An introduction to the alternative perspective of Tomas Ljungberg – part 1

A few months ago I wrote a blog-post that compared and contrasted integral theory according to Ken Wilber (i.e. AQAL) with an energy perspective of the development of our civilization, called The limitations of the evolutionary meaning-making. The main argument and point I made was that an integral view on the human development was limited and that it at least should be broadened. It should be noted that this argument was made against my interpretation of Ken Wilber’s view on human development rather than seeing integral as a tradition. Nevertheless, I believe that it can be taken as quite representative as I haven’t encountered more than a few other analyses from that perspective. There is, however, a trend of developing the integral discourse with cross-fertilization with theories of e.g. Roy Bhaskar and Edgar Morin. The alternative perspective that is introduced here could be seen as a move further in this direction, although I think it may even challenge some of the core assumptions of the integral and adult development view on psychological and cultural development.

When dealing with adult development theories, as well as integral theory according to Ken Wilber, human development is typically viewed as something normal and often even desirable. The relation and interaction between the individual and the collective or cultural aspect of the development is mainly seen as something constructive, the culture gives the individual support, at least up to the developmental level of the culture’s center of gravity. After that the individual can exert a pull on the culture and possibly contribute to develop and transform it to the next stage. In a previous post I introduced the two perspectives of conflict and integration or functionalist and I would argue that the integral view can be characterized as an integration or functionalist view of the psychological development. The individual and the culture are working together, so to speak.

A conflict perspective on the psyche

But what would a theory or meta-theory of the psyche look like that takes a conflict perspective as a starting point? One where the individual in essence is in conflict with culture, with the modern society and with him- or herself.

One example of such theory is Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. Freud’s classic model of the human psyche was composed of three parts: id, ego and super-ego. Id represented the primordial instinctive drives such as sexual drives and aggression, super-ego represented the internalization of the cultural rules and norms that are supposed to keep us civilized and under control, and ego could be seen as the mediating instance that try to find a balance between the primitive drives and desires of the id, the condemnation of the super-ego and coping with the actual situation in the real world. In this conflict between the different parts of the psyche the ego, which is what we identify with, employs a number of defense mechanisms (that we don’t need to describe in detail here).

The suggestion that the civilized society and culture could be a burden and exert a pressure on the individual was at the time very challenging and criticized, and still is. Since then psychoanalysis has developed into more elaborate forms and the critique against civilization has been downplayed, with some exceptions. One such exception of departing from a conflict perspective on psychological development was when the Swedish MD and pharmacologist Tomas Ljungberg wrote his book Människan, kulturen och evolutionen – Ett alternativt perspektiv (1991), or in English Humanity, culture and evolution – An alternative perspective. The book hasn’t yet been translated into any other language, so here follows a brief introduction to Ljungberg’s alternative perspective.

Ljungberg, who has a trans-disciplinary background with studies in e.g. ethology, evolutionary biology, psychiatry and anthropology, asked a similar question that e.g. Clare Graves and Ken Wilber did: How come there are so many psychological schools and theories that seems to contradict each other? Answering this question is like laying a puzzle in order to find a bigger picture, which made Graves construct his developmental model today known as Spiral dynamics and Wilber develop his view on the human development. The move through these stages of development is often viewed as something normal and even desirable.

But the puzzle can be laid in more than one way and Ljungberg’s approach was more problematizing and focused on our background as hunter gatherers, and even further back – as animals. According to evolutionary biology the behavior and psychology of animals has developed in a slow and gradual process in relation to their environment. The human development can be described as a biological evolution until a certain point in time where it is more meaningful to talk about a second evolutionary system, the cultural evolution where the information is transmitted by learning and traditions, by memes or vMemes as Graves would call it. Any evolution that has taken place, from the Neolithic revolution about 10 000 years ago until now, can be regarded as predominantly a cultural one. Since we in biological terms of still can be regarded as hunter gatherers and thus are born as hunter gatherers, before we start socializing our children, it is of interest to examine what the psychology of this stage in our history looks like.

The psyche of the hunter gatherer

From ethological and anthropological studies Ljungberg describes the primordial psychological functioning. The hunter gatherer’s psyche is basically dealing with and integrating information from two sources or realms of reality, from the outer realm that is captured and transmitted by sensory data and the from the inner realm that is transmitted by affects, instincts and emotional states or dream-like symbolic awareness. This means that they are thinking and reacting partly to what they experience in the outer world and partly to what they feel from their inside, and they aim to integrate this into a coherent whole, which Ljungberg refers to as functioning according to the primordial order. This attunement with the inner and existential realm is reflected with and supported by the primordial myths, the ritual life and social functioning of the hunter-gatherer.

