Brain Sci. 2012, 2, 147-175; doi:10.3390/brainsci2020147
The “Id” Knows More than the “Ego” Admits:
Neuropsychoanalytic and Primal Consciousness Perspectives on
the Interface Between Affective and Cognitive Neuroscience
Mark Solms 1,* and Jaak Panksepp 2
1 Department of Psychology, University of Cape Town, Cape Town 7701, South Africa
2 Department of VCAPP, College of Veterinary Medicine, Washington State University, Pullman,
WA 99164, USA; E-Mail: email@example.com
* Author to whom correspondence should be addressed; E-Mail: Mark.Solms@uct.ac.za;
Tel.: +27-21-650-3437; Fax: +27-21-650-4104.
Received: 16 January 2012; in revised form: 2 March 2012 / Accepted: 22 March 2012 /
Published: 17 April 2012
Abstract: It is commonly believed that consciousness is a higher brain function. Here we
consider the likelihood, based on abundant neuroevolutionary data that lower brain
affective phenomenal experiences provide the “energy” for the developmental construction
of higher forms of cognitive consciousness. This view is concordant with many of the
theoretical formulations of Sigmund Freud. In this reconceptualization, all of consciousness
may be dependent on the original evolution of affective phenomenal experiences that
coded survival values. These subcortical energies provided a foundation that could be used
for the epigenetic construction of perceptual and other higher forms of consciousness.
From this perspective, perceptual experiences were initially affective at the primary-process
brainstem level, but capable of being elaborated by secondary learning and memory
processes into tertiary-cognitive forms of consciousness. Within this view, although all
individual neural activities are unconscious, perhaps along with secondary-process learning
and memory mechanisms, the primal sub-neocortical networks of emotions and other
primal affects may have served as the sentient scaffolding for the construction of resolved
perceptual and higher mental activities within the neocortex. The data supporting this
neuro-psycho-evolutionary vision of the emergence of mind is discussed in relation to
classical psychoanalytical models.
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Keywords: affective consciousness; cognitive consciousness; brain evolution; mind
evolution; emotions; perception; neuropsychoanalysis
Our aim here is to introduce a novel way of integrating affective and cognitive aspects of conscious
and unconscious brain processes, using a neuropsychoanalytic framework. Our starting point is the
commonplace observation that different fields of inquiry use the terms “conscious” and “unconscious”
in different ways, which prevents coherent discourse among the disciplines. The field at large has no
standard definitions of these terms and their cognates. For instance, what is conscious “awareness”?
Does the conscious subject need to have more than simple phenomenal experiences to have conscious
“awareness”? Does “awareness” always imply a capacity for reflexive recognition of the fact that one
is having experiences? Can we have (and empirically study) phenomenal consciousness without higher
forms of consciousness that can report about awareness? We believe the answer to the last question has
to be “yes”; otherwise we exclude all other animals from the circle of consciousness, which makes no
evolutionary sense, especially given the abundant evidence for “rewarding” and “punishing” brain
functions concentrated in various subcortical brainstem regions.
To avoid such ambiguities, we start from the premise that the essential nature of consciousness is a
foundational form of phenomenal experience, which in our view includes various affective states that
can be monitored in animals by the rewarding and punishing properties of artificial evocation of such
states with deep brain stimulation. From our perspective, the capacity to be aware of the environment
and that one is the subject of such externally triggered experiences is already a higher cognitive
function, which is ultimately mediated by the ability to reflect upon one’s subjective experiences. This
hierarchical parsing enables one to be conscious in different ways—e.g., to feel happy and sad, without
necessarily having the mental capacity to recognize that one is happy or sad, let alone to reflect upon
the objective relations that caused this happiness or sadness. Being phenomenally conscious does not,
by itself, require much cognitive sophistication at all.
2. Synopsis of Our Overall Framework
Such modest conceptual distinctions permit the construction of evolutionarily sound scientific
approaches to consciousness, which enable us, for example, to distinguish the brain structures supporting
its phylogenetically ancient forms—which, based on abundant empirical studies, are affectively shared
by all mammals—from those supporting the higher forms of consciousness that require reflexive and
declarative abilities, which can only be studied systematically in creatures that speak for themselves.
Failure to make such distinctions produces types of discourse that prematurely render lower brain
processes “unconscious” simply because the forms of internally generated experiences are not often
recognized, and easily spoken about, by higher, specifically-human forms of linguistically-based
awareness. For example, certain mammalian species may have a great abundance of affectively and
perceptually conscious phenomenal experiences, with very little capacity to reflect on those experiences.
An evolutionarily tiered approach to consciousness also allows us to understand how it happens that
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strong affective states can occur without the subject of those states cognitively recognizing (“accepting”)
the associated feelings. Moreover, since higher functions can inhibit lower functions in the brain (and
vice-versa), we can see how certain forms of phenomenal experience may be temporarily rendered
“unconscious” through active inhibitory influences. Strong emotions can also interfere with and
disrupt cognitive processing; so it readily happens that individuals may experience strong emotional
turmoil without having any subsequent insight into, or even memory of, those experiences. These
examples could easily be multiplied.
In short, the complexity of our capacity to consciously and unconsciously process fluctuating brain
states and environmentally linked behavioral processes requires some kind of multi-tiered analysis,
such as Endel Tulving’s well-known parsing of consciousness into three forms: anoetic (unthinking
forms of experience, which may be affectively intense without being “known”, and could be the
birthright of all mammals), noetic (thinking forms of consciousness, linked to exteroceptive perception
and cognition) and autonoetic (abstracted forms of perceptions and cognitions, which allow conscious
“awareness” and reflection upon experience in the “mind’s eye” through episodic memories and
This kind of a conceptual scheme can be readily overlaid on some major evolutionary passages of
the brain, which roughly correspond to the evolution of (a) upper brainstem (up to the septal area),
which permits anoetic phenomenal experiences, (b) lower subcortical ganglia and upper limbic
structures (e.g., the cortical midline), which permit learning and noetic consciousness, and (c) higher
neocortical functions (including all association cortices), which provide the critical substrates for the
autonoetic, reflexive experiential blends that yield the stream of everyday awareness. Such multi-tiered
parsing of consciousness (see Figure 1, adapted from ) enables us to recognize not only deeply
unconscious brain processes, critical for behavior, but also brain processes that may be experienced at
one level but not at another. This permits us to include in our scientific discourse the massive and
ever-mounting evidence for the existence of various perceptual and affective forms of phenomenal
consciousness in other animals [3,4]. This may enable us to develop better neuroevolutionary paradigms
to scientifically unravel the fundamental biological nature of consciousness, as well as the differential
natures of its many strange manifestations across multiple levels.
Here we will address the multi-tiered complexities of consciousness from both modern cognitive
and affective neuroscience perspectives. However, to properly contextualize these perspectives
historically, we will frame selected aspects of the cognitive and affective data within a psychoanalytic
frame of reference, which remains surprisingly relevant for the controversies under discussion here.
Although the interregnum of “never-mind” behaviorism, which simply ignored the Black Box of the
brain, interrupts the historical continuities, we hope that embedding our discussion in a clear account
of seminal foundational issues that were explicitly considered at the outset of the modern
neuroscientific era, will help us better understand what the splintered subfields of current neuroscience
can and must still achieve. Our hope is that this will eventually yield a unified vision of how the mind
To set the stage in a historical perspective, we contextualize our argument within the theoretical
framework of classic psychoanalytic thought that may help highlight some provocative conceptual
relationships to our approach. A close reading of Freudian thought, suggests he took a very similar
approach to the mind. Even though Freud, a bench neuroscientist at the beginning of his career, did not
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have the wealth of neuroscientific knowledge we presently have, our objective analysis of the mental
apparatus has distinct resemblances to his efforts, which emerged strictly from the subjective
perspective. We offer this as an example of convergence, which hopefully promotes more careful
empirical analyses of the affective foundations of the human mind than have been evident in so much
of modern neuroscience, which typically offers a ruthlessly reductionistic view of the brain, as if an
analysis of the mental apparatus is irrelevant for understanding what the brain does.
