an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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Posts Tagged ‘Freud

erogenous zones, domination, submission, bonobos and other sexy stuff

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Jacinta: So Simone de Beauvoir has a section in The second sex called ‘Sexual initiation’, which seems to me much influenced by all that Freudian stuff we’ve been exploring in Freud’s women, particularly all that clitoral versus vaginal malarky. However, she does try to get to the bottom of the physiological aspects rather than the psychological, which the Freudians (and many of their opponents) seemed to be stuck on. Still, she seems overly influenced by the passive-active distinction that Freud, especially in the early years, assumed as ‘natural’ vis-a-vis the female-male attitude to coitus.

Canto: Well, to be fair, in much mammalian coitus, the male ‘mounts’ and the female assumes the ‘lordosis position’, according to zoologists. It all appears a bit dominant-submissive to me.

Jacinta: Yeees, sort of, and this seems to have much to do with the evolved features of the sexual apparatus. Think of birds – the male jumps on top, wiggles around and that’s it, it lasts a couple of seconds. Consider that birds generally bond in lifelong pairs, with the odd bit on the side, and the males aren’t generally dominant, though it varies a lot species-wise, and birds, at least some species, are quite intelligent…

Canto: Yeah we don’t tend to think of the lifelong psychological effects of the physical act, or positioning, of sex in birds, or cats and dogs. We’re very speciesist that way.

Jacinta: Which reminds me of another story – actually a memory, of a dog we had, a female who regularly masturbated on top of her favourite fluffy toy, when she wasn’t ‘fighting’ with it all over the house. I can’t remember whether she’d been desexed or not, but clearly her erogenous zones were still intact. Was this clitoral or vaginal stimulation? Does it really matter? But of course for we humans it’s all so much more complex, apparently. Especially for us women. Here’s what Beauvoir has to say – and I sympathise to some extent:

The act of love [sic] finds its unity in its natural culmination: orgasm. Coitus has a specific physiological aim; in ejaculation the male releases burdensome secretions; after orgasm, the male feels complete relief regularly accompanied by pleasure. And, of course, pleasure is not the only aim; it is often followed by disappointment: the need has disappeared rather than having been satisfied. In any case, a definitive act is consummated and the man’s body remains intact: the service he has rendered to the species becomes one with his own pleasure. Woman’s eroticism is far more complex and reflects the complexity of her situation…. instead of integrating forces of the species into her individual life, the female is prey to the species, whose interests diverge from her own ends; this antinomy reaches its height in woman; one of its manifestations is the opposition of two organs: the clitoris and the vagina.

The second sex, pp 394-5

Canto: Yes… well, if dogs don’t much care if it’s clitoral or vaginal pleasure, why should women? It’s all an erogenous zone, some parts more than others maybe, but when the ‘act is consummated’, who cares? And the remark that ‘the female is prey to the species’ presumably refers to pregnancy and all its attendant issues. Beauvoir was writing before the contraceptive pill, which changed so much, at least in the WEIRD world.

Jacinta: Well, yes but there’s the whole issue of teen pregnancy, due to rape, ignorance and the like, and abortion and its enemies. Look at the USA today, still messed up about this issue. But, yes, this clitoris-vagina stuff is largely a red herring to me.

Canto: Yes it all smells a bit fishy.. oh sorry that was a bit below the belt…

Jacinta: Haha I recall an American sex video actor saying all her male co-performers’ dicks stank of marihuana – which may or may not be worse depending on your taste. But speaking of sex, there is an obvious imbalance in the sex game. How often do women rape men? Or even ‘coerce’ men into having sex. And think of gang rape. And the horrific consequences for women. And of course most men don’t rape, or even give it a moment’s thought – at least I hope they don’t – but I know the danger is often on the minds of women when they’re having a night out.

Canto: Safety in numbers, and that seems to be the bonobo way too, and getting back to other mammals again, it’s generally the case – think dogs, horses, any four-legged beastie – that the male mounts the female. Often from behind, like sneakily, creepily. Males on top, and females more or less taken unawares, more or less unwillingly. It seems like the urge to copulate invariably comes from the male.

Jacinta: Yes, evolution appears to have worked it that way, though social evolution can turn this around, at least somewhat. Not just safety, but power in numbers, that seems to be the bonobo way.

