Slipping down into dark water
Last week’s Opinionator in The New York Times featured a fascinating piece by Robert Sapolsky suggesting that at least some of our metaphorical toolbox is biological in origin. I’ll let you read the article in full, but Sapolsky uses several recent studies, including the 2006 Zhong/Liljenquist study demonstrating moral disgust is assuaged by washing, to argue that in these cases the brain is engaged in a sort of neural confusion, and very primitive responses, such as that of physical disgust, are being triggered by social stimuli.
I’m always a little wary of this sort of argument, but in this case Sapolsky (who’s the author of one of the classics of animal writing, the wonderful A Primate’s Memoir) is on pretty solid ground, since there are imaging studies which demonstrate unpleasant moral and unpleasant non-moral stimuli activate the same regions of the brain. But the piece got me wondering about something I’ve been thinking about for a while, which is the question of why our thinking about sleep, dreams and the unconscious is so suffused with images of liquidity.
It’s a question I came up against while editing The Penguin Book of the Ocean, and (if you’ll pardon me quoting myself) it’s one I raise in the introduction:
“It is not accidental that when the historian Fernand Braudel sought to describe those cycles of history that exceed the human and stretch downwards, into the environmental, the geological, he reached for the marine metaphor of ‘deep time’, nor that Romain Rolland chose the term ‘oceanic’ feeling to describe the sensations of boundlessness and oneness with nature he believed were the birthplace of religious sentiment. Indeed, so pronounced is our tendency to reach for images of fluidity and submersion to describe our inner lives and the mysterious processes of creativity and creation that it is difficult not to wonder whether the association is somehow natural, less a habit of mind than something innate. But even if it is not, the association between water and dreams, time and the oceanic runs so deep it has become almost impossible to think of one without invoking the other.”
I’m aware, of course that there’s a sizeable body of psychoanalytic thinking touching on this subject, perhaps most notably that of Bachelard (I’d also note in passing the deeply evocative expression “body of water”). I’m also painfully aware of how difficult it is to distinguish the cultural from the “natural” in this context. But after reading Sapolsky I did find myself wondering whether these associations might be at least partly founded in a similar retooling of very primitive parts of the brain.
All of which is an extended way of asking whether anybody knows of any studies suggesting such associations. Or, perhaps just as pertinently, whether anybody has any sense of whether the association exists in other cultures. Do the Chinese, for instance, or Native American cultures make similar associations? Obviously the notion of the unconscious mind is a relatively recent and essentially Western notion but I’d be very interested to know whether other cultures imagine sleep and dreams in terms of drift and immersion, or think of imagination in terms of flow. And, assuming the association is at least partly neurological in nature, are there any studies or theories as to what it’s about?