Neurosis and Normality:   Background Material and Thoughts

Frederick Michael Farrar


The mature feeling system is a high order self-governing organisation of lower order systems. These lower order systems are also self-governing, controlling their own inputs and outputs. They too have memory of their own pasts and are also organisations of even lower order systems. Ken Wilber1, following Arthur Koestler, takes this hierarchical embeddedness into account when he refers to each system as a holon, which is simultaneously both a whole and a part.

Each level of order prehends its own level of meaning, my use of the term “prehend” echoing Alfred North Whitehead’s2 use of the term, as distinct from “apprehend” which suggests a form of self-consciousness specific to the higher forms of organism. Being “unloved” doesn’t mean anything to a cell, but means a lot to an emotional person. On the other hand, touching a hot surface means a lot to a cell, aswell as to the emotional person. Each level of order remembers such an event according to the way in which it is affected by it.

Being as Awareness

Because each holon is the outcome of its own past, its entire body is nothing other than the concrete phase of a process of remembering. Hence, it is a mistake to see memory as a specific function of specialised organs, either inside or outside the holon. The holon itself is memory.

An entity which presents itself to us exists for us as an objective presence within our experience. We exist for ouselves as both an objective presence and as the factness, or facticity, of that presence. This facticity leads to our sense of being a knower of facts. And in terms of self-coherence one of the most important facts which we know is that we are present as a being in a world. Furthermore our being in this world is not merely a fact but is also a task which we are already carrying out in a specific way. This specificity is the what-ness of our presence, our embodiment, whilst the sheer facticity of all this suggests our who-ness.

If an entity is, then it both has been, and is becoming. Its isness is the embodiment which connects what it has been to what it will be. One’s bodying is an act of coherence, not a thing in itself. To body is to remember. If we grasp this then we have begun to appreciate the impact of modern cybernetics and system’s theory on the life sciences. Embodiment simply cannot be understood merely by looking at anatomy or neurological behaviour patterns in a way which reduces the spatio-temporal whole to an assembly of atemporal parts. The element of temporal tension within the whole is critical in understanding embodiment. Embodiment is intrinsically a mnemonic process.

Consciousness as Intensification of Awareness

A cell remembers how to be a cell. It knows how to overcome some of the conditions which act against its becoming a cell. But its options are very limited and confined to a narrow range of environments. It’s memory is correspondingly shallow and restricted. In contrast, multicellular organisms are coherent organisations which allow groups of cells greater mobility. This extends the range of environmental conditions which cellular life can inhabit, and also extends and deepens their capacity for memory or knowledge. With the process of evolution of multi-cellular organisms we see greater and and more refined developments of the capacity for movement, which extends and intensifies the habitable environment. Intensification of presence through rapid flexible movement is made possible by rapid flexible restructuring of an organism’s body whilst preserving its fundamental organisation - in other words, by rapid but coherent bodying activity3 What the body has done becomes what the body is and informs what the body is doing now. The determinateness of the body’s form is its embodiment of its past.

It is reasonable to suppose that an entity’s memory spans the period of its coherence, and that the proliferation of its motility is accompanied by an intensification of its determinateness or structure. What this period of coherence feels like is a function of the degree of intensity of its capacity to undergo structural change. At the level of a human organism’s structural intensity a cell constitutes a very small element in its experience, whereas the life of a close friend is a very large element, sharing an equivalent band of structural intensity and experiential diversity.

The diversity of experience of individual cells is determined by their structural intensity. The diversity of experience of living tissue is determined by the structural intensity of both the individual cells of which it is composed, and the relationships they are able to form with each other. This includes immediate spacial proximity but also includes the exchange of biochemicals, electrical potentials and so on. Clearly, the whole is greater, or in this case, more intense, than the sum of its parts. With the evolutionary complexification of the nervous system we see a huge intensification of the relationships between the various tissues and organs of the body, leading ultimately to the hierarchical organisation of the human brain into the three distinct areas of autonomous, limbic and conceptual functionality. It is important to realise that this tripartite brain is not the “seat” or source of experience, but rather, is an objective description of the means whereby experience is intensified and thus made capable of greater diversity.