Canto: So how exactly do bonobos deal with the sex issue? I’d like some details. I know they engage in regular stimulation of each others’ erogenous zones, aka masturbation, but what about actual copulation, for the purpose of reproduction, though presumably they don’t make the connection. And when did we humans make the connection, when it comes to that?

Jacinta: Well bonobos reproduce at the same rate as chimps, despite all their sexual shenanigans. Humans differ from our primate cousins in that we don’t ‘come into season’ with ‘attractive’ pink swellings, which have an effect on the males, that’s both visual and probably chemical – pheromones and all.

Canto: And if we did – I mean if you females did – it might well be covered up, not only with clothing but deodorants and the like. I wonder if there’s any vestigial elements of being ‘in heat’. as they say, in humans.

Jacinta: Well this is where we move onto hormones. Here’s a quote from a sexual health website, which is pretty reliable:

Medical experts associate changes in sex drive with changes in the ratio of estrogen and progesterone, hormones that are produced by the ovaries. These shifts occur at different phases of your monthly cycle. During your period and for a few days after, the concentration of both hormones is low, resulting in less sexual desire. By the time ovulation rolls around, estrogen peaks, naturally increasing libido. Once the process of ovulation wraps up, there’s a boost in progesterone production, and you might notice a dip in your sex drive.

Canto: Ah yes, menstruation – I don’t recall Freud saying much about that. Do bonobos menstruate?

Jacinta: Do bears shit in the woods? We should do a whole interaction on the menstrual cycle, for your benefit. Anyway, here’s a useful brief guide to bonobos and chimps:

  • Bonobos are sexually receptive for a large portion of their reproductive cycle, even when not near the time for ovulation.
    • This trait has sometimes been called concealed ovulation because the male has no clear signal for the optimum time for mating.
    • Bonobos also engage in sex in non-swelling phases of their cycle in about 1 out of 3 copulations.
    • Chimpanzee females tend to be sexually active only during their maximum swelling phase.

Canto: Right. Uhhh, no mention there of menstruation. Forgive my ignorance but what’s the difference/connection between ovulation and menstruation?

Jacinta: Okay here’s the story with us humans. Ovulation starts at puberty. It’s when an egg is released from one of the ovaries (we have a left and right ovary). You can say this is when we’re fertile, when we’re liable to get pregnant. Ovulation occurs at around day 14 of the 28-day menstrual cycle, on average. The cycle starts, and ends, with that thing called ‘the period’, when material from the endometrium, the lining of the uterus, is shed, along with blood and other yucky stuff. You can imagine the psychological impact that might have on girls when they’re not prepared for it. It can be a real trauma. So menstruation strictly refers to the whole cyclical process, but it’s often used to refer to that flushing out ‘period’. All of this is mediated by hormones. Estrogen is the main builder of new endometrium – the biochemistry of it would require a whole other conversation.

Canto: Yes that’s enough for now, but it seems that oestrogen also boosts libido…

Jacinta: Yes, that’s important, the urge to copulate doesn’t just come from the males. And this physiological stuff seems like solid ground after all the flights of psychoanalysis we’ve been trying to get our heads around recently.

Canto: And we haven’t yet gotten onto what has been made of Freudian and post-Freudian theory by the likes of Lacan, Kristeva, Irigary, Cixous, Derrida, Deleuze, and of course Guattari, among many others…

Jacinta: Yeah, mostly French – funny that. It seems Freud’s influence has waned, though, in the 30 years since Freud’s women was published. The broad Freudian notion of the unconscious – rather than the unconscious processes that go on through our nervous and endocrine systems – has been buried, it seems, by neurological advances, which, as Robert Sapolsky points out in his book Behave, have been fast and furious in the 21st century. But that period, and that physical and metaphysical region centred around Vienna when Freud was active in the first decades of the 20th century, was very fruitful, and in many ways revolutionary. Anil Seth, one of today’s leading researchers into human consciousness, paid tribute to it in his book Being you:

In the fluid atmosphere of Vienna at that time, the two culture of art and science mingled to an unusual degree. Science wasn’t placed above art, in the all too familiar sense in which  art, and the human responses it evokes, are considered to be things in need of scientific explanation. Nor did art place itself beyond the reach of science. Artists and scientists – and their critics – were allies in their attempts to understand human experience in all its richness and variety. No wonder the neuroscientist Eric Kandel called this period ‘the age of insight’, in his book of the same name.

