Id, Ego SuperEgo
& The Triune Brain

The concept of id, ego, superego are the key elements of a hypothetical structure of the mind, visualized by Sigmund Freud. His related theories formed the foundation for psychoanalysis, which has become the most widely used method of psychotherapy. Psychoanalysis is the clinical method for treating psychopathology through dialogue between a patient and a psychoanalyst. The founding aim of the treatment was to curb neurotic behaviors through the assisted recall of suppressed memories. This requires the identification of complex defense mechanisms, which suppressed unwelcome memories.

While psychoanalysis has become a major field of therapy, it gained little from Freud's ideas.  This article seeks to clarify weaknesses in the
dense, pedantic and abstruse complexities involved in Freud's visualization of the structure of the mind as well as the complicated processes suggested by him for the revelation of suppressed memories.

The three parts of Freud's “unconscious” mind, the id, the ego and the superego, stood for an instinctual drive, a realistic intelligence and a social/inner moral sense. According to his theory, "Transference neuroses correspond to a conflict between the ego and the id; narcissistic neuroses, to a conflict between the ego and the superego; and psychoses, to one between the ego and the external world." For many modern psychologists, Freud's psychoanalysis relied too much on ambiguous data, including dreams and free associations and failed to yield reliable standards for treatment.

Freud's “three parts” also provided an oversimplified map of the “unconscious.” Since, in normal parlance, an “unconscious” mind does not respond to stimuli, this article describes the nerve cell pattern recognition processes, which occur beneath conscious awareness as “subconscious” events. Unlike Freud's narrow focus on repressed memories as the trigger for emotional turmoil, history has proved that psychological problems originate from myriad sources and many fields of treatment have successfully delivered tangible emotional relief to people.

Id, Ego SuperEgo And The Triune Brain
As against Freud's theory of interactions between a primitive instinct (id), a realistic brain (ego) and a conscience (superego), an emotion controlled triune brain, proposed by Paul D. MacLean, provides a more substantive evolutionary substructure for the mind.  The concept separates the evolutionary stages in the development of the control processes in the brain. The first stage controlled raw animal reactivity to direct stimuli, and approximated to the reptilian brain. The second stage mammalian brain added more complex feeling/emotion controls, which triggered instinct/experience based behavioral responses. In the third human stage, the prefrontal regions generated behaviors based on rational evaluations. 

While Freud visualized a “seething cauldron of the unconscious,” the subconscious nervous system actually consists of the competing emotional drives including anger, fear, sadness, disgust, contempt, curiosity, surprise, love, pleasure, embarrassment, guilt, and shame.  Each of these emotions is supported by programmed behavior patterns, developed over millions of years. Over a lifetime, the more active emotions can also gain abnormal strength through LTP, neural plasticity and neuronal reverberation (habit). Psychological problems result from the over activity of such drives.

Intuition is the pattern recognition mechanism, which focuses the control of the system to a single emotion by inhibiting other “irrelevant” emotional impulses. In an animal, this inhibition process inhibits the option to drink, when the urge to eat grass is selected. In the “two faces, or a vase” visual experiment, intuition inhibits recognition of two faces, when the mind identifies the vase. The emotional drives, which inhibit rationality whenever a negative emotion is in control, remain at the root of psychological problems.

Id, Ego SuperEgo – Id Ignores The Amygdala
Living in a sexually bottled up society, Freud saw the id, desiring the satisfaction of sex, as the most fundamental instinctual drive. The id was a primary instinctual force, which was unresponsive to the demands of reality. It was the source of bodily needs, wants, desires, and impulses, particularly sexual and aggressive drives. T
he id was like a child - “an alimentary tract with no sense of responsibility at either end.” It was a mass of instinctive drives and impulses, dominated by the pleasure principle, which sought immediate gratification. It contained the libido, an elemental mental force, and was the only component of personality that contained drives present from birth.

People guided by the id would act without discretion to meet immediate desires. Freud even suggested a death instinct, which sought to “lead organic life back to its inanimate state.” The id included this “instinct of destruction, directed against the external world.” A
t the deepest level of the unconscious, id ruled in a chaos, in a “dark inaccessible part of the personality, in a cauldron seething with energy and excitations,” seeking the satisfaction of instinctual needs. A “pleasure principle” also included a drive to avoid pain or “unpleasure,” through the arousal of instinctual tension.

