The most difficult task facing us as physicians is to see things as they really are.
The Unconscious Mind
An Essay in the Context of the Rapid Reintegration Procedure
By John R. Tkach, M.D. (Bozeman, MT, USA) and Edgar A. Barnett, M.D. (Kingston, ON, Canada)
We propose a new way of thinking about the mind and how it functions. There are three parts to the mind's consciousness and functions.
- Conscious Thinking (5%)
- Unconscious Physiologic Brain Functions (25%)
- Unconscious Thinking (70%)
(These percentages are estimates and not observationally proven.)
What we are proposing is that we are aware of only 5% of what goes on in our minds, and 95% is unconscious; that is, we are not consciously aware of it. We need the concept of the unconscious mind to explain the function of the conscious mind.
This essay presents a new theory of the unconscious mind within the context of Rapid Reintegration Procedure.
1. Conscious Thinking
If we take stock of all the processes going on in the brain and the mind, we estimate that one is consciously aware of only 5% of what's there. Let's call that the conscious mind. These are the thoughts we control, that we are aware of, logical, and easily accessible to our conscious awareness. This is the part doing critical thinking.
Although we are not aware of it, much of what happens in the conscious mind is highly influenced by activities in the unconscious mind.
2. Unconscious Physiologic Brain Functions
Another 25% of the brain's functions, the physiologic functions, goes to unconscious vital processes such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, release of regulatory secretions such as signals from the hypothalamus that tell the pituitary gland to make and release specific hormones. There is an elaborate network of nerves and pathways involved in this. There are even nerves that go to lymph nodes.
This part of the brain controls delivery of messages from the hypothalamus to endocrine end organs causing the release of hormones in the thyroid, gonads, and adrenal glands. The fight vs. flight process occurs quickly and automatically without our awareness.
Much of this functioning goes on in the primitive or reptilian brain. When you hear a loud or alarming sound, you reflexively turn your head toward the sound without consciously thinking about it.
When one urinates, men have two muscular valves (lissosphincter and rhabdosphincter), to turn the flow of urine on and off. Women have only one such valve (rhabdosphincter). We are not consciously aware of the complex signals going from the brain to the bladder and back to the spine and brain. This is a function that occurs at an unconscious level. But it is complicated.
Swallowing occurs in 13 steps, all done automatically. If you had to think each step through, you would not be able to eat or drink.
Peripheral proprioception and coordination of muscle activities by the cerebellum is automatic. Knowing where a limb is positioned, moving it, balance, and walking are unconscious.
Signalling the sequence of movements through the digestive system is unconscious. Clues include gurgling sounds coming from the bowel, and uncomfortable feelings with bloating. But, you do not feel you can control it.
Repetitive processes such as athletic training, musical performances, and driving may eventually become activities that one does without consciously thinking about them.
3. The Unconscious Mind
The third part of the mind accounts for 70% of what goes on in the mind. Its activity is hidden from consciousness, from our awareness most of the time. This is the unconscious mind. It is the most mysterious.
When ideas seemingly come to us out of nowhere, feelings suddenly and unexpectedly occur, or our behavior may be illogical, it is in response to a gigantic repository of experience and information hidden in the unconscious mind.
Little clues to the existence of the unconscious mind creep out from time to time in the form of feelings, dreams, and Freudian slips. While alluded to in earlier literature, recognition of the unconscious mind can be credited to Sigmund Freud. In1899, he published his book THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS (Die Traumdeutung).
For Freud, the access points to the unconscious were through dream contents and free association. Freud assigned identity to each element in the dream. Then he looked at how these dream elements were interacting. Based on that, he came up with an interpretation of that dream. Freud was good at this. This was a slow laborious process.
The psychoanalytic interpretation of dreams is highly subjective. Two different analysts could construct two entirely different interpretations of the same dream with no way to prove which interpretation is right.
We find free association especially interesting. With free association, the unconscious mind is struggling to express itself. It is taking the initiative to communicate. In RRP, we often find that people express the hidden, repressed critical material within the first 5-10 minutes of the therapy session.
