Television

The average person spends 4 to 5 hours a day in front of the television. That means that, in a 65-year period, the average person would have spent 9 years glued to the tube. That’s quite a lot, isn’t it? But that’s not all, since there is – on average – 18 minutes of commercial airtime during an hour-long broadcasted television program. Thus, a simple calculation shows that the average person – given that he only watches commercial airtime – spends almost 2,5 years (!) of his life watching commercials on television. Add to that the Tel Sells of this world, and you’ll come to even more years of commercial television usage. So, let’s make this very clear: on a global scale, people are spending more than 1/6th of their lives in front of the television, and possibly more than 1/24th of their lives watching commercials on television.

Imagine what the world could be like if – instead of sitting in front of the television watching commercials – people would be doing something useful with their time: helping their neighbors, teaching their children, taking care of their garden etc. Then we would gain 1/24th of ‘extra’ human life, and even more if we would stop – or at least lessen – our television usage at all. We could in the time saved by not watching television (commercials) help people in Africa, think about what we’re going to do about global warning or play games with friends. We could, instead of watching people promote their books on television, actually read a book. That would surely be a better use of our time, wouldn’t it? Surely it can be pleasant to just relax and watch something on autopilot; to not think about anything for a while. To just let the ‘entertainment’ of television blow you away. But don’t you mind that – in this time that you’re ‘not thinking about anything’ – you’re in fact (unconsciously) being indoctrinated with thoughts and desires about deodorant, ice-cream, cars and beer? Don’t you mind being used as a puppet; companies using your precious time supporting their own wealth?

There are, as always, exceptions to the rule: there are documentaries broadcasted on television that might actually widen your perspective on the world, instead of narrowing it. Documentaries that actually teach you something and therefore might actually be worthy of your time. But – given that there are such documentaries – can’t we just watch them online, without having to suffer from any commercial breaks whatsoever? There are plenty of sites (Top Documentary Films and DocumentaryHeaven, to name only two) that provide you with such documentaries for free. And if you want to watch less educational programs (series etc.), there are equally many sites at which you can stream your favorite series for free. That might save you a lot of time watching commercials; time that can be used to watch more of your favorite series. However, as you might have noticed, many of such series – like Californication – are interwoven with implicit advertisement (Why does Hank Moody drive a Porsche? Why does he smoke Camel?). But that’s the price we’ve got to pay for entertainment.

But what do you think?

An Application of Freud’s Theory of Mind

Everyone must have heard of the name ‘Sigmund Freud‘ at some point in their lives. Thinking about the name, there might be all kinds of images popping up in your mind: things like the mind being like an iceberg, notions like ‘The Id’ and ‘The Ego’, and Freud’s ideas about sex as the explanation for pretty much everything we do. But you might not fully remember all of it. You could say that the ideas might be floating around somewhere between your consciousness and your unconsciousness – to speak in Freudian terminology. But what was it exactly that Freud claimed? And why do many philosophers of science condemn his theories to the realm of ‘pseudo-science’? And what’s the value of Freud’s ideas? Let’s apply Freud’s ideas to an everyday situation and find it for ourselves.

Let’s imagine that you are a guy that goes out with some friends. You guys are ‘chilling in the club’, while suddenly an absolutely gorgeous woman enters the room. You notice a certain feeling taking control over your body: attraction, the feeling of you wanting – in whatever sense defined – that woman. This is not a feeling for which you might necessarily have arguments. No, the feeling is just there. This feeling comes down from the part of your personality that Freud calls ‘The Id. The only thing that The Id cares about is receiving pleasure, loads of it. It has an inextinguishable urge to grab on to everything within its reach, just for it to calm down its perpetual longing for pleasure; no matter how briefly the satisfaction might last.

You can imagine that society would be a rather chaotic institution if every one of us would just give into his animalistic urges at all times. The notion of rape would become little different from our custom of shacking hands. Therefore some basic rules of conduct need to be ingrained in each member of society: ‘Be gentle to others,’ ‘Help an old lady cross the street’ and ‘Don’t have sex with someone else unless that someone wants to’. It is within this domain of ‘The Superego‘ that all kinds of religious and political beliefs nestle. Beliefs that will guide you in living your life like a caged monkey.