Canto: Well, that’s a nice conciliatory note to end this conversation on.

References

Simone de Beauvoir, The second sex, 1949

Lisa Appignanesi & John Forrester, Freud’s women, 1992

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bonobo-sex-and-society-2006-06/

https://flo.health/menstrual-cycle/sex/sexual-health/sex-and-menstrual-cycle-are-they-connected

https://ielc.libguides.com/sdzg/factsheets/bonobo/reproduction

https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/menstrual-cycle-an-overview

Robert Sapolsky, Behave, 2017

Anil Seth, Being you: a new science of consciousness, 2021

Written by stewart henderson

December 12, 2022 at 11:41 am

Freudian chitchat, sex and bonobos

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Sigmund and Anna Freud

As previously mentioned, the world of Freudian categories was one of my first interests as a teenager. I loved the simple division, as I imagined it, between the id (our uninhibited ‘animal’ urges and appetites), the superego (the parental leash, restraining, guiding, forcing) and the ego (some sort of more or less stable truce between these forces). It was neat, and still allowed for freedom of sorts – the leash could be stretched or even snapped depending on the nature of our parents, the weakness or strength of our bond with them, and the changing nature of our relations over time. It all sounded right somehow, or at least it opened up powerful insights.

Other Freudian categories also attracted, more or less. The Oedipus complex, which I naturally reduced to killing Dad and fucking Mum, had less appeal. I was, at the time, more interested in the idea of killing Mum, but I was smart enough to realise that this was because Mum was the Dad in our house – dominant, remote, scary. At the same time, but never at the same time, she was the nurse, the comforter, the defender. If only I could explain this to Sigmund or his analyst friends.

Being, as mentioned, a teenager, I loved the sexual undertones, overtones, and basic in-your-face tones in Freud’s treatment of – what? The unconscious? Motivation? Human life? Whatever, ‘polymorphous perversity’ meant, I presumed, that we had the tendency, or ‘ability’ to be turned on by any activity or percept, but ‘sublimation’, a product of our superego, could transform that perverse energy into something productive rather than reproductive, like art or relativity theory.

Bonobos, it seems, just stick with the polymorphous perversity. But beware of what is seeming so. All animals strive to be more than what they already are. That is, to thrive. That’s what evolution is all about.

All of this is prologue to the fact that, after many decades, I’ve been revisiting Freudian ideas through Freud’s women, a fiendishly complex book written some thirty years ago, cataloguing Freud’s life and developing ideas, but more interestingly, his impact upon the next generation of analysts, all of them former patients (or analysands), as seemed to be Freud’s rule. That’s to say, the next generation of female analysts.

The generation of women after that of Freud, the generation that came of age in the early 20th century, whether born in Vienna or attracted to it by Freud’s growing superstardom, couldn’t be said to have an easy time of it. A depressing rate of childhood (and maternal) mortality, sudden changes of fortune due to cataclysms such as the Great Depression, two horrific European wars, the Nazi anti-Semitic frenzy of the thirties, and an obsession with female ‘hysteria’ and other mystery ailments, all created complications, to put it mildly, for upwardly mobile female intellectuals. Professional careers as doctors or academics were still largely closed to them, and it’s noteworthy that many, such as Lou Andreas-Salomé, turned to writing to establish their intellectual reputations. Others, such as Anna Freud and Marie Bonaparte, had clear birthright advantages. Other important female figures for this generation of psychotherapy were Helene Deutsch, Melanie Klein, Joan Riviere, Alix Strachey, Jeanne Lampl-de Groot and Ruth Mack Brunswick, to name a few, but many analysands were touched by this (occasionally vicious) circle, including the brilliant if mystifyingly mystical writer H.D. (Hilda Doolittle).

