Our Better Nature: Why Good People Do Bad Things
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.
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
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."
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 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."
"Only to the
pop psychology clowns. They are constantly moving the terminology
around to suit themselves. Nothing is sacred. They ruin everything
Id?" He was paying by the hour and he was determined that his
money would not be spent on rants.
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.
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
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.
is all that crap? Ego and all that? Who believes in that anymore?"
You aren't responsible for your behaviour because there's a serial
killer deep inside of you ready to take over at any moment."
that Son of Sam killer?"
"The dog guy?"
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."
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."
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
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."
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
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?"
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
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
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."
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."
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.
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."
anyone you want to sleep with besides me?"
"No. Of course.
Not. We're married. You can talk to my psychologist. He'll tell
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."
hell was that?"
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."
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
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
"I guess so.
Can't be depressed if you don't have enough brain to get upset
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.
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.
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.
"It's a job."
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
is unusual. You know that, of course."
for reading online. "There's only a few of us."
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."
He imagined there was money involved.
"And we would
pay you for doing the tests."
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
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."
is my brain, he wanted to say. It's more than a plaything.
Although that wasn't true anymore.
with a lie. You say something like, 'I have to go to the bathroom.
Or I wanted to open the door.'"
hell is with that?"
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."
hitting the desk."
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
who have had their corpus callosum completely severed, but also
likely this is just what people do."
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
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
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
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.