Fantasy And Transcendence

Clinical Psychology, in its nascent stages, was considered to be a pseudoscience and it’s not difficult to see why. Initial practitioners, to be fair, were not very scientific in their approach. These practitioners were often driven by dogma rather than rationality. This was evident in the fact that most of the early clinicians were either staunch believers in “mesmerism” (a peculiar belief that sticking a bunch of magnets to your face makes the mental trauma go away) or “physiognomy” (the belief that the study of your facial structure can describe your personality). But when clinical psychologist Dr Lightner Witmer managed to successfully treat a young boy with a learning disability, the scepticism vanished. Soon enough, the first clinic was established at the University of Pennsylvania in 1896. The Witmer model was the standard mode of treatment in all the existing clinics until the principles of modern psychoanalysis were laid down by Freud.

Freud believed that the strongest human drive came from human fantasy. Fantasy or “phantasy” as he spelt it was theorised to be the psychological condition of the conscious and the unconscious. Conscious fantasy unsurprisingly is the state of mind where we are in full control. This is almost unique in the sense that not only do we indulge in daydreaming ourselves, but also take a keen interest in others’ efforts at doing so (this becomes quite clear once we look at the plethora of fantasythemed art and literature around us). Unconscious fantasy (related to the “Id” part of the personality model), on the other hand, is a very different ballgame. Freud was of the opinion that it is these unconscious drives that lead us to “trauma”. This side of us that we have no control over is almost primal and animalistic. It is our conscious mind’s rationality and the social constraints that keep these ideas in check. In other words, this is a self-defence mechanism employed by our brain to repress these thoughts. However, these unconscious fantasies are so emotionally charged that they demand expression in one way or another. So, once in a while, the self-defence mechanism fails and these emotions are let out in ways ranging from bad dreams to the very embarrassing Freudian slips (a slip of the tongue revealing subconscious feelings) and in the worst case Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSDs). For cases such as Schizophrenia and PTSDs, patients would usually experience fantasies as a part of the diagnosis. This led Freud to believe that “trauma” drives the “affect” in such scenarios.    

Freud dealt with the unconscious extensively in his “affect-trauma” model. Psychoanalysts today use a variant of this model to deal with traumatic stress disorders.  The way they do it is by confrontation. So if the patient is afraid of their fantasies, the therapist breaks their fears down into smaller and smaller blocks till a point is reached where the patient is able to solve the block. After this, the patient proceeds to solve the next block and so on. Freud believed that not only does this act make the patient normal again, but also manages to “transcend” them in a way. This thought of Freud was supported by the philosophical idea of “dialectics”. Simply put, a dialectic is a form of discourse where two contradictory ideas undergo a transition in order to reach the truth. If the contrast between the initial ideas is not significant, then the truth obtained from the process is not very meaningful. Consequently, it can be said that if the contrast between these ideas is quite significant, the truth turns out to be more meaningful.

Okay, but how does it address the question of unconscious fantasies?

Well, psychologists today are debating whether these primal urges within our psyche must be confronted head-on. The idea here is that a clash between the reasonable conscious and the primal unconscious would generate new meaning in a person’s life. This argument seems to have the weight of cultural themes around it. For instance, mythological characters become complete after rescuing their loved ones from evil (example, the Hindu epic of Ramayana) or the story of Pinocchio where the titular character rescues his father from the belly of a sperm whale in order to become a real boy. One thing is fairly clear from these examples; the idea of facing malevolence and transcending is so archetypally human that it must have something to do with the concept of the unconscious.

The indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin have been using a psychedelic brew called “Ayahuasca” during traditional ceremonies since 1000 A.D. Upon Ayahuasca’s consumption, it is believed that the people are transported to a spiritual world where they’ll be able to encounter their unconscious drives. This Ayahuasca is prepared by macerating sections of a traditional vine which are then boiled with leaves from other plants.  This brew is pounded with mallets until it becomes fibre. The preparation of this brew may take several hours or days depending upon the nature of the leaves added. The actual ritual consists of a participant and the shaman. This interaction between the shaman and the participant is considered holy and is often accompanied by loud thumping drums. An encounter with this part of our brain is quite terrifying indeed. Participants often report having encountered mystical or spiritual revelations regarding their purpose in this world. Maybe this is the sense of transcendence that people have been lacking in their lives. The question of apprehending the transcendent has been bothering psychologists for centuries now.

Perhaps the answer to this was with the Amazonians all along.

Banagiri Shrikar

Hate playing truth or dare coz they always dare me to go home

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