Sunday, May 20, 2012

Life instincts and death instincts in Freudian Theory

When the body is worn out and the brain is tired, the whole organism welcomes death.... The body dies because it wants to. It finds it beyond its power to resist the disease or to mend the injury, and so, tired out with the struggle, turns to death. If the consciousness were more sensitive to the feelings and impulses of the whole organism, it would share this desire, and, indeed, sometimes does so (Alan Watts).

Instinct Theory

Instinct theory is a theory that all actions, thoughts, and intents can be traced back to being caused by instinct. Human actions such as ridiculing others can be thought to be akin to an animal attacking a younger animal of the same species so as to deter them from trying to usurp a leader in the pack. It is often this that offers an explanation for why a person would act one way or another. Adultery is another form of this. Instinct tells animals to take the easiest path to survival. If a significant other doesn't produce offspring or sufficiently please a person, that person might look for another way to perpetuate the species or to live more easily. It is an advanced form of crude animal behavior.

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The influence of dualism on early psychology provided a temptingly simple answer to the question of why people behave as they do. Because dualist views of human nature supported the idea of free will, the dualist 'theory' of motivation succinctly asserted that people choose their courses of action.

This view presented problems for scientific psychologists, especially as research identified indisputable environmental influences on behavior. Given the mechanistic influences on early psychology, a more appealing theory of motivation explained human behavior as being, like animal behavior, governed by instincts. Instincts are innate, goal-directed sequences of behavior; they are more complex than simple reflexes but are impervious to the influence of learning and experience.

Life Instincts

Freud saw all human behavior as motivated by the drives or instincts, which in turn are the neurological representations of physical needs. At first, he referred to them as the life instincts.

These instincts perpetuate:
(a) The life of the individual, by motivating him or her to seek food and water.
(b) The life of the species, by motivating him or her to have sex.

The motivational energy of these life instincts, the "oomph" that powers our psyches, he called libido, from the Latin word for "I desire."

Freud's clinical experience led him to view sex as much more important in the dynamics of the psyche than other needs. We are, after all, social creatures, and sex is the most social of needs. Plus, we have to remember that Freud included much more than intercourse in the term sex! Anyway, libido has come to mean, not any old drive, but the sex drive.

So, Eros (one more definition of the life drive/instinct, libido) is concerned with the preservation of life and the preservation of the species, It thus appears as basic need for health, safety and sustenance and through sexual drives. It seeks both to preserve life and to create life.

Eros is associated with positive emotions of love, and hence pro-social behavior, cooperation, collaboration and other behaviors that support harmonious societies.

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Death Instincts

Later in his life, Freud began to believe that the life instincts didn't tell the whole story. Libido is a lively thing; the pleasure principle keeps us in perpetual motion. And yet the goal of all this motion is to be still, to be satisfied, to be at peace, to have no more needs. The goal of life, you might say, is death! Freud began to believe that "under" and "beside" the life instincts there was a death instinct. He began to believe that every person has an unconscious wish to die.

This seems like a strange idea at first, and it was rejected by many of his students, but it definitely has some basis in experience: Life can be a painful and exhausting process. There is easily, for the great majority of people in the world, more pain than pleasure in life -- something we are extremely reluctant to admit! Death promises release from the struggle.

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Thanatos (one of the applied labels for the death drive/instinct) appears in opposition and balance to Eros and pushes a person towards extinction and an 'inanimate state'. Freud saw drives as moving towards earlier states, including non-existence.

‘The aim of all life is death...inanimate things existed before living ones’ (Freud 1920).

Thanatos is associated with negative emotions such as fear, hate and anger, which lead to anti-social acts from bullying to murder (perhaps as projection of the death drive).

Freud also referred to a nirvana principle. Nirvana is a Buddhist idea, often translated as heaven, but actually meaning "blowing out," as in the blowing out of a candle. It refers to non-existence, nothingness, the void, which is the goal of all life in Buddhist philosophy.

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The day-to-day evidence of the death instinct and its nirvana principle is in our desire for peace, for escape from stimulation, our attraction to alcohol and narcotics, our penchant for escapist activity, such as losing ourselves in books or movies, our craving for rest and sleep. Sometimes it presents itself openly as suicide and suicidal wishes. And, Freud theorized, sometimes we direct it out away from ourselves, in the form of aggression, cruelty, murder, and destructiveness.

In 1924, Freud drew a clear distinction between main principles of his dual instincts theory: "The nirvana principle, belonging as it does to the death instinct, has undergone a modification in living organisms through which it has become the pleasure principle ... the pleasure principle represents the demands of the libido; and the modification of the latter principle, the reality principle, represents the influence of the external world”.

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