Me, myself and the Iceberg

At the same time that Charles Darwin was publishing his revolutionary book The Origin of Species, a three-year-old boy from Moravia was moving with his family to Vienna. This boy, Sigmund Freud, would grow up with a brand-new Darwinian worldview in which man was no different from any other life-form, and the scientific spotlight could be cast on the complex fabric of human behavior.

The young Freud went to medical school, drawn there more by scientific research than clinical application. He specialized in neurology and soon opened a private practice in the treatment of psychological disorders. By carefully examining his patients, Freud came to suspect that the varieties of human behavior were explicable only in terms of unseen mental processes, the machinery running things behind the scenes. Freud noticed that often with these patients there was nothing obvious in their conscious minds driving their behavior, and so, given the new, machinelike view of the brain, he concluded that there must be underlying causes that were hidden from access. In this new view, the mind was not simply equal to the conscious part we familiarly live with; “rather it was like an iceberg, the majority of its mass hidden from sight.”

This simple idea transformed psychiatry. Previously, aberrant mental processes were inexplicable unless one attributed them to weak will, demon possession, and so on. Freud insisted on seeking the cause in the physical brain. Because Freud lived many decades before modern brain technologies, his best approach was to gather data from the “outside” of the system: by talking to patients and trying to infer their brain states from their mental states. From this vantage, he paid close attention to the information contained in slips of the tongue, mistakes of the pen, behavioral patterns, and the content of dreams. All of these he hypothesized to be the product of hidden neural mechanisms, machinery to which the subject had no direct access.

By examining the behaviors poking above the surface, Freud felt confident that he could get a sense of what was lurking below. The more he considered the sparkle from the iceberg’s tip, the more he appreciated its depth—and how the hidden mass might explain something about people’s thoughts, dreams, and urges.

Applying this concept, Freud’s mentor and friend Josef Breuer developed what appeared to be a successful strategy for helping hysterical patients: ask them to talk, without inhibition, about the earliest occurrences of their symptoms. Freud expanded the technique to other neuroses, and suggested that a patient’s buried traumatic experiences could be the hidden basis of their phobias, hysterical paralysis, paranoias, and so on. These problems, he guessed, were hidden from the conscious mind. The solution was to draw them up to the level of consciousness so they could be directly confronted and wrung of their neurosis-causing power. “This approach served as the basis for psychoanalysis for the next century.

While the popularity and details of psychoanalysis have changed quite a bit, Freud’s basic idea provided the first exploration of the way in which hidden states of the brain participate in driving thought and behavior. Freud and Breuer jointly published their work in 1895, but Breuer grew increasingly disenchanted with Freud’s emphasis on the sexual origins of unconscious thoughts, and eventually the two parted ways. Freud went on to publish his major exploration of the unconscious, The Interpretation of Dreams, in which he analyzed his own emotional crisis and the series of dreams triggered by his father’s death. His self-analysis allowed him to reveal unexpected feelings about his father—for example, that his admiration was mixed with hate and shame. This sense of the vast presence below the surface led him to chew on the question of free will. He reasoned that if choices and decisions derive from hidden mental processes, then free choice is either an illusion or, at minimum, more tightly constrained than previously considered.

By the middle of the twentieth century, thinkers began to appreciate that we know ourselves very little. We are not at the center of ourselves, but instead—like the Earth in the Milky Way, and the Milky Way in the universe—far out on a distant edge, hearing little of what is transpiring.

Freud’s intuition about the unconscious brain was spot-on, but he lived decades before the modern blossoming of neuroscience. We can now peer into the human cranium at many levels, from electrical spikes in single cells to patterns of activation that traverse the vast territories of the brain. Our modern technology has shaped and focused our picture of the inner cosmos, and in the following chapters we will travel together into its unexpected territories.

How is it possible to get angry at yourself: who, exactly, is mad at whom? Why do rocks appear to climb upward after you stare at a waterfall? Why did Supreme Court Justice William Douglas claim that he was able to play football and go hiking, when everyone could see that he was paralyzed after a stroke? Why was Topsy the elephant electrocuted by Thomas Edison in 1916? Why do people love to store their money in Christmas accounts that earn no interest? If the drunk Mel Gibson is an anti-Semite and the sober Mel Gibson is authentically apologetic, is there a real Mel Gibson? What do Ulysses and the subprime mortgage meltdown have in common? Why do strippers make more money at certain times of month? Why are people whose name begins with J more likely to marry other people whose name begins with J? Why are we so tempted to tell a secret? Are some marriage partners more likely to cheat? Why do patients on Parkinson’s medications become compulsive gamblers? Why did Charles Whitman, a high-IQ bank teller and former Eagle Scout, suddenly decide to shoot forty-eight people from the University of Texas Tower “ in Austin?

What does all this have to do with the behind-the-scenes operations of the brain?

As we are about to see, everything.

 Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

by David Eagleman 

Me, myself and the Iceberg by Manuel Fraga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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