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Biology 202
2006 Third Web Paper
On Serendip

I am the "I" in Interaction between Instincts and Thought

Carolyn Dahlgren

In front of you are three doors. They are labeled one, two, and three. Behind one of the doors is a prize. You choose door number one... and you are told that it was a good choice because door number three did not have the prize. Now there are two doors. Where is the prize? What do you do? What is your choice? Do you stay with your gut choice or do you switch to the other door?
As a classroom activity, we played out this hypothetical game and discovered that, statistically, your chances of winning the prize are better if you switch your choice to the other remaining door then if you stay with your initial choice. In order to win more frequently, you have to overcome your gut reaction to stay with the door you originally chose. Your analytical side has to overcome your gut or, perhaps, your instincts will triumph, either way, you have to choose.
While wondering which door to choose in order to find the prize, there are several parts of the self that are interacting to help chose the 'right' choice. There are instincts from the gut and thoughts from the head and each is vying for attention from the self. It is a tripartite system; one that is very similar to Sigmund Freud's theory of tripartite personality. Freud divides the mind into three parts: the id the ego and the superego. "The id contains 'primitive desires' (hunger, rage, and sex), the super-ego contains internalized norms, morality and taboos, and the ego mediates between the two and may include or give rise to the sense of self." (Wikipedia) According to Freud, the majority of our life experiences take place at the unconscious level, in the id and the superego; most of what drives us is not conscious. "At any given time, we are only aware of a very small part of what makes up our personality; most of what we are is buried and inaccessible." (All Psych Online)
In Freud's tripartite theory of personality, the id is the inner child inside the brain. The id is hidden away in the unconscious mind. It is "chaos, a cauldron of seething excitement. We suppose that it is somewhere in direct contact with somatic processes, and takes over from them instinctual needs and gives them mental expression...these instincts fill it with energy, but it has no organization and no unified will, only an impulsion to obtain satisfaction for the instinctual needs." (Freud) The id is instinct. The id focuses on somatic pleasure and gratification. As such, the id is associated with the body. The id is responsible for the gut feelings that we experienced during the door game. The id is emotion unfettered by thought or convention. In order to override this gut reaction, we need to explain another part of the unconscious mind; the superego.
The superego is the thoughtful part of the unconscious mind. It is the moral part of our unconscious which guides behavior by imposing strict moral and ethical guidelines on behavior. "Many equate the superego with the conscience as it dictates our belief of right and wrong." (All Psych Online) According to Freud, "the superego is a symbolic internalization of the father figure and cultural regulations. The super-ego tends to stand in opposition to the desires of the id because their conflicting objectives, and is aggressive towards the ego." (Wikipedia) The superego is the part of the unconscious that is responsible for the intruding thoughts during the door game; the thoughts that we should switch over to the new door.
The ego is consciousness; it is the self that we believe exists in reality. The ego is the 'I Function". The Latin translation of 'ego' is the nominative of the first person personal pronoun, 'I myself'. The ego is our awareness; a conglomeration of all of our unconscious desires as well as cognition about the world and the best way to achieve unconscious desires. "The ego understands that other people have needs and desires and that sometimes being impulsive or selfish can hurt us in the long run. It's the ego's job to meet the needs of the id, while taking into consideration the reality of the situation." (All Psych Online) It is the attention of the ego that the superego and the id are vying for; the ego is the part of the mind that mediates unconscious desires and cognition about the consequences of fulfilling those desires. "On behalf of the id, the ego controls the path of access to motility, but it interpolates between desire and action the procrastinating factor of thought... it dethrones the pleasure- principle, which exerts undisputed sway over the processes in the id, and substitutes for it the reality-principle, which promises greater security and greater success." (Freud) A healthy ego should be the strongest part of the mind so that it can "satisfy the needs of the id, not upset the superego, and still take into consideration the reality of every situation." (All Psych Online)
According to Freud, the ego, our consciousness, is mediated by unconscious processes and the constraints of the external world. If this is so, how many of the choices that we make and attribute to free will are, in reality, truly determined by the unconscious battle of id, ego, and superego? According to Freudian theory, "freedom of the will is, if not completely an illusion, certainly more tightly circumscribed than is commonly believed, for it follows from this that whenever we make a choice we are governed by hidden mental processes of which we are unaware and over which we have no control." (Thornton) Most of the information that the brain receives never enters consciousness and we often do not have any control over what does enter consciousness unless the 'I Function' specifically interferes. For example, we do not feel the presence of our clothes unless the 'I Function' demands that the sensations are brought into consciousness. Even then, it is hard to maintain the feeling unless you devote you whole attention to the task.
The unconscious is a reservoir for memories which we are not aware that we remember. These 'repressed memories' influence conscious thought and behavior. Freud had the extreme view that all repressed memories were the result of traumatic events. A less drastic interpretation of Freudian theory provides an interesting interpretation of 'lost memory', that the unconscious is a storage place for all the information that we cannot process due to the massive volume of neuronal information that we receive every second. Most of our lost memories are not really lost; they just never entered conscious awareness.
Perception is mostly a filtering and defragmenting process. Our interests and needs affect perception, but most of what is available to us as potential sense data will never be processed. And most of what is processed will be forgotten. Amnesia is not rare but the standard condition of the human species. We do not forget in order to avoid being reminded of unpleasant things. We forget either because we did not perceive closely in the first place or we did not encode the experience either in the parietal lobes of the cortical surface (for short-term or working memory) or in the prefrontal lobe (for long-term memory). (Carroll)
I had never really given much thought to the credibility of Freud's theories; instead I dismissed them out of hand. Some of the new interpretations and applications of the Freudian tripartite model of personality, however, have developed into a useful story of the mind and of free will. It is folly to import Freud's theories directly into modern society and to accept some of his more extreme ideas without some critical analysis. Freud did, however, have a huge impact on the field of psychology and the understanding of the human mind. "There is ample evidence that conscious thought and behavior are influenced by nonconscious memories and processes...Freud should be considered one of our greatest benefactors if only because he pioneered the desire to understand those whose behavior and thoughts cross the boundaries of convention set by civilization and cultures." (Carroll) I guess I had instinctual reaction to dismiss his theories due to the criticisms, especially feminist critiques, which I had heard and had influenced me. Freud's theory of id, ego, and superego, however, provide and interesting parallel to the interpretation of the self that we developed during our 'Chose a Door' game. The self is an interaction between gut reaction and thought is nearly the same as saying the self is ego, id, and superego. The combination of these two stories is interesting, they have given me insight into free will and helped me more critically investigate choices I make while experiencing life. I am not sure I make the choices at all. Still, with further investigation into the unconscious parts of the mind, perhaps I will gain more knowledge about how much or little free will I actually have and who I am.

All Psych Online: The Virtual Psychology Classroom. "Freud's Structural and Topographical Models of Personality". Last Update: March 21, 2004. Date of Access: May 4, 2006.
Carroll, Robert T. The Skeptic's Dictionary. "Psychoanalysis". Date of Access: May 4, 2006.
Carroll, Robert T. The Skeptic's Dictionary. "Unconscious Mind". Date of Access: May 4, 2006.
Freud, Sigmund. "The Unconscious". Date of Access: May 4, 2006.
Thornton, Steven P. Internet Encyclopedia of Psychology: "Sigmund Freud". Date of Access: May 4, 2006.
Wikipedia. "Ego, super-ego, and id". Last Updated: May 4, 2006. Date of Access: May 4, 2006.

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