Figure 1. A schematic showing nested hierarchies of brain functions in which primary
processes (red squares) influence secondary (green circles) and tertiary (blue rectangles)
processes, which in turn exert top-down regulatory control. The seven primary process
emotions are noted: positively valenced emotions highlighted in red (SEEKING, LUST,
CARE and PLAY), and negative ones in purple (RAGE, FEAR and PANIC/GRIEF) [2,4].
3. Freud’s Notion of Unconscious Mental Processes
The notion that the brain knows more than it consciously admits can be traced back historically to
the clinical and conceptual work of Sigmund Freud. He based this notion, which was considered
radical at the time, upon observations he made of post-hypnotic suggestion and clinical states of
dissociation, where behaviors were demonstrably caused by motivations of which the subject was not
explicitly aware, some of which could subsequently be brought to awareness during psychological
treatment. Since a scientific account of mental life cannot exclude unconscious cognitions with such
demonstrable causal effects, Freud concluded that the objects of psychology must include unconscious
processes, notwithstanding the conventional equation of “mind” with consciousness . Thus, Freud
devoted the remainder of his scientific life to studying the unconscious mental processes.
His first major conclusion was that such processes admitted of further differentiation. Some
unconscious processes could be rendered conscious at will; others could not. Freud termed these
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processes “preconscious” and “unconscious” respectively. He then subdivided the unconscious processes
into those that occurred outside of conscious awareness by dint of automatization (e.g., habituated
skills), and those that were actively excluded from awareness by motivated resistances (e.g., electing
not to think about something in order to avoid negative affective arousal). He termed these processes
“descriptively” and “dynamically” unconscious respectively. The dynamically unconscious processes
included some that were “repressed” from consciousness and some that never attained consciousness
in the first place.
Freud’s second major conclusion was that these different grades of unconscious process displayed
different functional properties. Dynamically unconscious processes were less constrained by realistic
life considerations than preconscious or descriptively unconscious ones. The latter processes were,
conversely, less influenced by affective states than the dynamically unconscious ones. On this basis
Freud differentiated mental processes which obeyed what he termed the “reality principle” from those
that obeyed the “pleasure principle,” with the latter being relatively unconstrained by inhibitory
controls. In modern terms, they may be conceptualized as being activated by “free energy” [6,7].
Since the uninhibited processes were assumed to be phylogenetically older, and predominated in the
juvenile mind, Freud termed them “primary”; the inhibited, realistic processes were described as
“secondary” (which in Figure 1 are further distinguished into secondary, namely learned, and tertiary,
namely thought-related, processes).
Borrowing from Helmholtzian thermodynamics , Freud speculated that secondary processes 
entail some form of “binding” of “free” energies, arising from the vital needs of the organism,
although he admitted his ignorance of the underlying physiology of these processes. He inferred that
the compulsive “free” energies press for immediate motor discharge (since they are unconstrained by
realistic considerations) whereas “bound” energies, which are utilized in executive cognitive processes,
give rise to more expedient, delayed responses. Freud imagined that such hypothetical energies
“spread over the memory-traces of ideas somewhat as an electric charge is spread over the surface of a
body” (, p. 60). Mental processes were therefore fundamentally conceptualized by Freud as being
composed of (a) representations, activated by (b) drive energies (which he sometimes also called
“quotas of affect”). These two mental elements were considered to be unconscious in themselves, and
only to give rise to the phenomena of consciousness under certain conditions.
We will develop the theme here that these two elements remain the foundational concepts of
modern cognitive and affective science, but we will argue that the so-called “drive energies” that
activate cognition are intrinsically conscious—although the transformations they are subject to
frequently render them inaccessible to reflexive awareness.
Freud formulated the conditional foundations of consciousness within a series of models of the
functional architecture of the mind. In his first model  he attributed (unconscious) representational
processes to a system of forebrain neurons that were distinguished from other neurons by their
capacity for memory. He called this representational system “ψ”. Freud described this system as a
“sympathetic ganglion” because its biological purpose was to associatively link endogenous needs
(expressed as drives) with the external objects that satisfied them. The ψ system of neurons was split
into “pallium” and “nuclear” divisions. The pallium division received its inputs via subcortical
thalamic and cranial-nerve pathways from the sensory periphery (Freud called these pathways the “φ”
system of neurons). The nuclear division of ψ received its inputs from the interior of the body, which
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Freud described as the “wellspring” of the mental apparatus, for the reason that it was constantly
activated (or “cathected,” to use his term) by drive energies emanating from the relentless vital
(survival and sexual) needs of the body. Tonic inhibition of this interoceptive division of ψ was
accordingly assumed to be the physiological basis of executive control (the “ego”).
Consciousness, which was attributed to a separate neuronal system (“ω”), was located at the motor
end of the apparatus. The distinctive function of the ω system was to monitor the accumulation of drive
energies within ψ. Increased drive tension generated feelings of unpleasure in ω; motor discharge, by
contrast, generated pleasure. This affective-homeostatic function was, according to Freud, the primary
purpose of consciousness. He therefore always insisted that affects were conscious by definition
(see Section 11 below). Affect was the raison d’être of consciousness. However, consciousness was
also extended to external sensory perception, by complicated mechanisms that revolved around the
function of attention, which increased the level of activation of the exteroceptive division of ψ [12,13].
Consciousness accordingly occurred in two forms: (a) the form attached to interoceptive affects, and
(b) the form attached to exteroceptive perceptions. Regarding the qualitative differences in the forms
of consciousness, Freud stated only that the various modalities appeared to arise from different
rhythms or patterns or “periods” (as opposed to degrees) of neuronal activity—which at that time was
an inferred process, since organized neuronal activity had not yet been measured.
Freud’s second model of the mental apparatus  was essentially the same as his first, apart from
the fact that the hypothetical neuronal systems were now given purely functional designations. This
acknowledged Freud’s ignorance of the anatomy and physiology of the arrangements he had described,
inferred as they were from psychological and behavioral rather than neuroscientific observations.
Accordingly, the φ neurons became the “perceptual system” of the mind (abbreviated “Pcpt.”); the
ψ neurons became “mnemic systems,” split into uninhibited and inhibited divisions, which thereby
became the systems “unconscious” (abbreviated “Ucs.”) and “preconscious” (abbreviated “Pcs.”)
respectively (see Figure 2 ); while the ω neurons became the system “consciousness” (abbreviated
“Cs.”), still located at the motor end of the apparatus.
Figure 2. Freud’s second model of the mental apparatus. Pcpt (previously φ) = Perceptual
system; Mnem (previously ψ) = Mnemic systems; Ucs = Unconscious system;
Pcs = Preconscious system; M = Motor system [also known as Consciousness system,
abbreviated Cs (previously ω)]. Reproduced from  with permission.
A significant revision was introduced in 1917 when Freud  combined φ and ω (the perceptual
and motor systems adjacent to ψ) into a single integrated system for perceptual consciousness
(“Pcpt.-Cs.”), on the grounds that all varieties of consciousness were at bottom perceptual. What
distinguished the systems Pcpt. and Cs. was merely the sources of their stimuli and the modalities of
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perception they gave rise to. The classical sensory modalities, which registered the state of the outside
world, were perceived on the “external surface” of the system Pcpt.-Cs., while affects, which
registered the state of the apparatus itself, were perceived on the “internal surface” of this same,
This revision was retained in Freud’s final model . The major purpose of his last revision was to
recognize the fact that executive control did not coincide with any grade of consciousness
(or preconsciousness). For example automatized “descriptively” unconscious processes, which never
became conscious, were under inhibitory control (they were secondary processes; cf. [5,15]) and
served the functional purposes of the reality principle. Likewise, the process of repression, despite
being “dynamically” unconscious, served inhibitory purposes. Freud thus grouped all the inhibited
grades of both conscious and unconscious processes under a single executive system—the “ego”—the
distinguishing feature of which was its utilization of “bound” energies (which underpinned all
“cognitive” processes); and he likewise grouped all the uninhibited (“instinctual” affective) processes
under a single system utilizing “free” drive energy—the “id” (see Figure 3).