In reality, the avoidance of pain, not the gratification sexual drives, provides the most powerful drive within the nervous system.
During the early beginnings of life, nature developed the amygdalae as a defense response mechanism for animals. Intuitively recognizing danger patterns in the potential for pain, the organs enabled animals to fight, freeze, or escape. As essential as the vertebrae, these organs protected fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals from harm. In reality, angry, destructive, or fearful drives from the amygdala dominate the system while seeking self protection through the early detection of the potential for physical, or social pain. Freud's description of the id, as the principal elemental instinct, fails to fit facts.


Id, Ego SuperEgo – Ego Mixes Rational & Emotional Drives
Freud presents the ego as a part of the id modified by contact with the external world. It is a mental agent mediating among three contending forces: the outside demands of social pressure or reality, libidinal demands for immediate satisfaction arising from the id, and the moral demands of the superego. Although considered only partly conscious, Freud considered the ego to constitute the major part of consciousness. Conflicts between the id, the ego and the superego formed crucial factors in the development of neuroses. The ego mediated between the id and reality by cloaking id demands with the preconscious rationalizations of the ego. The ego would resist the urge to grab other people's belongings by purchasing them for one's self.

Freud presents the ego as the entity which mediates between instinctual responses and extreme social demands. Originally, Freud used the word ego to mean a sense of self, but later revised it to mean a set of behaviors, including judgment, tolerance, reality testing, control, planning, defense, synthesis of information, intellectual functioning, and memory. These can also be termed adult behaviors, which can be coldly rational, or kind and compassionate. The prefrontal regions and emotions produce the patterns of human behavior. Rational behavior is initiated by the prefrontal regions and compassionate behavior by the mirror neuron circuits in the insular cortex, which are said to grant a person a sense of empathy. With “Ego,” Freud combined two distinctly different drives into a single structure.

Id, Ego SuperEgo – SuperEgo, A Narrow View
Nature, in its massively evolved wisdom, created the conditions for herds of animals to live in peace and harmony. The mirror neuron system, (MNS), gave an animal inner awareness of the experiences and the pain of its neighbor. With empathy, the MNS built love and compassion into the nature of the herd. Only the failure of the MNS caused psychopathic behaviors.

But, in its dogged search for repressed memories, Freud's psychoanalysis attributed suppressed sex related anger, guilt and fear to be the initiators of appropriate social behavior. Living in a sexually repressed society, Freud focused on sex as the final determinant of personality. According to him, the Oedipus complex gave each child a desire to sexually possess the parent of the opposite sex! Repression of this desire developed a superego, which punished inappropriate behavior with guilt. It was repression, which developed an individual's sense of what was right and wrong. The superego was a domineering parental drive, which compelled the ego of a person to act according to his own conscience. The superego concept casts a pall of psychoanalytic suspicion on individual acts of honor, justice and compassion.

Freud focused on the superego as compelling proper social behavior through guilt. The insular cortex triggered pain for a variety of emotions. Comparison drives triggered the pain of envy and jealousy. Failure to meet social norms triggered the pain of guilt. In response, the amygdala set off pain avoidance activities. People don't behave appropriately, because they hear the strictures of their parents. Their behaviors occur, because they internally sense the needs of the society they live in. Good behavior may not be the result of “censorship or repression” by a superego, but by a globally evaluated decision making process, which balances social needs against personal needs.

Id, Ego SuperEgo – Unconscious Vs. The Subconscious
Freud provides a confusing picture of the “unconscious.” He divided the mind into the three elements of conscious, preconscious, and unconscious. According to him, the conscious contained events that we were aware of. The preconscious contained events that were in the process of becoming conscious. The unconscious had events that we were not aware of. Subsequently, Freud made the "disagreeable discovery” that conscious events and repressed and unconscious events did not coincide. Freud named this chaotic and conflicting unconscious region the “id.” In addition, conscious awareness resides in the ego, although not all of the operations of the ego are conscious. Although the id is unconscious by definition, the ego and the super-ego are both partly conscious and partly unconscious. Freud's divisions of conscious, preconscious, and unconscious cast a confusing veil over the acknowledged mystery of consciousness.

