Is There No Psychic Evolution?

Is There No Psychic Evolution?

We are almost completely unaware of the evolution of psychic function. We believe that people of ancient times were exactly like us, as if conscious human nature was born, like Paul Bunyan, in it’s present form, without any need for psychic leaps of understanding-perhaps most of which haven’t happened yet. Whether as archeologists, historians, sociologists, or anyone studying ancient times, we draw conclusions about motive and state of mind based upon present-time human consciousness, assuming that psychically we always have been like we are today, and always will be exactly the same.

Indeed the entity least studied on planet Earth is human nature. We know as much about ourselves as we know about the deep sea, less than 10% of which has ever been explored. We’ve found very exotic wonderful animals on the bottom of the ocean, and we’ve imagined strange and unfathomable traits in the dark recesses of our unconscious. But both deep places remain as mysterious and unknown as paleontology or archeology was 200 years ago-which may be how long it will take us seriously to understand ourselves.

After over 100 years of clinical study one would think that psychology would have revealed much more information. In a sense it has, though that knowledge is perceived so obliquely that we can’t see the forest for the trees. Studying ourselves is still very much like trying to understand the normal function of deep-sea creatures when the only way we can accurately examine them is to remove them from their natural environment. Indeed, except for psychotherapy, the study of psychic human nature is treated as a function of brain physiology, as if the human spirit derived from grey matter. Instead the human psyche is an intangible, ephemeral spiritual entity, unlike any other living creature, capable of observing and knowing itself.

Humanity has evolved some very virtuous and wonderful traits, like our ability much of the time to restrain a powerful tendency toward violence, and a capacity for thoughtful sensitive acts of caring and love. But in the study of psychology our principle efforts have been committed to discovering various kinds of psychopathology. Because of this emphasis upon illness, not much illumination has been shed upon normal human psychic function, which has been defined almost entirely in a negative way, as the absence of psychopathology. What a strangely dark cast to put upon what is assumed to be, in its normal state, at least in part the epitome of happiness and satisfaction? Why this predominant emphasis upon dysfunction?

Curiously, in spite of this clouded perspective, most of us regard ourselves as perfectly normal. If so, why do we spend so much time studying human pathologies? The average person would explain this as evidence that it’s the shrinks who are crazy, looking for insanity everywhere else but in themselves. In contrast professionals mostly avoid the issue, or put a positive cast upon what is by definition negative phenomena-in other words, pathology. There is at present a strong cultural movement to regard everything previously perceived as abnormal, as if it were indeed the epitome of normal. This includes everything from food binging to criminality.

In trying to make everything okay, yet professionally continuing to study the intimate details of psychopathology, what are we wrestling with? Insisting that we’re all perfectly normal, yet secretly worrying about things that feel quite beyond our capability, we struggle with how to put the pieces of this strange contradictory puzzle together. As a result of the environmental movement, many of us have begun to think of ourselves as a cursed and destructive species that deserves to be annihilated for the safety and survival off all other living things. Most likely, if we put all of this contradictory evidence together, it means that we’re gnashing our teeth in the sometimes-frightening dilemma of finding out just who we are-in spite of our pretense that we already know.

Until the last 200 to 300 years we’ve been exclusively the property of God, Who has, since time immemorial, defined who we are and what we’re not, or shouldn’t be. Though all of this defining was, and still is for many, done in the context of good and evil-which, if you look at it carefully, is a very primitive system of understanding. It has only two alternatives-instead of millions, a number that characterizes the complexity of the ecosystems that science has revealed to us.

The multiplicity of options our study has unveiled in the realm of physical reality has made possible the proliferation of our proudest achievement-technology. We are so enamored of the miraculous power technology has given us, we can’t stop watching the thrill of it erecting and exploding things. There’s strong evidence that we would prefer to be a machine in order to give us superhuman strength. In a sense we’ve all become computer nerds in order to occupy and master what many regard as the brain-god of the future.

Meanwhile back at the farm, psychology-actually psychotherapy, the best laboratory for the study of the human psyche-continues to unravel the mysteries of psychopathology. In our private thoughts, and sometimes within a social context, we fully accept the guilt of this negatively charged concept of human nature, while we also strongly resist it openly being applied to ourselves. So which view is true?

The answer is perhaps a mixture of both perspectives, meaning what we’ve discovered in psychopathology is true about us, but on the other hand, these dysfunctional traits aren’t pathological, though they can be very painful and frightening. Is it perhaps normal to be, and do what for so long we’ve called crazy?

Lets consider this radical option and see where it takes us. What we discover immediately is that a remarkable man, a Princeton psychologist, Julian Jaynes, has been here before us. He proposed just such a theory in the 1970’s (The Origin of Consciousness), which asserted that prior to about 3000 years ago, the vast majority of humans hallucinated! If that is so, perhaps what we call psychosis, with its delusions and hallucinations, represent a normal stage in the evolution of the human psyche.

