W. S. McCulloch


I believe this group has been guilty of a certain irreverence with respect to the subconscious or the unconscious. Therefore, I should like to review how the idea of unconscious mental mechanisms came into the field of psychology. No less a figure than Leibnitz was responsible for initiating it. He was interested only in perception, but he regarded it as a sort of integral of our awareness of the world. His Petite Perceptions was not something of which we could say, I know this, I know that, I know the other. We could only say such things of the integral. Out of these petites perceptibles, which served, if you will, as infinitesimals in his calculus, he supposed that we formed our notions. He found himself coping with a kind of froth, under which there was a kind of sea, without being able to come to grips with the controlling variables.

That is not new, either in biology or in physics. In physics, it led first to the notion of potential energy, which certainly is not energy in the sense in which energy does anything. It is only that it may, when it gets going. In biology, it led to a corresponding observation of significant variables; the conservation of species which in Aristotle became Entelechy. Since we are not aware of all the significant variables, many of them, in every panpsychism, have to be supposed to operate sub rosa.

If we wish to follow the notion from then on, it will be found next appearing in Hume in two forms: one as an instinct, or habit of mind, which leads us to group events into what we thereafter call time and space; this we shall recognize later in Kant as the forms of sensation, and its organization is the synthetic a priori. The other, which underlies the notion of causality, becomes in Kant the category of reason. I did my best to persuade Professor Jean Piaget to be with us, because I think he has a clearer concept of this subject, and certainly better data on how the idea of causality arises in children, than any of the rest of us. It is certain that if what we call cause and consequence are separated sufficiently in time, then the consequence appears as a spontaneous act. Think for a moment that we have a ball rolling up to another ball; the first ball arrives at the second ball, and the second ball takes off. If it happens promptly, we have a notion that the first ball kicked the second. If it happens after ten minutes, the second ball did it on its own. What the mechanism is, and how it operates to us, I do not know, but it is fairly clear that it does, and I should have liked to hear an excellent observer of human beings, such as Professor Piaget, tell us how it arises in children, because I think that is the only way we are ever going to make sense out of it. I think Hume would have agreed.

Causality became, in Immanuel Kants category of reason, a little bit twisted. The forms of sensation and the category of reason underwent a Hegelian twist and led to the basis of Marxism, on the one hand, and to the dynamic ego and much of our so-called dynamic psychology, on the other. I have studied rather carefully the beginnings of these notions and their spread in Europe. The German school is blatant. Its best protagonist was von Hartmann, who has written and published repeatedly on this subject, so that at the time Freud began to write, he had sold some nine editions, running to ten thousand or more items each. The best exemplar in Scotland was Laycock. He was Professor of Neuropsychiatry in Edinburgh; and in 1869, the second edition of his book, Mind and Brain, appeared. You will find there a brief history of the growth of this idea on the Continent. It became in France the normal way of understanding hysteria in this period. You probably have not read a most entertaining volume which is entitled Unconscious Memory, written by Samuel Butler, author of Erewhon. It deals with unconscious memory, and is charming in its self-revelation, and in its horror at von Hartmanns notions.

I am inclined to believe that in all our discussions, the unconscious has suffered a gratuitous insult. I was a psychologist before I went into physiology, and I went into physiology because I was convinced that I had been dealing with a froth and that there were significant variables lying below any level which any flow, I dont care how relaxed it was, could ever reach. I believe that our willingness to participate in this conference indicates that we are not too much worried about how we appear to our neighbors or to ourselves and are quite willing to make fools of ourselves provided we can propose some mechanism which may be at the basis of what is going on. As every scientist knows, that is a hazardous affair, and I should mention that my own notions of how the brain ever gets an idea have had several holes poked in them.

Norbert Wiener, not I, first proposed that there was some scanning mechanism in vision. I tied it up with a particular structure and I was probably wrong; Lashley is quite sure I was wrong. I think his arguments are not entirely conclusive, but they are persuasive. An erstwhile member of this group, Donald MacKay, while working in my laboratory, constructed a square which could be made to balloon out, shrink down at any preassigned rate, or could be coupled back from ones own brain waves. According to all my notions, that square should have upset our ability to perceive form. It failed completely to do so, and gave us peculiar distortions of color vision. I think MacKay has thrown the biggest rock that can be thrown through my hypothesis. I am rather upset by a paper which Sholl and Uttley sent me not long ago, in which they said that there is no theory of perception which is subject to a test. I can only answer, I did propose one, and it is probably wrong. To insist on being wrong is to insist on there being something which can be checked. It is my notion that every scientific hypothesis has a reasonable expectation of being disproved; certainly some can be proved, and it is my great woe, with most of my friends who are interested in psychodynamics (above all, those who are particularly interested in the subconscious), that I fail to find hypotheses set up by them which are capable of experimental disproof. The best of psychoanalysts, I am quite sure, are as much troubled by this as I am.

Ten years ago I tried an experiment. There was a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in Detroit. I was then intrigued by the Lear Komplex, which is the subject of a paper coming out of Vienna concerning the play of King Lear, and it proves that Mrs. Lear is the all-important person, because she is not once mentioned. My experiment was the following: In the hotel in Detroit there was a rather large and comely bear. Drs. Frank Fremont-Smith and Molly Harrower cottoned on to the bear and they paraded it through the hotel. They gave me the idea of what I think is the nicest of all yarns I have every invented. The story is the following: They brought the bear to the conference room. One psychiatrist after another would look at the bear sitting among them, and then snap his head back to the front. You could count ten, and each one would take a second look and snap his head back to the front. Several years later I asked Drs. Fremont-Smith and Harrower whether any of the psychiatrists had said anything to either of them about seeing a bear at the meeting. They said, No. I have told this story wherever psychiatrist were gathered together, and shall continue to tell it. My esteemed friend, Dr. Alexander Forbes, heard me tell the story and at once went to Dr. Harrower and asked Did you really have a bear at the meeting? She replied, No.

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Keywords: Mechanisms, Variables, Energy, Remarks, Perceptions, Companion, Fremont-Smith, Epistemology, Notions, Froth

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