Figure 3. Freud’s final model of the mental apparatus. Pcpt.-Cs. = Perceptual-Consciousness
system. Reproduced from  with permission.
By the end of Freud’s scientific life, therefore, the notion that “the brain knows more than it admits”
revolved around the theory that bottom-up interoceptive pressures on the mind produced a set of
primitive, compulsive drives (in the “id”) which aimed at immediate instinctual satisfaction, on the
basis of affective-homeostatic imperatives regardless of the variable dictates of reality. Access by these
influences to the executive motor system therefore had to be constrained, through top-down
exteroceptive (“ego”) influences, perception and learning.
These theoretical developments, which introduced the very idea of unconscious mental processes to
psychology, took place between 1894 and 1923. It is important to note that, as Freud shifted from a
neurological to a functional description, his successive models of the mind still remained tethered to
the body at three cardinal points: (a) the sense organs, (b) the vital needs, and (c) the motor system.
Now, a century later, due to dramatic advances in the neurosciences, we are able to translate Freud’s
functional descriptions of these bodily origins of the mind back into the language of anatomy and
physiology. We do so in Section 5 below, in the spirit of Eric Kandel’s remark to the effect that
Freud’s models still provide “the most coherent and intellectually satisfying view of the mind” that we
have (, p. 505).
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4. A Related Modern Conversation: There Are Two Bodily Origins of the Mind, and They Are
At the 12th International Neuropsychoanalysis Congress, held in Berlin in June 2011, on the topic
of “Minding the Body”, Bud Craig, Antonio Damasio, Jaak Panksepp, Vittorio Gallese and Manos
Tsakiris, among others, summarized the current state of knowledge as to how human mental
functioning is embodied. In his closing remarks to the congress, Mark Solms pointed out that the
speakers had referred to two different aspects of the body, without always distinguishing them. This
can lead to confusion.
The first aspect of the body pivots around somatotopic maps on the cortical surface that are derived
from sensory receptors on the surface of the body. This aspect of body representation corresponds
most directly to the cortical homunculus. However, it does not coincide with somatosensory cortex
alone. It also includes the projection zones of the other sensory modalities, which consist of topological
maps of different sensory organs. It includes also the subcortical modality-specific thalamic and
cranial nerve structures that link these terminal sense organs with the cortex.
The “body image” arises not in but rather from these modality-specific cortical maps. This aspect of
bodily representation should therefore be equated also with the various perceptual streams arising from
the projection zones and converging in association cortex. In this paper, we will call this aspect of
bodily representation the “external body” for short (see Figure 4).
Figure 4. Dark blue = exteroceptive projection cortex; light blue = perceptual association
cortex; green = motor projection cortex; yellow = motor association (executive) cortex.
It is important to note that the brain mechanisms which represent the external body also represent
other external objects. The external body is an object. It is the aspect of the body that one perceives
when one looks outwards, at a mirror, for example. (“That thing is me”; it is “my body”.)
It should be remembered that motor maps, too, contribute to the external body image. The sense of
possessing a three-dimensional body is determined not only by heteromodal sensory convergence but
also by movement. Movement produces kinesthetic sensations, and may have intrinsic brain feelings
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of its own. The close relationship between movement and (muscle and joint) sensation is reflected in
the anatomical proximity of the respective cortical zones: the somatosensory and motor projection
areas form an integrated functional unit.
The second aspect of the body is its internal milieu, the autonomic body, which is represented
deeper and lower in the brain. The brain structures that represent this aspect of the body pivot around
the hypothalamus but they also include the circumventricular organs, parabrachial nucleus, area
postrema, solitary nucleus, and the like (see [19–21] for reviews). Analogous to what we said above
about the motor cortex in relation to exteroception, these interoceptive structures, too, not only monitor
but also regulate the state of the body (cf. homeostasis). Such subcortical network arousals may have
phenomenal affective feelings of their own. In the present paper we will call this aspect of bodily
representation the “internal body” for short (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Red = some interoceptive nuclei; magenta = some ERTAS (arousal) nuclei;
white = some basic emotion circuits.
Even at the level of the brainstem, the neural structures for the internal body are covered by those
for the external body, just as the musculoskeletal body itself envelops the viscera. This largely reflects
the fact that the evolution of coherent cerebral visceration is more ancient and foundational than
ambulant movement for the somatic action apparatus. There is enormous evidence that primary-process
emotional action coherence, and the raw feelings that concurrently emerge, arise from these subcortical
The brain mechanisms of the internal body function largely automatically, but they also arouse the
external body to serve its vital needs in the external world. This is achieved through a network of upper
brainstem and basal forebrain “arousal” structures known conventionally, but somewhat misleadingly,
as the extended reticulo-thalamic activating system (ERTAS). This arousal system is constituted of
many distinct long-axoned neuronal subsystems that include acetylcholine, epinephrine/norepinephrine,
dopamine and serotonin systems, as well as a variety of neuropeptides [4,22]. In addition there is a
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complex internal structure to cerebral visceration processes (for overview see [23–25]). The primal
roots of emotionality are grounded in these autonomic substrates.
It is important to note that an interdependent, hierarchical relationship therefore exists between the
two aspects of the body. Considering the evolutionarily ancient roots of visceration, situated as they
are more caudally and medially in the brain, there are reasons to believe that cerebral visceration
(and hence emotionality) provided a bodily-coherence generating substrate for future brain
developments, including the more cognitive domains. However, as some forward-looking scholars
have long emphasized, from David Hume to Antonio Damasio, the emotional components are still
critically important for the way the cognitive overlay operates.
Furthermore, it is becoming ever more evident that the internal body generates a very different type
of consciousness from the consciousness associated with exteroceptive cortex. The interoceptive
brainstem, along with diverse emotional networks, generates internal “states” rather than external
“objects” of consciousness (see [4,20] for reviews). In other words, the internal body is not represented
as an object of perception. Rather it gives rise to a background state of “being”; this aspect of the body
is the subject of perception. We may picture this type of consciousness as the neurodynamic page upon
which, or from which, exteroceptive experiences are written in higher brain regions. (This is also what
binds experiences together; perception happens to a unitary, embodied subject; cf. the binding problem.)
It is important to note that these “states” of the body-as-subject involve not only varying levels
of consciousness (e.g., sleep/waking) but also varying qualities of consciousness. Interoceptive
consciousness, too, is phenomenal; it “feels like” something. Above all, the phenomenal states of the
body-as-subject are experienced affectively. Affects, rather than representing discrete external events,
are experienced as positively and negatively valenced states. Their valence is determined by how
changing internal conditions relate to the probability of survival and reproductive success. At this level
of the brain, therefore, homeostasis is inseparable from consciousness. Whereas the classical sensory
modalities represent discrete external (knowledge-generating and objective) noetic happenings,
affective consciousness represents diffuse internal (automatically evaluative and subjective) anoetic
reactions to those happenings. Affectivity is, in this respect, a unique experiential modality. But that is
not all it is; affectivity is an intrinsic property of the brain which is expressed in the emotions, and
emotions are, above all, distinct forms of somatic motor discharge coordinated with supportive patterns
of autonomic change. However, these emotional expressions also “feel like” something, in diversely
valenced ways. The empirical evidence for the feeling component are simply based on the highly
replicable fact that wherever in the brain one can artificially evoke coherent emotional response
patterns with deep brain stimulation, those shifting states uniformly are accompanied by “rewarding”
and “punishing” states of mind [2,4].
The keynote of affective consciousness is provided by the pleasure-unpleasure series, the
motor expression of which is approach-withdrawal behavior. Feelings of pleasure-unpleasure,
delight-distress—and the associated compulsive behaviors—are readily generated by stimulating as
low in the brainstem as the periaqueductal grey (PAG). The generating of such reactions is thought to
be the biological “purpose” of consciousness [4,19]. By attributing valence to experience—determining
whether something is “good” or “bad” for the subject, within a biological system of values—affective
consciousness (and the behaviors it gives rise to) intrinsically promotes survival and reproductive
success. This is what consciousness is for. It also motivates the cognitive controls that emerged during
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further encephalization. This provides increasingly sophisticated mental strategies for controlling
behavior on the basis of what animals can do with external noetic information-processing.