What Jaynes discovered both academically, and in his own life-he occasionally hallucinated, as do many non-psychotic humans-was that the human brain evolved to make hallucination very easily accomplished. Electrically stimulate the only connective tissue between the brain’s right and left lobes, and most people will momentarily be delusional or hallucinate. But for what purpose would nature play what seems, at first glance, to be such a dirty trick upon us? The answer is in order to be able to off-load much of human experience until it could be gradually understood and integrated into a more evolved mature psyche, capable of containing what, to an earlier human, was unimaginable.

Having lost the ability to hear commanding voices telling us to do what we could not internally comprehend, humanity suffered deeply for eons of time, revealing why oracles, the use of psychedelics and trances, for instance, were so terribly important to ancient civilization, and up to the present time, in our efforts to bring the voices back.

To illustrate what may well have been a gradual and painful evolution of psychic capability, consider just one concept it has taken humanity tens of thousands of years to evolve-democracy, in some ways that is still poorly conceived. This enlightened political idea failed to happen for so many centuries not because of oppression, as we normally assume, but because a sufficient majority of humans were not yet capable of assuming the responsibility-or even imagining it-of being sufficiently independent of the social matrix to presume to have a mind of their own, putting them at odds with, and outside their family or social group. Imagine the emergence of selfhood in a child growing up as a reenactment of that evolutionary process.

A second question emerges. If hallucination is an evolutionary part of human nature, then what psychic strategies followed it as a replacement? Total psychic maturity most likely didn’t follow immediately, and may never entirely be accomplished. The answer is to be found in today’s most-studied form of psychopathology-borderline personality, more accurately known as someone who employs dissociation.

Psychosis exists in a psyche unable to contain all of its personal experience as something, at least partially, originating from inside. Instead part of what that psyche is, feels and thinks must be heard and obeyed in large part as a command from an external source. In sharp contrast, dissociation is a psyche capable of containing much, if not all experience, but who is able to pay almost no attention to what is external. The severely dissociated personality operates instead from a made-up, pretended, personal fantasy system that makes it possible to live in what we like to call the real world, but to regard all external stimuli as completely unreliable, threatening and perhaps even deadly.

Whole societies, obviously of a very warring nature, have functioned in this way.

The psychopath is perhaps the best-known example of severe dissociation, as someone who appears utterly without conscience, meaning any regard whatsoever for anyone else. Though they pretend they do, becoming very skilled at appearing entirely sympathetic to others, but only in order to be able to entice them into being a pawn in their usually malevolent game plan-treating the world the way it treated them, as dog eat dog.

In general dissociation means literally to put out-of-sight, out-of-mind-the way we used to regard and treat children precisely because they are primitive in their function, and we didn’t want to be contaminated by this primitive content. Denial is one of the strategies of dissociation.

In the case of non-psychopathic dissociative personality, others don’t suffer; they do, very deeply. They have cut themselves off from the real world because the one they occupied as a child was so utterly mortifying, terrifying, and dangerous, that they could arrange to survive by occupying primarily their own fantasy/body system. They remain fiercely loyal to their family of origin, ironically by learning not to see this terrible villainy; only in their private fantasy world could they believe in an ideal loving space, turning what is malevolent into something holy. They may pretend the outside is safe, but they meet it with indifference.

Perhaps the best-known example of such psychic functioning is in the book, and then movie, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden. It’s a story of a very disturbed girl who lived honestly only in the company of her private invented gods. The extent, to which children will go to prove their parents are good and they are bad-to protect the connection envelope-is beautifully revealed in the movie, Ordinary People, where a young man attempts suicide in order to take personal responsibility for, and conceal his mother’s hatred of him.

There is evidence to suggest that dissociation may be a generic defense of all humans, more or less. Truth is we ignore most of the evidence that passes in front of our noses every day. It’s not because we’re bad. It’s because we haven’t learned to integrate it. By way of illustration, lets consider a piece of history that is not well known, which has to do with the enormous difficulty of achieving a more perfect democracy.

“The Constitution will inevitably produce an oligarchy.”

It was Thomas Jefferson who said this, following ratification of the Constitution. That’s when he wrote the Bill of Rights to counteract that eventuality, though historians don’t teach that. Much of the how of governing ourselves by direct-vote-a true democracy- is something we can’t yet even imagine.

At first Thomas Jefferson tried to insert into the body of the Constitution the convening of a Constitutional Convention every 25 years-every generation-to facilitate updating it. So what have we made of it instead? A sacred document that will never change; responsibility is indeed an awesome experience, intimidating to consider.

But we should not be discouraged. In spite of all our shortcomings, humanity continues, with much stumbling, to make progress. The fact is we have evolved probably far more than we realize. Taking just a small piece of that movement, perhaps the greatest achievement of the 20th century will be the discovery that war, as annihilation-what it’s always been within the limits of technology-is unwinnable. The Bomb taught us that. This has begun to lead us to the realization that war must become exclusively preventative, to stop conquest and racial extermination-in other words to exterminate itself. This could make it possible for centuries of peace ruled by democratic principles instead of by tyrants, who have brought long years of peace before, but only as absolute rulers. Such prolonged stable conditions are required if the human psyche is to grow significantly larger.

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