Defining the Mind

There are many theories on the mind and many different terms used to describe how the mind works.  For example, the term “Ego” can mean different things in different contexts.

Dictionary.com lists six distinct definitions for ego, the first two of which are the ones most commonly used in popular culture.  Although these terms are commonly used (sometimes interchangeably) they are quite different.  The first definition is:

the “I” or self of any person; a person as thinking, feeling, and willing, and distinguishing itself from the selves of others and from objects of its thought.
This definition, I believe, refers to the type ego that you might hear used by Yoga instructors, Eckhart Tolle, or Depak Chopra.  This ego is the “false self” that separates itself from the “true self” to cope with and survive in reality.  This ego is often referred to pejoratively as a problem to be overcome or a sickness of some kind.  This is true in a sense because this type of ego often is maladaptive and creates more problems than it originally set out to solve, but this type of ego is also a defense mechanism protecting the self from external assaults.  I believe that was the original intent behind bringing the ego into existence.  It’s an ally that comes to help but then takes over.
The second definition of ego is:
the part of the psychic apparatus that experiences and reacts to the outside world and thus mediates between the primitive drives of the id and the demands of the social and physical environment [also known as the ‘super ego’].
This is the Freudian definition of ego I learned as a psychology major in college.  This ego works in concert with id and the super ego.  The id is the primitive part of the mind that covets.  The super ego is the moralistic part of the mind that councils not to listen to the id.  The ego is the part of the mind that decides between the id and the super ego.  This ego seems more like beneficent administrator than the false self ego.
There are other systems used to define and classify the parts and functions of the mind.  In other posts I have talked about the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex.  There seem to be some correlations between the “false self” ego, the id and the limbic system.  They all seem to covet and do not do not seem concerned with moral issues.  But the limbic system and the id do not think in terms of language and logic but rather emote whereas the false self ego can be critical and judgmental as well as emotional.

Similarly there appear to be parallels between the super ego and the prefrontal cortex.  Both of these concepts can think logically and use language.    The prefrontal cortex is able to receive the urging from the limbic system but then use reason to decide whether it makes sense to act on it.  The super ego challenges the id in a similar but slightly different (more moralistic) way.

The freudian ego and the true self do not seem to be similar concepts.  The freudian ego is similar to the prefrontal cortex in that it receives advice from the id and the super ego and decides the best course.  The true self is mostly awareness combined with compassion and a small amount of will.  This is more of a spiritual concept.

Then there is thinking and feeling overlaid on these structures.  Thinking is labeling, conceptualizing, making into words, reasoning, planning remembering.  Feeling is a physical sensation in the body in the body connected to an emotion such as happiness, sadness, fear.  Feeling is more primitive but it is also more honest.  Thinking is more advanced but can engage in falsehoods.

The conclusion seems to be that there are many overlapping concepts use to describe the mind and its functions.  But they do not fit together seamlessly and can cause confusion.  The reality is that all these concepts do overlap in a manner that is probably not understood completely by any one (or perhaps all) schools of thought.  It might not even be helpful to design an entire system to encompass them all.  Where would that get us anyway?

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Defining the Mind

  1. I find your integration of psychodynamic constructs and neuroscience very fascinating. I’ve always thought that ego’s role in regulation paralleled the prefrontal cortex’s role in impulse control and integration of the parts of the brain. Do you know of any literature on psychodynamic analysis of people whose prefrontal cortex was damaged? I wonder if their ego function was diminished due to the injury.

    • Thank you for your comment. That is an interesting question. Off hand I do not know of any specific literature to that effect but I am not a professional (or even unprofessional) psychologist. I will definitely research that. If you run across anything please bring it to my attention.

  2. Pingback: The Secret Deciphered: Part One | Melanie's Life Online

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