To this end, arising from the PAG and ascending into the limbic forebrain, which reciprocally
provides many descending controls, are various instinctual motivational circuits. These are also known
as the circuits for “basic emotion”. There are several classifications of these emotions. The best-known
examples are those that generate (a) appetitive foraging, (b) consummatory reward, (c) freezing and
flight, (d) aggressive attack, (e) nurturant care, (f) separation distress, and (g) rough-and-tumble play
(see  for detailed review). The circuits for these basic emotions have been given special names
(see below). Further analysis of their trajectories, neurochemistries, and neurodynamics, provide clear
targets for modern neuroscience tools that have the potential to reveal the constitution of affective
phenomenal consciousness within the brain. Our concurrent working assumption is that this type of
consciousness provided some critical raw materials for the construction of cognitive forms of experience,
in higher regions of the brain.
It is important to note that each of the instinctual circuits generates not only stereotyped behaviors
but also diverse feeling states, such as expectant interest, orgasmic delight, trepidatious fear, destructive
rage, loving affection, sorrowful grief, and exuberant joy. Again, the critical evidence for this comes
from the fact that these emotional states can be aroused by artificial electrical and chemical stimulation
of the specific structures along these circuits, and they serve as specific rewards and punishments in
the control of simple approach and withdrawal behaviors. The circuits for these basic emotions are
conserved across the mammalian series, and they admit of considerable chemical specificity. It is
important to note that these instinctual motivations are genetically built into the cross-mammalian
foundations of the brain [4,19]. They are no less innate than the vital evolutionary survival and sexual
needs which gave rise to them. They are unconditioned “tools for living”. The emotional learning
associated with these instincts is secondary to the instincts themselves (see Figure 1), permitting us to
envision novel “Laws of Affect” that control learning.
To be clear: subcortical affective processes come in at least three major categorical forms; (a) the
homeostatic internal bodily drives (such as hunger and thermoregulation); (b) the sensory affects,
which help regulate those drives (such as the affective aspects of taste and feelings of coldness and
warmth); and (c) the instinctual-emotional networks of the brain, which embody the action tools that
ambulant organisms need to satisfy their affective drives in the outside world (such as searching for
food and warmth). These instinctual “survival tools” include: foraging for resources (SEEKING),
reproductive eroticism (LUST), protection of the body (FEAR and RAGE), maternal devotion
(CARE), separation distress (PANIC/GRIEF), and vigorous positive engagement with conspecifics
(PLAY). This evidence based affective neuroscience taxonomy [2,4] uses a capitalized nomenclature
to distinguish the identified primary instinctual-affective subcortical networks of the brain from the
various colloquial blends of everyday cognitive awareness, namely the tertiary processes of Figure 1.
Our main goal in this paper is to provide a more solid foundation of the primary-process emotional
mind for the clinical, cognitive and social neurosciences than currently exists.
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5. Exteroceptive Ego; Interoceptive Id
Having reviewed the two ways in which the body is represented in the brain, it is easy to recognize
in the data the two major mental systems that were described in the classical Freudian models reviewed
before. The external body corresponds to the “ego”, the internal body is the “id” (see Figure 6).
Figure 6. The preceding Figures 2 and 3 are colored here to show some correspondences
with the brain structures indicated by the same colors in Figures 4 and 5.
Freud himself said as much. About the bodily origin of the “ego” Freud wrote this:
“The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego; it is not merely a surface entity, but is itself the
projection of a surface. If we wish to find an anatomical analogy for it we can best identify
it with the ‘cortical homunculus’ of the anatomists, which stands on its head in the cortex,
sticks up its heels, faces backwards and, as we know, has its speech-area on the left-hand
side” (, p. 26).
“The ego is ultimately derived from bodily sensations, chiefly from those springing from
the surface of the body. It may thus be regarded as a mental projection of the surface of
the body, besides, as we have seen above (Figure 3), representing the superficies of the
About the bodily origin of the “id”, Freud wrote:
“The id, cut off from the external world, has a world of perception of its own. It detects
with extraordinary acuteness certain changes in its interior, especially oscillations in the
tension of its instinctual needs, and these changes become conscious as feelings in the
pleasure-unpleasure series. It is hard to say, to be sure, by what means and with the help of
what sensory terminal organs these perceptions come about. But it is an established fact
that self-perceptions—coenesthetic feelings and feelings of pleasure-unpleasure—govern
the passage of events in the id with despotic force. The id obeys the inexorable pleasure
principle” (, p. 198).
The word “instinctual” here is a mistranslation of Triebe. A Trieb is a “drive”. Freud clearly defined
what he meant by the term:
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“An ‘instinct’ [Trieb] appears to us as a concept on the frontier between the mental and the
somatic, as the psychical representative of the stimuli originating from within the organism
and reaching the mind, as a measure of the demand made upon the mind for work in
consequence of its connection with the body” (, pp. 121–122).
It is evident that Freud himself readily “localized” the different bodily derivations of the ego and
the id. We have only added anatomical detail (in Section 3), and clarified that there are within-brain
needs, all of which distinctly arouse the body, and when aroused, continue to be modulated by the
body. It is easy to recognize the functional equivalence between the brain mechanisms for
exteroceptive representation and the bodily ego, on the one hand, and between those for interoceptive
drive and the id, on the other. This applies equally to the interdependent hierarchical relationship
between the two systems. These concepts therefore apply also to the brain processes that mediate
bodily homeostasis and to those for the basic emotions, about which Freud said less. Still, Freud did
envision the foundations of basic emotion in ways that reflect modern views:
“And what is an affect in the dynamic sense? It is in any case something highly composite.
An affect includes in the first place particular motor innervations or discharges and
secondly certain feelings; the latter are of two kinds—perceptions of the motor actions that
have occurred and the direct feelings of pleasure and unpleasure which, as we say, give the
affect its keynote. But I do not think that with this enumeration we have arrived at the
essence of an affect. We seem to see deeper in the case of some affects and to recognize
that the core which holds the combination we have described together is the repetition of
some particular significant experience. This experience could only be a very early
impression of a very general nature, placed in the prehistory not of the individual but of the
species” (, p. 395).
6. The Exteroceptive Fallacy
The close parallelism between the brain mechanisms for the external and internal aspects of body
representation, on the one hand, and the functional properties of the ego and id on the other, reveal a
stark contradiction between current affective neuroscience concepts of mind and those of Freud. In this
respect Freud inaugurated the conflation of unconscious processes with cognitive unawareness of
instinctual consciousness, thereby prematurely relegating unmonitored affective processes into the
“unconscious” category (see , and the accompanying commentaries). As we will see, this practice
oversimplifies the varieties of conscious and unconscious processes that actually exist.
To begin to expose this problem, we need to point out that Freud never questioned the classical
assumption that consciousness was a cortical function:
“What consciousness yields consists essentially of perceptions of excitations coming from
the external world and of feelings of pleasure and unpleasure which can only arise from
within the mental apparatus; it is therefore possible to assign to the system Pcpt.-Cs. a
position in space. It must lie on the borderline between inside and outside; it must be
turned towards the external world and must envelop the other psychical systems. It will be
seen that there is nothing daringly new in these assumptions; we have merely adopted the
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views on localization held by cerebral anatomy, which locates the ‘seat’ of consciousness
in the cerebral cortex—the outermost, enveloping layer of the central organ. Cerebral
anatomy has no need to consider why, speaking anatomically, consciousness should be
lodged on the surface of the brain instead of being safely housed somewhere in its inmost
interior” (, p. 24).
Freud recognized that consciousness also entailed an interoceptive, affective aspect. He even
suggested that this aspect defined the original biological “purpose” of consciousness (, p. 220).
