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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?

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Rebecca Giggs #

    Free associating with bundles of ideas, but when I think of the sea as the unconscious’ analogue, I think of Salvador Dalí and his idea that mind-states exist in a perceptual field that is only masquerading as nature: In 1936 during the International Surrealists’ Exhibition in London, Dalí arrived to deliver his lecture wearing an iron and lead diving-suit. This, he claimed, was a necessary accoutrement for his descent “into the depths of the subconscious.” The stunt was ultimately a failure (Dalí had to be cut out of the suit at risk of suffocation) but it is interesting to note that for all the inwardly-dialled, psychological ethos of the art movement he spearheaded, Dalí depicts the unconscious as an exterior, physical place – a sea. Although he clearly means the statement to be metaphorical (or at least, theoretical) there are connections here to Freud’s “oceanic feeling,” (and the relationship between the surrealists and Freud is fascinating, and too complex to unpack here: except to say that nearly all my dreams look like Yves Tanguy paintings). And then when I think about that, diving and dreaming, I am reminded of a quote by Barry Lopez, who writes somewhere about how every dive into the deep is a dive into the “intimate geography” of the self. Underwater the heartbeat booms, the pulse surges across the skin, the breath takes up more space than just the inner cupboards of the lungs; an awareness of the body is heightened. So too, does being underwater water press the mind to introspection, to drifting in thought. And then when I think of that, I am reminded how thrilling it was to hear about the excavators digging below the emotionally-unsettled site of the former World Trade Centre in Lower Manhattan unearthing the hull of a large ship buried in the 18th century, still “flecked with oyster shells” this year. The New York Times described it as the “great ribbed ghost that emerged from yesterday.” Much of San Francisco too, is built over the scuttled remains of old ships; the basements and cellars of 19th century homes in the Bay Area were often fashioned from ship hulls set underground. These vessels are still being uncovered in the present day, as taller skyscrapers demand deeper foundations, subways are extended, and power-lines are buried. Poetically, the subterranean “unconscious” of a city (where, as in the brain, the city’s functional and regulatory systems are maintained) is often found to conceal maritime objects. Beneath the cities, the ships – and potentially, as the sea-level rises, beneath the water, the cities, the ships. Baudrillard once wrote: “Animals have no unconscious, because they have a territory. Men have only had an unconscious since they lost a territory… the unconscious is the individual structure of mourning in which this loss (of territory) is incessantly, hopelessly replayed,” which is a phrase that chimes in me whenever I hear of the world’s growing population of environmental refugees, many of whom have lost territory by way of saltwater incursion and storm-front erosion: “the structure of mourning in which this loss (of territory) is incessantly, hopelessly replayed.” Anyhow, to make another jump, I have just finished Tim Park’s book “Teach Us to Sit Still” (which includes, amongst other dog-eared pages, references to Giacomo Leopardi’s writing on happiness and high water) and I really want to read his “Dreams of Rivers and Seas.” And as for psychological/psychoanalytical studies linking matter to mind-state; I suspect it’s so out of fashion the only material is very old, but that you will begin to see more of it in the age of solastalgia and climate change. There is writing on the unconscious as “wilderness” more broadly, Freud obviously and his successors, but I’m not sure about literature from non-European cultures. This kind of thinking is clearly predicated on the old Cartesian divide of the body and the mind, and perhaps in cultures where no such divide was ever asserted, there is less of a propensity to imagine the unconscious as being located somewhere beyond the self…

    November 21, 2010
  2. “Body of water.” I’ll be mulling over the wonderful rich nuances in that one for a while, I think. Beautiful!

    November 21, 2010
  3. My friend is writing a doctorate on this. Here is her blog: She hasn’t tagged her posts about her subject but she may be interesting to talk to about it.

    November 21, 2010
  4. And your comment Rebecca, just beautiful. What a poetic vision; the brain or consciousness of the city embalmed by oysters and silt. And poor old Dali having to get cut out of his prop!

    November 21, 2010
  5. Caroline Brooks #

    A fascinating topic, and I’m bowled over with admiration of the first comment as well as the post. Boundless reference, a conversation-starter if ever there was one! BTW, “solastalgia” = “nostalgia for the sunshine?” It’s not in my dictionary, that’s the best my imagination could do at short notice.

    November 22, 2010
  6. Sorry for the tardy reply, and thank you for all those responses, especially Rebecca’s. I absolutely agree the boat is a fascinating image in this regard, and one that recurs (Thoreau famously declares “every man is an ark”): to my mind it’s absolutely connected with what I was talkign about int he post, which is that sense that we are bodies moving through (dark) water, and that sense that sleep is at once a thing that buoys us but also submerges us (hence the resonance with burial, including the ship burials in England, ancient Egypt and elsewhere, and, I suspect, the notion of water and rivers bearing us to the afterlife). It’s also interesting to me the part the ship plays in Coleridge’s Rime, which as Richard Homes points out is one of the places our sense of the individual as a lone sailor finds its first and fullest expression, given the role of opium and dreams in Coleridge’s work, and that strange, unsettling air of the fantastic one finds in it. Perhaps it’s also relevant that Coleridge is usually regarded as the person who imported our modern notion of the unconscious into English. And that notion of the body as something watery, a sort of potentiality, is there in the expression “body of water”.

    I’m less convinced by the argument about Cartesian notions of mind and body. Pretty much all human cultures assume a division between body and spirit, and lots, from the Egyptians on, imagine the spirit leaving the body, and travelling in dreams. Even someone like me, who doesn’t believe in souls, finds it difficult not to feel the self is a thing that leaves at death (especially once you’ve watched someone die and felt that passing), and to avoid imagining the shifting coalescing patterns of electricity moving through the brain without resorting to metaphors.

    All of which really just goes to show how deeply ingrained this idea is, and makes me wonder more about why, and whether the idea is one that appears in all cultures . . .

    November 22, 2010
  7. Oh, and in that special once you start looking you see somethign everywhere kind of way, I came across this in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain last night:

    “As he paddled, caught waves and rode the lefts in long ecstatic seconds, and then worked to get back outside, he wondered again about this strangely powerful feeling of saltwater as home. There must be an evolutionary reason for such joy at being cast forward by a wave. Perhaps there was a part of the brain that predated the split with the aquatic mammals, some deep and fundamental part of mentation that craved the experience. certainly the cerebellum conserved very ancient brain workings. On the other hand perhaps the moments of weightlessness, and the way one floated, mimicked the uterine months of life, which were then called back to mind when one swam. Or maybe it was a very sophisticated aesthetic response, an encounter with the sublime, as one was constantly falling and yet not dying or even getting hurt, so that the discrepancy in information between the danger signals and the comfort signals was experienced as a kind of triumph over reality”.

    November 22, 2010
  8. Oh, and Sarah and anybody else who’s reading – Rebecca’s comment is exactly the sort of thing that made me mention her in this post:

    She’s amazing.

    November 22, 2010

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