The Ego and the psyche: a troubled relationship




The brain, the psyche and the Ego

The reason why the relationship between the conscious Ego and the psyche can not be satisfactorily explored under the profile of cerebral activity, lies above all in the lack, at present, of adequate information on the brain functions that determine the psyche's experiences more evolved on the human level. While we already have sufficient, if not exhaustive, information on the neural networks that determine sensory perceptions, reflexes and motor activities, including the linguistic ones, and on the brain structures involved in short, medium and long memory, we do not yet know how to understand the complex inner life of the conscious Ego on the basis of the functioning of the brain. About this topic, the currently most widespread interpretation is that the conscious Ego too is a representation determined by the complex activity of neural networks present in the neocortex, but I have already highlighted – in the page on consciousness and science – the difficulty of solving the problem of consciousness existence only on the basis of the electrochemical activities that underlie the functioning of neural networks. Even more difficult, in this respect, is to understand how the complex interactions between the conscious Ego and the multiplicity of psyche's experiences in which it is involved could be explained by an exclusively automatic activity, even if so complex. In particular, as we have seen in the page on the creative function of human mind, we can not reduce the brain's creative power, capable of designing and realizing complex formal structures that did not exist before, only to the perceptive, memorizing and motor functions that we share with other animals. So for now it is better to simply investigate the relationships between the Ego and the psyche from the point of view of subjective conscious experience. 

The involvement of the Ego by the psyche

Every person who has lived enough time can realize the difficulties encountered by the Ego in the management of the psyche's nuclei that continuously involve it. For some people life can be compared to the crossing of a fairly calm sea, with some troubled or stormy event, but for other people the waters are almost always stormy and often the Ego is on the verge of shipwreck. Out of metaphor, the effects of the Ego's involvement in the psyche's experiences, and the resources at its disposal to be able to cross the experience of life in a positive and sensible way, derive from the functioning of the brain, the environmental conditions, and the ability to further develop the programs acquired through socio-cultural conditioning. The programs we currently have in our culture are still largely inadequate, as they tend to leave the Ego at the mercy of the psyche and take for granted its identification with the psychic instances, limiting any possibility of evolution and freedom. But before deepening the theme of the emancipation of the Ego with respect to the domain of the less evolved aspects of the psyche, it is important to examine the causes that have allowed the psyche's nuclei to have such a power of involvement on the Ego. 

The pleasure/pain polarity

It is evident that a great part of the psyche's nuclei that we experience is associated with a power of involvement of the Ego that takes every possible nuance between a positive extreme of maximum pleasure and happiness and a negative extreme of maximum pain and suffering. This polarity had an origin and evolution far before the appearance of the first humans, since we can see how the behavior of animals is determined by primary istincts linked to the satisfaction of their needs and the drive to escape the dangers. Needs and dangers refer to survival, to the health of the organism and to reproductive istinct. It would therefore seem, at least at first glance, that the pleasure/pain polarity associated with the psyche's nuclei has a precise purpose such as to justify it: on closer examination, however, things are arranged in a more complex way. In fact, to exert their effect, the human psyche's nuclei must involve the Ego through consciousness, while the reactions and behavior of many animals may not even provide any form of consciousness: I recall again the example of very young children, whose consciousness has not yet been activated, and whose behavior expresses forms of satisfaction or pain connected to the needs of the body.

It could be argued that although young children are not conscious, adults who take care of them are. The consciousness and the Ego could have originated from the need to manage in a unitary way the complex organization of cellular entities that constitutes an evolved multicellular organism: if this were the case, we should recognize the presence of a consciousness and an Ego in any complex animal. In any case, the pleasure/pain polarity system proves to be largely ineffective precisely in relation to those purposes it should serve: in fact, the conscious Ego is often not correctly informed about the real causes that produce pleasure or pain (just think of the diseases caused by parasites, bacteria and viruses, which are also common among animals), or is deceived from what seems to it to be advantageous, and therefore pleasant (as in the case of the bait on the hook, which induces the fish to bite). In short, one could cite many examples of failures of the pleasure/pain system in relation to the survival and health of the individual, so much so that it has been hypothesized how in reality that system is not at the service of the Ego, but subordinates the individual to the success of the species as a whole. One can agree, but it must be kept in mind that the negative effects of the system are concretely endured by the Ego of an organism, not by that abstract entity which is the species as a whole. So, once again, we should recognize that the pleasure/pain polarity helps to make the Ego functional to a project that transcends it, or at least that it goes beyond its capacity of understanding.  

