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THE FOUNDATIONS OF NORMAL AND ABNORMAL PSYCHOLOGY
Boris Sidis, Ph.D., M.D.
THE ASSIMILATION OF THE MOMENT IN NORMAL STATES
The fact that the moment-consciousness expands, grows, and develops in its organization until it reaches a point of perfect adaptation to external conditions clearly shows that the moment is capable of working new psychic material into its constitution. The material which it gets is of such a nature as to help to perpetuate the psychic life of the moment. The moment cannot possibly go on growing without having such material at hand. If the moment comes in contact with any psychic element or experience that can further its content, the experience is at once seized on and synthetized in the moment. The psychic element is not simply taken in and associated or annexed to the rest of the content, it is actually transformed in this process.
When the moment is stimulated to activity by an external object, the sensory stimulations of the present time-moment are new. Just these particular stimulations and sensory processes awakened have not occurred as yet in the life history of the animal, and still the object meets with its appropriate sensory response and motor reaction. The moment that has more or less like content to the given new psychic experience aroused appropriates the new states, works them into its own psychic content, and sends out its characteristic reaction in response to the stimuli. The moment that gets hold of new psychic material is ordinarily the one which is in the process of activity at the given time when the stimulations occur. The new material is absorbed by the moment as a whole, and is then assimilated by the functioning nucleus. The primary sensory elements of the nucleus become strengthened.
At the same time the new sensory material absorbed awakens some new secondary sensory elements which are assimilated by the secondary sensory elements constituting the so-called protoplasm of the moment. In this absorption of new material the moment does not and cannot possibly remain exactly the same, it is modified in a degree, although the internal relations of its constituents may practically remain unaltered. Readjustments may occur and usually do so, but they are made as nearly as possible to the old plan, and are assimilated to the old content.
In the perceptual moment of the tautog that which constitutes its content may be the perception, say of a little fish yonder; soon, however, a new feature may arise in the course of experience, namely, change in color for instance in the case of the squid, or swelling in the case of the puff-fish. If the fish usually reacts in making attacks when receiving perceptive stimuli coming from small fish, and if the new experience is somewhat unusual in its ordinary life experience, and at the same time not so striking as to call forth the reaction of fear, the fish will still carry out its ordinary reaction of aggressive movement, slightly modified by the new incoming experience.
The chick in seeing a cinnabar caterpillar has the new experience of the different color from that of the caterpillar on which it usually feeds, but the reaction is still the same which caterpillars callout in chicks, namely, seizing and pecking. The new experience of taste got through the reaction may further modify the reaction of the chicks when confronted with cinnabar caterpillar.
The young infant pushes indiscriminately everything in its mouth, everything is for sucking, and only by experience it learns gradually to modify its reaction towards objects. On seeing a lemon, a child that is only acquainted with oranges will take it as an orange. The child will perceive the new visual experiences given by the lemon, as different from orange, but they will be assimilated to his sensory orange experience. The special visual experiences will give rise in the child's mind to some qualification of the percept "orange," the object being a kind of orange, a bad orange. The reaction in relation to the lemon will then be of the kind relating to orange in general. This reaction will be of course modified by repeated experiences resulting from a series of reactions in relation to the lemon.
Savages confronted for the first time with the horse or the ox, consider them a species of pig, an animal with which they are well acquainted, and they expect from the horse, or the ox similar manifestations. Their reactions towards those new species of animals will be of the same kind, as if those animals were pigs.
The same relation is still better illustrated in cases of young children with a definite moment-consciousness, which for convenience sake may be characterized as the family-moment. The child's moment-content of life-relationship consists of his experience gotten from his relation with his papa and mamma. Baby, papa, and mamma and their various relations go to make up the total moment of the child's family life experiences. When the child is confronted with young animals, the latter are regarded in the light of "babies," they are also babies, they have their papas and mammas who give them cookies, tea, and oatmeal, undress them, and put them to bed.
A young child of about three years and a half asked me whether the baby-calf's mamma gave it pie to eat. Another time the same child on seeing a young kitten inquired after its mamma and papa, and when the baby kitty was going to have its tea and put to bed. In one child of less than three years old, young animals, plants, such as young trees and flowers, and even little stars were so many "baby Willies." Their lives were fully assimilated to his own, they were eating oatmeal, drinking milk and were having tea, sugar, and biscuits for their supper. The same child was greatly surprised and partly even horrified at finding that baby-Willie-flowers had no papa and no mamma. The moment-consciousness is awakened by definite specific traits in the object, by familiar experience sense-data constituting the content of the moment; the rest and differential traits of the object are worked into the general plan and character of the functioning moment.
