The phenomenon of human psyche
The psychic experience of the conscious Ego
As we have seen, in order to understand the phenomenon of the human psyche it is necessary first of all to distinguish between the consciousness, also considered as self-awareness of the ego, and all the psychic material which the conscious Ego does experience. This material, in the course of human life, depends on our destiny and on our personal history, and is determined by rules and energies to which our brain and mind are subject, but in relation to which the resources and knowledge we have are very limited. It is evident that the individual psyche, considered as a set of all the mental contents experienced by each of us in the course of his/her life, represents the most significant aspect of human life itself, which for this reason can be defined as the meeting and the interaction between an individual consciousness and a swarm, more or less rich and substantial, of psychic experiences. These experiences, well known to all of us, are made up of thoughts, moods, emotions, sensations, desires, dreams, memories: in short, everything that becomes part of our inner life as experienced by our conscious Ego over time. Psychic experience does not normally show itself as a well-differentiated content of individual consciousness, but rather as a phenomenon that involves the conscious Ego to a maximum degree, often leading to a complete identification with the psychic nuclei experienced.
While the external (objective) life of a human being is made up of behaviors and activities that result in actions well recognizable by others, the inner (subjective) life is constituted by a succession of psychic experiences that are recorded by the individual consciousness and often do not allow the Ego to perceive its own autonomy, instead placing it at the mercy of the positive or negative mood associated with the various psychic tunings experienced. Consequently, the conscious Ego is not only almost never able to control the psyche, but is so involved in the psychic experience that it loses the sense of its own autonomous identity. We have seen how the psychic experiences are determined by the functioning of the brain, but also the functioning of the brain is conditioned by the programs received in the phase of cultural education and by social interactions. From the point of view of the inner life, the functioning of the brain manifests itself to the conscious Ego as a set of psychic experiences. Therefore the Ego must represent a significant and important aspect in the brain activity, as in fact plays a fundamental role in the evaluation, in the planning and control of psychic experiences. However, sometimes the conscious Ego is not able to face and sustain the impact of certain experiences, also because of the unconscious brain activity, so that it can be damaged, divided, or even annihilated.
The control of psychic experience and the cultural influences
Usually human beings can exert a certain degree of voluntary control over the ways in which the psyche manifest itself. But, as we have said, this control is not due to an absolute power exercised by the Ego in a free and effective way, but rather to the effect, inhibitor or balancer, of the conditioning and programs of psychic origin elaborated and transmitted through socio-cultural interactions. We also observe that the psychic phenomenon does not present the same aspects in all human beings, but it can vary considerably from one to another, within a diversity and multiformity of manifestations that are generally considered in the context of each person's character or personality. The social and cultural fabric is always influenced by certain nuclei of the collective psyche that are expressed, for example, through laws, morals, mores, rules of behavior, language, politics, the way of interacting with others, creating a series of programs that shape the mental functioning of the members of a society. This orientation process is transferred from adults to children, through programmed teaching, conditioning, and imitation, with results that – depending on the circumstances – can go from a complete adaptation to a drastic rebellion. Moreover the collective psyche manifests itself with different aspects and facets, variable according to the culture, the social environment, the particular quality of human interactions in which an individual is involved, especially in the first years of his life.
Difficulty of understanding between the psychic attitudes of different people or cultures
After highlighting the various aspects of the individual psyche (of which each of us has a direct experience), it is important to explain the reasons why the human psyche can be considered as an autonomous, complex, and in some ways unfathomable phenomenon. We find a first clue to the complexity and autonomy of the psyche when a person realizes he/she does not understand the functioning of the psyche of other human beings, apparently and externally similar, but very different in emotional dynamics, behavior and manifestations of more or less rational thinking. The perception of this complexity widens when a culture confronts different cultures, both geographically and historically. In essence, each of us, in the course of human life, is linked to his/her individual psyche so to become almost a prisoner, and rarely develops the ability to consider his/her psychic experience as a very small fragment of the psychic phenomenon in its entirety. On the other hand, a direct confrontation by the Ego with the global psyche is extremely dangerous, since it can have on the functioning of a person a disruptive effect that can undermine the mental integrity and the very survival of the conscious Ego.
The most striking aspect in the psychic phenomenon is its conflict: if it is true that there are aspects of the psyche that fit well with each other and determine in human beings forms of collaboration and positive interaction, there are others that lead to mutual violence, until complete destruction, both between individuals and between entire social groups. Even those individual psychic reactions that take the form of rejection and open rebellion against some aspects of the collective psyche of a certain culture, never free the Ego from its subjugation to the psychic phenomenon: what is seen as an attempt to get rid of the contradictions, injustices, impositions and deprivations of liberty represented by the dominant cultural aspect, often results in an uncritical submission of the Ego to the storms and conflicts produced by other more subjective aspects of the psyche. The psychic phenomenon thus presents itself, as a whole, as contradictory, chaotic and hardly governable by the conscious Ego, which is still far from having achieved sufficient autonomy and power to be able of managing the various psychic nuclei. We only need to observe how, even when we delude ourselves that we are in control of our psyche, if we come into contact with another person whose psychic contents do not agree with our own, conflictual dynamics will soon occur that can harm, despite our intentions, not only our antagonist, but also ourselves.