The Ego's acquiescence and its subjugation to cultural rules

The polarity pleasure/pain represents for the Ego one of the most important challenges of life, together with the mystery of death. The complexity of the psyche's dynamics that are activated in this phase of human evolution entails that the Ego does not even receive, from the brain to which it is associated, correct information about the management of the nuclei in which it is involved: the Ego's weakness manifests itself above all towards the psyche's nuclei based on illusion and deception, and the inability to correctly evaluate the future negative consequences of choices that seem to bring immediate benefits. In most cases the Ego is not able to act as an active and alert counterpart to the psyche's nuclei in which it is involved, but limits itself to functioning on the basis of programs that have been transferred in its mind by the culture in which it lives. These programs can be very different from one culture to another, and also depend on the way in which the collective psyche that characterizes each culture changes over time. But even within a culture, programs can vary from one individual to another depending on the social role attributed to each person and the differences in the environment in which people live in the various stages of their life. As a rule this system, not particularly evolved, allows human societies to function as a whole, but also determines their crises, contradictions, dysfunctions and disruptions. The people who, in a more or less advanced phase of their life, try to deal intelligently with the issue of the Ego's differentiation with respect to the less evolved nuclei, so that it can assume an autonomous, conscious and critical orientation towards its own psyche, are just a minority.

The liberation of the Ego from the subjection to the psyche's dynamics

It should however be recognized that the Ego is not in the position to judge or criticize the manifestations and purposes of those processes of the psyche which – for better or for worse – have determined and determine what is considered an evolutionary progress of humankind (as can not criticize or condemn nature as a whole), because it lacks the necessary knowledge for a correct evaluation of the general plan. Criticism can only be directed towards those single elements of the plan, which are contradictory or conflicting with respect to other elements. The attitude of critical evaluation by the Ego towards the programs originating from the psyche that determine its subjection to the rules of a certain socio-cultural system (rules that almost always become effective through the activation of nuclei connected to the pleasure/pain polarity) requires the adoption of particular strategies aimed at avoiding situations too critical for the Ego itself. In history, however, conditions have always occurred (and still occur) in which the Ego – to remain consistent with its critical position – has faced every kind of suffering, and even death. In such situations, only a stoic detachment from the manifestations of suffering can make the Ego strong enough to endure inner conditioning.

In some cultures, auxiliary techniques for the liberation of the Ego from socio-cultural conditioning and the pleasure/pain polarity of the psyche have been elaborated and spread. These techniques do not involve suicide, even if some cultural deviations can lead to the theorization of the freeing of the Ego (considered as soul or spirit) from the prison of the body, through forms of ritual suicide. In their historical development – as in classical yoga or in some forms of monastic asceticism – these practices require a renunciation of the world, implemented by removing the organism from the roles and activities recognized and encouraged by our social culture. Moreover, even if suicide is not actively practiced, the liberation from the fear of death is pursued, which produces an attitude of indifference towards death itself. These techniques therefore entail a training of the conscious Ego, which can thus escape subjection to the natural and social functioning programs. Some less drastic forms of such practices allow forms of participation in social activities, as long as the Ego can remain free from the subjection to the pleasure/pain polarity. 

It is evident that, at the base of this research (an example of which is represented by the Buddha's life), at some point in life there must be a sort of negative evaluation of the overall balance between pleasure and pain as a principle and cause of the Ego orientation, since the Ego is naturally attracted to pleasure: therefore, in order not to pay an excessive price in suffering, the Ego would be willing to renounce both poles of the psyche. But this is not the only motivation: there is in fact also the search for a higher level, in which the Ego tries to free itself from the typically human polarity pleasure/pain, in order to access a different state of eternal happiness, free from the negative pole. This is evidently a condition that goes beyond the horizon and the boundaries of this life, which – according to some testimonies – can be experienced, either ecstatically or in another form, even while the brain is still alive.

