Yes, I think too much


with 4 comments

The French artist Magritte has a painting called “The Treachery of Images.” It’s a painting of a pipe which says under it, in French, “this is not a pipe”. Magritte was trying to point out that, even though if asked what it was when viewing the picture, we would say it was a pipe, though it is not actually a pipe. As he said, you can’t put tobacco in it and smoke it. It is an image of a pipe, a representation in two dimensions of a three dimensional object.

In terms of something even as concrete as a pipe, we can see that it is not only impossible to represent the real item in any way other than actually applying our sensory apparatuses to the actual object, but also that even the object itself is culturally or personally relative. What a European would have called a pipe in 18th century may  not have matched what a native people would have called a “pipe” in their culture. What is more, what we consider a “pipe” based on our senses – touch, smell, sight – is not truly what the “pipe” is from a deeper, more scientific perspective. It’s actually a collection of molecules, or, even more deeply, atoms, arranging themselves in a particular fashion. Not only is the image of a pipe not a pipe, but what we perceive it to be from a certain perspective isn’t the true essential nature of a “pipe”.

The way in which we conceptualize and represent various thoughts and concepts is often hamstrung by our ability to properly represent the deeper reality in concepts that are not equivalent to that real thing. With the pipe, we can at least more easily reach a consensus on what may be considered the “real” thing. With more sophisticated and less tangible things, such as the human psyche or personality, it becomes that much more difficult to verbally represent the true thing. We can’t see a psyche, nor touch it, nor hear it. Talking about something so ethereal is an inestimable challenge.

Like the pipe, talking about psychology is culturally and personally relative. My pipe may not look like your pipe so I may disagree that what you are holding is indeed a “pipe” and not some distorted looking contraption that performs a similar function to a “real” pipe, but no person in his “right mind” would call it a “pipe” in my culture. Terms that exist in one culture’s psychological practices may not exist in another because the behavior is not a priority or even considered a problem in another culture. In Japan, the word “amae” is used to talk about a psychological situation in which a person tries to manipulate, coerce, or rely on others in order to look after his or her own needs or interests. This is an issue in Japan because social pressure and responsibility are dealt with differently. In Western cultures, such behavior would be unlikely to elicit the desired response, so it is rarely a problem. Therefore, a term for this condition or action does not exist. The way in which we conceptualize personality, dysfunction, and consciousness is framed by our perspective.

Since consciousness, the psyche, and personality are broad, complex, and individual in nature, each manner in which these concepts are divided in order to understand them is a little different. Freud divided the psyche into the id, ego and superego. The terms are esoteric and seem unnecessarily unapproachable. The explanations seem a little bizarre, and don’t suit what we feel is our real mental interaction with ourselves, but I’m sure that they made perfect sense from Freud’s perspective. The terms themselves tend to undermine our acceptance of them, but so does the fact that we may not feel that Freud’s particular division of the psyche “fits” our concept of self.

Recently, I mentioned that I was reading a book on Transactional Analysis, and it carries a variation on Freud’s concept of the psyche. It uses the words “parent”, “child”, and “adult”. Unfortunately, these terms are so simplified and so well-known for their more common meanings, that they come across as trite and make the entire underlying concept smack of pop psychology. Using approachable terms which are well understood is as fraught with difficulty and unwanted nuance as using exotic ones.

As I continue to read this book, the idea that dividing the psyche and labeling its elements is an impossible task became clearer than ever before. Such theoretical subdivisions are necessary as a means to help to understand our thought processes, but they will always fail because something as vast and complex as the processes which underly human consciousness cannot be accurately divided into pieces. In order to continue studying psychology, I have to accept the imperfections in the various theories and applications and find the value in what rings true and embrace the fact that these concepts are designed not as perfect representations of our psychological mechanisms, but as crude representations that are the best that we can do. Just as an image of a pipe is the best you can do to convey the idea of what that object is in the absence of the real thing, concepts like the id, ego, and superego or parent, child, and adult are possibly the best that their creators can do to convey their theories.