What is fascinating about this little ecosystem that had come to thrive under Freud’s benevolent paternalism is its openness to the wiles of sexuality, while always maintaining an un-bonoboesque primness. Of course, bonobos weren’t fully identified as a species until 1929, and nothing was then known of their lifestyle, and nor was evolution and our connectedness to other species fully accepted, or its consequences much explored in Freud’s lifetime. But the circle of analysts, analysands and their companions, spiced with more or less explicit notions of childhood sexuality, latent lesbianism, father fixations and the like, seems like a simmering pot under the cover of polite society. Largely all talk no action. The talking cure? The talking distraction? The talking disorder? To read some of the writings of these analysts, well they often make heavy work of everyday life, its thoughts and feelings, as they seek to frame experience within one particular theory or another. It reminds me of other forms of over-intellectualising – it’s fascinating how dated and more or less quaint seem arguments regarding the philosophy of ‘mind’ and ‘free will’ of several decades ago.

Bonobos, of course, have no language. They can’t tell us how well- or mal-adjusted they are. All we have is our own observations. Bonobos aren’t always lovey-dovey, they sometimes fight, though not as often or as viciously as chimps. They suffer more from human raids than from their own species, which has led to a lot of orphans and ‘childless mothers’. At a stretch, you could argue that these threats have something in common with those experienced by Anna Freud and the Jewish or pro-Jewish psychoanalyst community of the twenties and thirties. An article from Discover magazine describes bonobo responses after a bit of rough tangling in the treetops:

The researchers found that those young bonobos that were able to calm themselves down most quickly after altercations were also those most likely to console another individual in distress. What’s more, these socially well-adjusted bonobos were far more likely to have been raised by their mothers. Orphaned apes, on the other hand, were less likely to offer consolation. This consolation behaviour through contact, such as by touching, embracing and kissing, suggests that the young bonobos are expressing empathy.

Some researchers aren’t entirely convinced that consolatory behaviour is going on, I’m not quite sure why, but it seems to me that consolatory behaviour (and the need for it among the suffering) in these non-speaking relatives of ours has something in common with the ‘talking cure’ that became so sought-after in early twentieth century Europe. What’s also interesting is the focus on sex, albeit in very different ways, in relation to stress, and effective function, in humans and bonobos. Here are some examples of Freud’s ‘sex talk’, in written form, from Freud’s women. First, in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess in 1897:

the main distinction between the sexes emerges at the time of puberty, when girls are seized by a non-neurotic sexual repugnance and males by libido. For at that period a further sexual zone is (wholly or in part) extinguished in females which persists in males. I am thinking of the male genital zone, the region of the clitoris, in which during childhood sexual sensitivity is shown to be concentrated in girls as well. Hence the flood of shame which the female shows at that period – until the new, vaginal zone is awakened, spontaneously, or by reflex action.

Freud’s women, p 400

This is all a bit below the belt for the late 19th century, and the male/female generalisations are questionable, but the fact that such matters are being aired feels like enlightenment. The difficulty I find with Freud, from many of these writings, is that he expresses himself with an air of certitude in so many works which, as his ideas ‘evolve’, contradict previous works, no doubt influenced by the enormous variety of analysands and their neuroses, or simply their backgrounds, as presented to him. The Oedipus complex, for example, appears to be enormously flexible in this way. You could say that his theories, or theory, if there is one, is so open to be tailored to the Individual that it’s unfalsifiable. Though I’m not particularly au fait with Karl Popper’s falsifiability test, I’m betting that he would have used Freud’s theories as a perfect example of work which fails that test.

Having said that, I’m not about to give up on old Sigmund, who perhaps unwittingly inspired many feminist intellectuals in the first decades of the 20th century, if only because he genuinely admired them, took them seriously and was influenced by their experiences and critiques. Perhaps also because his focus was on the internal and domestic world, the world of repressed desires, parental struggles and the great variety of female entanglements with male power, implicit and explicit. I’ll quote another, typically convoluted excerpt (to me at least), this time from 1926, in which Freud discusses castration anxiety:

there is no danger of our regarding castration anxiety as the sole motive force of the defensive processes which lead to neurosis. I have shown elsewhere how little girls, in the course of their development, are led into making a tender object-cathexis by their castration complex. It is precisely in women that the danger-situation of loss of object seems to have remained the most effective. All we need to do is make a slight modification in our description of their determinant of anxiety, in the sense that it is no longer a matter of feeling the want of, or actually losing the object itself, but of losing the object’s love [emphasis added]

Freud’s women, p 414

WTF, think thou? Firstly, an ‘object cathexis’ is apparently an ‘investment of libido or psychic energy in objects outside the self, such as a person, goal, idea, or activity’. But what exactly is a ‘castration complex’ in little girls? Apparently it’s the discovery that they don’t have the dangly stuff of their male counterparts (if they ever discover such a thing in childhood). This makes what follows a little complicated – they (the girls) lose the object’s (the penis’s) love? And so the theory, if it can be called that, gets more ‘flexible’.