That is why Antonio Damasio was moved to say that “Freud’s insights on the nature of affect are
consonant with the most advanced contemporary neuroscience views” (, p. 38).
But it is clear from the above quotation that even the affective aspect of consciousness was, for
Freud, “lodged on the surface of the brain”. Here he states this view even more explicitly:
“The process of something becoming conscious is above all linked with the perceptions
which our sense organs receive from the external world. From the topographical point of
view, therefore, it is a phenomenon which takes place in the outermost cortex of the ego. It
is true that we also receive information from the inside of the body—the feelings, which
actually exercise a more peremptory influence on our mental life than external perceptions;
moreover, in certain circumstances the sense organs themselves transmit feelings,
sensations of pain, in addition to the perceptions specific to them. Since, however, these
sensations (as we call them in contrast to conscious perceptions) also emanate from the
terminal organs and since we regard all these as prolongations or offshoots of the cortical
layer, we are still able to maintain the assertion made above. The only distinction would be
that, as regards the terminal organs of sensation and feeling, the body itself would take the
place of the external world” (, pp. 161–162).
In making this assumption Freud followed a long tradition, which continues to this day. Consider
for example the following remark made by Joseph LeDoux:
“When electrical stimuli applied to the amygdala of humans elicit feelings of fear (see
Gloor, 1992), it is not because the amygdala ‘feels’ fear, but instead because the various
networks that the amygdala activates ultimately provide working memory with inputs that
are labeled as fear. This is all compatible with the Freudian notion that conscious emotion
is the awareness of something that is basically unconscious” (, p. 46).
The latest incarnation of this “corticocentric” tradition is the work of Bud Craig . He believes
there is a cortical projection zone for the internal body, in the posterior insula, which he describes as
the basis of the body-as-subject, the “self” (precisely the function we have attributed above, on the basis
of a different research tradition, to the upper brainstem). We present this critique from the perspective
that the locus of subjectivity does not reside in the insula, while conceding that many sensory affects
(e.g., disgust)—as opposed to primary-process basic emotions [2,4,35]—and probably various other
bodily sensations, along with certain sensory affects, are indeed processed by the insula .
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7. Consciousness without Cortex
Recent research demonstrates unequivocally that the corticocentric view of consciousness (and the
subjective “self”) is mistaken. Consider the following interview, reported at our Berlin congress by
Damasio , concerning a patient in whom the insula was bilaterally (totally) obliterated by herpes
simplex encephalitis. According to Craig’s view , this patient should lack subjective, affective
selfhood; he should lack the very page upon which experience is written. But this was not the case:
Q: “Do you have a sense of self?”
A: “Yes, I do.”
Q: “What if I told you that you weren’t here right now?”
A: “I’d say you’ve gone blind and deaf.”
Q: “Do you think that other people can control your thoughts?”
Q: “And why do you think that’s not possible?”
A: “You control your own mind, hopefully.”
Q: “What if I were to tell you that your mind was the mind of somebody else?”
A: “When was the transplant, I mean, the brain transplant?”
Q: “What if I were to tell you that I know you better than you know yourself?”
A: “I would think you’re wrong.”
Q: “What if I were to tell you that you are aware that I’m aware?”
A: “I would say you’re right.”
Q: “You are aware that I am aware?”
A: “I am aware that you are aware that I am aware.”
This case disproves only Craig’s restricted (insular) version of the corticocentric theory. What about
the rest of the cortex? In preclinical animal models, the removal of the neocortex has long been known
to spare emotionality. Indeed, not only are the rewarding effects of subcortical brain stimulations
demonstrably preserved in decorticated creatures, these animals are actually more emotional than
normal [37,38]. The most strikingly concordant human evidence to emerge in recent years, relevant to
this broader question, concerns a condition called hydranencephaly, in which the cerebral cortex as a
whole is destroyed in utero (usually due to infarction in the entire territory of the anterior cerebral
circulation) . Autopsy studies reveal that islands of cortex which may be preserved in such cases
(see Figure 7) are functionally disconnected from the thalamus due to destruction of the linking white
matter. The surviving cortical fragments are also gliotic, and therefore completely non-functional.
This is confirmed by the clinical observation that, although visual cortex is preserved, the patients are
blind . However, the subcortical networks are functional; thus, the children are markedly
emotionally functional human beings (see Figure 8).
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Figure 7. A typical hydranencephalic brain. (Reprinted with permission of the American
College of Radiology . No other representation of this material is authorized without
expressed, written permission from the American College of Radiology).
“They express pleasure by smiling and laughter, and aversion by ‘fussing’ arching of the back and
crying (in many gradations), their faces being animated by these emotional states. A familiar adult can
employ this responsiveness to build up play sequences predictably progressing from smiling, through
giggling, to laughter and great excitement on the part of the child” (, p. 79).
Figure 8. The emotional reaction of a young hydranencephalic girl. (We thank Bjorn Merker
for the use of these photographs, reproduced with permission of the child’s mother ).
They also show basic emotional learning. They:
“take behavioral initiatives within the severe limitations of their motor disabilities, in the
form of instrumental behaviors such as making noise by kicking trinkets hanging in a
special frame constructed for the purpose (‘little room’), or activating favorite toys by
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switches, presumably based upon associative learning of the connection between actions
and their effects. Such behaviors are accompanied by situationally appropriate signs of
pleasure and excitement on the part of the child.” .
Although there is in these children significant degradation of the types of consciousness that are
normally associated with external perception, there can be no doubt that they are conscious, both
quantitatively and qualitatively. They are not only awake and alert, but also experience and express a
full range of instinctual emotions. The raw affective self is, in short, fully present. The gold standard
for affects in animals is that learned “reward” and “punishment” effects can be evoked by stimulating
brain areas that arouse intense emotional displays, as can be seen in such children, as well as in
decorticated animals. The fact that cortex is essentially absent in these cases proves unequivocally that
affective consciousness is both generated and felt subcortically. This contradicts the theoretical
assumptions of LeDoux and Craig quoted above, and those of Freud. Affective consciousness is not
dependent on working memory being provided with unconscious subcortical inputs that are only then
“labeled” as emotions. It is an intrinsic function of lower regions of the brain.
And this does not apply only to affective consciousness.
8. All Consciousness Is Endogenous
The “state” of consciousness as a whole is generated in the upper brainstem. We have known this
for many years. A mere decade after the death of Freud, Moruzzi and Magoun  first demonstrated
that global consciousness, in the sense measured by EEG activation, is generated not by exteroceptive
stimuli but endogenously, in a part of the upper brainstem then called the “reticular activating system”.
This was quickly confirmed by Penfield and Jasper, who recognized in absence attacks (mentioned
above) “a unique opportunity to study the neuronal substratum of consciousness” (, p. 480). Their
extensive studies led them to the conclusion that obliteration of consciousness could only be reliably
evoked by restricted damage to such upper brainstem sites (which they termed the “centrencephalic
system”). They were also impressed by the fact that removal of large expanses of cortex under local
anaesthetic, even total hemispherectomy, had limited effects on consciousness. Cortical removal did
not interrupt the presence of the conscious “self”, of conscious being, it merely deprived the patient of
“certain forms of information” (, p. 65). Lesions in the region of the upper brainstem, by contrast,
totally and rapidly destroyed consciousness, just as the absence seizures did. These observations
demonstrated a point of fundamental importance: all consciousness ultimately derives from upper
brainstem sources. Contrary to LeDoux and the other corticocentric theorists: all the cortical varieties
of consciousness depend upon the integrity of these subcortical structures, not the other way round.
This in not to deny that higher cortical regions add much to consciousness. Of course they do. But the
evolutionary “roots” of consciousness are to be found elsewhere, and they are probably affective [4,44].
The classic observations that underpin this important conclusion have stood the test of time, with
greater anatomical precision being added (see  for review). Significantly, the PAG appears to be a
nodal point in the “centrencephalic system”. This underscores the single fact that has changed in
modern conceptions of this system: the brainstem structures that generate conscious “state” are not
only responsible for the degree but also for the core quality of subjective being. The primal conscious
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“state” of mammals is intrinsically affective. It is this realization that will revolutionize consciousness
studies in future years [4,21].
