Theories of Mind Through the Ages

I’ve started Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, which is about the intersection between ancient wisdom in modern neuroscience and psychology. I enjoyed his synthesis of the history of how people have thought about self-control, from intuition, to rigidly rational, to a refined combination of the two. It reminds me of Issac Asimov’s “The Relativity of Wrong.”

Human thinking depends on metaphor. We understand new or complex things in relation to things we already know. For example, it’s hard to think about life in general, but once you apply the metaphor “life is a journey,” the metaphor guides you to some conclusions: You should learn the terrain, pick a direction, find some good traveling companions, and enjoy the trip, because there may not be anything at the end of the road. It’s also hard to think about the mind, but once you pick a metaphor it will guide your thinking. Throughout recorded history, people have lived with and tried to control animals, and these animals made their way into ancient metaphors. Buddha, for example, compared the mind to a wild elephant:

“In days gone by this mind of mine used to stray whenever selfish desire or lust or pleasure would lead it. Today this mind does not stray and is under the harmony of control, even as a wild elephant is controlled by the trainer.”

Plato used a similar metaphor in which the self (or soul) is a chariot, and the calm, rational part of the mind holds the reins. Plato’s charioteer had to control two horses:

“The horse that is on the right, or nobler, side is upright in frame and well jointed, with a high neck and a regal nose;…he is a lover of honor with modesty and self-control; companion to true glory, he needs no whip, and is guided by verbal commands alone. The other horse is a crooked great jumble of limbs…companion to wild boasts and indecency, he is shaggy around the ears—deaf as a post—and just barely yields to horsewhip and goad combined.”

For Plato, some of the emotions and passions are good (for example, the love of honor), and they help pull the self in the right direction, but others are bad (for example, the appetites and lusts). The goal of Platonic education was to help the charioteer gain perfect control over the two horses. Sigmund Freud offered us a related model 2,300 years later. Freud said that the mind is divided into three parts: the ego (the conscious, rational self); the superego (the conscience, a sometimes too rigid commitment to the rules of society); and the id (the desire for pleasure, lots of it, sooner rather than later). The metaphor I use when I lecture on Freud is to think of the mind as a horse and buggy (a Victorian chariot) in which the driver (the ego) struggles frantically to control a hungry, lustful, and disobedient horse (the id) while the driver’s father (the superego) sits in the back seat lecturing the driver on what he is doing wrong. For Freud, the goal of psychoanalysis was to escape this pitiful state by strengthening the ego, thus giving it more control over the id and more independence from the superego.

Freud, Plato, and Buddha all lived in worlds full of domesticated animals. They were familiar with the struggle to assert one’s will over a creature much larger than the self. But as the twentieth century wore on, cars replaced horses, and technology gave people ever more control over their physical worlds. When people looked for metaphors, they saw the mind as the driver of a car, or as a program running on a computer. It became possible to forget all about Freud’s unconscious, and just study the mechanisms of thinking and decision making. That’s what social scientists did in the last third of the century: Social psychologists created “information processing” theories to explain everything from prejudice to friendship. Economists created “rational choice” models to explain why people do what they do. The social sciences were uniting under the idea that people are rational agents who set goals and pursue them intelligently by using the information and resources at their disposal.

But then, why do people keep doing such stupid things? Why do they fail to control themselves and continue to do what they know is not good for them? I, for one, can easily muster the willpower to ignore all the desserts on the menu. But if the dessert is placed on the table, I can’t resist it. I can resolve to focus on a task and not get up until it is done, yet somehow I find myself walking into the kitchen, or procrastinating in other ways. I can resolve to wake up at 6:00 A.M. to write; yet after I have shut off the alarm, my repeated commands to myself to get out of bed have no effect, and I understand what Plato meant when he described the bad horse as “deaf as a post.” But it was during some larger life decisions, about dating, that I really began to grasp the extent of my powerlessness. I would know exactly what I should do, yet, even as I was telling my friends that I would do it, a part of me was dimly aware that I was not going to. Feelings of guilt, lust, or fear were often stronger than reasoning. (On the other hand, I was quite good at lecturing friends in similar situations about what was right for them.) The Roman poet Ovid captured my situation perfectly. In Metamorphoses, Medea is torn between her love for Jason and her duty to her father. She laments:

“I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong.”

Modern theories about rational choice and information processing don’t adequately explain weakness of the will. The older metaphors about controlling animals work beautifully. The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.

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