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Against Our Better Nature: Why Good People Do Bad Things

Freud, Id, and Split Brain Epilepsy

When he was first diagnosed with depression he went to a Freudian psychoanalyst. His belief that they were all dead was so profound that he even said that he thought Freud's ideas had been largely debunked. That was probably a bad idea, for the man seemed determined to make him sit through a parody of a Freudian treatment. He was encouraged to spend hours on the couch--the guy even had a couch that faced a framed print of Freud--talking through his relationship with his parents.

They went through the possibility of his sexual repression, as well as the wish he so obviously had for his mother, until he suspected the psychologist was making fun of him. He began to watch for signs that his demeanor was cracking, but the man was rigid as a stone as he walked him through internal trauma he should bring out for examination.

The sessions improved somewhat when the psychologist, as though he were coming late to his professionality, began to explain the Id. "You have a force inside you, deep inside," he said, his hand dipping toward his groin, "that controls your baser urges."

"Like flight or fight?"

"Interesting you would reverse those." He steepled his fingers. "Normally people would say 'fight or flight.' But you said 'flight or fight.'"

"Yeah, I caught that."

"But, yes. That would be some of those animal urges. Your wish for sex, your urge to kill, your anger and your fear. All of those are a swirling mass which is the Id deep in your unconscious."

"Isn't that subconscious."

"Only to the pop psychology clowns. They are constantly moving the terminology around to suit themselves. Nothing is sacred. They ruin everything they touch"--

--"About the Id?" He was paying by the hour and he was determined that his money would not be spent on rants.

"This boiling mixture of urges is held in place by the Superego. It controls those instincts. Keeps them in line, as it were. Your Superego is a series of rules you learned when you were young. Like being polite and not chewing with your mouth open. Washing before you eat, keeping your clothes on in public, not raping anyone." The psychologist eyed him speculatively.

"Quite a list." He knew he was being examined for a reaction. Who mixes up being polite with rape? Too obvious.

Whatever the psychologist was looking for he didn't seem to find it, for he merely continued. "In between them, kind of caught in the middle, is the Ego. That is the poor consciousness of the person, trapped helplessly between wanting to do something terrible, or merely dirty, and the rule-wielding Superego who torments him with how bad he is."

"OK. So what do we do with that information?"

"If we can find out what rules you think you are breaking, which ones you want to break, and how that torments your Ego, then we will be getting somewhere."

The session ended two minutes early, which made Sam wonder if his psychologist was giving in to his urge to go to the bathroom or if he'd thought of a way to make more money for less work.

He told his wife about what they'd discussed and he could tell by the look on her face that she thought he'd picked the wrong therapist. "He's covered by our plan," he said to placate her.

"But what is all that crap? Ego and all that? Who believes in that anymore?"

"Him, anyway."

"So what? You aren't responsible for your behaviour because there's a serial killer deep inside of you ready to take over at any moment."

"Remember that Son of Sam killer?"

"The dog guy?"

"Yeah, the one whose dog told him to kill people. Jeremy told me they cut his brain open after he died and he had a huge tumour. It was the tumour talking after all. That's after they executed him."

"So what? He wasn't in control of himself either. You have to pick a side. You are either making your own choices or you're abdicating responsibility and blaming some fantasy self Idding around inside you. Superego," she snorted. "Like you worry about social cues."

The following week he told the psychologist what his wife had said. He wanted to tell the guy more directly that he thought the sessions were bullshit, but he softened it by putting the words in his absent wife's mouth. "She says it's all bullshit, doc. That it's arbitrary responsibility."

The psychologist steepled his fingers, looked at the portrait of Freud, and asked what he thought.

"I don't know doc. I mean, you're supposed to be the expert, right? You're supposed to be sorting all this out."

"Think of it like a bus. Your mental self is like a bus going down the road. The bus itself can't even start or drive. You need a few components to make it work. The bus needs an engine, which is like the Id. The engine provides motive power, the energy to get work done."

"Yeah, I can see that."

"That's the purpose of the drives. But they can make a mess of society if they're not controlled. Imagine a bus with the engine on, the gearbox engaged and driving wherever."

"Like no one at the wheel?"


"You remember that guy who killed a bunch of people by driving over them with a truck? Some terrorist."

"Back to the bus. The other thing the bus needs is a driver. The Ego is the driver. But the driver without rules of the road merely pushes the gas and turns the wheel in any direction."

"So the Superego is the rules?" Sam was beginning to get bored. The story was becoming predictable.

"Exactly. Full points. The Superego tells the Ego where to direct the power. The Id's power unconnected to the gear box is merely uncontrolled explosions. Once it is harnessed, then it drives the bus forward. Once the bus is driving, if the Ego doesn't follow orders, then he will mow down a bunch of people. The Ego doesn't want to do that." He could see that Sam was going to mention the terrorist again.