Before Freud's interpretation of dreams, access to the unconscious mind was through hypnosis for example by some of Freud's teachers such as Jean Martin Charcot in France and Josef Breuer in Vienna.
Freud's complaint about hypnosis was that once the doctor had cleared up one symptom, a new symptom would take its place. The unconscious mind would simply substitute one symptom for another. Freud was right.
Taken together, the physiologic functions and the unconscious thinking comprise 95% of what goes on in the brain. That is, 95% of what goes on in the mind and brain is hidden from conscious awareness. This 95% comprises the unconscious mind.
Sleep is a special unconscious state because it straddles unconscious physiologic brain functions and the unconscious mind. During the first four hours of an eight-hour sleep period, metabolic processes are going on that refresh the brain chemistry.
The second four hours, involve rapid eye movement (REM) sleep that may be a poorly understood psychological process. That is; REM sleep is not passive. The unconscious mind is actively involved. This is where dreams are made. This is an oversimplification, but it is approximately correct. In some ways, sleep occurs in 90-minute cycles.
Let's say more about dreams. Sigmund Freud's interpretation of dreams was a milestone in the history of psychology. It was a brilliant discovery. Dreams are universally fascinating.
How does Rapid Reintegration Procedure handle the interpretation of dreams? We don't. For RRP, the important feature of dreams and especially nightmares is the feeling that goes with the dream or nightmare. That feeling is a direct communication from the unconscious mind.
It is the feeling that is the important feature of the dream and not the dream elements. This point of view can be considered a Freudian heresy.
How can features of a dream be used to help a patient? Does giving an interpretation of a dream help the patient or just entertain the therapist?
In RRP, we follow the feeling expressed in the dream and let it carry the patient back to the memory where that uncomfortable feeling arose. This procedure is called "affect bridge." Once the memory of the traumatic event has been discovered (uncovered), the conscious mind can be guided to resolving that traumatic event in a beneficial way that will free the patient from the unwanted symptom.
Subliminal advertising is unconscious and a coercive marketing tool that motivates people to buy popcorn at the movies. It can be expanded to other marketing arenas.
Hypnagogic imagery is the dreamlike imaging that occurs just before a person falls asleep behind the steering wheel. If you are driving and experience dream like images, pull off the road. You are seconds away from losing consciousness. I view hypnagogic imagery as a transition state between consciousness and unconsciousness rather than a special type of consciousness.
RRP was created by Edgar A. Barnett, M.D. in Kingston, Ontario, Canada in 1997. In creating RRP, Dr. Barnett reduced the psychotherapy process to its bare minimum essentials.
He also rejected using drugs if possible. The reason was that often drugs do not produce effective, long-lasting results. Many symptoms treated with drugs are often of emotional origin or have a strong emotional component.
RRP is symptom oriented and runs on feelings. Uncomfortable feelings arise from traumatic events that occurred in the past. Feelings develop in this sequence:
Hurt (Pain) -> Fear -> Anger -> Guilt
Repeated hurt leads to fear of repetition of the hurt. Fear leads to anger about having been hurt. Anger leads to guilt. Guilt is the most imprisoning of feelings. Depression is often the result of overwhelming anxiety. Depression and anxiety go together. Sadness is often due to the fear of loss and abandonment. Guilt and shame come from the fear of rejection. Anger is an escape from any of these feelings especially fear.
The unconscious mind is the repository of all experiences, good and bad. The feeling attached to traumatic events remains in the unconscious with the memory of the trauma. That feeling is just as intense today as on the day the traumatic event occurred years ago. In some cases, it serves a protective role especially in cases of childhood sexual abuse of girls.
Even though we are not aware of these repressed memories, they influence the unconscious mind and conscious behavior. Those conflicts from the past remain unresolved.
The way we deal with such traumatic events is for a part of the personality to remain behind in that ego state (dissociated ego state) to contain and deal with the trauma. Meanwhile, the main personality development marches on, but with that traumatized part stuck in the past and that conflict unresolved. That part of the self has lost its smile.