All of this of course raises the putatively vexed issue of penis envy, which surely doesn’t have to be such a serious thing. De Beauvoir describes a cute example of this in The Second Sex, quoting from Frigidity in woman, a book by the Freudian psychologist Wilhelm Stekel, published in 1926. The reminiscence is from a 21-year-old:

‘At the age of 5, I chose for my playmate Richard, a boy of 6 or 7… For a long time I had wanted to know how one can tell whether a child is a girl or a boy. I was told: by the earrings…. or by the nose. This seemed to satisfy me, though I had a feeling they were keeping something from me. Suddenly Richard expressed a desire to urinate… Then the thought came to me of lending him my chamber pot… When I saw his organ, which was something entirely new to me, I went into highest raptures: ‘What have you there? My, isn’t that nice! I’d like to have something like that, too.’ Whereupon I took hold of the membrum and held it enthusiastically… My great-aunt’s cough awoke us… and from that day on our doings and games were carefully watched.’

The second sex, p 348

I can well imagine a non-verbal experience of a similar sort among juvenile bonobos – though given that bonobos, like every other non-human mammal, never ‘cover-up’, the surprise and delight would’ve occurred at a very early stage of development, and there’d be no elder relatives keen to prevent further explorations. Which brings me to civilisation – and its discontents.

Anyway, this post has gone on long enough, but the issues raised are important to me, and I’ll pursue them further in later posts.

penis envy mushrooms – another story altogether

References

https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/like-humans-young-bonobos-comfort-those-in-stress

Freud’s women, by Lisa Appignanesi & John Forrester, Virago Press 1993

The second sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, 1949: Vintage books 2011

Written by stewart henderson

December 8, 2022 at 12:13 pm

a bonobo world, and other impossibilities 14

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graph showing the rising number of PhDs in neuroscience compared to other sciences

is it all about sex? a few thoughts on sex and behaviour

When I was young there were always a lot of books around, fortunately. My mother was a psych nurse who went on to be a teacher of nursing, so psychology textbooks were plentiful, and I learned with some fascination early on about the id, the ego and the superego. But my greatest excitement was reserved for two other Freudian terms, sublimation and polymorphous perversity. They allowed me to think of sex in a kind of superior way. 

Sublimation refers to the process of transformation from a solid to a gas, without the intermediate step of melting into a liquid. You can observe it simply by opening your freezer door, especially if you have an old-style freezer caked with ice. But Freud’s use of the word was much hotter, to my teenage self. To Freud, there were two driving instincts, eros, the sex drive, and thanatos, the death drive. That’s enough about thanatos. Freud proposed these two opposing drives in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and other essays, but I probably got them from pamphlets floating around the house, summarising Freud’s ideas in a few paragraphs. As I understood it, eros was life-affirmative, but it needed to be harnessed, reigned in, sublimated to a more general, civilising and creative (rather than procreative) force. So it was all just sex diverted to science, technology, empire-building and the like. Sounded perfectly cromulent to me, even before that word was invented. So everything was polymorphously perverse; church spires, slippery-dips, kindergartens and business schools, they all manifested the perversity of our drive, in an infinitude of stop-thinking-about-sex-but-do-this-instead ways. Having discovered the secret of civilisation thanks to Meister Sigmund, I took great secret pleasure in upending said civilisation by masturbating like there was no tomorrow. 

I realise now of course that sublimation isn’t always about channelling out the sexual impulse, it’s about any equally unacceptable impulse, such as murderous rage. But being me I wanted to keep the sex, and stuff all the civilisation. Or couldn’t we somehow keep both sex and civilisation, and dispense with the murderous rage? 

