In her book Patterns: Building Blocks of Experience, the psychoanalyst Dr. Marilyn Charles describes her perspective on the structure of the mind. She outlines how preverbal experiences of young children shape their minds and colour the world they live in as adults.
Many books about psychology focus on certain types of neurotic, maladaptive behaviors and what childhood experiences cause them. By “childhood experiences” I mean here typical constellations, like absent or overintrusive/controlling parents, parents that favor one gender over another, abusive/manipulative parents, etc.. Charles moves beyond these generalized scenarios and focuses on experiences that are more microscopic – she attempts to shed light on the emergence of meaning in the mind, in the mind of a young child in particular. From the very beginning of our existence as a living being, the outside world impinges upon us. As an embryo in the womb of our mother and as a young child, we are unable to translate perceptions and feelings into language. At this stage, it is impossible for us to make sense of confusing or upsetting experiences by consciously thinking about them, because language and logical thought are not yet available to us. This is the reason why parents play such a crucial role at this stage, because they help the child to process experiences, by providing reassurance, encouragement, and love, at a level that is not verbal, but based on touch, sound, and movement. The experiences we make as young children shape the microscopic fabric of our mind, and because most of this happens at a pre-language stage, it is not accessible to logical thought. It is for this reason that childhood trauma can be very hard to work through, simply because it is not accessible to language and logic, but rather manifests in intense emotional reactions to situations or perceptions that activate patterns that were laid in childhood. To give an example: we grow up in a certain culture, and seeing its architecture gives us a feeling of safety and familiarity, if we felt safe growing up in it. Architecture from different regions may elicit different emotions – mediterranean architecture makes us uneasy: maybe mom and dad got into a terrible argument on a vacation in France? Conversely, if we had a terrible childhood the architecture of our home town may remind us of the fear and pain we suffered as children. A foreign architecture may then make us feel free and carry positive connotations. If we were beaten as children, human touch may seem to us like a hot stove that will burn our skin, not like an invitation for healthy intimacy. Our minds are made up of these associations, and no feeling that emerges from a certain perception is coincidental. Many of these patterns are hard to express in language, since they are encoded in a more primitive “language”, like the rhythm of a movement or the pitch of a voice.
The ensemble of all these patterns form the psychological space in which a person processes information. Any new experience is interpreted according to these patterns, they determine which aspects catch the observer’s eye and which ones are overseen. It is the work of the psychoanalyst to try to understand the patterns of the patient’s mind, and to help the patient to arrive at a point where he/she can see them. When the patient becomes aware of the fact that he/she is following a pre-programmed behavior pattern that was established in his/her childhood, the pattern becomes accessible to logical thought and can be overcome.
Apart from their relevance for understanding one’s subconscious, expressing these feelings and intuitions is the source of creativity and art. Art, literature and poetry allow us to express realities that are hard to articulate, realities that reach down into the depths of our subconscious. The reason we feel attracted to certain types of art or literature or poetry is because the artist expresses something that we know, but cannot articulate. The work of art can thereby serve as a bridge into the unconscious, helping us to understand better who we are.
In this book, Marilyn Charles maps out the manifestations of mental patterns in our fantasies and associations, in emotional responses to perceptions, in our relationships, and in art. She also describes the importance of these patterns in the therapeutic relationship. Her attempts to describe the microscopic structure of our mental patterns, and how they are encoded in fantasies, movements, sounds, and emotions, are particularly enlightening. They open the door to a much more detailed understanding of who we are and why.