The tuning of psychic experiences
None of us creates our own psyche: the psychic contents are brought to consciousness by mental activity through the instrument of our nervous system, and in particular of the brain, through a process that seems correct to define tuning, by analogy with the function through which the receivers we commonly use (radio, TV, smartphone, etc.) only tune certain frequencies among the large amount of waves present in the ether. By this I do not mean to say that the brain functions as a tuner of hypothetical radio waves, but that it operates a selective function towards the psychic nuclei of which we become conscious, among all those that are possible within the psychic phenomenon. As we will see in the section on non-ordinary states of consciousness, a person can tune – under certain circumstances – psychic experiences to which he/she does not normally have access.
In the section on life on earth we have seen that the body of each of us, as well as the body of each animal, can be considered both from the point of view of an instrument associated with an individual life of limited duration, from birth to death, and as the result of a process of evolutionary organized information that began to develop on this planet nearly four billion years ago and is still ongoing. If under the first aspect we have the illusion that our body is familiar to us and that, in some way, belongs to us, since we can use and to some extent control it, as soon as we examine it under the second profile we are involved in a Copernican revolution that shows us all the complexity, the structural and functional autonomy and – in a certain sense – the alienity of our body with respect to the limited capacities of knowledge and control which our conscious Ego has got. As we have seen, the same happens towards the psyche: the familiarity and habit with which each human confronts the conscious contents of his/her own psyche make so that a process of identification between the Ego and these psychic experiences occurs. But if we manage to detach ourselves from our individual psyche just enough to glance at the psychic phenomenon as a whole, we realize that it is just as ancient, profound and elusive as the one that presides over the evolution of our body. We could even affirm that these are the two sides of the same coin: the psychic resources we have (with all their conflicts and the problems that derive from them) are part of an autonomous and dynamic process that develops in space and time and manifests its effects in the animal kingdom even before then in humanity.
In short, none of us does know why he/she thinks what thinks, nor why suffers when suffers, nor why wants what wants, nor why is happy when is happy: he/she only knows that is inserted, as a conscious Ego, in an instrument and in an individual destiny that leads him/her to experiment a series of existential dynamics whose purpose and meaning are not traceable within the available information. At the same time, precisely the acquisition by the individual consciousness of these complex dynamics seems to constitute the essence, the significant core of our existence, at least as human beings. But to better understand the complexity and autonomy of the psychic phenomenon in the pre-human phase, it may be useful to examine synthetically its modes of extrinsication during the evolution of life on our planet.
Manifestations of the psyche in the animal world
Ever since animal life began to differentiate into individual organisms (first unicellular and then multicellular), forms of behavior developed for which the prolongation of an individual's life depended on the extinction of the life of another individual. No conscious psychism was associated with these behaviors, at least so we are led to believe, given the absence of a differentiated nervous system. Also the behaviors generated by the presence in the organisms of a sexual dimorphism, and the cooperation required to fulfill the reproductive functions, probably did not originally imply the presence of any psychic support, no more than the transfer of the pollen from the anthers of a flower to the another's ovary requires. However, at some point in the history of animal evolution the first manifestations of the psyche must have appeared, associated with some rudimentary form of consciousness. For example, an animal can show to be hungry or afraid, not only because its behavior leads it to search for food or to flee in front of a danger, but because its expression shows us those obvious signs of hunger or fear that we are able to interpret according to our human experience. This interpretation is not based on anthropomorphism, but on the simple recognition that the animal nature present in our human body carries with it even the most remote psychic traces of its animal origin.
Obviously, hunger or fear are such if they become a conscious experience, because the psychic contents need to be reflected in something to be able to translate into a manifest phenomenon. The phenomenon to which I refer is not therefore the behavior that denotes hunger or fear, which could very well take place in the absence of any inner conscious emotional state. We do not think, in fact, that a car that crashes into a wall, getting dented and ceasing to work, feels a sense of pain. For a psychic phenomenon to manifest itself it is necessary for it to become conscious. In fact, the behavior of an animal by itself can never tell us whether that animal is or is not conscious, and what mental contents it is conscious of, first of all because the animal is not able to communicate through language as we humans do. At the same time there are many clues that lead us to hypothesize the presence of a complex psychic conscious activity even in animals, at least in the higher ones, endowed with a nervous system sufficiently developed and at least in some parts similar to the human. We can therefore assume that the psyche is a dynamic process subject to transformations and a continuous evolution over time, an evolution that for millions of years has manifested itself in the animal world through the elaboration of the primary instinctual drives that we can still see at work both observing the behavior of animals in nature, and recognizing the same drives, more or less deformed and altered by the acquired socio-cultural conditioning, in ourselves.
