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Society of Mind

17.10 intellectual trauma

If the mind were an ego-personality, it could do this and that as it would determine, but the mind often flies from what it knows is right and chases after evil reluctantly. Still, nothing seems to happen exactly as ego desires. It is simply the mind clouded over by impure desires, and impervious to wisdom, which stubbornly persists in thinking of “me” and “mine”. —Buddha

One of Freud's conceptions was that the growth of many individuals is shaped by unsuspected fears that lurk in our unconscious minds. These powerful anxieties include the dread of punishment or injury or helplessness or, worst of all, the loss of the esteem of those to whom we are attached. Whether this is true or not, most psychologists who hold this view apply it only to the social realm, assuming that the world of intellect is too straightforward and impersonal to be involved with such feelings. But intellectual development can depend equally upon attachments to other persons and can be similarly involved with buried fears and dreads.

Later, when we discuss the nature of humor and jokes, we'll see that many of the consequences of both social and intellectual failures are rather similar. A major difference is that in the social world, only other persons can inform us about our violations of taboos — whereas within the realm of intellect, we can often detect our own deficiencies.

A tower-building child needs no teacher to complain when a misplaced block spoils all the work. Nor does a thinking child's mind need anyone to tell it when some paradox engulfs and whirls it into a frightening cyclone. By itself, the failure to achieve a goal can cause anxiety. For example, surely every child must once have thought along this line:

Hmmm. Ten is nearly eleven. And eleven is nearly twelve. So ten is nearly twelve. And so on. If l keep on reasoning this way, then ten must be nearly a hundred!

To an adult, this is just a stupid joke. But earlier in life, such an incident could have produced a crisis of self-confidence and helplessness. To put it in more grown-up terms, the child might think, I can't see anything wrong with my reasoning — and yet it led to bad results. I merely used the obvious fact that if A is near B, and B is near C, then A must be near C. I see no way that could be wrong — so there must be something wrong with my mind. Whether or not we can recollect it, we must once have felt some distress at being made to sketch the nonexistent boundaries between the oceans and the seas.

What was it like to first consider Which came first, the chicken or the egg? What came before the start of time; what lies beyond the edge of space? And what of sentences like This statement is false, which can throw the mind into a spin? I don't know anyone who recalls such incidents as frightening. But then, as Freud might say, this very fact could be a hint that the area is subject to censorship.

If people bear the scars of scary thoughts, why don't these lead, as our emotion-traumas are supposed to do, to phobias, compulsions, and the like? I suspect the answer is that they do — but disguised in forms we don't perceive as pathological. Every teacher knows and loathes how certain children turn away from learning things they believe they cannot learn: I simply can't. I'm just no good at that. Sometimes this might represent only a learned way to avoid the shame and stress that came from social censure of failures in the past. But it might equally represent a reaction to the nonsocial stress that came from having been unable to deal with certain ideas themselves. Today, we generally regard emotional incompetence as an illness to be remedied. However, we generally accept incompetence of intellect as a normal, if unfortunate, deficiency in talents, aptitudes, and

gifts. Accordingly, we say things like That child isn't very bright, as though that person's poverty of thought were part of some predestined fate — and, therefore, isn't anyone's fault.