Commands and desires

The way in which the Ego reacts to the conditioning determined by the various nuclei of the psyche does not remain constant throughout lifetime: the passing of the years, the array of lived experiences and the awareness of the approach of death can lead to significant changes of orientation, even if in many cases the habits contracted and the family and social ties are massive obstacles that prevent the search for a freeing evolution. Normally, however, for a good part of life the psyche's nuclei are successful in their activity of controlling the Ego through the two programmatic forms of command and desire. Commands determine our functioning in a way that could be defined as automatic: often the Ego is not even consciously involved in the decision-making process that leads to the execution of a command. When we wake up in the morning to the alarm-clock signal and get ready to go to work, we obey a command. But also when we worry or get irritated because a hindrance prevents us from taking part in a planned event, we execute a command. As a rule, commands require us to perform those tasks which are not associated with pleasant positive effects, but with neutral, and often also unpleasant, effects. A command exerts its effects even when drives, emotions or feelings overwhelm the Ego, preventing it from exercising those functions of orientation, control and conscious decision on which it should be able to rely. Obviously, the weaker the Ego, the more it will be at the mercy of the commands received.

Another form of Ego conditioning that is used especially in complex sociocultural systems is represented by desire. Usually desire appears as a promise to obtain the activation of pleasant and rewarding nuclei of the psyche, as a consequence of actions and behaviors aimed at getting a certain result. However, unlike commands, desires leave the Ego an ability to evaluate and a faculty of choice that allow it to decide whether or not to fulfill what the desire suggests. The intensity of the desires is very variable: in some cases they can become obsessive and acquire the strength of real commands that do not give respite to the Ego until they are fulfilled. Desires become obsessive when, due to their lack or delayed fulfillment, continuous and progressive suffering replaces the promise of a pleasure deriving from the achievement of what is desired. The weakness of the Ego, in this regard, is even more evident than in the case of submission to commands, because a normally healthy Ego should not be put in the condition to be afflicted by obsessive desires. Unfortunately, in our days desires are continually stimulated and incentivized as a form of control of individual behavior and weakening of the resources of the Ego: in fact, a weak Ego is much more easily controlled, within a social system, than an Ego endowed with greater resistance. The economy of the most developed countries is currently based to a good extent on the planned induction of desires and on continuous requests for their fulfillment.

The consequences of indulgence

As we can see, the complexity of the interactions between the Ego and the psyche's nuclei makes extremely difficult and problematic the development of a correct strategy, able to provide the Ego with the necessary tools to orient itself and to face certain experiences. For various reasons, partly understandable and partly obscure, in our days and in our societies a naively confident attitude prevails towards the psyche, which tends to consider with indulgence the subordination of the Ego to the various instances of the same (which manifest themselves as commands and desires): instead, above all in the phases of childhood and adolescence, it would be necessary to have programmatic instruments already tested and verified as more suitable to face the difficulties that life presents. Educational processes based on excessive indulgence tend to weaken the Ego, making it more docile and more easily controllable, during adulthood, by the powers that control the economy and social systems, and at the same time making it more vulnerable and unreliable to the psyche's dynamics that can cause abrupt changes in personality. In these times we have the distinct impression that the Pandora's jar of the psyche is completely open, and that being overwhelmed by the various effects produced by the human psyche constitutes for the Ego the deeper meaning of life, for which it is willing to pay a very high price, in terms of autonomy and freedom.

The consequences of this socio-cultural programmatic orientation, probably determined by the prevailing of certain syntonies in the evolution of the psyche's phenomenon, can lead to an increase in chaos in interpersonal relationships, and consequently to a crisis in the functioning of societies. It may be that, faced with a scenario that will gradually become more and more disordered and unmanageable, some people will begin to feel the need to implement in an independent and free way, through their intent, a process of liberation of the Ego from its unconditional identification with the psyche's nuclei that dominate it: it has already happened in the history of humankind that periods of social crisis have helped the processes of internal evolution of some individuals. However, it has almost always been the case of processes limited to a few individuals or to restricted groups of people, who in some cases developed ethical, political or religious programs which then spread through cultural conditioning (that is, through another form of submission of the Ego to different attunements). Perhaps, only a process of intentional, autonomous and voluntary liberation by large groups of human beings could lead to a more harmonious and less conflictual society, but it is doubtful that this can happen in the coming decades. So we just have to look carefully and with a certain ironic interest the brilliant range of the psyche's manifestations, positive and negative, evolved and archaic, pleasing and annoying, that pass every day under our eyes of spectators of the tragicomic drama played by a huge mass of humans, compelled – once they have been drawn into this world – to interpret their role in a more or less unconscious way.


Conscious. & science
Interview with Roth
Intelligence & deceit
Science & human life
The unconscious
Unconscious faculties
The creative function
The human psyche
Psyche & Nature
The recorded life
The ego & the psyche