A perspective piece proposing a shift in our understanding of the subconscious has been published in Psychreg Journal of Psychology. The author, Terence Watts, suggests a move away from the vague, nebulous concept of the subconscious to a more scientifically-grounded theory involving the brain’s reptilian complex, an idea that might significantly impact psychological therapy.
The concept of subconscious processes has been a dominant force in psychological theories and therapeutic practices since its introduction by Pierre Janet in 1889. Such processes, believed to be the primary drivers of human behaviour, are often viewed as responsible for irrational behaviour linked to repressed memories or hidden impulses. However, this research argues that this understanding is incomplete and misleading due to the concept’s elusive nature.
Rather than an enigmatic subconscious, the paper suggests focusing on the reptilian complex – the primal part of our brain evolved for survival. The concept of the subconscious often engenders a sense of a vast, inscrutable component of the psyche, an aspect that this research argues can hinder the effectiveness of therapy.
Watts highlights that our brain’s origins trace back to the Dicksoniaceae, a creature that existed 550 million years ago on the ocean floor. He argues that our fundamental life purposes, survival and reproduction, are driven by the same instinctual responses as these ancient creatures. This simple paradigm, now nuanced by societal norms and structures, still governs many of our behaviours.
He shared his insights based on years of practical experience in the field of psychology. He noted: “Through my years in practice since 1989, I had become steadily more uncomfortable with the notion of ‘subconscious’. Not only was it clearly not understood, but it was almost impossible to explain to a client how it worked, especially considering its apparent overarching power.”
Watts argues that what we traditionally think of as the subconscious might be the reptilian complex. This brain part is responsible for automatic survival responses and not a storage unit for a lifetime’s memories, as often misconceived.
In a modern context, Watts highlights the disconnect between our primal instincts and our societal structures. The implications are significant for therapeutic interventions, where recognising and managing these primal instincts is vital for achieving successful outcomes.
His exploration into subconscious and conscious awareness was sparked by research studies of the past. He explained: “It was when exploring Benjamin Libet’s experiments showing an apparent delay between the brain commencing motor action and conscious awareness of that action, that I realised that ‘subconscious’ was not the mystical entity it was often considered, but something far more tangible.”
Despite the advancements of modern civilisation, our innate impulses continue to influence our behaviours. For example, behaviours related to aggression, evasion, self-preservation, and reproduction, often attributed to the subconscious, could instead be connected to our reptilian complex.
However, Watts emphasises that the reptilian complex is value-neutral, with no inherent awareness of moral or legal acceptability. This makes understanding it crucial in the realm of psychological therapy, where it’s critical to help clients manage their primal responses within societal norms.
Watts delves deeper into the significance of the reptilian complex in our brain functions. He stated, “Subsequent research into brain function led me to the discovery that it was an ancient part of the brain, often called the ‘reptilian complex,’ that was and still is the first responder to all stimuli, acting on inherent and acquired instinctive patterns intended to ensure survival of the organism.”
He argues that referring to the “lizard brain” or “reptilian complex” might be more beneficial in therapy than the traditional term “subconscious”. Understanding that the reptilian complex is non-rational, non-judgmental, and stores memories as data for survival could provide a clearer, more rational understanding of human behaviour.
These theories have been effectively employed since 2013 in BrainWorking Recursive Therapy (BWRT). This therapy model claims to offer a scientific method for accessing the coded patterns stored in the reptilian complex, potentially providing a more effective therapeutic intervention.
According to Watts, the implications of understanding the role of the reptilian complex are profound for therapeutic modalities. He remarked: “This understanding engendered a completely new style of therapy in which the reptilian complex is, technically, a pattern recognition and reaction allocation module, generating a code for subsequent emotional response and appropriate motor action which is exported to the amygdala and onwards. The implication for all forms of therapy is profound, since the understanding, handled well, can both simplify and enhance most therapeutic modalities.”
While these ideas warrant further investigation, they’ve already sparked a significant conversation about how we conceptualise and address human behaviour within the field of psychology. The shift towards understanding the reptilian complex could offer a more rational, effective approach to therapy, aiding therapists and clients alike in navigating the maze of the human psyche.
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