Many anthropologists would agree that bonobos have a culture, but none would say they have a civilisation. So what exactly is the difference, and does civilisation require the degree of sexual repression that we generally suffer from? Though there are the odd erotomanic subcultures, in no established nation is it acceptable, or legal, to walk about naked, let alone have sex, in public. It’s generally called indecent exposure. A loincloth, and some extra bits of cloth for females, might protect you legally if not socially, but what precisely is so upsetting, currently, about those parts we’re obliged to hide, and will we ever socially evolve out of this condition?

Freud believed we were born polymorphously perverse, little libido capsules, and some of his observations – such that we’re all born bisexual, seemed obvious to me from the get-go. However, Freud knew nothing about bonobos, who were barely known to humanity at the time of his death. His theories of masculinity might have benefitted from such knowledge, and in fact the incredibly rapid pace of our neurological knowledge from the beginning of the 21st century – as the neurologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky points out in his monumental book Behave – has wrought havoc with psychoanalytic and other theories that seek to understand human behaviour without attending to their detailed neurological underpinnings. The shaping of masculinity and femininity by culture has been a problem that psychologists, feminists and all other interested parties have long wrestled with. Which culture, after all? And are there differences beyond culture? Can culture be separated from biology?

I don’t think so. Our brains function the way they do because of the environment in which they were nurtured since conception – every environment different of course. And there’s also evolution – what might be called pre-conceptual, or historical, or prehistorical influences. Researchers have often tried to pinpoint essential differences between the male and female brain in humans. They’re far less concerned to pinpoint such differences between male and female cats, dogs or mice, presumably because their overall catty, doggy and mousey natures tend to overwhelm minor gender differences. Recent research has found statistical differences only, rather than categorical differences between male and female brains. In other words, female brains don’t have a vagina and male ones don’t have a penis. Even if you’ve devoted a lifetime to neurological research, studying the brain in all its white-and grey detail, you wouldn’t be able to state categorically that the warm, disembodied human brain placed in your hands to somehow keep alive and probe its electrochemical circuitry and its hormonal flow, belonged to a male or a female. Researchers who want to find key differences between Venus and Mars will find them, but the differences among female brains are greater than those that separate them from male brains. 

And yet, statistics are important. Statistically speaking, males are more violent than females, regardless of nation, culture or time period (going back to the first days of statistical data). It seems to have to do with hormones, and group behavior. Young males often join gangs – bikie gangs, street gangs, crime gangs, ethnic gangs, white supremacist gangs, nogoodnik gangs, whatever. Females, not so much. The largest cause of violent death and injury in long-peaceful countries such as Australia is a young male aged 15-24 or so behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. This is about risky and show-offy behaviour – they kill and injure themselves as much as others. Such behaviour is seen too in male chimps, in young bull elephants during musth, and in male dolphins – all very smart and social animals. Does all this relate to sex? Apparently, in more or less roundabout ways. For chimps it’s not so roundabout. It’s called the sexual coercion hypothesis, for which much evidence has been collected from various East African field sites:

Males who directed aggression at certain females mated more often with those females than did other males. Moreover, these aggressive males were actively solicited for mating by those females at the time of peak fertility. Critically, aggression over the long term had a greater effect than violence in the immediate context of mating. 

This aggressive disposition apparently leads directly to reproductive success. So male domestic violence isn’t all bad?

Elephants in musth – which literally means ‘drunk’ – have very highly elevated testosterone levels, but how this links to aggression is unclear. Sapolsky has much to say about cause-correlation between testosterone -and androgens generally – and aggression in humans, which is relevant here. Social learning appears to play an important role in male aggression, which raises testosterone levels, and so we have a chcken-and-egg issue. As to elephants, the aggression they display during musth makes close scientific analysis a bit problematic, but it’s known that the secretion of temporin from the temporal glands in this period, and the accompanying swelling of those glands, causes irritation, which can be acute in some cases. This extreme irritation may cause aggressive behaviour, as when Dad kicks the cat after Mum has berated him for the previous two hours. Interestingly, aggressiveness, sometimes murderous, in young bull elephants, most often happens in the absence of older males. Their presence has a tempering effect. In any case, the violence displayed during musth, which is the male reproductive period, seems more of a side-effect than a ‘turn-on’ for females. Older males learn to use this period effectively, becoming more energetic in moving around and increasing territory in search of females, and preserving their energy during the warmer, non-musth months. 

