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The Divided Self

An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness

By Ronald D. Laing
15-minute read
Audio available
The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness by Ronald D. Laing

Most people never question the “realness” of their body. The Divided Self (1960) offers unique insights into the minds of those who do, and examines the practical and psychological consequences of their detachment from their own bodies.

  • Anyone who wants to understand their reclusive neighbor
  • Anyone interested in how people afflicted with psychological ailments perceive the world

Ronald D. Laing (1927-1988) was one of the world’s best-known modern psychiatrists, as well as a major proponent of the anti-psychiatry movement. He wrote numerous books during his lifetime, ranging from a collection of sonnets to sociological and psychological texts.

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The Divided Self

An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness

By Ronald D. Laing
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness by Ronald D. Laing
Synopsis

Most people never question the “realness” of their body. The Divided Self (1960) offers unique insights into the minds of those who do, and examines the practical and psychological consequences of their detachment from their own bodies.

Key idea 1 of 9

Most of us perceive our distinct personalities in early childhood, leading to a safe sense of self.

Would you say you know yourself? Where does your sense of identity come from? Did you always have it, or did it develop over time?

As it turns out, babies aren’t born with a sense of identity, as they’ve never experienced life as themselves or encountered anyone else. They aren’t yet aware that they are distinct beings, separate from the others around them.

They haven’t discovered that they alone have direct access to their own experiences – that if they feel pain, for instance, that pain is theirs alone, and doesn’t pervade the world.

Nor are babies aware of the fact that other people are likewise distinct beings with their own separate consciousness. They don’t know, for example, that the breast or bottle that feeds them belongs to someone else. They don’t even know that they can be seen or perceived by other people!

Typically, children begin developing a stable sense of identity during infancy. This process occurs as young children interact with their parents or guardians. But how exactly?

Typically, if a young child expresses a need – if he cries when hungry, for example – his parents will respond to that need. As this process is replicated over time, the baby begins to understand several important things: first, that his behaviors, like crying or giggling, elicit specific reactions; second, that he is a discrete entity, separate from the others around him; and finally, that the other beings around him, like his mother and father, are aware of his existence.

During this process of self-discovery and the development of self-consciousness, parents treat the baby as a complete and self-conscious person. Almost instinctively, parents interpret their children’s behaviors as expressions of personality, even though their personalities haven’t yet developed. Their projections nonetheless influence the child’s emerging sense of self.

But as you’ll see, not all children develop the same understanding of themselves and the world.

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