To put it bluntly: consciousness is generated in the id. The classical conception is turned on its
head. The cortex was not the initial generator of consciousness, but this is not widely recognized in
consciousness studies. As the late Paul Grobstein said: “Is ‘reflective awareness’ a ‘luxury’ on top of
consciousness? Or might it be that without which there is no internal experience at all?” . This is
the classic problem in consciousness studies that still prevents many scholars from accepting the
evidence based conclusion that “reflective awareness” is not the sine qua non of subjective experience.
Failure to accept the evidence, still allows many to assume that we have no right to conclude that
human infants and other animals that can’t speak have affective experiences. Of course, deep science
does not indulge in concepts such as “proof” but only in the “weight of evidence”; with that as the
cardinal rule for scientific reasoning, the evidence for affective experiences in all non-speaking
mammals has been quite overwhelming for a while [2,4,44]. Perhaps this line of reasoning will soon
need to be extended to some invertebrates . In contrast, there is no evidence that living neocortex
alone, without subcortical supports, can have any subjective experiences at all [47,48].
9. Mental Solids
What, then, does cortex contribute to consciousness? It is clear from the facts just reviewed that the
consciousness attached to core affective states is not really intrinsic to the cortex but rather derives
from deep subcortical sources. Neocortex without a brainstem can never be conscious. Although
neocortex surely adds much to refined perceptual awareness, initial perceptual processing appears to
be unconscious in itself (cf. blindsight) or it may have qualities that we do not readily recognize at the
level of cognitive consciousness. Exteroceptive sensory systems at the subcortical (e.g., tectal) level
may have little more than an affective and bodily-orientation feel to them. An appropriate formulation
of the relationship between perception and consciousness (which is, as we now know, endogenous,
subjective and fundamentally interoceptive in an affective kind of way) might therefore be: “I feel like
this about that” (where “this” is consciousness and “that” is perception). Consciousness is, to use
Damasio’s term, thereby extended onto exteroception. It is possible that perceptual and higher
cognitive forms of consciousness emerged in the neocortex upon an evolutionary foundation of
affective consciousness [39,49]. In other words, anoetic phenomenal experiences may have emerged
before noetic forms of consciousness in brain-mind evolution .
Moreover, much of what we have traditionally thought to be unconditioned about exteroceptive
consciousness is actually learned. This has been well demonstrated by the research of Mriganka Sur,
which shows that total removal of “visual” cortex in fetal mice (in utero) does not impair their adult
vision at all, and redirecting visual input from occipital cortex to auditory cortex in ferrets leads to
reorganization of the latter tissue to support completely competent vision (for review, see ).
Clearly, from a corticocentric viewpoint, this either means that sensory perception is completely
learned, or that perceptual functionality is completely controlled by subcortical structures, with subtle
developmental extensions of affective experience perhaps being the foremost vehicle. In short, one of
the great mistakes of modern cognitive neuroscience may be the assumption that cortical consciousness
is built on intrinsic “hard-wired” cognitive computational principles. The resolution of conscious
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experiences in the neocortex may be largely learned developmental/epigenetic functions of the brain.
For instance, the critical originating features of supposedly intrinsic cognition capacities, like the
so-called “language instinct”, are more likely to be deeply affective—perhaps based on social-emotional
“urges to communicate” feelings .
The fundamental contribution of cortex to consciousness in this respect is stabilization
(and refinement) of the objects of perception and generating thinking and ideas. This contribution
derives from the unrivalled capacity of cortex for representational forms of memory (in all of its
varieties, both short- and long-term). To put it metaphorically, cortex transforms the fleeting, fugitive,
wave-like states of consciousness into mental solids. It generates objects. (Freud called them “object
presentations”.) Such stable representations, once established, can be innervated both externally and
internally, thereby generating objects not only for perception but also for cognition. To be clear: the
computations and memories underlying these representational processes are unconscious in
themselves; but when consciousness is extended to them, it (consciousness) is transformed by them
into something stable, something that can be thought, something in the nature of crystal clear
perceptions that are transformed into ideas in working memory.
When we say that conscious perception expresses the formula “I feel like this about that” we are
knowingly invoking Freud’s idea that the forebrain is a “sympathetic ganglion”, in the sense that
exteroceptive consciousness and learning reflect and serve interoceptive needs. Learning arises from
associations between interoceptive drives and exteroceptive representations, guided by the feelings
generated by the affective experiences aroused by those representations. This is why they become
conscious; the embodied subject must evaluate them. (The associations are to a large extent determined
by the unconditioned categories of basic affects, but the representations themselves are not.)
The stability of such representations then enables them to be used to guide subsequent conscious
behavior (it enables them to be “held in mind”). The prototype for this in Freud’s conception was
“wishing” (e.g., Berridge  calls it “wanting”), which was in the first instance regulated by the
“pleasure principle” but energized by a pervasive urge to seek resources, from nuts to knowledge, so to
speak. Instinctual affective bodily drives and emotions are initially objectless (cf. the “SEEKING”
concept of Panksepp [4,44]), but sympathetic associative learning rapidly leads to remembered objects
of desire “coming to mind”. In other words, wished-for (or feared, etc.) objects are rendered conscious
by dint of their “incentive salience” (determined by their biological meaning to the subject as in the
way SEEKING leads to interaction with the pleasure-unpleasure aspects of the environment, which is
the ultimate basis of consciousness). In this way, if left to its own devices, the pleasure principle would
produce what Freud termed hallucinatory wish fulfillments (the prototype of “primary process”
cognition). Hence, the evolutionary and developmental pressure to constrain incentive salience in
perception through prediction-error coding (the “reality principle”—a higher, tertiary order brain-mind
process, in our terminology (Figure 4)) places inhibitory constraints on action. Such error coding must,
again, be regulated by the homeostatic (affective) function of consciousness, which determines the
biological valence of perceptions. The resultant inhibition—which perforce occurs at the motor end of
the apparatus, where delayed responses must be sequenced—requires tolerance of frustrated affects,
but it secures more efficient drive satisfaction in the long run (Freud called this the “constancy
principle”). This defines the essence of the executive function expressed in working memory, in the
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sense that we generally theorize it today (a sense that Freud would have called secondary process
thinking, which he also described as “virtual action”).
Freud’s secondary process, as we know from Section 3, involved “binding” of “free” drive energies.
This created a reservoir of tonic mental energies, utilized for functions (like thinking) that Freud
attributed to the “ego”. Carhart-Harris and Friston  recently equated this reservoir with the default
mode network. In fact, Friston’s work is grounded in the same Helmholtzian conception that Freud’s
was. His model of the Bayesian brain (in terms of which prediction-error or “surprise”, equated with
“free energy”) is minimized through the encoding of better models of the world leading to better
predictions  is therefore, in principle, entirely consistent with the model outlined here.
It is important to note that in this model, prediction error (mediated by the sensory affect of
surprise), which increases incentive salience (and therefore conscious “presence” of the self) in
perception, is a “bad” thing, biologically speaking. The more veridical the brain’s generative model of
the world, the less surprise (the less salience, the less consciousness, the more automaticity), the better.
Freud called this the “Nirvana principle”. We shall return to it in Section 10.
Before we can do so, however, we must point out that secondary process thinking entails an
important additional feature which may also be attributed to cortex. The wished-for object
presentations that literally “come to mind” in primary process (hallucinatory) thinking are, according
to Freud, re-represented at a different level in bound, secondary process thinking (which from an
evolutionary brain perspective, we call tertiary-process). He called this level of representation “word
presentation”. The value of word presentations for Freud was that—although they, like all cognitive
representations, are originally derived from perception (in this case, hearing)—their symbolic nature
enables them to represent abstract relations between the concrete objects of thought (“which is what
specially characterizes thoughts, and cannot be given visual expression” (, p. 21)). This renders
secondary process thinking far more efficient than the primary process. It also renders it “declarative”.
