On the Human Psyche as a Synthesis of the Social and the Biological

On the Human Psyche as a Synthesis of the Social and the Biological

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Consciousness is not simply a passive reflection of social relations but is a most active element in the development of these relations. Vygotsky remarks that…

Any function in the child’s cultural development appears on the stage twice, on two planes, first on the social plane and then on the psychological; first between people as an interpsychological category, and then inside the child, as an intrapsychological. This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory and to the formation of concepts. The actual relations between human individuals underlie all the higher functions. [1]

He proposes that the ‘inner dialogues’ of consciousness are intrapsychological transpositions of the dialogues and social interactions between individuals. These interactions become psychologically internalised in the form of ‘inner dialogues’ thereby reflecting the social structure and content of the actual relations between human individuals. Implicit in this conception is that social relationships and psychological processes mediate each other i.e. the whole process can be described by the term psychosocial. The inner dialogues of consciousness are an intrinsic part of this whole process and do not exist in separation from it but only in relation with and to it.

In the psychological internalisation of social relations, not only does consciousness arise in the individual but it also develops the ability to consciously monitor itself. In this self-relation of consciousness, that which is being monitored constitutes an organic dialectical unity with that which is monitoring: both constitute different sides of the same process of conscious thought.

This ‘monitor’ is an elevated function of conscious awareness. In this self-monitoring capacity of consciousness, humans possess the ability to reflect upon the process and progress of their own inner thought content. The individual becomes aware of his or her own thinking and feeling, involving the ability of humans to reflect upon the conceptual content and development of their own thoughts and feelings. This self-monitoring activity of consciousness constitutes what might be referred to as the internal eye of consciousness itself whose operation mediates the internal dialogues of consciousness.  This internal eye is the means by and through which consciousness monitors itself; consciousness elevating itself into its reflective mode whilst remaining itself in this monitoring ‘otherness’.  Hegel had this process of reflection in mind when he postulated that….

Mind, in spite of its simplicity, is distinguished within itself; for the ‘I’ sets itself over against itself, makes itself its own object and returns from difference…….. into unity with itself [2]

On a psychological plane, the origination and historical development of humanity is the enduring, unfolding process of an aware yet non-conscious natural being (the pre-human, animal primate ancestor) becoming a conscious social being, conscious of Nature and of itself (self-consciousness) as being in and a part of Nature.

Thought consciously monitoring the unfolding of its own conceptual content is an exclusive property of the human mind not found in animals or in higher primates. Animals are aware, are sentient, but ‘non-conscious’ natural beings and do not possess this capacity to reflect. For example, when an animal encounters its image in a mirror it merely sees, if at all, the image of its physicality, itself as an object.  When a human being looks into a mirror it observes not only a physicality but also the ‘me’ or ‘I’.  For the animal there is no ‘I’ to which this physicality is intrinsic.  ‘I-ness’ (ego) is a function of the reflective capacities of conscious beings.  Consciousness itself, as distinguished from the simple, non-conscious awareness of animals, is a specifically human form of awareness embracing and incorporating within itself an awareness of the ‘self’ involving the capacity to reflect.

The mind functions as a singularity. Each aspect does not operate in isolation from the others but only in unity with and relation to the others. Each side or aspect is only distinct and has its own particular functioning in its connection and relationship to the movement of the mind as a whole. Thus Hegel remarks that….

our own sense of the mind’s living unity naturally protests against any attempt to break it up into different faculties, forces or, what comes to the same thing, activities conceived as independent of each other [3]

We can recognise this when we consider the relationship between thinking and feeling. They constitute different sides of one single psychological relation. Thinking is both a conceptual source of feeling and a medium for its articulation and expression. Specific forms of thinking are related to specific emotions. The conceptual content, meaning and mode of thinking conditions the emotional life of the individual.  The origination and socio-historical development of consciousness brings with it all those emotions which are specifically human.

Therefore, thought and emotion, in their dialectical relation, mutually condition and determine each other and, in so doing, are simultaneously self-determining. They are, in their relation with each other, both simultaneously determining each other and self-determining. Thought becomes expressed in emotion whilst thought, in its movement, simultaneously expresses the emotions which it has itself engendered. The movement of this contradiction is continuously passing into new forms in the unfolding of the psychological processes in each individual.

The resolution of one form of contradiction between thought and emotion is, at the same time, the positing of a new contradiction between them which then develops towards its resolution. The relationships of human society are the ultimate source of these contradictions in the psyche which only possesses a certain degree of autonomy in so far as it is engendered and exists in relation to these established social relations. This does not deny, of course, that psychological processes are simultaneously a product of the human brain itself. But they are its social product.

In the process of thinking itself, an identity exists between thought as a socio-historical phenomenon and thought as a neurophysiological phenomenon. Thought as a socio-historical phenomenon (conceptual content) is, however, simultaneously distinct from the neurophysiology of the brain. It is a socio-historical product of the neurophysiology of the brain and therefore must become constituted in an identity relation with it.  This paradox of the human mind makes it a product of both the socio-historical and the neurological and therefore a synthesis of both. It constitutes a qualitatively distinct, human form or mode of existence. It incorporates within its development both the social and the biological whilst sublating and synthesising them into the psychological.