The myths and rituals have evolved as a consequence of the life conditions the past millions of years since the human being started to live in close bands of 25-50 individuals and hunting and gathering on the plains (men did most of the hunting and women most of the gathering). According to the myths the best way of functioning was in this attunement, which meant that the individual follows the inner impulses and images that is presented to him or her, rather than acting on some rational choice of free will. The myths also reflected a close relation to the underlying and invisible forces of nature and to a dreamlike primal past when man and animal were equal and could communicate as equals. One of the most important tasks of the shaman was to gain knowledge from this mythic past by means of inner journeys and transmit this to the tribe. By means of these rituals and ceremonies the connection and continuity with this primal past was being upheld.

In comparison with the slow biological evolution the significantly more rapid cultural evolution can be said to have started off with the Neolithic revolution, which was probably or at least partly initiated by a climate change with food-shortages that caused a pressure on the hunter gatherer lifestyle. The domesticating of first crops and then animals lead to some psychological dilemmas of the previous hunter gatherers and caused a change in the behavior and the myths in order to adapt to this new and more successful strategy. This was later improved with the technological development of the plow, wheel, irrigation, written language, but also of weapon and war technology which made it possible to build up armies in order to conquer and subdue the neighboring people or remaining hunter gatherer societies. The change in technology, behavior and life conditions resulted in a corresponding change on the cultural plane as well as on the psychological.

The cultural transformation

The myths of the cultures goes through the transformation as well. At first they gradually change to better fit the farming procedures, a contemporary example are the Hopi Indians in North America. But when the mining and manufacturing of weapons and technology was developed, the myths transformed as the female gods was defeated and replaced by conquering male gods. This shift to a new and more violent time was marked by classic myths such as humans being thrown out of the garden of Eden (the paradisiac life in attunement with nature in the hunter gatherer society) after having eaten from the apple of knowledge (being corrupted by technology). Or the myth about Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to the humanity (technology again), which was punished by Pandora being sent down to earth to open her box or jar of evil. Some myths stated that there was a taboo against digging after metal from beneath the earth’s surface, but for those who broke this taboo there was a clear technological advantage.

(Wilber would disagree here and claim that we weren’t thrown out but developed Up from Eden, but I will return to that later.)

The psychological transformation

When it comes to the transformation in the psychological dimension, which is the central aspect of the analysis, Ljungberg describes an entity or mechanism referred to as the buffer memory. The buffer memory is where affects are being stored that are not appropriate or functional for the individual to have at the present situation. They are being down-prioritized and stored or repressed until there is time to process them, at which they are released and made available for conscious processing. There are several examples and observations of this from ethological studies, where an animal is engaged in a certain activity, e.g. tracking, and is forced into a new action, e.g. responding to a threat, with the corresponding affective complex, during which the original affective complex is buffered. After the threat is averted the affections from the first activity, the tracking, can be retrieved and the animal can act on this and revert to this behavior. It’s important to note that this process is not a conscious one in the sense that the individual by means of his or her free will can choose to engage in.

Examples from the human world are grief that the individual can’t find time to feel until after all practical details are taken care of, or the affects such as fear that are associated with a terminal illness that the patient is in denial of. The buffer memory could also be described as the place where we hide all shadow material that for some reason isn’t allowed to see the light of day. When it is convenient the person can assimilate or integrate the buffered memory, or shadow material, into the personality.

Less pleasant examples of the functioning of the buffer memory are more severe traumas such as war, torture or hostage situations where it can be rational to hide the natural reactions of wanting to flee or fighting back and instead allowing oneself to be subdued or even joining and affiliating with the oppressor, which is commonly referred to as the Stockholm syndrome. The life situation is so traumatic and unbearable that the person in order to cope creates a new persona or role that is on the same side as the oppressor, who is idealized in the eyes of the oppressed. This newly assumed role is denoted the capitulation or submission role.