Dolphins are not generally the fun-loving joyful creatures of contemporary myth, and male dolphins often gang up on females and rape them, to use a term humans like to reserve for themselves. I could go on, but the general point is that we, as humans, might want to learn how not to behave as well as how to behave from other species, especially those most like us – not just in their closeness genetically, but in their smarts, and in their negative or positive treatment of others, of their own and other species. 

References

R Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst. Bodley Head 2017

https://asunow.asu.edu/content/aggression-male-chimpanzees-leads-mating-success

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musth

https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1365-2656.13035

https://slate.com/human-interest/2009/05/the-dark-secrets-that-dolphins-don-t-want-you-to-know.html

http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160204-cute-and-cuddly-dolphins-are-secretly-murderers

Written by stewart henderson

November 27, 2020 at 12:44 pm

Did Freud ever pass his orals?

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Freud died of epithelioma from sticking too many cigars in his mouth, but he doesn't strike me as the orally-fixated dependent type

Freud died of epithelioma from sticking too many cigars in his mouth, but he doesn’t strike me as the orally-fixated dependent type

A young person I know is studying psychology probably for the first time and she informed me of the stages of early childhood psychological development she has been told about – oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. I’d certainly heard of the first two of these, but not too much of the others. A quick squiz at the lists of Dr Google led me to Freudian psychosexual theory, which naturally raised my scepical antennae. And yet, despite my limited parental experience I’ve noted that babies do like to put things in their mouths a lot (the oral stage is supposed to extend from birth to 1 -2 years), sometimes to their great detriment. So, personality-wise, is the oral stage a real thing, and does it really give way to the anal stage, etc? I’m using the oral stage here to stand for all the stages in the theory/hypothesis.

These stages were posited by Freud as central to his hypothesis of psychosexual development – though how the phallic stage is experienced by girls is an obvious question. His view was that our childhood development was a matter of fixation, at various periods, on ‘erogenous zones’. After the oral stage, children supposedly switch to an anal stage, which lasts to 3 years of age – presumably on average. These switches might be delayed, or brought on earlier, in individual cases, and sometimes an individual might get stuck at a particular stage, denoting psychosexual problems.

So how real are these stages? Are some more real than others? What is the experimental evidence for them, do they exist in other primates, and if they exist, then why? What purpose do they serve?

It seems that Freud, and perhaps also his followers, have built up a whole system around these stages and how individuals are more or less influenced by any one or a combination in the development of their adult personalities, and since the degree of influence of these different stages and the way they’ve combined in each individual is pretty well impossible to recover, the theory looks to be unfalsifiable. There also appears to be the problem that psychologists can usually only track back from the adult’s personality to speculate about early childhood influences, which looks like creating a circular argument. For example, if an individual presents as an overly trusting, dependent personality, this may be cited as evidence of fixation at the oral stage of development, because children fixated at this stage are believed to develop these personalites in later life. The only way out of this impasse it seems to me is to define this oral stage (or any other stage) more carefully, so that we can accurately identify children who have experienced a prolonged or fixated oral stage, and then return to them to observe how their personalites have developed.

Of course there are other problems with the theory. There needs to be a clearer explanation, it seems to me, of how these apparently erogenously-related stages are marked into personality traits in later life. The relationship between an obsession with putting things in your mouth, or sucking, licking or otherwise craving and enjoying oral sensations, and a dependent, trusting personality, is by no means obvious. In fact, some might go as far as to say that, prima facie, it makes about as much sense as an astrologically-based account of personality.

Perhaps if we look at the oral stage, or claims about it, more closely, we’ll find something of an explanation. In this description, we learn that the libido, or life force, gets fixated in the oral stage in more than one way, leading to an ‘oral receptive personality’ and an ‘oral aggressive personality’. The first type, which is a consequence of a delayed or overly fixated oral stage, is trusting and dependent, the second is dominating and aggressive, due largely to a curtailed oral stage, apparently. Those who experienced a longer oral stage in childhood are supposedly more likely to be smokers and nail-biters as adults, though I’m not sure how this relates to being a dependent or trusting personality.

