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Hidden MindsReview - Hidden Minds
A History of the Unconscious
by Frank Tallis
Arcade Publishing, 2002
Review by Peter B. Raabe, Ph.D.
Mar 24th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 12)

As the title suggests, the author (a practicing clinical psychologist) starts with the assumption that the unconscious exists, and then proceeds from there. The book discusses the many answers that have been given to the question, What is this thing called the unconscious? Tallis follows the path of the evolution of conceptions of the unconscious from that of the shadowy presence of a hidden intelligence within each of us to that of a primitive automatic information processing system necessary for survival. He offers many fascinating clinical examples, but conspicuous by its absence is the lack of any mention of the vast amount of research done on the mind and the unconscious by the military.

The author begins in the mid seventeenth century with an examination of the beliefs held by the thinkers of that era about such things as the possible existence of a part of the brain that is constantly active and works according to laws very different from the conscious, the possibility of learning occurring below the threshold of awareness, a universal unconscious (that Jung would later popularize as a scientific concept), and repression (active forgetting). Chapter 2 picks up in the 1850's and discusses evidence for the unconscious in such phenomena as mesmerism (later called hypnotism), the spiritualist movement, automatic writing and drawing, and multiple personalities. These, according to the author, provided the average person with "a new demonology-sanctioned by science" (30).

The third chapter focuses on Pierre Janet, a brilliant but humble French philosophy teacher who experiments seemed to reveal lost traumatic memories, the psychological origin of physical problems, psychic phenomena, and the use of hypnosis to treat hysteria. This amounted to, what the author calls, the invention of psychotherapy. Sigmund Freud appropriated much of Janet's work while Janet was still alive without ever giving him credit for it. This is one of many glimpses the author gives his readers into the fierce competitive mind set of some of the most famous names in history. The fourth chapter focuses on Freud's relationship with Josef Breuer, their treatment of hysteria with hypnosis, and their falling out due to Freud's insistence that unconscious sexual desire was the primary cause of mental illness. This chapter follows the cocaine addicted Freud as he becomes his own patient in psychoanalysis, and come to believe that "The interpretation of dreams is in fact the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious" (59).

The fifth chapter deals with the power struggles between Freud and his followers (notably Adler and Jung), Freud's success in the United States, the adoption of Freudian language and imagery of the unconscious into literature, art, and film, and how the notion of repressed sexuality became less important to psychotherapists as they began to turn their attention away from the unconscious to the role of social relationships in the formation of symptoms. Chapter six discusses the effects of the computer model of mental functioning on Freud's psychoanalytic conception of the unconscious by which 'censorship' is replaced by 'filtering' and 'selective attention,' 'ego' is replaced by 'executive processes,' and 'the unconscious' by 'preconscious' or 'automatic processing.'

Chapter seven offers fascinating accounts of modern research in neuroscience which seems to show that unconscious brain activity always precedes any conscious thought or action by approximately half a second. This unconscious brain activity thereby (arguably) displaces free will with determinism. The eighth chapter discusses the functionalist perspective in evolutionary psychology which says that the unconscious is a primitive area of the brain that has evolved within the human species as a survival mechanism. Chapter nine deals briefly with the controversy surrounding subliminal suggestion in advertising, and then discusses the development of subliminal suggestion as a form of psychotherapy. This chapter also examines what research into dreams and sleep learning has added to what is known about unconscious processes.

The concluding chapter begins with the puzzling exclamation that "human thought and behaviour are determined largely by unconscious processes. We obey orders that are issued from the threshold of awareness, and we obey like automata" (171). I find this conclusion to be startlingly unfounded in light of the information presented in the previous nine chapters. Like Freud, Tallis is clearly a man of his times. He falls into the trap which captures many clinical psychologists: that of reducing thoughts and memories to descriptions of electrochemical determinants, thereby erroneously equating the constituents of mind-those elements which make each human being a unique individual such as beliefs, values, fears, and hopes-with the biological functioning of the brain. Tallis also admits that this deterministic neurobiological perspective eliminates any talk of morality because it "makes concepts of right and wrong entirely redundant" (180). It leads him to the Buddhist position of claiming that things and people are neither good nor bad; they just are. This makes attributing either blame or credit to an individual absolutely inappropriate. Unfortunately this then leads the reader to the absurd conclusion that the person calling himself Frank Tallis does not actually deserve any credit for writing this book. His biologically determined organism does!

In the end Tallis declares that "the unconscious has proved to be one of the most robust concepts in psychology" (182). But it is clear from the preceding 170 pages that, while the term 'the unconscious' may be robust, Tallis has used it to refer to a variety of different concepts: from a sinister second person within each individual, to an automatic thinking process, to structural areas of the brain. Despite the unsatisfying last chapter, this book is a very entertaining, easy to read, and informative history of the unconscious, and thereby of psychotherapy. The author keeps discussion lively by giving many examples, both from the distant past and from more recent clinical studies, of actual cases in which practitioners attempted to cure what they believed to be mental illnesses by means of some promising, and some horrifying, approaches to their patients' unconscious.

Note: this book is available in the UK and internationally from Click here.

© 2002 Peter B. Raabe

Peter B. Raabe teaches philosophy and has a private practice in philosophical counseling in North Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of the book Philosophical Counseling: Theory and Practice (Praeger, 2001).


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