Then when events in the present occur that are reminiscent of the trauma in the past, a symptom tied into it is expressed. The symptom may be a feeling of great anxiety, or stage fright, or an inexplicable urge to overeat or get drunk, or claustrophobia or any one of thousands of distressing symptoms.
The goal of RRP therapy is to go back in the memory to where the traumatic event occurred, to rescue that ego state and then reintegrate it into the main personality. In this way, the patient gets his/her smile back. There may be several dissociated ego states attached to one symptom.
RRP has a different attitude toward the unconscious mind than Freud's and others' point of view. We have heard many therapists say that one must tread very carefully around the unconscious. They believe that if the therapist does something to alarm the unconscious or offend or alienate it, one will not get another chance to resolve that symptom. The commonly used expression we have heard is, "You only get one crack at the unconscious." They may fear the unconscious mind. They may view the unconscious as the enemy. What's going on is that they have encountered a hidden hostile parent ego state. But, that's not the whole unconscious mind. It is just a small but important part.
One of the reasons RRP works so well is that the patient is not required to tell the RRP therapist anything private, personal, secret, or embarrassing.
We offer a different point of view from the traditional concept of the unconscious mind.
With RRP, we consider the unconscious to be our greatest ally, and even a gracious and cooperative ally. There is a part of the unconscious mind many call the "Observing Ego." We often address it as the "Wise Part." Through one's entire life, the observing ego or wise part has been coldly, dispassionately, and objectively watching everything that has occurred to the patient and recording it. It knows where the problems arose.
The entree to the unconscious mind is by way of feelings. We start by assuring the patient he/she does not need to tell the therapist anything secret, personal, private or embarrassing. We then ask the patient to close the eyes and feel the feeling that goes with the symptom. That feeling carries the patient back to the memory of the traumatic event (affect bridge). We do not want the patient to relive the trauma, just review it. Once the repressed traumatic event is uncovered, the RRP therapist guides the patient to resolve it and reintegrate the personality.
RRP allows the therapist to communicate directly with the unconscious mind by techniques such as:
- Affect Bridge- this is the most amazing and reliable technique of RRP.
- Contracting with the observing ego
- Uncovering critical ( dissociated) ego states
- Guiding the patient to do the treatment
- Use of screen memory
- Allowing the observing ego to express itself.
- Reassurance and protection
- Validating feelings
- Music communicates directly with the unconscious mind and can evoke powerful feelings.
- Ideomotor finger signalling
- Deconstructing a hostile parent ego state and then reconstruction of a proper parent ego state.
Why is the unconscious mind so large? It is because there is a lot going on there. The main goal evolution has set forth for the mind is survival of the individual organism.
There is 14 times more activity going on in the unconscious mind than the conscious mind according to our proposed model. Why? What is going on in the unconscious mind that takes up so much of mind's resources?
Your observing ego, since birth, has been objectively and dispassionately recording everything that happens to you. Think of it as a movie recorded on film or videotape with a sound track. Each event in your life is a frame in the movie.
This is a special movie. This movie records the image, the sound, and the feelings that were present at the original traumatic event when that frame of the movie was created. Also included in this snapshot are all the connections in your mind at the time the snapshot was taken. It includes your attitude toward parents, teachers, friends, music lessons, what you ate, how tired you were, everything. While some uneventful frames of the movie may be deleted, the important, especially traumatic frames, are preserved.
Why? The purpose of your unconscious mind's making this "movie" is to help you survive. Hanging on to those memories may protect you from dangers and help you get along with people important to you. It may help you to hang on to memories you do not want to forget or protect you from guilt feelings.
There comes a time when the original reason for holding on to those memories has become obsolete, has passed. By continuing to hang on to those memories, unwanted symptoms occur. The role of RRP is to let go of those uncomfortable feelings and to help that dissociated ego state get its smile back.
Recovery of False Memories
In our experience, we believe that most of the time, uncovered memories revealed in RRP are accurate. However, in two settings, retrieval of memories may be distorted.