The conceptual content of human thought is socio-historical in origin. But thought is also a product of the neurological movement of matter in the brain. The neurophysiology of thinking links its animating conceptual content to the general physiology of the human body as a whole. This becomes manifest in the effects of emotional states on human physiology.

Neurologically, the brain is linked to the rest of the body through the nervous system, the cardio-vascular system and the endocrine system which is regulated and controlled by hormonal systems. The linkage between neurological processes and the general physiology of the body as a whole forms the material basis through which psychological states can alter the physiological state of the body. For example, studies in the area of psychoneuroimmunology has demonstrated the effects of mental states on the human immune system. In this relatively recent medical area of psychoneuroimmunology, the source of such modulations in physiology (for example, reduced blood counts of leucocytes) can be traced to the formation of mental states animated by specific forms of the conceptual content of thought and thus, implicitly involving the character of social relations conditioning the life of the individual. Scientists working in this area have shown, for example, a connection between anxiety levels and lowered resistance to infection as a result of the anxiety-mediated depletion of white blood cells.

The prevailing character of established social relations conditions the mental states and emotional life of human beings and, in so doing, contributes to the physiological modulations and state of the human body itself. Human thought – whilst being a social product of the brain – is simultaneously a neurological process which can, as a consequence of this relation between the social and the neurological, mediate and modulate the physiological state of the human body. Without an acknowledgement of this fundamental proposition, the scientific investigation of the impact of social relations on human physiology would possess no rational foundation and could not be conducted. Likewise, the study of the effects of psychotropic drugs on human perception, which is conceptually mediated, demonstrates – or must imply at least – that there is a connecting physiological mediation between neurological states of the brain and states of consciousness.

Specific forms of thinking are intrinsically related to certain emotional states which engender corresponding neurological states in the brain. These neurological states along with endocrinological responses to these states can then activate physiological changes in the body as a whole.  All these interrelated processes are monitored and regulated by the brain via the nervous system.  Out of the different forms of thought derive the specifically different human emotions.

The implication here is that a continuously changing conceptual content of the thinking processes in the individual is continuously altering – no matter how subtlely, discretely or indiscernably – the physiological state of the nervous system as expressed and registered subjectively in the alteration of feeling states or emotions. The individual subjectively registers these states as ‘feeling’. The socio-historical basis of the existence of conceptually-mediated feeling is revealed in the connection between the character of the dominant social relations, on the one hand, and the character of the individual’s relationships with others, on the other, during any given phase in the evolutionary history of society. The mind reflects the character of the prevailing social relations and human feeling expresses their general character in the life of the mind as registered subjectively in the life of the individual.

How does thinking influence mood and how is this, in its turn, capable of modulating the physiological state itself, of the CNS and human body? Must there not be some form of neurological mediation between thinking and altered states of mood and physiology? Thinking itself must have neurological correlates for this to happen. If my mood alters as a result of thinking about, .e.g., an emotionally “painful” experience, and this starts to make me feel anxious or depressed then there has to be a real neurological mediation in operation. Do not states of mood or “feeling” have to be neurologically correlated in order to be subjectively registered? In this way, does not the actual conceptual content of thinking processes actually influence, mediatively, “matter”, i.e. living matter. We cannot think without the active neurology of the brain and yet thinking itself – being linked to or associated/correlated with this neurology – must be capable of influencing this neurology. In other words, there is a dialectical relationship between neurology and psychology in operation which does not, at the same time, deny the essentially social character of the conceptual content of consciousness. This, to me, seems like an adequate synthesis of the social and the neurological as expressed in the psychological.

We can also recognise this relationship between the social and the emotional in the arts. For example, consider the capacity of music to evoke certain emotions and thoughts. The tentative question I would like to pose : does music evoke specific emotions because the experience of listening to a piece of music reproduces neurological states in the brain that are usually associated with the emotion or ‘mood’ which the piece of music is conveying?  For example, a melancholic symphony can engender neurological states which are associated with the emotion of sadness or despair. Human emotions and ‘mood’ become associated with corresponding neurological states. And these moods and emotions can be conceptually-mediated.

Psychologically, thinking and emotion intermediate each other’s movement and this dialectical process, in itself, can serve to alter and modulate mental states which actually affect the physiology of the human body. This is most apparent in the human response to threat or danger. The biochemical systems that are active in fear are necessary for human survival. They are evolutionary legacies of our animal ancestors stretching back millions of years. However, the overactivity of these mechanisms can exert detrimental physiological effects which serve to encourage the onset of, and aggravate existing, medical conditions and diseases. Hence existent social relations which are a real source of stress, anxiety and fear detrimentally affect the physiological functions of the human body.

Attempts to alter individual perceptions of these social relations does not, in itself, change their real existential character as stress-producing and illness-producing social relations. It merely acknowledges their real existence independently of the individual who is him/herself a product of these same social relations. This is why to alter the fundamental character of humanity it is the character of these social relations which must be revolutionised.