"What's the Ego want then?"

"Just to get along. To negotiate a path between the Superego and the Id. The Ego just wants to drive. But in order to drive, in order to please the Id, the Ego needs to follow the rules, or else he's in prison and then no one is happy."

"OK, doc."

"Think about the implications of that." He glanced at the clock on the desk and for the first time Sam noticed it was in the line of sight of the portrait. Likely camouflage, he can pretend to look at Freud while he's actually checking the time.

They had five minutes left, and Sam imagined that the psychologist wanted to sigh. "Imagine you are on a mountain, alone."


"It might help to close your eyes. So you're on a mountain and it's quiet on the top. You are just sitting there. There are other people, but they are on their own mountains. You can't see them or hear them, except they are tiny bumps you can't even make out as people. See? You need to solve the problems yourself, for you can't climb down from the mountain or get up on someone else's mountain."

The time was up, and Sam was ushered to the door with an admonishment to think about what he'd been told.

The mountain stuff was bullshit, and he knew the guy used it every time he had two minutes left and didn't want the time to spill over, but he thought off and on about the Id situation. He could see there were things that he wanted to do that he couldn't. There was Jill at work, he wouldn't mind banging her. Or his boss. He could use a punch in the face. But he didn't like the idea that his mind was out of his control. "The thing about the Ego being trapped between the two forces, is that he has no choice," he told his wife. "He has no chance to change things. He's always fighting one asshole or another."

"Is there anyone you want to sleep with besides me?"

"No. Of course. Not. We're married. You can talk to my psychologist. He'll tell you."

He was seriously considering quitting the therapy sessions when his insurance called and said he only had enough money remaining for two more hours. That made his decision for him, so he left a voicemail that his funding had been cut off and then blocked the office's number so his psychologist wouldn't call him back. He'd seen no other patients, and he guessed that his money was needed.

When he had a seizure later that week his first thought was that his psychologist had done something to him. That he'd somehow hacked his brain like people online claimed could be done, that he'd said the triggering word or flashed a light, and screwed up his brain. He woke up in a hospital bed with his wife holding his hand and leaning over him as though the doctor at the foot of the bed looking at his chart was going to leap the covers and attack him. He squeezed her hand and asked what happened.

"You had a seizure. I've never been so scared."

"What the hell was that?"

The doctor looked up at what he thought was Sam's loss of control over his behaviour. "Don't get excited, doctor. I swear all the time. So what happens now?"

"We need to send you for some tests. I've given your wife a prescription, so take those as ordered. Here are the side-effects to look for, and some information about how the drug works. It will stop the seizures, but we'll see what the other tests say."

He was two weeks of testing, another few months of experts and then they wanted to cut into his brain. He'd gone from bad to worse from his initial diagnosis of depression and now they wanted to open him up. "I'm almost rather be talking about my Ego."

His doctor looked at him quizzically, and then went back to explaining how they would be cutting the wiring between the two halves of his brain. "You will be able to continue with a normal life, although one part of your brain will no longer be able to communicate with the other."

Sam consented. He felt he had no choice and when he asked his wife she pointed to how the seizures were getting worse. "This should fix you up. Get rid of the seizures. The doctors say it should help with the depression too."

"I guess so. Can't be depressed if you don't have enough brain to get upset about stuff."

Her look warned him, so he changed the subject. Talk about it while I still can. He thought about those men who were scared of flying, and how they would feel if they were about to go under the knife. Try being scared of being out of control when your brain is flying and you have no idea where the controls are. He thought about his poor Ego, caught between an Id and Superego who both wanted to control him. Well, you hang in there buddy. Soon you won't have enough brain to worry about whose driving and who is fixing the engine.

He was fired shortly after his boss found out about his incipient surgery. Sam had only mentioned it informally, and meant to follow that up with a letter, but that oversight meant that his boss could fire him without being accused of taking advantage of his illness. He thought about fighting it, but he had enough going on and he instead concentrated on reading about split-brain epilepsy, which is apparently what he had. His doctors told him that he'd likely experienced seizures for years but they'd been minor enough that he hadn't noticed. He didn't find that useful information, although it did clear the air in terms of his former psychologist's responsibility.

The operation was simple enough for him, although his wife looked more than usually worried when the doctor asked him his name, address, and to identify his wife. He didn't find the questions challenging, although his mind felt fuzzy, as though it had been stuffed into a cardboard box with a child's plush animals. He said that to the doctor when asked but other than a pen on a clipboard that didn't seem to excite any interest.

"There's something I want to ask you about," the doctor warned him on his next visit. Sam guarded himself for more bad news. His boss had sent home a box of his belongings from his desk in a cab, and the reality of not having a job had more fully sunken in. As well, he was no longer allowed to drive, he found it difficult to negotiate the map in the mall, and change had become impossible to count. He could still cook for himself, although he puzzled about which stove burner to turn on. His wife had taken a leave of absence, but he wasn't sure what he would do with himself after she went back to work.