While science has discovered the neural correlates of consciousness, nothing in the physical world can explain our subjective experience of the three dimensional world of color, sound and sensations. While billions of nerve cells fire to enable us to subconsciously recognize the ideas in this page, or manage heartbeat and breathing, there is an entity, the neural correlates of consciousness, forming a small fraction of the multi-billion cell network, which sees the words on this page - conscious awareness.

In the theory of complex systems, emergence is the effect, where new patterns arise out of myriad simple interactions. New properties do emerge at higher levels of complexity. Psychology emerges from biology and biology from chemistry. The whole completely differs from the sum of its parts. Could consciousness emerge into a non physical knowledge dimension as the complexity of a neural network increases?

The brilliant experiments of Benjamin Libet help to clarify some elements of this mystery. He
studied subjects who voluntarily pressed a button, while noting the position of a dot on a computer screen, which shifted its position every 43 milliseconds. The noted moment of depressing the button was the moment of conscious awareness; the exact instant the subject thought the button was pressed. Each time, Libet had also timed the beginning of motor neuron activity in the brains of his subjects. He discovered that conscious awareness occurred 350 milliseconds AFTER the beginning of subconscious motor neuron activity. While Freud leaves us confused, Libet has at least managed to link the mystery of consciousness to measurable human responses.


Id, Ego SuperEgo – Freud's Psychoanalysis
Freud laid the conscious identification of repressed memories as the foundation for psychoanalytic therapy. He focused on sex as a determinant of personality. His examples were drawn from a narrow group of nineteenth century upper-class Austrian women living in a sexually repressed society. Psychoanalysis focused on early childhood, since many human conflicts originate in the first years of a person's life.

According to Freud, the patient's mind was endeavoring to hide the underlying problem through myriad defense mechanisms. The psychiatrist had to distinguish between them. They included repression, forgetfulness, reaction-formation, regression, displacement, and rationalization, denial, displacement, intellectualization, fantasy, compensation, projection, reaction formation, regression, repression, and sublimation, which acted to protect the conscious mind from an unacceptable reality. Freud's daughter Anna Freud added more mechanisms, including undoing, suppression, dissociation, idealization, identification, introjection, inversion, somatisation, splitting, and substitution. The psychoanalyst required frequent sessions with a client over a period of years to uncover the problem.

Id, Ego SuperEgo – Not The Detection Of Repression
In the meanwhile, beyond Austria, enlightened thinkers on many continents endeavored over the ages to bring mankind freedom from emotional turmoil. These processes had little to do with the revelation of suppressed memories. The stilling of emotions through meditation, yoga and breath control handed over controls to the prefrontal, or to higher level emotional regions in the insular cortex. This enabled reason, or love and compassion to take control of the mind. Mindfulness courses improved the performance of novice meditators on tasks of sustained attention and working memory. They were less depressed than those who did not receive such training.

Focusing, developed by Eugene Gendlin, was not about repression. In Focusing, patients achieve success by recognizing a “Bodily Felt Sense,” related to a painful emotion. Such recognition led to sudden insights, accompanied by body relaxation indicators and increases in EEG alpha frequencies. The Focusing Institute reported successful outcomes for prison inmates, psychotic patients, the elderly and in patients with health related issues.

Despair was not caused by suppressed memories. As a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps, the famed psychiatrist Frankl learned that discovering a purpose in life, however simple, was the key to survival in an unbearably cruel world. After the war, he established a major field in psychiatry, assisting thousands of suicidal patients around the world to recover by discovering an acceptable purpose in life.

The Emotional Freedom Technique, EFT, developed by Gary Craig, is also not about sexual repression. EFT simplified ancient acupressure techniques into a simple one minute exercise. Tapping identified nodal points in the body effectively brought about a powerful reduction in emotional turmoil. Thousands of people acknowledge measurable reduction in the intensity of their emotions at the end of this one minute process. While Freud's concept of psychoanalysis has contributed significantly to reduce emotional turmoil, his theories of mental structures appear to lead the field of mental health into the wilderness.

This page was last updated on 21-Jan-2016.



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