Written by yesithinktoomuch

November 7, 2010 at 2:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. The Treachery Of Images…..
    one of my faves…

    anne h

    November 7, 2010 at 11:33 am

  2. Yes, everything I perceive is constructed by previous conditioning: social, cultural, personal, interpersonal, familial, educational, and so forth. In a sense, all of my thoughts are constructed by conditioning. In a sense, it appears that all of my thoughts are simply neurochemical electrical impulses of an almost instantaneous nature, firing away without direction from my conscious control, even my motor neurons fire before the neurotransmitter that sends the *message* reaches my conscious awareness in the left hemisphere. Thus, the neural impulse to move my fingers over these keys has fired before any conscious awareness of movement or conscious *plan* to move them. I do not plan my thoughts. I do not anticipate them. I do not think in as much as thinking is happening and somehow *I* seem to be participating. But participating how? Control is an illusion, from my own experience, because it is a mental construction that, like the *pipe*, only approximates the *actual* state of affairs. So.

    The great questions remain: are we like beings in the Matrix…or participating in some infinite energy field as One zen-like Being…or separate physical entities that interact with our environments in random and/or causally conditioned ways….or “captains of our own ship”…or action figures directed by powers of which we know not…or at the mercy, like Odysseus, of the gods…? 🙂

    From Plato to Hume, Jesus to Buddha, idealism to positivism, dualism to nondualism (sic) and far beyond, we encounter an unlimited array of stories from which to sample and try on for fit. Each story will have a different resulting impact, perhaps, on the individual psyche who has been conditioned by the circumstances of every passing millisecond, perhaps, yet somehow we are each meant to sort this all out and arrive at the *correct* answer to live a life that has dignity…apparently.

    Is this what is meant by: “I think too much?” Hmmm. It seems to be contagious. That, and/or this is the human condition.

    Be well in peace, whoever you are. You are not alone.


    November 7, 2010 at 6:39 pm

  3. I just wanted to let you know that you are an incredibly smart and insightful person. Your writing is amazing, and your reflections on the issues you are thinking through is so interesting to read. I read a lot of the maintenance and weight loss blogs, and yours is like something from the New York Review of Books.

    Your comment in a recent post that you don’t have a replacement in your life for food really struck me. I understand slipping into depression, and don’t want to be Pollyanna-ish. That said, I wanted to share some reflections based on my own experience. To let you know where I am coming from, I’m a 47 year old attorney who has gained and lost weight throughout my life, and have most recently maintained a 50 lb loss (to my normal weight) for several years. From my perspective, exercise is an incredible thing. If you have time on your hands, as it seems you do now, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to spend it spending it doing exercise. Just spend the hours walking. I think you will find it amazing. Exercise doesn’t really result in weight loss. However, it is so incredibly positive — I truly believe that it could reverse your depression. You will see things walking around. You will think and reflect while doing this. And I do think it will help you with maintenance when that time arrives.

    Hang in there. You are an interesting and unique person. Carpe diem!


    November 8, 2010 at 12:01 am

    • Hi, Rebecca, and I’m sorry for the delay in moderating your comment. Thank you for your kind words about my writing. I appreciate it.

      I actually do walk about an hour a day. However, I have physical problems with my back and knees which make any sort of sustained exercise problematic. If I walk a great deal more than an hour, depending on the day, I suffer for it for weeks. Last time I “overdid it” by walking for about 2.5 hours one day, my right knee troubled me for 3 weeks. I had to sleep with it in a brace in addition to having pain and difficulty walking.

      I used to exercise a lot, and now I’m 46 years old and have had a few bad falls (one of which greatly damaged my knee). I also have a congenital spinal defect which causes back pain. So, I do like to exercise, but my body really isn’t strong enough to do as much as might be preferable.

      I appreciate you advice, even if I can’t really take it! 🙂


      November 17, 2010 at 1:06 pm

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