Herein lies the basic flaw and limitation  –  the Achilles Heel  –  of all forms of psychotherapy which may present in secular form but are essentially theological in their methods of approach. The different schools and branches of psychotherapy arise from the same epistemological stock and are fed and watered by the same concealed theological roots. Psychotherapy locates the individual in the ‘ideological form’ (Marx) and espouses and practices an alteration of thinking about self and others in order to transcend the psychological effects of social relations. This approach is, implicitly, a negative recognition of the real character of social relations rather than an effective attempt to transcend them in practice.

The collectively-practiced, psychotherapeutic precept acknowledges and asserts that it is possible for the suffering alienated human individual to transcend or, at least, resolve to the point of personal acceptance or ‘comfort’, the psychological effects of the prevailing socio-historical conditions of existence by means of shifts in consciousness or mental adjustment. It fails, in its self-preoccupation, to see the proverbial ‘wood for the trees’ in that any such shift or adjustment to a supposedly more ‘comforting’ or ‘enlightened’ state is, in this apparent negation, merely a reaffirmation of those historical conditions which form the individual and through which he or she actively lives life replete with problems and contradictions in the age of the reign of global capital. All psychotherapy therefore, whatever its character, is both an expression and implicit acknowlegement that alienation and estrangement continues to prevail in social relations and that a psychotherapeutic sticking plaster is utterly and completely inadequate for patching up the wounds which these relations daily inflict on the lives of human individuals. The psychotherapist is, usually unconsciously, the latter-day priest of the secularised mind.

Those biological mechanisms (mediated by the animal’s acquired learning and awareness of its surroundings) which enabled the animal ancestors of humans to respond to the immediate danger of threat became incorporated into the human organism in the course of its origination. In the life of ancestral primates, they were necessary in order to prime them to respond accordingly in threatening situations. The activation of such responses in situations of real imminent danger is therefore a necessary survival mechanism in the primate and hominoid ancestors of humanity. Implicitly, as long as the violent and aggressive character of human relations continues to exist, the operation of this incorporated survival mechanism will also continue to be expressed in the violence and aggression of these social relationships.

In the actual operation of this mechanism, where an immediate response is necessitated to imminent danger or threat, the processing of incoming stimuli by means of reflection would tend to hinder the survival of the individual in the face of such threat because it would require time to think and hence disadvantage the individual in responding to threat.Those biological mechanisms in ancestral primates which are mobilised in threatening situations are those which have become sublatively incorporated into the human mind as it originated and are active in anxiety and fear in humans.

However, we must also consider the proposition that with the historical emergence of humanity as a distinct species, the so-called ‘fight or flight’ response found in ancestral primates also became integrated with – and subject to activation by – the mere movement of the conceptual content of the human mind itself, even in the absence of any real, immediate threat. This relation, for example, is operative in the different forms of anxiety. This specifically human form of the activation of this response (anxiety) is distinguished from the fear of the animal as a response to direct threat from predators, etc. Anxiety itself is a social property of the human psyche; a function of social relations at a particular stage in their historical development. Even in its ‘autonomy’, mind is, therefore, essentially a social creation and is the finest, most perfect, mirror of history, arising and evolving as a product and function of it.

The fear in the animal in Nature is always a response to real or possible threat based on the immediacy of its conditions of its life, arising out of its direct awareness of the immediacy of its environmental situation. But the experience and psychological internalisation of violent, oppressive and exploitative social relations both helps to form and condition the conceptual content of the mind at any given point in the historical development of society.

The general character of social relations constitutes the basis upon and within which the human personality is formed and develops. Where such relations are mediated by malevolent forms of social control, violence and aggression, oppression and exploitation, the psychological corollary of these relations is inevitably a human personality characterised by fear and anxiety. These attributes accordingly come to arise in and mediate interpersonal relationships under such conditions. This is the characterisation of human individuality as the ensemble of social relations (Marx) in that..

human beings become individuals only through the process of history [4]

Each human being individually expresses the essential and universal characteristics of the historically dominant social relations of the period.  Each individual typifies the prevailing social relations and, in this sense, is a representation of the universal character of those relations. However, each unique individual expresses, in a particular way, the general character of humanity at a definite stage in its socio-historical development. These ‘particular ways’ – which give the individual uniqueness – are an outcome of the conditions and relationships of the individual’s personal history. These ‘conditions and relationships’ are an intrinsic part of the ‘life’ of society as a whole. Accordingly, individual human behaviour expresses the nature of social relations.

The individual is always, to a certain degree, self-directing, but only within the parameters and direction of the wider current of development of a given society. Thus, whilst the individual is self-directing, he or she remains a social creation in their self-direction and is accordingly both ‘directed’ and conditioned as such in their ‘self-directedness’. Freely-willed human behaviour is always determined, always conditioned. Individual behaviour always takes place within the historical context, conditions and parameters of society as a whole.


[1] Vygotsky, L.S. Development of Higher Mental Functions.  Psychological Research in the U.S.S.R. (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1966) pp.44-45.

[2] Hegel.  Philosophy of Mind. (Clarendon, Oxford, 1971) Zusatze, p.11.

[3] Hegel.  Ibid. p.4.

[4] Marx. Grundrisse : Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1993)p.496. Notebook V.

Shaun May

October 2013





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