The assimilative power of the moment is clearly revealed in the very character of perception. That pitted object yonder is perceived as an orange with all its attributes of color, shape, size, weight, fragrance, and taste. The synthesis of so many sensory elements corresponding to such a complex of stimuli was gradually effected in the course of ontogenetic development, and no doubt determined by inherited disposition of phylogenetic evolution.
Suppose the orange turns out to be a new species never met before by the individual; it feels differently when touched, it has different weight, special taste, and fragrance. When such sense data are experienced repeatedly, the percept orange is modified by assimilation of the new sense data. On seeing another time such a sort of an orange all the previously separately experienced sense-data appear together in one synthetized percept. The moment-consciousness which we, for illustration sake, have assumed as consisting only of experiences relating to oranges and with corresponding psycho-physiological reactions, has enlarged its content, has increased, and modified its adaptation to external conditions.
The assimilative power of the moment-consciousness is well brought out in the activity of the higher form of consciousness. The desire to go to the post-office to get my mail forms the central point of my present moment-consciousness. Round it as a focus are grouped ideas, feelings, and sensations, all more or less tending in the same direction. The actual walking to the post-office gives a series of new motor sensations which are subconsciously assimilated by the moment as a whole. The tactual and motor sensations coming from each step are assimilated by the moment, leading in their turn to new series of reactions. Each new step is followed by new sensations that give rise to new reactions and so on, until the end of the moment is reached and the purpose accomplished.
The whole sensori-motor series is guided by the nuclear elements of the moment, although the successive stages of the series are assimilated subconsciously. In reading a book the successive stages are guided by the central general idea. The perception of the letters, words, and their isolated meaning is assimilated subconsciously, all of them being incorporated into the guiding moment-consciousness which is growing and developing, becoming enriched with more and more content. In writing a letter or an article on a certain subject we find the same fact of assimilation by the moment-consciousness of the sense-data coming in the successive steps of the whole experience. The handling of the pen, the dipping it into ink, its guiding by the hand, its gliding over the paper, the drawing of the letters, the formation of letters into words, and of the words into lines and sentences, all follow in successive stages and are assimilated partly subconsciously and partly consciously. All are guided by the principal moment which grows richer in content with each successive step made, with each succeeding link of the series. In fact we may say that all those successive steps are stages in the growth and development of the one moment-consciousness.
The growth and development of the moment-consciousness is through its assimilation of fresh psychic material. In the man of science a favorite theory exercises such an assimilative power over facts otherwise disconnected. The moment-consciousness having the given theory as its nucleus absorbs more and more material, and with the assimilation of new material the content and strength of the internal organization grows in a corresponding degree. The assimilation is guided by the intense interest aroused by the nucleus of the total moment, and is in its turn aided by the active process of assimilation, especially by the influence of submerged, subconscious moments which have reached the minimum of consciousness, or lie on the margin of the sphere of waking consciousness.
The influence of the subconscious is in proportion to the duration and intensity of the activity of the mental process. We are well acquainted with the fact that an action requiring at first great stress of attention, finally, with its repetition, drops out of the focus of consciousness and becomes, as it is called, automatic or unconscious. They who have observed a child striving to stand by himself or beginning to walk realize how such seemingly automatic acts as standing or walking are at first accompanied with intense attention. The child, when standing up all by himself, does it hesitatingly; he shakes and trembles, as if occupying unsafe ground, or doing a difficult act; he looks around for support, stretches out his hands, asking the help of his parents or nurse, and if he does not get aid in time, begins to cry from fear and drops on all-fours. It is a difficult feat for him. Withdraw his attention from his performance, and in the first stages of his series of trials he drops helplessly to the ground.
The same holds true in the case of walking. The child in beginning to walk, does it with great hesitation and fear. It can only be compared to the attempt of an adult in learning to walk a rope, or a narrow board on a high place. Each step requires intense attention. The least distraction of attention and the baby falls down in a heap. The least change in the touch, muscular and kinaesthetic sensations arrests the successful attempt at standing or walking. Thus in the case of my baby of fourteen months after the first two days of more or less successful trials at walking, a new pair of shoes was put on. This arrested the walking. When the baby became accustomed to the new sensations which fell in the background of his consciousness, he once more started a series of trials, and with such success that after two days' practice he walked almost a whole mile.
After a period of long practice the complex muscular adjustments, required in the acts of standing and walking, gradually retreat to the background of consciousness and become automatic. Not that consciousness in those acts is lost: it has simply reached its necessary minimum, leaving the focus of consciousness free for other new and unaccustomed adjustments, which in their turn retreat from the centre to the periphery and fall into the subconscious. The usual movement of mental processes is from the conscious to the subconscious.
