Ronald Britton discusses his new book ‘Between Mind and Brain’

Models of the Mind, and Models in the Mind


“In every writer on philosophy there is a concealed metaphysic, usually unconscious; even if his subject is metaphysics, he is almost certain to have an uncritically believed system which underlies his specific arguments” (Bertrand Russell).

This observation applies equally to metapsychology, meta-neurology, and meta-linguistics. It is not however a reason for giving up metapsychology, nor can we give up our unconscious metapsychology. The psychoanalytic approach is to get to know the unconscious, not to try fruitlessly to abolish it. Unconscious beliefs are treated as facts, they can only be evaluated once it is realised that they are not facts but assumptions. ‘Reality testing’ may support them or contradict them. If experience and reason produce an idea that coincides with an already-existing unconscious belief, this will be ego syntonic and then be held with a supreme degree of conviction. If experience contradicts an unconscious belief it will by no means be eradicated it until it is repeatedly exposed as fallacious; even then it is likely to linger in the shadows, waiting for a chance beam of external daylight to fall on it. As Freud described (1919h), we then have an ‘uncanny’ experience, sometimes déjà vu, sometimes experienced as if we have seen a ghost. This applies when an old belief has been overcome but not relinquished in the unconscious.

The implication of that tenacity is that a proportion of the reason for the retention of any belief is from the pleasure principle and not the reality principle. When the proportion is high the belief is an illusion whether it corresponds with external reality or not, according to Freud in The Future of an Illusion (1927c). In my latest book, Between Mind and Brain: Models of the Mind and Models in the MindI make out a case for abandoning Freud’s economic version of the “Pleasure Principle”, which he based on Fechner’s application of steam-engine physics to mental life, but not for abandoning the “principle of pleasure”. Pleasure is a mental experience that may accompany events and ideas, as might displeasure and pain. Wishful thinking is an expression of the pleasure principle that may be at war with the reality principle. What psychoanalysis has discovered is that discomfort and pain can be a peculiar form of pleasure and that fearful beliefs can be adhered to against the evidence. What I propose in my book is that the hidden satisfaction is in the realisation (Bion) or actualisation (Sandler) of an unconscious complex that seeks expression however unpleasant. Sabina Speirein first suggested this in her 1912 paper on ‘Destruction as the cause of coming into being’. What she called a complex I call a model. 


Freud’s version of the reality principle, though a powerful influence in his thinking, is a weak concept because it is only based on an adaptation of the pleasure principle to accommodate delay. If on the other hand one includes an epistemic instinct, as is implicit in Klein and explicit in Bion’s metapsychology, the concept is stronger and the conflict between the two principles sharper.  We are truth seekers, and also pleasure seekers, with potential conflict between the two.

We are also, as a social species, as Wilfred Trotter suggested, subject to what he called the instinct of the herd. This manifests itself in a desire to share beliefs with the group we identify as our clan, whether familial, tribal, religious, or ideological. In psychoanalytic theorising this ‘voice of the herd’ emanates from the super-ego which would potentially rival the ego as the arbiter of reality. In practice this manifests itself as group consensus substituting for reality testing.

In our century all this is complicated by external ‘reality’, as represented by science, which is advancing beyond our everyday model of the world into unimaginable states in perceptual terms, in quantum mechanics and cosmology. What is reality testing in such a state of provisional and esoteric knowledge? This was ever so and surely will remain so, but we have what David Hume called ‘natural beliefs’, that is, those he shared with others in his daily life which he did not regard as logically defensible. He suggested that his well-being depended on the resumption of these everyday ‘natural beliefs’ in common with others when outside his philosophical study. It is our patients’ natural beliefs that we are concerned with, and it is these we can address with the reality and pleasure principles in mind. We would say that someone who thinks things can be in two places at once is deluding himself, whatever quantum mechanics might say about electrons or relativity about time.

one-dollar-bill-detail-4957542-we think in models (1)

“we think in models”: models of the body politic

The theme of this book is that we think in models. Braithwaite – whose concept of Scientific Deductive Systems (1953), which are essentially conceptual propositions stated in mathematical terms – suggested that we have a tendency to translate these into models before seeking confirmation of them in particular examples. I think it works differently, that we think in models first and that some people make an abstraction of this on a logical, deductive basis. In contrast in mathematics, the abstractions and their manipulation are the primary data, they form their own models. This enabled the mathematicians to supersede and contradict the perception-based models of our natural beliefs.

Lakoff and Johnson in their linguistic study Metaphors we Live By (2003) suggest that metaphor is generated earlier than logical reasoning and that language is secondary to pre-verbal metaphoric structures. Linguists of this post-Chomsky school think that metaphorical thought is ubiquitous, unavoidable and mostly unconscious. I call these analogical, metaphoric, structures, models.

