Neural Weather, An Informal Defense of Psychoanalytic Ideas

by Bill Benzon

I first found Freud in the basement of the house on Luther Road. There was a small closet in the corner and my father had a box or two of paperback books in it. I don’t remember but a few titles; in fact, I’m only sure of two: Wodehouse on Golf, which I never read, and 1984, which I most certainly did read, as it had a pulpy cover that promised sex – a buxom brunette in a tight blue jumpsuit emblazoned with “Women’s Anti-Sex League” – in THAT costume! Of course, the book wasn’t quite what the cover advertised, but that was OK. I may also have found Brave New World there, I’m not sure. Come to think of it though, that probably IS where I found War of the Worlds. So that’s three titles I’m pretty sure of.

I probably found some Bertrand Russell, too, though just exactly what, I can’t recall. I went on to buy a bunch of Russell, including his history of Western philosophy. I also found something by Theodore Reik (Listening with the Third Ear?), and went on to buy more of THAT. And I found Freud, perhaps Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality; after all, it has that magic word in the title: S E X.

In the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at Johns Hopkins I read The Interpretation of Dreams. Somewhere in there I picked up a five-volume set of The Collected Papers from a book club. I’ve still got them, though they’re in storage along with some other Freud. But I’ve still got Totem and Taboo, Civilization and It’s Discontents, and The Future of an Illusion on the shelves in my apartment. They’re slender volumes and so don’t take up much space and Civilization plays to my interest in cultural evolution.

But the book that really sold me on psychoanalysis was Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society. I read him in a developmental psych course taught by Mary Ainsworth. I found his account of the developmental unfolding of the organ modes (oral, anal, etc.) quite compelling. Ainsworth also introduced me to the work of John Bowlby. I read the first volume of his Attachment and Loss series in typescript in 1967 or ’68, before it came out in 1969. His reworking of object relations theory using primate ethology and systems theory, I found that very compelling. And his remarks on defense and information processing in the final volume, Loss (which didn’t appear until 1980), seem and seemed quite promising.

There’s something in all this that’s indispensable and foundational. Just what, though, I’m not sure. If you look at my published work you won’t find much psychoanalytic thinking there – e.g. in At the Edge of the Modern, or Why is Prospero Shakespeare’s Greatest Creation? [1] or Talking with Nature in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” [2] – but it plays an essential role in those few publications and it pervades my thought in areas where its influence is too diffuse for meaningful citation.

A Theory About the Mind

What’s important about psychoanalytic thought, what makes in indispensible, is that it is a theory of mind. Not of the brain, but of the mind. Yes, I understand that neuroscience is careening its rough way toward an understanding of the brain, and yes, I understand that there’s a good deal of work being done on the neural underpinnings of psychoanalysis, but it is the mind that interests me. And it is the mind that I see at work in Fantasia and Dumbo, King Kong and Gojira, Apocalypse Now and The Heart of Darkness, and in Much Ado About Nothing, Wuthering Heights, “Kubla Khan” and many other texts.

The mind. Not the brain.

In thus distinguishing mind and brain I do not mean to elevate (or is it lower?) the mind to some ethereal realm mysteriously apart from yet causally implicated in the material brain. The mind IS what the brain does. And the brain does it more subtly that we can imagine.

It’s that subtlety that we’ve got to attend to.

The brain consists of some hundreds if not thousands of neurofunctional areas. Enormous time and effort has gone into figuring out just what each area does and how it relates to what goes on in other areas. Much of this thinking seems like it follows from a vision of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy in which each neurofunctional area is a separate office. These offices receive messages written on scraps of paper sent around through pneumatic tubes. A functionary receives a bunch of such scraps at his desk, reviews them, and writes this or that on fresh scraps which he then sends out through tubes taking them to other anonymous functionaries. This is called information processing.

The thing is, those many neurofunctional areas are each composed of millions upon millions of neurons, each of which is directly connected to 10,000 or so other neurons. Some of those neurons are connected to immediately adjacent neurons; others are connected to more distant neurons in the same neurofunctional area; and many others are connected to neurons in other neurofunctional areas, some close by, some quite distant. If two neurons don’t share any direct connections, chances are they are indirectly connected by multiple chains, some of them of only two or three links, others of five or six links.

Whatever the brain IS, it IS NOT an information-processing bureaucracy.

In my own work I’ve used the metaphor of weather, the mind as neural weather [3]. Think of the brain as a complex landscape and the mind as the swirls and eddies of air, water, and dust blowing through it. And think of defense mechanisms as forms of neural weather. Denial, projection, dissociation, repression, sublimation, and all the rest, they’re complex patterns of activity each involving the whole brain. This, it seems to me, is one area where psychoanalytic thought is going to prove out.