This is the contribution of cortex. Indeed, as far as we know, all cortical functional specializations
are developmental/epigenetic. The columns of cortex are initially almost identical in neuronal
architecture, and the famous differences in Brodmann’s areas probably arise from use-dependent
plasticity. Metaphorically, cortical columns resemble the monotonous random-access memory (RAM)
chips of digital computers. Can intrinsic biological consciousness originate there? Can the subjective
aspects of mind really be computed? There is no consistent body of credible data to support either of
these guiding assumptions of modern cognitive science. The prevailing Computational Theory of Mind
seems fundamentally flawed. It remains a torso in search of a sophisticated neurobiological Affective
Theory of Mind. The neocortex, the supposed repository of consciousness, is intrinsically unconscious,
notwithstanding its remarkable capacity to generate the detailed and refined “mental solids” that
obscure all else from view.
10. The Reflexive Ego
We said in Section 2 that external body representation is made of the same “stuff” as the
representation of other objects. The external bodily “self” is represented as a thing—“my body”—and
is inscribed on the page of consciousness (derived from the internal body-as-subject) in much the same
way as other objects. It is, in short, an external, stabilized, detailed representation of the subject of
Brain Sci. 2012, 2
consciousness. It is not the subject itself. It is important to recognize that this conception of the self is
an illusion, albeit an everyday one. The external body is not the owner or locus of consciousness. It is
not really the subjective self; it is an objective representation of the self.
The subject of consciousness identifies itself with this external bodily representation in much the
same way as a child might project itself into the animated figures she controls in a computer game.
The representations rapidly come to be treated as if they were the self, but in reality they are not.
Here is some experimental evidence for the counterintuitive relation between the self and its
external body. Petkova and Ehrsson  reported a series of “body swap” experiments in which
cameras mounted over the eyes of other people or mannequins, transmitting images from the their
viewpoint to goggles mounted over the eyes of experimental subjects, rapidly created the illusion in the
experimental subjects that the other body or mannequin was their own body. This illusion was so
compelling that it persisted even when the subjects (projected into the other bodies) shook hands with
their own bodies. The existence of this illusion was demonstrated objectively by the fact that when the
other (illusory own) body and one’s own body were both threatened with a knife, the emotional
reaction (measured by heart rate and galvanic skin response) was greater for the illusory body.
The well-known “rubber hand illusion” demonstrates the same relation between the self and the
external body, albeit less dramatically. So does the inverse “phantom limb” phenomenon. The
anatomical basis of such phenomena (which place Freud’s theory of “narcissism” on a new empirical
footing) may be equated with the well-known fMRI findings to the effect that the shape and size of
somatosensory and motor cortical homunculi (the acknowledged locus of Freud’s “bodily ego”) can be
readily manipulated, and even extended to include inanimate tools.
The secondary nature of external bodily representation is further demonstrated by many well-known
“mirror neuron” phenomena. Gallese’s group has recently shown, for example, that schizophrenic
patients are unable to reliably differentiate between their own movements and those of others, on the
basis that mirror neuron activity (which generates cortical mirages of the own body moving when
somebody else’s movements are observed), is not controlled by frontal inhibition in these patients .
The above phenomena demonstrate firstly that the external body is not a subject but an object, and
secondly that it is perceived in the same register as other objects. Something has to be added to simple
perception before one’s own body is differentiated from others.
In this connection, the role of prefrontal cortex in reflexive consciousness (a.k.a. secondary
consciousness, access consciousness, declarative awareness, etc.) is surely germane. So is the role
of prefrontal cortex in verbal re-representation (Figures 5 and 6). This level of representation
(a.k.a. higher-order thought) enables the subject of consciousness to separate itself as an object from
other objects. We envisage the process involving three levels of experience: (a) the subjective or
phenomenal level of the anoetic self as affect, a.k.a. first-person perspective; (b) the perceptual or
representational level of the noetic self as an object, no different from other objects, a.k.a. second-person
perspective; (c) the conceptual or re-representational level of the autonoetic self in relation to other
objects, i.e., perceived from an external perspective, a.k.a. third-person perspective.
The self of everyday cognition is therefore largely an abstraction. That is why the self is so
effortlessly able to think about itself in relation to objects, in such everyday situations as “I am
currently experiencing my self looking at an object”.
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The unrecognized gap between the primary subjective self and the re-representational abstracted
self causes much confusion. Witness the famous example of Benjamin Libet recording a delay of up to
400 ms between the physiological appearance of premotor activation and the voluntary decision to
move. This is typically interpreted to mean that free will is an illusion, when in fact it shows only that
reflexive re-representation of the self initiating a movement occurs somewhat later than the core self
actually initiating it. Such confusion is avoided if we use different terms to refer to the different levels
of self-experience. We might, for example, call the re-represented (prefrontal) self of everyday
cognition the “declarative” noetic self, and the primary affective (brainstem) state of being might be
called the “core” anoetic affective self. The intermediate (posterior cortical) somatosensory-motor self
might then be called the “bodily” self. With autonoetic consciousness we can have vast varieties of
idiographic selves .
Our major conclusion may now be stated thus: the core self, synonymous with Freud’s “id”, is the
font of all consciousness; the declarative self, synonymous with Freud’s “ego”, is unconscious in itself.
However, because the ego stabilizes the core consciousness generated by the id, by transforming
affects into object representations, and more particularly verbal object re-representations, we ordinarily
think of ourselves as being conscious in the latter sense. This obscures the fact that our conscious
thinking (and exteroceptive perceiving, which thinking re-represents) is constantly accompanied by
low level affects (some kind of residual “free energy” from which cognitive consciousness was
constructed during developmental psychogenesis). However, the underlying primary, affective form of
consciousness is literally invisible, so we have to translate it into perceptual-verbal imagery before we
can “declare” its existence.
The dumb id, in short, knows more than it can admit. Small wonder, therefore, that it is so regularly
overlooked in contemporary cognitive science. But the id, unlike the ego, is only dumb in the
glossopharyngeal sense. It constitutes the primary stuff from which minds are made; and cognitive
science ignores it at its peril. We may safely say, without fear of contradiction, that were it not for the
constant presence of affective feeling, conscious perceiving and thinking would either not exist or
would gradually decay. This is just as well, because a mind unmotivated (and unguided) by feelings
would be a hapless zombie, incapable of managing the basic tasks of life.
11. If the Id Is Conscious…
The realization that Freud’s id is intrinsically conscious has massive implications for
psychoanalysis, biological psychiatry, and our understanding of the nature of mind. This turn of events
could be profound, not least because when Freud famously proclaimed “where id was, there shall ego
be” (, p. 80) as the therapeutic goal of his “talking cure”, he assumed that the ego enlightened the
id. It now appears more likely that the opposite happens; reflexive “talking” is apt to dampen and
constrain core consciousness. How is this fact to be reconciled with the stated aim of psychoanalytic
therapy, namely the undoing of repressions? And what are the implications for other approaches to
psychotherapy and psychiatry?
To just begin to answer this question, it seems reasonable to suggest that repression must involve
withdrawal of declarative awareness (autonoetic experience) from cognition. This has the effect of
reducing an “episodic” cognitive process to an “associative” one. The subject of repression still activates
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the representations in question (the repressed “object relationships”), but the associative links no
longer attract reflexive awareness. We recall that this is the original purpose of ego development: the
goal of all learning is automatized mental processes, increased predictability, and reduced uncertainty
or “surprise”. It is the biological salience of prediction errors—probably mentally mediated by a
variety of feelings in addition to actual surprise—that requires the affective presence of the id (of the
biological self). As soon as the ego has mastered a mental task, the relevant associative algorithm is
automatized. This, then, could be the mechanism of repression: it consists in a premature withdrawal
of reflexive awareness, automatization of a mental-behavioral algorithm before it actually fits the bill.
This would result in prediction error, and therefore the ongoing risk of the repressed material
reawakening affective salience. This lays the foundations for a “return of the repressed”, the classical
mechanism of neurosis.