Meanwhile we continue to use mental models in our natural belief systems that correspond with ‘old physics’ based on the common perceptual experiences that have been established in our brains as we evolved on our medium-sized slow-moving planet. And we continue to rely on what we call common sense with its double meaning, common to all our senses and common to our fellow beings. This means that the ‘natural beliefs’ are culturally sensitive.

The title of my book is taken from a lecture I gave to open the Freud exhibition at the Science Museum in London. The first chapter is a revised and updated version of that lecture and addresses an age-old philosophical question about the relation between body and soul in its more localised contemporary form between brain and mind. I am not a philosopher nor will I be pursuing the argument by a philosophical method but speaking from the position of a practicing analyst.

1st-pic-imageserv-My Soul, 2005, Katharine Dowso

‘My Soul’ by artist Katharine Dowson (2005)

Everyone approaches these questions from some personal direction: my principal interests from school onwards have been equally divided between biology and literature. I started out in general medicine and was fortunate in gaining some specialist knowledge of neurology by working as a registrar in the famous Queen Square Hospital for Nervous Diseases. I subsequently trained and practiced in adult and child psychiatry before training in psychoanalysis, which I have practiced for the last forty years. This may sound like an ascent from lower to higher, from bowels, as it were, to brain and then ascending to mind.

In the late nineteenth century Hughlings Jackson produced a model of the central nervous system that roughly speaking had ‘higher functions’ in the greatly-expanded cerebral hemispheres above, what are regarded as evolutionary earlier and more basic functions in the lower brain. It is tempting to follow this model onwards and upwards from peripheral nerves, to brain, then to mind and even higher to spirituality. This is a good example of the beguiling character of models, as Braithwaite warned us.

Development (1)

“we think in models”: models of the body

Freud, writing as a neurologist in 1878, before he invented psychoanalysis, in a monograph on aphasia, quoted Hughlings-Jackson’s warning: “In all our studies of diseases of the nervous system we must be on our guard against the fallacy that what are physical states in lower centres fine away into psychical states in higher centres”. Higher and lower had become, thanks to Hughlings Jackson’s own work, the familiar categorisation of neural activity, and so it has remained, from humble spinal reflexes through ascending levels of brain activity to the summit in the cerebrum. But as Freud pointed out in this same paper, “physiological events do not cease as soon as psychical ones begin; on the contrary, the physiological chain continues. What happens is simply that, after a certain point of time, each (or some) of its links has a psychical phenomenon corresponding to it. Accordingly, the psychical is a process parallel to the physiological – ‘a dependent concomitant’. ” This latter phrase “a dependent concomitant” he took from Hughlings Jackson.

This corresponds to the philosophical position reached by William James of “neutral monism” (as opposed to dualism) which is rather like Spinoza’s view that mind and matter are different attributes of one substance, like one man known by different names, not two separate men.

It is easier for our generation to imagine this because we have a machine that resembles it. We have a mechanical model that we can use analogically, the digital computer, in which there is hardware and software. We could describe hard and soft ware as in dependent concomitance. We are always reassuringly convinced by machine analogies and then speak of “mechanisms”.

Given my assumption that the analyst will be attempting to find the models operating in his (or her) patient’s mind and to form a model in his own to correspond to it, he will need a storehouse of possible models. This accumulates from psychoanalytic learning and from previous experience. As in other disciplines there is always a search for universals, or to use a preferred phrase, ‘species specific’ phenomena. Freud nominated the Oedipus complex as the first in a letter to Fleiss in 1897.


‘Paradise Lost’: William Blake’s model of the human pre-conscious psyche as it begins to divide

In addition to models acquired through clinical experience, other sources include myths – as in Freud’s use of the Oedipus myth – and literature, as in his use of Hamlet in The Interpretation of Dreams. I also explore the role of metaphor in Milton’s Paradise Lost, as well as to Blake’s Prophetic verses, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Religious texts are rich in providing models of mental life. The role can be reversed and in one chapter I try to throw some light on recurrent religious wars from an understanding of internal battles between thing worship and word worship that I have found in the analysis of some borderline or schizoid patients.

36799Ronald Britton is a well-known international psychoanalytic writer who has lectured widely in Europe and North and South America. He is a former President of the British Psychoanalytical Society and a Vice-President of the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA). He has a predominantly clinical approach but also a special interest in the relationship of psychoanalysis to literature, philosophy and theology. He was given the IPA Award for Outstanding Scientific Achievement in 2013 and the Sigourney Award for Outstanding Psychoanalytic Contributions in 2014.  His latest book, Between Mind and Brain: Models of the Mind and Models in the Mind, is published this week by Karnac Books.

There will be a special book launch on 16th September at the BPAS, following a talk by the author on the links between psychoanalysis and linguistics.


One thought on “Ronald Britton discusses his new book ‘Between Mind and Brain’

  1. Pingback: Freud and the Buddha: Alex Hoffer on what Psychoanalysis and Buddhism can learn from each other |

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