Recent research on the behavior of higher mammals in their natural ecosystems leaves no doubt about the parallelism between their manifestations and the dynamics of the primary instincts that we can recognize in ourselves. Like any animal, we too need to nourish ourselves, and therefore we know and feel the stimulus of hunger and the satisfaction of satiety. We also feel the need to reproduce ourselves, or at least to have sexual relations, and therefore we go in search of the partner in competition with our fellow men and women, and we feel forms of fulfillment, satisfaction and happiness when our research is successful. In the animal world too, mothers, and sometimes both parents, take care of their offspring, until they no longer feel the need to do so. Finally, even among animals, within the same species and the same herd, there is overpowering, violence and killing. This does not mean that there is a complete identity of behavior between humans and animals, but simply that, just as we are able to recognize in ourselves and our fellows the presence of conscious psychic contents associated with the instinctual drives closest to those of the animal world, it is very probable that similar psychic contents are present (and conscious) in animals too. In other words, just as the brains of a monkey, a horse or a cat have an anatomical, physiological and organizational complexity (from the point of view of the functioning of neural networks) more or less similar to that of the human brain, it is legitimate to suppose that even the psyche can manifest itself in these animals with a certain conscious complexity, at least up to a certain level.
Differences between human and animal psyche
Although the psychic phenomenon has reached, within the most developed and culturally complex human societies, an extension that has no model of comparison in the animal world, nevertheless in the historical and prehistoric development of humanity (and in the current or recent geographical location of some primitive cultures) there is a whole range of nuances that probably establish a certain continuity between the human psyche as we know it and that of the most evolved animal societies (for example, the chimpanzee groups). But there are two factors that characterize and substantially differentiate the evolved human psyche from the animal psyche: the capacity for a rapid processing and transformation, even creative, of the psychic elements within an individual, and the possibility of transferring the psychical elaborations from an individual to others. For these reasons, which involve creativity and collaboration, the evolved human psychic phenomenon is mainly social, and involves a large number of individuals able to communicate with each other, exchanging information on the psychic contents that each of them experiences. Although the psyche as a whole is a broad, multiform and protean phenomenon, of which each of us experiences only a very small fraction, yet by living we can actively participate in its transformation and evolution, elaborating its contents in the context of our individual life experience and transmitting them to others through communication.
Dynamic and static cultures
From this point of view, the psyche of animal societies, as well as that of the most primitive cultures, appears to us to be much more static than that which operates in our current culture. In primitive societies the same cultural models (of a psychic nature) are handed down and repeated from generation to generation, setting in a traditional way the human experience and leaving little room for individual elaborations of an innovative nature. On the contrary, a culture like the one in which we currently live is based on a rapid circulation and diffusion of elaborate psychic models and on the cooperation of many brains for the concrete realization of ideas through the transformations we operate on the world. Although from the point of view of the individual life experience both the primitive and the modern cultural model may have their advantages and disadvantages, this has very little to do with the psychic evolution as a whole: in fact, from the point of view of the individual experience the life of an animal could be perfectly satisfying and gratifying, certainly more than that of many humans. The substantial difference between humans and animals lies in the fact that even in the most primitive cultures an imaginative, creative and ingenious component is still active, which has no comparison in the animal world. It is true that many animals are able to build, even according to complex formal models – always acquired or reproduced in an imitative way – but the ability of the human mind to fantasize and conceive, and then translating into an artefact or something communicable a part of the process of imagination or fantasy, has no couterpart in the animal world.
Another element that substantially differentiates the human psyche from the animal is the desire for knowledge, that is, the need to elaborate patterns and associations of ideas that give an account of the order and meaning of the events of the physical world and of the psyche itself. From a primitive phase, in which the forms of knowledge had the features of a predominantly mythical kind, linked as they were to the intuitive faculties of the imaginary, humanity has progressively evolved to a more solid phase, in which knowledge must have an efficient operative and guaranteed power, based on the need to experimentally verify the theories and to transform the world technologically, acquiring new creative potentials. Even if we want to bring the differences between the human and animal psyche to the different complexity of the brain, much greater in humans, especially in the extension of the cortex and in the relationship between brain volume and body weight, it does not seem that the structure of the human brain has changed or evolved over the last 40,000 years: therefore the evolution of the psyche could not depend only on the development of the brain. However, in every age there have been individuals who, in one or another branch of knowledge or of human activity, have been able to have superior resources and talents than most of their fellow men.
Although in the human history the decisive steps forward on the path of knowledge, of the organization of societies and the development of human activities have been made above all thanks to some individuals of genius, in little more than a century we have recently witnessed a transformation of the world of amazing and bewildering rapidity, especially when compared to the slowness with which many other changes have occurred on this planet: electricity, transport, planes, the extension of agricultural crops, urban expansion and, lastly, the computers, have literally changed the face of the Earth, which has become almost unrecognizable to an alien visitor who had seen it for the last time in the mid-nineteenth century.