The therapeutic task of psychoanalysis, then, would be to undo repressions (to allow the affective
distress associated with the repressed situation to emerge), in order to enable the reflexive subject to
properly master it, and generate episodic representations adequate to the task, so that it may then be
Psychosis, on this model, entails an almost opposite mechanism. Psychotic states appear to flow
from protracted failure to automatize predictive models of the world, again presumably due to their
original inadequacy for the task. This does not account for the whole mechanism of psychotic states,
but positive psychotic symptoms at least (the omnipotent “attempts at self-cure” as Freud called them)
entail excessive salience . These patients live in a perpetual state of surprise, against which they
defend themselves with delusional certainties . As with neurotic patients, the therapeutic task is
therefore to help these patients develop more adequate solutions to the tasks of life, but in the case of
psychosis we are confronted by a mind that actually knows “less than it feels it does”, rather than
knowing “more than it admits”. The problem is the constant presence of the id—the constant
requirement for the biological self to affectively evaluate the meaning of experience. The therapeutic
aim “where id was there shall ego be” therefore seems more appropriate for psychosis than neurosis.
Since most readers of this journal are not psychoanalysts though, we will briefly apply our
therapeutic suggestions to the current state of cognitive neuroscience. Considering its breathtaking
neglect of the affective dimension of the mind, and thereby of core consciousness itself, the most
reassuring observation we can make about contemporary cognitive neuroscience is that it is not
suffering from a psychosis. Cognitive neuroscience is neurotic; it suffers from repressions rather than
delusions; it “knows more than it admits” rather than “less than it feels”. Many aspects of mind, such
as affective states, have been prematurely placed into the unconscious, even though they are
experienced, but rarely acknowledged or measured (for a full discussion of issues, see  and
accompanying commentaries). Our task is therefore to gently draw the attention of our cognitive
colleagues to the constant prediction errors this gives rise to, and help them to tolerate the ensuing
distress, so that a more realistic, affectively based, predictive model of the brain may emerge.
12. The Deepest Insight
The irony of the foregoing historical-scientific review is that Freud might appear to have done a
disservice to psychology by denying consciousness its pride of place. But this is not really the case.
Brain Sci. 2012, 2
Firstly, when Freud was confronted in 1938 by the behaviorist juggernaut that was about to sweep
aside his life’s work, he remarked that consciousness was:
“…a fact without parallel, which defies all explanation or description. Nevertheless, if
anyone speaks of consciousness we know immediately and from our most personal
experience what is meant by it. One extreme line of thought, exemplified in the American
doctrine of behaviorism, thinks it possible to construct a psychology which disregards this
fundamental fact!” (, p. 157).
In this spirit, we redirect attention here to the primacy of consciousness in mental life and brain
research. This in no way diminishes the importance of deeply unconscious learning processes of the
brain, etc. and the endless peppercorns of facts that have been generated by the “neuroscience
revolution”; but it questions the attractions of ruthless reductionism, currently so popular in biological
psychiatry, where investigators try to jump from brain facts to the cacophony of psychopathologies
codified in successive DSMs, without explicit interest in the intervening role of the experienced mind
itself. Future progress in this field requires us to recognize the fundamentally affective infrastructure of
the mind, and its pivotal role in psychiatric disorders. We should be devoting at least as much effort to
clarifying the neurodynamics of the primary affective processes in psychiatric disorders as we do to
their mindless and seemingly endless neural and genetic correlates .
Secondly, we must recall that embedded within the many statements that Freud made to the effect
that consciousness (by which he seemed mainly to mean declarative consciousness) was a cortical
function, he always acknowledged the exceptional role of affect. For example:
“The question, ‘How does a thing become conscious?’ would be more advantageously
stated: ‘How does a thing become preconscious?’ And the answer would be:
‘Through becoming connected with the word-presentations corresponding to it.’ These
word-presentations are residues of memories; they were at one time perceptions, and like
all mnemic residues they can become perceptions again. Before we concern ourselves
further with their nature, it dawns upon us like a new discovery that only something that
has once been a Cs. perception can become conscious, and that anything arising from
within (apart from feelings) that seeks to become conscious must try to transform itself into
external perceptions: this becomes possible by means of memory-traces” (, p. 20,
In other words, although Freud thought that affects, too, were (interoceptive) cortical perceptions,
he recognized that they were felt directly. He did not share the view that they first needed to be
exteroceptively represented, or read-out, or “labeled” in working memory, to exist (which seems
nowadays to be the most common viewpoint in the cognitive science of emotions). In fact, for Freud
affects could not be represented in the same way that external objects were. This set them apart from
all cognitive processes:
“It is surely of the essence of an emotion that we should be aware of it, i.e., that it
should become known to consciousness. Thus the possibility of the attribute of
unconsciousness would be completely excluded as far as emotions, feelings and affects are
concerned” (, p. 177).
Brain Sci. 2012, 2
It is to be hoped that the neuroscientific facts reviewed here will help to make sense of this
observation which, to Freud’s credit, he always acknowledged, notwithstanding the theoretical
difficulties it must have caused him.
We will close with the observation that more essential to Freud’s successive models of the mind
than the locus and extent of consciousness, was his fundamentally dynamic conception of it, coupled
with the dimension of depth (or hierarchy) in the mind. This is why Freud repeatedly stated that the
assumption of “two different states of cathectic energy in mental life: one in which the energy is
tonically ‘bound’ and the other in which it is freely mobile and presses towards discharge” was the
deepest insight he had ever gained:
“In my opinion this distinction represents the deepest insight we have gained up to the
present into the nature of nervous energy, and I do not see how we can avoid making
it” (, p. 188).
This dynamic distinction is not only preserved in our affective neuroscience update of Freud’s
views—along with much else—it is actually enhanced. The link between affectivity on the one hand
and Helmholtz’s troublesome “free” energy on the other seems to provide a red thread through Freud’s
work, linking him backwards to Helmholtz and forwards (via Feynman) to Friston. Considering this
and the many other vistas opening up with the rediscovery of the embodied, instinctual brain—which
must of necessity be constrained by the cognitive brain and its predictive modeling—it is difficult to
imagine how the neuroscience and psychology of the future can be anything but neuropsychodynamic.
As the cognitive science of the late twentieth century is complemented by the affective neuroscience of
the present, we are breaking through to a truly mental neuroscience, and finally understanding that the
brain is not merely an information-processing device but also a sentient, intentional being. Our animal
behaviors are not “just” behaviors; in their primal affective forms they embody ancient mental
processes that we share, at the very least, with all other mammals.
13. In Conclusion
Our goal here was to re-establish a primary-process affective foundation of mind to the higher
mental apparatus that is receiving the lion’s share of attention in cognitive science and cognitive
neuroscience, as well as consciousness and psychoanalytic studies. We chose to frame our argument in
classical Freudian psychoanalytic theory, since during the 20th century, perhaps he came closest to the
vision we have shared. Although he, in the modern vein, situated consciousness on top of the brain, the
weight of evidence now indicates that raw affects arise from the “basement” of the brain. Our argument
has been largely restricted to the basement, and we recognize that when it is interfaced with
unconscious secondary learning-memory and the resulting affectively energized cognitive thought
processes, there will be vast additional complexities to be faced, along with the possibility of many
mereological fallacies (part-whole confusions and conflations), as discussed superbly by Bennett and
Hacker, in their exceptional 2003 book .
Of course, primal emotions unfold in relation to individual lives, but they are built into the brain as
nomothetic endogenous behavioral and affective resources of the organisms. We have not sought to
address how these ancestral powers of the mind percolate through the subsequent idiographic layers of
Brain Sci. 2012, 2
brain-mind emergence. Freud attempted to do that, but future cognitive neuroscience and related
neurophenomenological consciousness studies, will need to flesh out those processes, with a full
recognition that the bottom-up developmental-epigenetic emergence of minds needs to provide a solid
foundation for the vast complexities of the automatized top-down regulations and effortful conscious
mental controls that a mature (fully-constructed) mental apparatus permits and promotes (Figure 1).
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