Don’t ask me just how that’s going to go, because I don’t know. But if I were to make the reconstruction of psychoanalytic theorizing a central concern, that’s one of the things I’d concentrate on, that and those organ modes, which I’d investigate through Warren McCulloch’s concept of behavioral mode [4], though McCulloch himself was bitterly opposed to psychoanalysis and inveighed against it in “The Past of a Delusion,” Embodiments of Mind, 1965, pp. 276-306.)

The Fluid Mind

One thing about weather is that small changes here and there can have major changes on the overall pattern, the so-called butterfly effect. That’s what can happen in complex networks of quasi-autonomous interacting elements, like neurons. And so it happens that brains jerk between activity states in patterns that make little or no sense at all. As Eleanor Rosch put it in a well-known paper (albeit about Buddhist psychology, not psychoanalytic [5]):

Beginning meditators are usually shocked. Their first and immediate discovery is often about the nature of attention. Mental contents change rapidly and continuously: thoughts, sensations, feelings, worries, daydreams, inner conversations, sleepiness, fantasies, plans, memories, theories, emotions, self-instructions about the techniques, judgments about thoughts and feelings, judgments about judgments. All meditators who sit still and use a mental technique, regardless of their tradition, purpose, or technique report these kinds of experiences. This is a point easily discoverable also by the nonmeditating reader; simply notice what the mind is doing as one tries to keep attention on some simple mental, or even physical, task.

Yes. The mind does tend to flit about in ways most remarkable. Later in the paper:

What is even more remarkable than that the contents of mind are continually shifting is how little interest researchers in attention have shown in this phenomenon. William James speculated about the stream of consciousness at the turn of the century, and the portrayal of stream of consciousness has had various literary vogues, but experimental psychology has remained mute on this point, the very building block of phenomenological awareness.

That much-ignored stream of consciousness is, of course, indispensible to psychoanalytic technique. By free associating the patient activates affinities and resonances that are there “deep” in the mind but that are transformed, masked, or repressed in the course of everyday life. Dreams are like that too.

At this point we’re within hailing distances of the phenomena that have been at the center of my work – sometimes more, sometimes less, but always there somewhere – for decades: literary texts and, more recently, movies.

Fantasia and Dumbo

There’s a logic there that remains mysterious. What we see on the screen are patterns of neural weather blowing through the homes, workplaces, farms, cities, and even the battlefields (Europe was at war when these films were made) of midcentury America. I’ve blogged up a storm about both of those films, but I still don’t know what’s going on in them [6].

Why is it that Dumbo gets drunk, albeit accidentally, before he learns to fly, unconsciously? Is there more to this drinking than the imaginary water and imaginary liquor in that imaginary pail? What of Dumbo’s mysterious competence in blowing bubbles? When Dumbo is kicked from the burning tower in his second appearance in the circus, he lands in a tub filled with white liquid, not water, but a white liquid. Is that supposed to suggest milk? If so, why?

What do we make of the imagery of hands that pervades Fantasia? At the beginning of each episode we see Stokowski raise his hands and give the downbeat. Why does Disney show us this? Is it simply a convention he adopted to make the transition from Deems Taylor’s commentary to each episode? Well, yes, it IS that, a convention. But in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the segment that seeded the film, both the Sorcerer and his Apprentice conjure magic with their hands. In Night on Bald Mountain, the demon summons his minions with his hands, and uses one hand to manipulate (that word, “manipulate”) spirits that dance and deform on his other hand. All of this art is made by legions of workers who drew, inked, and painted with their hands.

Psychoanalysis is the best tool I have for addressing such questions. It is indispensible.


[1] At the Edge of the Modern, or Why is Prospero Shakespeare’s Greatest Creation? Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 21 (3): 259-279, 1998, .

[2] Talking with Nature in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.” PsyArt: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, November, 2004,

[3] I am thinking particularly of the work of Walter Freeman. See this post at my blog, New Savanna, The Mind is What the Brain Does, and Very Strange, July 28, 2013, That post is based, in part, on a passage from my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil (2001), pp. 71-74.

[4] William Benzon, Mode and Behavior, Working Paper, August 2012, 29 pp.,, SSRN:

[5] Eleanor Rosch, Transformation of the Wolf Man, In J. Pickering (ed.) The Authority of Experience: Essays on Buddhism and Psychology, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1997, online,

[6] For some psychoanalytically oriented observations, see William Benzon, Freud Does Disney, Working Paper, November 2013, 41 pp.,