Surely: it’s all nice that we are trying to control our animalistic urges by coming up with a set of reasonable rules. But who makes sure that the needs of The Id and the rules of The Superego are properly matched? After all, as we have just seen, they might contradict each other. So we can’t always satisfy both at the same time: we can’t just rape everyone and be a gentleman at the same time. And that’s where ‘The Ego comes in. The Ego is the controlling power, the power that tries to satisfy the needs of The Id while taking account of the rules of The Superego. The Ego is the house of reason, of the economically thinking part of you; the part that decides to fulfill the most pressing urges first – like the urge to still our hunger – and postpone not so pressing urges – like the urge to have sex – to a point in time at which satisfying this urge might be more ‘appropriate’.

Now you can understand why Freud sees our sexual drives as the prime reason for all our psychological problems, right? After all, it isn’t easy to suppress our animalistic needs, put forward by The Id. That can only be done by repressing the beast that lives inside of us. Or, to put it more boldly, the beast that we simply are. But taming the beast does not make it fall asleep. The beast is still there, waiting for his opportunity to come. And when it comes, he unleashes his true nature. So we have to do everything within our power to shackle the beast, everything in order for us to live a ‘reasonable’ life.

There are – and have been – many criticisms about the scientific status of Freud’s ideas, and you might see why. It’s after all quite difficult to capture something as intangible as ‘The Id in terms of empirical data. Nonetheless, Freud’s ideas have found to be very influential within the domain of psychiatry, even though the current generation of psychology students hardly learns anything about them.

Ah well, scientific or not, it’s still a pretty fascinating point of view, right? Oh, and for the guy at the bar: he took the girl home.

But what do you think?

The Trick of Affection

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Or – to put it less cryptically – affection is fundamentally subjective in nature. In other words: there’s no single true conception of what to (dis)like. Some people “just happen to like” red and other people “just happen to like” blue. And – in contrast to our “knowledge” of what does and what doesn’t exist in nature, and in contrast to our political conceptions – we have no conscious reasons for liking something. And note the word “conscious” in the previous sentence.

Because we might have reasons for liking a particular brand of whiskey more than other brands, or for liking to wear ragged jeans with stains all over them instead of regular and decent jeans. We might “believe” that our brand of whiskey “just tastes better” than the other whiskeys, and that the ragged jeans that we like “just looks better” than the other kind of jeans. And it is this “just” tasting better or “just” looking better that is reason enough for us to buy the product associated with this feeling instead of the other products. It’s after all not our fault that we just happen to like these products, right? It’s just the way it is; it’s our nature. And why wouldn’t we accept our true nature? That would be nothing but a kick in the face of our identity, wouldn’t it?

Can you imagine how easy it must be for a marketer to lure us into buying his product? He only has to make sure that we “just happen to like” his product. Because that alone would be sufficient for us to run to the shops and buy it. And do you know what the best part of all of this is? They can mold us any way they want to. They can keep on promoting their products all day long until that point of no return is reached at which the person “just happens to like the product”; until the person reaches the point that he no longer needs any excuses for buying the product. The point at which the person feels capable of legitimately buying the product he “likes” in order to feed his “affection”. And that’s it. Case closed.

We don’t know how our affections are being created; how they are molded and how they are manipulated. All we know are the end products flowing out of the realm of our unconsciousness and into the shining light of our consciousness. So even though our affections might be kneaded and sculpted, even though we might be indoctrinated and deceived, all of this takes place within our unconsciousness; all of this takes place off stage, a domain that we do not have access to. All we know is what comes out of our very own factory of unconscious longings. And at that point, the point at which the affection enters our conscious experience, we are lost. Because it is then that a little voice inside of our head tells us, “you must not resist who you are. Face it: you just happen to like this product. Go for it!”

And that’s how we came to like those ragged jeans of ours.

But what do you think?