Thus, a typical choice that a hunter gatherer was faced with at the confrontation with the technologically more advanced attacker was to either remain the integrity and connection with the primordial order and go under, or to capitulate and join the oppressor. And assuming a capitulation role means that the connection to the inner existential realm and the primordial affections is being cut off. The logic of the mind is from now on solely an external logic where one’s actions is governed by the external gains or by a culturally approved and internalized logic. From this perspective culturally transmitted strategies replaces biologically natural ones, even when the latter is more preferable.

If we compare this new functioning with Freud’s psychoanalytic theory there is a consistency in that the capitulation role could correspond to ego, the connection to the inner world and the stream of affections corresponds to id, and the idealized image of the oppressor, as well as an idealized image of oneself if one can live up to the demands of the oppressor, corresponds to super-ego.

It should be mentioned that Ljungberg in his comprehensive analysis in great detail demonstrates that the alternative perspective that he presents is consistent with psychoanalytic theories in its original form as well as the further developments of object relation theory. It is also shown that it is consistent with the more recently developed cognitive psychotherapy and social learning theory, and so forth. This alternative perspective certainly presents a conflict view on the psychological development of the modern human being that gives more emphasis on ethology and anthropology and shows that the human development and evolution the past 10 000 years should be considered as neither natural nor desirable. From this perspective we are today equipped with a psychological functioning that is a consequence of us living in a world and society that we are not originally fit for and that is fundamentally unnatural and conflictual to us, although we have lots of advances in the psychiatric and medical sciences that can compensate for this.

But one could ask what relevance events thousands of years ago have on our psychological functioning of today. And if this should be of relevance, what consequences can we see today of us having lost at least most of the contact with our inner realm and with our affections and instincts. This brings us to another area where Ljungberg have been active – how we treat and raise our children. Anthropological studies shows that hunter gatherer mothers carry and breastfeed their babies until the age of 3-4 years. During the first year there is almost a constant bodily contact between the baby and the mother (or other caregiver). Not many modern societies (post hunter gatherer societies) allow the mother this time alone, although things seem to move in that direction during the recent decades. In Sweden, that has a pretty generous maternity leave of over a year, there was a trend of attachment parenting that started in the 90s and Ljungberg wrote a script called What is natural for my child with instructions on how to raise and take care of a baby according to the same principles that is practiced in indigenous cultures. Before that it was common that babies were separated from their mothers from birth, breastfed according to a schedule of 4-hour intervals and placed in their own rooms from start, although there are large cultural variations.

Ljungberg argues from ethological studies that the consequence of not giving the babies enough contact and correct attention from start will cause a survival anxiety and thus traumatize them. In the long process of growing up, rather than seeing the world as a fundamentally hostile and loveless place, since the parents are unable to respond to the baby’s needs in an ethologically correct manner, it is easier for the baby to see itself as someone who can strive for the love of the idealized parents, and thus the capitulation role is transmitted to the next generation. As a parent it is very easy, and has so been for last thousands of years, to see nurture and upbringing of a child as a process of civilizing and socializing it according to the predominant view of the culture. The ego, in this sense, is the mask we as children create in order to respond to and to please a society that we desperately try to find acceptance in.

Throughout history one can say that the greatest threat to the ego has been the impulses from id, and people that has responded to these inner impulses have accordingly been considered a threat to society, not only by means of allowing the aggressive or sexual impulses to be manifested but also anything from mysticism such as the early Christian martyrs, the women who was burned at the stake as witches. All these have been persecuted by the regime.

Thus, according to Ljungberg’s alternative theory, being normal in any civilized society means that you successfully have assumed a capitulation or submission role, an ego. Or in the classic words of Jiddu Krishnamurti:

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

It may sound dark and depressing to encounter a view on humanity, society and oneself that is in its foundation conflictual and even dysfunctional. However, it is important to remember that the capitulation or submission role can be cancelled or annihilated according to the theory, descriptions and observations of the functioning of the buffer memory. Not by means of integrating the shadow of the id with the ego but rather by allowing the identification to be in tuned with the inner primordial impulses, which in itself a challenge in this modern society.

After this long (but still very limited) introduction, I will explore how Ljungberg’s theory can be illustrated in popular culture and give some examples of what light it can shed on some light (or darkness?) on some cultural phenomena. Then I plan to discuss and contrast Ljungberg’s theory with the integral theory according to Wilber.

Stay tuned!

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2 Responses to An introduction to the alternative perspective of Tomas Ljungberg – part 1

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