Of Sigmund Freud, ghosts in the machine, and voices in the head: a capable overview of the hidden landscapes of the mind and how they came to be known.
Freud, writes English psychiatrist Tallis, believed that his “discovery” of the unconscious was as significant as Copernicus’s discovery of the heliocentric universe and Darwin’s formulation of the laws of evolution. He believed, too, that the characteristics that supposedly distinguish humans from lower animals, such as the possession of rationality and free will, were mere illusions—a view that drew considerable fire from the religiously inclined. Freud’s ideas are commonplace today, Tallis notes, but for much of the 20th century, scientists were not especially interested in the unconscious, having found, among other things, that “advances in drug treatments threatened to make psychoanalysis redundant” and that behavioristic theories of what makes humans tick were more satisfactory than such Viennese notions as transference and cathexis. In any event, Tallis adds, Freud did not discover the unconscious, whose existence the ancient Greek philosophers suspected and the mighty Leibniz took time out from inventing the calculus to ponder. Recent developments in the cognitive sciences, however, have restored the unconscious to an important place in theories of the mind. Now, Tallis observes, the dominant metaphor for the “automatic, unconscious processes operating in the brain” is borrowed from the world of computer processing, with the workings of the brain likened to the functioning of complex software. Today, he adds, the argument is not so much whether the unconscious exists as how it came to be and exactly how it works, with contending schools providing theories on such matters as the adaptive role of daydreams or the efficacy of hypnopedia, questions better suited to the lab than the couch.
Tallis is reasonably current with the exploding body of literature on the matter of the unconscious, and though his narrative is dry as a bone, he offers a competent survey that will be of interest to analysts and analysands alike.