Awareness cannot be reduced to something else. Futhermore, it is a well known anomaly in cognitive science that if one explains awareness as a product of material processes then its evolutionary function cannot be explained or understood at all. Awareness merely becomes a byproduct of material processes which could get on just as well without it! This is the paradox known as epiphenomenalism, which, if not resolved, discredits the entire scientific approach to consciousness and invites derision from the sceptically minded. It points out the limits of empiricism and anti-intellectualism. There is no empirical solution to the problem, for the simple reason that radical empiricism is the cause of the problem. Absolute objectivism, or empiricism, as a world view, is a distortion of consciousness which has had disastrous results for mankind. It reinforces a view of nature as a mere aggregation of separately existent entities, in which feeling is a burden and a nuisance, and in which desperate clinging to one’s own life and property is the highest achievement one can aim for. In short, it has led to the utter impoverishment of the human spirit we see all around us today. We no longer feel  a part of nature but apart from it.

Consciousness is not an epiphenomenon. It is not a product of synapses, neurons, lobes, neurotransmitters, or any combination of these things. If we wish to overcome conceptual reinforcement of repression of feeling we must abandon this way of thinking. We are under no obligation to answer to those who continue to think like this, because their questions are flawed from the beginning. Our anatomy, considered as an object of knowledge, is the determinate form of something that we have done. By doing it we made it into a determinate form which we were able to perceive later as an object. Its objectness is a result of our own self-coherence, that is, of our own sentient being. Mind and matter are merely different phases in a single intentional process. Neither is the cause of the other, although different phases do condition each other.

Memory as Determinate Form within a Coherent Movement

A holon coheres by organising its environment into its own pattern of coherence. This pattern is the determinateness of its own past action. Its present is the spontaneous movement which determines its indeterminate future. This spontaneity is the very essence, not only of organic life, but of existence per se. It abides as, and arises from, the determinateness of its own previous movement, which is the eternal starting point of its present movement into the future. I use the word “eternal” to acknowledge that every moment is both a determinate beginning and at the same time part of a flowing movement. These are two different ways of looking at the same thing. It sounds paradoxical in abstract thought but it is perfectly obvious in concrete experience.

Given that self-coherence is an intentional process, it is inevitable that its achievement of its goal is the focal point of oscillating behaviour. The range of oscillation permissable is determined by the behavioural possibilities of the organism. The actual oscillations constitute the organism’s life. In qualitative terms these oscillations are experienced as values, ranging from extreme pain to intense pleasure. As values they are determinate embodiments of previous oscillations, both of the individual organism, and of its species predecessors. They condition future spontaneity so that they are continually embellished with new experience which in turn further conditions spontaneity.

Pain and Pleasure as Functions of Coherence

The further an organism strays from its goal of self-coherence the greater the intensity of the determinate qualities of experience which condition spontaneity. Intensity can here be seen to be a product of determinateness in relation to environmental variables. So, embodiment, amongst other things, acts as an amplifier which allows increase or decrease of the tension felt by the organism as the urgency with which it wishes to act. Extreme pain is the intensely felt desire to move away from the present situation, whilst intense pleasure is the strong desire to further participate in it. Thus, pain and pleasure are functions of the organism’s own system of coherence.

World as Enactment

The life which an organism has lived becomes concretised in the organism’s form, which is to say that its form embodies, or enacts4, a spatio-temporal being-in-a-world.This is why we can distinguish between perception of the immediate past and perception of the more distant past. The form of this enactment is an integral phase in the organismic movement guiding its self-coherence, and as a result the organism is able to understand and exploit its environment. In the human being this occurs with unprecedented depth and efficiency.

How We Stop Falling to Pieces

How do organisms, and in particular, the human organism, respond to disintegrating pressures? At the cellular level they do very little compared to a highly evolved multi-cellular organism. Mostly they rapidly succumb to disintegration and die. But at the tissue level, coordinated responses usually take place which seek to isolate and contain damage in order to protect the tissue as a whole. Usually, highly mobile specialised cells circulate tissues in readiness for any intrusions into the body space. If this happens they are able to recognise the nature of the intrusion and mass reproduce themselves in forms which can effectively counter the intrusion and destroy it. If these repulsions are successful, tissues are able to generate scar tissue which heals the associated wounds. At the level of the limbic system, that part of the nervous system which controls limb movements and emotional gestures, awareness of disintegration galvanises the organism into the fight-flight response in the hope of halting the process before it becomes irreversible. This involves coordinated activity of the autonomous nervous system which increases the heart rate, supplies the appropriate biochemicals, increases cortical tone and constricts the capillaries of the body surface whilst maximising bloodflow to the muscles, a complex of responses known as the the autonomous nervous system’s sympathetic mode. At the level of conceptual consciousness, the mind becomes acutely concentrated on recognising the nature of the threat to the system in order to maximise the effectiveness of bodily actions.

We can see then that disintegration is a process of undoing what the self-cohering process is trying to do. The more complex the organism the greater its chance of peripheralising the disintegration so that its central functions remain in tact. An organism may survive a greater degree of damage to its periphery than to its centre.