"What else, doc?"

"It's a job."

"You have a job for me?"

For a moment Sam thought he was hallucinating. That was apparently a symptom, although it hadn't happened yet. "Your brain is trying to find its other side," they had told him, "and sometimes inappropriate or out-of-context images will pop up to the surface."

"What do you have?"

"Your situation is unusual. You know that, of course."

Point one for reading online. "There's only a few of us."

"Less than twenty in the country." He hesitated. "If you would be able to do some tests for us, like word problems, then we can tell you more about how your mind works and it would help us with our research."

Sam waited. He imagined there was money involved.

"And we would pay you for doing the tests."

"Definitely. Be good to be making a paycheque again."

Sam had already noticed some problems integrating his hands. If one wanted a drink they both reached for it, but sometimes one wanted a drink and the other one didn't, he guessed, for it slapped the other hand away. He told his wife it was like he was having an affair, but he only made the joke once. She was really worried about him, and didn't find anything in his situation funny. He was surprised she was still around. His friend had his girlfriend leave him just because he was older and she was done with her degree so she didn't need to use him for help anymore, so he gave his wife credit that she'd held on.

He was happy to be earning again, although the tests could be frustrating. They would divide his eyes by either two screens where he concentrated on a crosshairs or by special goggles, and then ask him why he did or said certain things. He couldn't tell what it meant, but when his doctor described some of them, he almost called the whole thing off.

"We divide your visual field, then give written information to one side of your brain or another. Like the command to stand up. Then when you exhibit a behaviour, like standing up, we ask you why. That's when it gets interesting."

"Why?" This is my brain, he wanted to say. It's more than a plaything. Although that wasn't true anymore.

"You respond with a lie. You say something like, 'I have to go to the bathroom. Or I wanted to open the door.'"

"What the hell is with that?"

His doctor made note of something--likely the profanity--on his tablet. "Your auditory cues, like when you are asked something, are processed with your language, but in a different place than you getting out of the chair. So what that means--and we've seen this before, don't worry--is that you make up a reason because consciously you don't know why you are doing the behaviour."

"What about hitting the desk."

"Remember you said you were mad about something? We sent your right eye a message to hit the table. You weren't mad. You were following the words but you didn't know that. But you instantly made up an excuse."

"You've seen this before?"

"In people who have had their corpus callosum completely severed, but also likely this is just what people do."

Sam thought about what his doctor had said, and practiced watching TV with one hand over his eye. Nothing changed, and his doctor said it shouldn't affect his everyday life since he was normally seeing everything with both eyes. Therefore, he was seeing with both sides of his brain and processing everything twice. He noticed his reaction time was slower, which was apparently normal, but he was less than enamoured with the idea of having to rely on public transit.

He was still awake at two in the morning when it occurred to him that his situation was just like the fight between the Id and the Superego. He was not only out of control of some behaviours, but just like the Ego he dreamt up lies when the Id made it do something, and just like the Ego avoided the rules laid down by the Superego, his brain was making up things on the basis of stimuli it didn't know it had.

Maybe everyone is like this, he thought, looking at his wife in the glow of the clock. We do things, don't even know why, and then we make up some rationale to explain it. That guy who never paid back his friend all those thousands was only thinking of himself, but he made up all sorts of pathetic excuses. The other guy at work who screwed around on his wife with nearly everyone in the place. He blamed his wife, as if it was her fault. Sam had met her at an office Christmas party. She was pretty and funny and seemed really kind. The guy was just a jerk, most people in the office decided. Fat Tony decided not to pay back his student loan because education should be free, instead of admitting the truth, that he just wanted to keep his money and not pay off his debt. The minister in Dennis' church raped a twelve-year-old girl and said she was mature for her age and was coming on to him. His professor in university worked alongside people who would not say hello to him in the hallway, they thought they were so much above a contract worker, although they could talk a Marxist streak about the treatment of workers.

The Son of Sam killer at least had an excuse, his dog was talking to him through the huge tumour pushing on his brain. What about the rest of us, he wondered. Right from the caveman onward, we've been just doing whatever the Id wanted, ducking under the sight of the Superego, and then making up a story to explain it to everyone. Maybe this is the real model of the human mind. We've gone beyond the animals, the reptilian urge to do what we want, the Id set loose, and instead we're doing what we want and then explaining it away.

He thought about waking up his wife to tell her, thought about it a second, and then realized he didn't have anything that couldn't be said in the morning, or never. He just wanted the company and was making up a reason to wake her up. He'd have to tell his doctor about that. Or maybe not. Maybe he was just trying to look equally clever, for he'd felt stupid when they had him acting like a trained monkey. Maybe he would just try to be honest about his behaviour instead. Maybe that was enough.


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