In any case this hardly takes us further in terms of evidence, and it’s worth noting that the site in which this is mooted is described as ‘integrated sociopsychology’. Dr Steven Novella, in the most recent episode of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, warned about the use of such terms as ‘integrative’, ‘functional’ and ‘holistic’ used before ‘medicine’ as a red flag indicating a probable bogus approach. I suspect the same goes for psychology. Obviously the website’s author is a Freudian, and he makes this statement as to evidence:

What is undoubtedly disturbing to the ‘Freud-bashers’ is how much evidence has accumulated over the years to say that, in broad terms at least, if not always in detail, Freud’s observations pretty much stand up so many years later.

However, other psychology sites I’ve looked at, which don’t appear to me to be particularly Freud-bashing, have pointed to the lack of evidence as the principal problem for Freud’s stages. Of course the major problem is how to test for the ‘personality effect’ of these stages. Again I think of astrology – someone dedicated to astrological causation can always account for personality ‘deviations’ in terms of cusps and conjunctions and ascendants and the like, and this would surely also be the case for the confounding influences of our various cavities and tackle, so to speak.

Some 20 years ago a paper by Fisher & Greenberg (1996) suggested that Freud’s stages and other aspects of his early childhood writings should be scientifically examined as separate hypotheses, in a sort of piecemeal fashion. Unfortunately I can find little evidence that evidence has been found for the oral stage as a marker for later personality development – or even looked for.  This is probably because most scientists in the field – experimental psychologists – have little interest in these Freudian hypotheses, and little funding would be available for testing them. They would surely have to be longitudinal studies, with a host of potentially confounding factors accounted for, and the end results would hardly be likely to convince other early childhood specialists.

I’ve said the theory looks to be unfalsifiable, but I’m not quite prepared to say outright that it is. It seems to me that the oral stage, with its obvious association with breast-feeding, and the obvious association between prolonged breast-feeding and dependence, at least in popular culture, is the one most amenable to testing. The later Oedipus/Elektra complexes, associated I think with the phallic stage, seem rather too convoluted and caveat-ridden to be seriously testable. I must admit to a residual fondness for some of Freud’s theories of development though, however unscientific they might be. Though I was never interested in the strict form of the Oedipus complex, because my father was by far the weaker of my parents, I felt it offered some insight into relations with the dominant parent – struggle, rivalry, attempts to overthrow. I also agreed with his general view that early childhood is absolutely crucial to our subsequent psychological development, and I found his ego, id and superego hypotheses enlightening and fascinating. Polymorphous perversity, sublimation and the pervasive influence of libido also tickled my fancy a lot.

I think it’s fair to say that Freud has had a greater influence on popular culture than on science, but it has been a profound influence, and overall a positive one. The term ‘observations’, rather than theories, seems better to describe his contributions. In writing about the libido and the pleasure principle, inter alia, he accepted our instinctive animal nature, and gave us ideas about how to both harness it and overcome it. Notions like the id and the superego seemed to give us fresh ways to think about desire, discipline and control. His ideas and concepts tapped into stuff that was very personal to us in our individual struggles, and his universalising tendencies helped us, I think, to look sympathetically at the struggles of others. Libido itself was a banner-word that helped release us from the straight-jacket of earlier sexual thinking – or avoidance thereof.

It’s also probably unfair to expect from Freud’s pioneering work anything like the scientific riguor we expect and really need from psychology today. Certainly he was far too firm about the rightness of his most speculative work – I read The Interpretation of Dreams as an ideas-hungry teenager and was impressed with its first-half demolition of previous dream theories, but the second-half presentation of his own theory struck me even then as ludicrously weak, though it had the definitely positive effect of putting me off dream-interpreters for life (a dream that can be interpreted is a dream not worth having, and that’s their greatest gift to us). It’s more what he drew attention to that counts. His concept of the unconscious doesn’t really cut it today, but he made us start thinking of unconscious motivations in general, and much else besides. I’ve never been to an analyst, but I think one benefit of the psychoanalytic movement is to help us realise that there’s no normality and that we all carry baggage of guilt, anger, fear and frustration. For all its failings, his was a humanising enterprise.

Written by stewart henderson

July 10, 2016 at 5:34 pm