The mind does not like gaps in reality. When an alcoholic gets so intoxicated that memory is impaired, he/she may experience a blacked out time in the memory of part of that intoxication experience. The memory has simply been lost due to the chemical toxicity to the brain.
The unconscious mind compensates for the memory gap in reality by inventing some sort of account of events in that missing time period. It invents a memory to insert into the gap. To the person experiencing confabulation, the false, made-up memory seems real. Confabulation is different from lying.
The classic example is the alcoholic person waking up in the gutter or in jail and not remembering how he/she got there. This event is so shocking for some alcoholics that it initiates seeking help for alcoholism. It is the start of recovery.
2. Self Deceit
When the outcome of an event differs from what a person would like it to be, the unconscious mind may present it as a memory to the conscious mind in a more acceptable form. This self-deceit is unconscious and is different from a lie. One may remember one's score on a test or game as higher or better than it actually was. One may remember a personal relationship as having gone better than it actually did.
3. Expansion of the Unconscious Mind
As time passes, the unconscious mind expands. It is not an expansion of simple experiences with more material to store; that is, it is not proportional to a time-vectored phenomenon. It is not logical. Much of what happens in the unconscious, when surfacing to consciousness, seems illogical. If traced by affect bridge to their origins, the associations and attachments are understandable. As the origins of the associations are traced, the symptom development (formation) becomes ever more understandable.
As time passes, the connections made in the unconscious mind become ever more exponential. Each critical event becomes referenced to all other critical events in an increasingly complex pattern. The unconscious mind must keep track of these associations. It's a lot of work. The unconscious mind expands at an increasing rate beyond what the conscious mind can keep up with.
The key to understanding human behaviour lies in the unconscious mind, not the conscious mind. This is why, in RRP therapy, it is so important to contract with the observing ego. The observing ego knows everything the therapist needs to learn about that patient.
Contained within the unconscious mind is the path to curing the symptom. Contained within each symptom is the path to its own self-resolution, its own cure.
4. The Brain's Neural Network as a Field Programmable Gate Array (Dr. Tkach's Theory of Brain Function)
One of us, Dr. Tkach, has proposed that the neural network of the brain, the hard-wired parts, functions as a field programable gate array. (John Villasenor and William Mangione-Smith, Configurable Computing, Scientific American, June 1997.) This explains the great variety of physiologic brain functions, the versatility of the brain, its plasticity, and the resiliency of the brain.
The Mechanistic View
Some neurologists and neurobiologists reject the Freudian unconscious mind model as old fashioned and not useful. They prefer a mechanistic, molecular biology model that is still evolving. They draw an analogy to the difference between Newtonian kinematic physics and quantum electrodynamics. Kinematics is inadequate to derive the mathematical framework of quantum mechanics.
Similarly, they feel the unconscious mind model is inadequate to explain brain function. This logical positivist approach is optimistic that eventually all the brain functions can be explained by the molecular biology model.
What is all this business all about? It is survival. The number one task of each organism is to survive. Psychological trauma can threaten one's survival. Our minds evolved to handle trauma and survive. The human brain evolved in four steps. First was the reptilian brain. Much of the physiologic brain functions lie in the reptilian brain. As mammals evolved, the mammalian brain was added over the reptilian brain. From there the primate brain was added. Finally the human brain evolved with an enormous neocortex (frontal lobes). All these lines evolved from a common ancestor.
We no longer rely on being born with fur to survive cold weather like other animals. Instead, our advanced neocortex gave us the ability to make clothing and shelter. The most advanced human functions are speech and symbolic representation, reading and writing.
How is it possible for the brain, a 3 pound structure the size of a cantaloupe, to do so many complicated things? Is it magical or supernatural? It is mysterious only because we do not understand it yet. Once understood, it will seem simple.
Rev. May 31, 2012 copyright Dr. Tkach
Learn more about the Rapid Reintegration Procedure or buy a copy of Dr. Barnett and Dr Tkach's book.