Experiences, however, may first be perceived by submerged subconscious moments and then transmitted to the focus of consciousness, the movement of the process thus taking a direction opposite to the usual one, from the subconscious to the conscious. Experiences, for instance, lived through in hypnotic states, in trance states or in dreams, may come to the surface as hypnoidal states and then become synthetized ion the upper waking consciousness, or they may be lighted up in hypnosis, and then permanently synthetized in the centre of attentive consciousness.
Similarly experiences first lived through in the subconscious states induced by alcoholic intoxication or by anaesthetics may be brought by hypnoidal states or by hypnosis into the focus of consciousness. Hypnoidal states are uprushes of the subconscious, and by means of them many a hidden and obscure region of the subconscious may be discovered. Thus the Hanna case was largely marked by hypnoidal states. In many of my cases hypnoidal states are the means by which subconscious experiences become completely revealed. In cases of amnesia the hypnoidal states give glimpses into subconscious regions which even deep hypnosis cannot reveal.
The method of guesses is valuable in showing the reverse process of mental activity, the passage of a subconscious state into the focus of consciousness.
If the anaesthetic spot of a psychopathic case is stimulated, the patient is unaware of such stimulation; should he, however, be asked to guess, or to tell anything that happens to come into his mind, he is often found to give correct answers. The patient perceives subconsciously. This perception, often in a slightly modified form, is transmitted to the upper consciousness, or to what for the present constitutes the patient's principal moment consciousness, or personality.
For instance, the anaesthetic spot of the patient is pricked a number of times, the patient remains quiet and is seemingly insensible. Should we now ask the patient to tell anything that comes into his mind, he will say, "pricking" and will be unable to tell why he happened to think of "pricking" at all. Should we now ask him to give any number that may enter his mind, he will give the correct number, once more not being able to give the reason why this particular number happened to enter his mind, considering it a mere "chance number." The subconscious sensations experienced are transmitted as abstract ideas to the focus of consciousness.
Often instead of the particular idea being transmitted, only the general aspect of it reaches the focus. Thus the patient is not able to guess the particular nature of the stimulus, but he may give the character of the unfelt stimuli. This reveals the reverse movement from the subconscious to the conscious.
This reverse movement of the psychic state, from the originally subconscious to the upper consciousness, is well manifested in psychopathic cases of visual anaesthesia as well as hypnotically induced anaesthesia. The patient's field of vision is limited. If objects are inserted in any place of the zone extending from the periphery of the narrowed field to the utmost boundary of the normal field, the patient can guess correctly the names of the inserted objects invisible to him. General guesses are correct on the periphery of that "subconscious" zone. Some of the phenomena of paramnesia can be explained by this principle of reverse movement, when subconscious experiences transmitted to central consciousness appear under the form of "familiar" memories.
A lighting up of the subconscious regions bringing about a reverse movement from the subconscious to the conscious can also be brought about by the use of toxic drugs. Pent-up neuron energies become liberated from lower and lower-most moment consciousness, long forgotten experiences well up to the centre of consciousness; outlived moments are resurrected and come to the focus of consciousness with all the vividness of a present perceptual experience. Thus De Quincey, in his "Confessions of an English Opium Eater," tells us that "the minutest incidents of childhood or forgotten scenes of later years were often revived. I could not be said to recollect them, for if I had been told of them when waking, I should not have been able to acknowledge them as my past experience. But placed as they were before me in dreams like intuitions and clothed in all their evanescent circumstances and accompanying feelings, I recognized them instantaneously."
Hypnoidic states reveal the wealth and extent of psychic experience hidden in the subconscious regions. Glimpses into the subconscious are also given in hypnoidal states which are induced by the process of hypnoidization. The patient is asked to close his eyes and keep as quiet as possible without, however, making any special effort to put himself into such a state. He is then asked to tell anything that comes into his mind. The patient may also be asked to attend to some stimuli, such as reading or writing or the buzzing of an electrical current, and he is then to tell the ideas, thoughts, images, phases, no matter how disconnected, that happen to flitter through his mind.
This same condition of hypnoidization is sometimes better accomplished through mental relaxation with
concentration of attention in a definite direction. The patient is put into a quiet condition, and with his eyes
closed and the experimenter's hand on the patient's forehead, the latter is urged to mental effort and
strain, and, if necessary, given some hints. Experiences seemingly inaccessible flash lightning-like on the upper regions of
self-consciousness. In all such cases the active moment-consciousness seizes on and assimilates any
cognate experience, conscious or subconscious.
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