Over recent years I wrote a book about a part of ourselves that we cannot see, that is intangible: the mind. It took me a while to realise this is what I was writing about. I never know what precisely I am writing about until some time in (usually after much structural shuffling and a fair bit of the kind of loose-thinking that happens at 3 a.m. or while cleaning grout). I’d been telling inquiring people I was writing about my postnatal experience of intense anxiety, or the story of my unusually psychoanalytic upbringing, or my family’s historical pulling away and toward each other, or my struggle to move away from my mother into adulthood. I was writing about all those things. But they were merely the subjects gravitating around my central question: was my emotional experience determined by the organ of my brain, my biology, my genes (the material me), or was it because of my life experience, stored up invisibly as memories in my dynamic but invisible mind (the immaterial me). And gravitating around that was the even more central question, the nucleus of it all: What was this immaterial me? How could it be helped when it suffered?
What is a mind? I began to ask. In an even more translucent venture, if that’s possible, what is the Freudian mind—the one I had been so vested in, having grown up raised by psychoanalytically-thinking parents—the one that Freud hypothesised was unconscious, hidden even from ourselves. The one that had promised me recovery. Did it exist? Should I have spent so many years talking to an analyst in a bid to come upon some knowledge of my self? Had I been on a (prone) wild goose chase there on my analyst’s chaise-longue, talking dreams and associations?
You know what I find to be an incredibly motivating force in life? The desire to prove my sibling wrong. Cajoling me towards answers was my sister, pointedly and brilliantly pedantic about evidence, who will never let me get away with abstraction, especially in the realm of health care. Along the route to adulthood she had sloughed off the scales of psychoanalysis, which according to her, while we are on the reptile metaphor, is as extinct as dinosaurs (but less verifiable). ‘What Dad does,’ she said to me one day about my father’s work as a psychodynamic therapist, ‘is a pseudo-science.’
In Jessie Greengrass’s novel Sight, the narrator ventures into both what we can see in our bodies (in the story of Wilhem Röntgen, who invented the X-ray by chance) and what we can’t. She remembers her psychoanalyst grandmother, recalling a time when she, the narrator, was not yet yearning to understand her own mind:
Watching my grandmother sitting each morning at our dining table, her notebook open and expectant in front of her, I had no understanding of the drive to exhume that now turns my quiet moments into imperfect acts of reminiscence: how it is to feel that one must note each detail of one’s thoughts in case that thing should pass unseen which might otherwise provide the key, laying out the shadows of the bones which rib and arch and hold the whole together.
What does it matter if we can’t see the thing we talk about? Why do bones, which we can touch and assess for density, offer a firmer shore than feelings? My interest has always been held by things we can’t measure: words, meaning, stories, paintings, poems. Measuring bored me. In measurement I found dead ends. What to do with a blood-pressure reading? A body-mass index? A number scale on a depression questionnaire? In the other things, the things of the mind, I found endlessness—the wonder of association that comes with linguistic interpretation—but also resolution. Answers; even if they are speculative.
Here is what I mean:
My family goes on a holiday. On the surface we are living, having fun. We swim, we cycle, we eat lobsters we have been gifted. We are there to celebrate my mother-in-law’s birthday: 70. Not old, but the oldest of the immediate family. My son, eight, lies in bed the first morning there, angry. Won’t get out. He puts his fingers in his ears and yells, and then he cries. He says he is angry because the room is hot, because his brother woke him; because, because, because. We talk. He talks, in his eight-year-old way, about the drought-stricken countryside. How everywhere we look is desiccation, dry husks of trees, dust getting in our lungs. It has gotten in to him, the dust and the counting of years to this age of seventy. It can’t be seen in him; it has made its way, invisible. I suggest to him he is worrying about his grandmother dying. And then, it is as though he suddenly knows. ‘Why do we all have to die?’ he asks. And we talk more, take dying to new places, sometimes solace (‘a person would get very tired if they lived forever’), sometimes the uncanny, the absurd (‘I will rot and become a tree and birds will live in me’). We go on. He feels better, gets up. Words can do this.
That holiday happened long after I wrote the book, long after I resolved my crisis over the Freudian mind. Much like the dust, my sister’s scepticism had gotten in me. I was driven crazy by this question of whether the Freudian idea of the mind had any scientific validity, or whether any theory of mind could be held up to science. In a group of researchers called neuropsychoanalysts I found people who were doggedly working toward restoring a science of the mind, often using Freudian theory as a jumping-off point. Freud, after all, had been a neuroscientist who yearned to bring subjective feeling into science. The neuropsychoanalysts, like Freud, take a Kantian position on the whole invisibility thing: we can’t know reality directly; only via our perceptions. Feelings are merely the perceptions of the mind, and therefore provide us with a way to study the mind as any other component of nature. It was no different to hypothesise about deep space or black holes or quarks, the science of which we can only arrive at based on models and maths.
Often I came back to this question: what did it matter if something couldn’t be quantified, compared, replicated? It certainly seemed to matter for a number of practical and ethical reasons. Healthcare systems, for one, require evidence of efficacy. But it was the symbolism of measurability that I came to believe weighted my sister’s and others’ need for science. Things that can be measured offer greater promise of excision. They offer us clearer routes to tracing what causes, what is inherited. But they also offer us a thing that I want to reject: a version of ourselves that is pre-determined, genetically encoded, immutable.
Rebecca Solnit writes in Men Explain Things to Me, of the way that measurable things so often overwrite immeasurable things in our social values:
The tyranny of the quantifiable is partly the failure of language and discourse to describe more complex, subtle, and fluid phenomena, as well as the failure of those who shape opinions and make decisions to understand and value these slipperier things.
I came to know, through writing my book, that I prefer the dynamic invisible, worded version of myself; the slipperier one that offers hope of free will, of change. The one that accepts who I am and how I live as an ever-unfolding event I can work to understand, and in being so a thing not able to be known through scientific parameters; not able to be taken apart in neat sections and measured, as in an autopsy of the organs, or else, as Greengrass’s narrator imagines:
So static I might be perfect, liable at last to a complete accounting, each piece examined, weighed and understood, disallowing surprise, mistake, decay; but amongst so much balance what would be left of me?
Nicola Redhouse is a writer living in Melbourne, Australia. Her work has been published in the literary journals Meanjin, Island and Kill Your Darlings, and in the anthologies Best Australian Stories and Rebellious Daughters. She has been working as a book editor since 2005. Nicola’s newest book, Unlike the Heart: A Memoir of Brain and Mind, is available through UQP in March 2019.