In the eye of our mind

Human existence is nothing is not meaningful. The brain works in metaphor and meaning. We surround ourselves with symbols that represent aspects of our identity. We use mental imagery to make sense of our experience through the creation of internal objects, psychological representations that flesh out our thoughts.

And we project those thoughts, those representations, onto other people, experiences, and objects that inhabit our subjective world, influencing what we see in them, how we interpret what happens. The person we fall in love with embodies the qualities of an idealised parent. They have to. We all need our delusions and imaginings. They comfort us. When we discover the reality, that they are themselves after all and some of their personal habits are – well, not as we would like, it can be quite devastating.

Inhabiting a world of meanings is like carrying our own personal television in our heads, a theatre of the mind seen through the camera of our mind and created in our own image from everything that has ever happened to us.

The arts give voice and form to our representations. Music can be heroic, stirring, happy, loving, sad. It encourages personal association and can amplify it and come to represent it. It is such a powerful emotional amplifier.

And look at the painting and sculpture; the comforting interiors of Wilhelm Hammershoi, the womb like reds of Mark Rothko, the painful ruminations of Louis Bourgeois. These are all representations of the issues that preoccupied the artists.

Language is an abstraction, a way of conveying meaning through an understood code, a metaphorical communication. This reaches its most sophisticated and eloquent in poetry.

But if this is all part of the theatre of our mind, it is an interactive theatre. If we are to remain healthy, our interpretations have to change, to adapt, when events shatter the image. If they don’t, then we cannot live with ourselves. Instead we exist in a state of dissonance and may only find meaning in illness. The story has to change and adapt if we are to remain healthy in mind, body and spirit. This is what is meant by Narrative Therapy (see my blog on Narrative based therapy; changing morbid life scripts, 19th September 2008).

But what are these representations there for? Why do we need them? TS Eliot once remarked that ‘mankind cannot tolerate too much reality.’ So do we use symbols to distance ourselves from intolerable realities, that we really are all alone in the world and there are forces out there that want to destroy us?

Dr Kenneth Wright, psychoanalyst and author, who spoke at The Eye and Mind Society last week, thought so. ‘Our symbols exist to help us cope with separation and live an independant life. We cannot do that unless we can build a representation of what it is we separate from’. This allows us to remain connected to the objects that give us security even if they are in mental cyberspace. As I explained in last week’s blog, Lean on Me (18th February), the ability to be independent and go it alone depends on the presence of a supportive partner. It is really a state of mature interdependence. This can still be the case even though they are thousands of miles away, if we have not seen them for years and even if they are dead. As long as we know that somebody loves us, then we can do anything. But how do we learn to be without the one we need but still have them?

Infants use substitutes, bits of blanket, smiling teddy bears, their thumbs – transitional objects that represent a continued connection with their mother’s face and body and are used as comforters. Transitional objects are a step on the way to internal or mental objects.

Toddlers learn to play quite happily as long as they know their mother is there or will return very soon. They carry the image of the consistent mother who will always be there if they need her and that gives them the confidence to play, to explore their environment. As they grow and the distance and time of separation increase, they carry a mental resonance of the soothing sound of her voice, an image of her smiling face in our mind’s eye. The face is particularly important. Humans have the most expressive face of any animal. It conveys feeling through a visual connection. A smile makes all of us feel good . It is immensely reassuring. A frown is frightening.
The older child learns to work in metaphor. They move from a world of real things to abstract images, soothing music, soft contours, comforting colours and images, that may still represent aspects of their mother. These are all ways of creating a reassuring world. And when adolescents leave home, they may carry an impression of home and mother which they then project into their chosen partner with whom they re-establish a much earlier intimacy.

But symbols do not just represent home and security, they represent other aspects of our lives as well; the things we are afraid of, that make us angry. They recreate our good objects, bad objects, guilty objects and objects we feel ambivalent about. Good representations reassure us that we are loved. They are a way of possessing but not possessing. Bad representations provides the means of taming the dangers of life. They separate us from a reality we can’t control and give us a virtual mastery, which can take away the fear. ‘You’re never alone with a bad object.’

Symbols are rather like spirits. We see them in our minds eye and they bother us.

‘As I was going up the stairs,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today.
I wish that man would go away.’

Tribes in some regions of central Africa live in the world of spirits all the time, so when somebody returns to the tribe after many years absence, they throw sand at him just to check he is real. Some of us do something similar for the people we don’t quite trust. We test them out. Is this person for real? Will they be there for us?

Young children and many older ones inhabit a split world of all or nothing, good or bad, which they try to control through magic and superstition. It takes time, training and experience before they acquire a more balanced approach and develop more ambivalent but realistic representations.

Some people find it difficult to make mental representations. They do not trust their mental images. They cannot think about the meaning of things. They have to know the facts. Perhaps for them, separation has been too sudden and they need to hold on to reality.

But for the majority, it’s our accumulation of our memories and meanings that build up our identity. How we cope depends on the nature of our objects. If they are good, we can go out into the world with confidence. If, however we surround ourselves with negative representations, then life is a torment, for which the only relief is the support of our friends.