Positive Feedback Loops

Should the fight-flight response exacerbate the situation then the organism is caught in a positive feedback loop, or what RD Laing called, a double bind. The more it struggles the more it hurts the more its struggles the more it hurts... Such a logic, left unattended to, would rapidly spiral out of control. Were it not for the disruption of bodily functions, or, where possible, the intervention of higher levels of consciousness, such a spiral would result in total exhaustion of the system, or death. From this point of view both chaotic disorder, or conscious high-order interventions, are preferable to allowing a painful positive feedback spiral to run amok. In healthy, relatively mature individuals, such a scenario might lead to further maturation. But where that is not possible the organism merely suffers damage to its integrity in the forms of physical and psychological wounding. There may be cellular damage, fragmentation of biochemical systems, cardiac arrythmias, fluctuations in blood pressure and other vascular functions, chronic loss of appetite or aggression, seizures, fainting, compulsive or irrational behaviour and so on and so forth. The individual may recover from these disorders but the memory of fragmentation will always be there as a source of potential weakness. Any subsequent events which awaken that memory will tend to recreate the way in which that fragmentation was dealt with, which was the autonomous nervous system’s parasympathetic mode. This is the classic physiological healing response, which tries to conserve energy and repair body tissues, but which in its immediacy, excludes support for vigorous emotional responses.

The Case for Unfelt Pain?

Neither of the two styles of emotional disturbance, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic, supports unequivocally the idea of repression of old unfelt pain. In the case of the sympathetic type, disintegrating pressure has been felt but has been counteracted by behaviour centred on the fight-flight response. Almost by definition this type seems not to have been overwhelmed by painful experience, although that experience may have been terrifying in the extreme and difficult to remember in normal circumstances. Nevertheless, such intense remembered experience may act as a repellant attractor5, organising life around it but without ever making itself a direct object of consciousness due to its disturbing nature. The earlier such experience has been encountered the more generalised its effects must be throughout later development. The problem however need not be the unfeelability of the pain, but rather the opposite, its feelability. The person is not overwhelmed by it. She just wants to avoid feeling it. Her problem is how to use it as an informative guide without being debilitated by the full extent of its disintegrative power. This power is a determinate negative value and as such is a structure which can amplify the flow of the organismic movement. It is not necessary to explain its dormant power in terms of a repressed bundle of reverberating energy. Whenever the individual generalises from it in response to a similar stimulus in her life, she begins to feel this amplification and anticipates its full reappearance in the new situation. As a consequence she does what she has learned is effective in this situation and plunges into the fight-flight response. Insofar as this painful experience has become an embodied structure there is no possibility of its being expunged or released cathartically. It has become part of the body and will remain there until death. How it is managed, however, is an open question.

In the case of the parasympathetic type, early experience has overwhelmed the fight-flight response. In her case, when life reminds her of this, she slips into the energy conserving mode. She feels passive with regard to the wounding and only capable of healing the damage already done. She doesn’t fight back with her whole system. Her fate is felt to be outside of her control. She is convinced at the deepest level that aggressive struggle will make matters worse, whatever the problem, and so she dislikes excitement. For her death is never very far away.

The Problem of Overgeneralisation

The biggest problem presented by early life-threatening situations is that they produce massive generalised effects due to the lack of perceptual differentiation of the immature consciousness. They arose when all we were aware of was a vague intuition of self and other, rather than the clear knowledge of a wasp, for instance, stinging our hand. The latter memory makes us feel bad about wasps. The former makes us feel bad about the whole world.

Secondly, because the memory of such situations’ intensity involves re-experiencing that intensity, we never do that unless it is absolutely necessary. This deprives us of important knowledge which might help us reassess our world and overcome our immature overgeneralised system of values. If we could know where and why our attitudes began we would be in a position to make such a reassessment. The sympath may learn that not every problem requires a full blown fight-flight response to solve it. The parasympath may realise that not every struggle is going to kill her. Both types could do something unprecedented in their own lives: they could change their minds. They could do something different to what they have always done. They could begin to fulfill their needs creatively instead of following the habits of a lifetime. Surely this is why feeling one’s primal pain is so liberating. It is not a release but an empowerment.

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1st July 1997

1. “Sex, Ecology and Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution” - Ken Wilber, Shambhala.

2. “Physics and the Nature of Time” - edited by David Griffin, SUNY

3. “The Tree of Knowledge” - Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana, Shambhala

4. “The Embodied Mind” - Varela, Thomson and Rosch, MIT

5. “The Radiance of Being” - Allan Combs, Floris Books

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