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Inner Workings of the Brain

It can be useful to view psychology from the more concrete perspectives of creativity research and recent investigations into brain function and human cognition. (Image: public domain)

The best way to understand anything complex is to view it from more than one angle. Assimilating different perspectives provides insights not attainable in any other fashion. In that spirit, I offer a concise attempt to understand human psychology from the perspective of the creativity and human cognition researchers. I have positioned everything around the key concept of emotional cognitive structures, the brain’s way of storing its data in emotionally related clusters.

What exactly are emotional cognitive structures? They are assemblies of feelings and their associated thoughts, thoughts and their associated feelings, memories and their associated feelings, and so on – all organized (filed, in a sense) by like feelings. This aspect of brain function explains why it is easier to recall something if we are in the same mood as when we learned it.

Most of us have some degree of familiarity with the main concepts of psychology. Among these are ego, self-confidence, repression, suppression, compartmentalization, autonomous complexes, and the integration of unconscious contents. Linking these often-nebulous terms to more “concrete” psychic objects, and showing how they relate to those objects, makes the terms easier to understand.

Let us start with ego. We can think of ego as a conscious set of emotional cognitive structures. A well-developed structure can withstand a lot of knocking about and remain intact. That is, experience or ideas that collide with a well-developed emotional cognitive structure will not collapse, damage, or replace that structure. Since the structure is solid and well understood we remember counter-balancing experience and can muster arguments to defend the ideas in the structure. This is what constitutes self-confidence. Furthermore, we might argue that the ability to defend in this way represents a kind of personal wisdom and integrity. Those who lack self-confidence have left too much below the threshold of conscious awareness or have not worked out the differences between conflicting conscious emotional cognitive structures. This leaves them defenceless and prone to confusion and collapse in the face of opposition.

Integration of unconscious contents, another key concept of psychology, is the raising into conscious awareness of “submerged” emotional cognitive structures. A second step involves linking together numerous separate or poorly connected structures and working out any differences where they conflict.

Those conflicting structures are at the heart of the psychological phenomenon called compartmentalization. This happens when we hold clashing thoughts and feelings about something, with first one side and then the other coming to the fore. We have developed separate conflicting emotional cognitive structures (perhaps at different times in our lives) and failed to notice. The lack of linkage prevents us from being aware that we hold these contradictory views or feelings. Since they are unconnected, the opposites never come up together.

What Jung called an autonomous complex is then a potent compartmentalized emotional cognitive structure. Certain situations can cause a sudden linking and entry into one of these, resulting in odd behaviour or blurted emotion-laden remarks.

Repression is the deliberate ignoring of particular emotional cognitive structures, carried out on a continual basis. We are shunning unwanted structures, so to speak, effectively exiling them to the unconscious. This is extremely unhealthy behaviour.

Milder than repression, suppression consists in recognizing an emotional cognitive structure has been “activated,” but consciously not allowing that structure to influence our speech or behaviour. Suppression is the socially-skilled person’s way of dealing with negative thoughts and feelings.

Obviously, I have simplified things, but I personally find it useful to think about psychology in this way. When we make the facts less abstract and more concrete, it is much easier to work with them.