Groucho Marx Said It First
Splitting as an Evolutionarily Adaptive Phenomenon

by Arlene Montgomery

“Who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”( Marx Brothers film, Duck Soup, 1933).

“Who are you going to trust, me or your lying eyes?” (Richard Pryor, Live on the Sunset Strip, 1982).

And from Dan Jenkins’ book, Life Its Ownself (1984), when the husband catches his wife in a meet-up with her lover at a Friday night Texas high school football game, and her protective girlfriend, standing guard at the Ladies room into which wife has fled, yells helpfully to the husband as she waves about the corrugated paper cup holder with nachos and cokes, “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”

Or Harold Searles’ little treatise, “The Effort to Drive the Other Person Crazy” (1959) in which he discusses the crazy-making experience of systematically having one’s own perceptions of reality challenged such that, over time, trust in one’s own perception of reality is fouled, leading to various symptoms of mental illness.

And truly, last but not least, Jaak Panksepp offers the viewpoint that language, a recent evolutionary accomplishment, has as its base social-affective brain mechanisms originating in the lower sub-cortical brain regions (2007)…In mammal brain development, affect precedes cognition.

So what is the point here? Art and literature have highlighted the difficulty we have in integrating opposing, but complementary, states; i.e., what is said versus what is actually meant, or what is “real” versus what an outside entity wants one to believe is real. Affective neuroscience reminds us that affect and cognition began dis-integrated in early mammals, and that integration may be quite a recent development in human beings, evolutionarily.

Much of clinical work aims at helping clients internally hold opposite experiences, a task requiring much energy and, perhaps, an external milieu more civilized and safe than early ancestors experienced. It is far easier to polarize. And, for survival reasons, early humans likely needed to be economical about their energy expenditures.

There is some evidence that there exists an inverse relationship between safety and polarized, all-or-nothing, black-and-white-thinking. The more dangerous the situation, the less likely ambivalence can be tolerated. To psychically (and sometimes actually) survive, some have had no energy to devote to the extra work of “both/and” mental postures.

Much of our work involves integrating opposites, or splits. Some examples, to list only a few: conscious and unconscious; explicit and implicit; affect and cognition; the neo-cortex and sub-cortex; right and left hemisphere, non-verbal and verbal, self and other; mind and body; subjective and dissociative; event(actual) and verbal representation(symbolic); and primary, secondary and tertiary emotional processes.

Back to Groucho and Panksepp: Believing your own eyes (privileging your own perceptions) came first in our ancestral survival. Language, a “purely cognitive mode of communication,” emerged later (Panksepp, 2007). But we may the poorer for it, as language may have become over-valued and, when “decoupled from affective values, it readily confabulates, becoming untrustworthy and less authentic—generating semantic towers of delusional babble, often in attempts to manipulate the minds of others…” (Panksepp, 2007, p. 50). Some politicians understand this all too well.

The field of interpersonal neurobiology with its emphasis on the neurobiological underpinnings of resonance between two minds and the resulting possibility of affect regulation via the right hemisphere (Schore, 2003a; 2012) has been trying for 25 years to steer whoever will listen to integrate the split between the cognitive (language) and affective (non-verbal communicative efforts).

Groucho Marx and others after him beautifully illustrated splitting, which most people easily understand, mostly on an affective level, and likely could not articulate the higher-order thinking behind “believing your own eyes.” Splitting may be an early ancestral way of perceiving the world. Freud reminded us all in Civilization and its Discontents (1930) how difficult it is to stay civilized. In so many arenas, the work is to resist taking the low road of polarization.

Arlene Montgomery, Ph.D., LCSW has taught clinical courses since 1993 at The University of Texas at Austin and since 2013 at Smith College School for Social Work. The graduate courses include the following topics: understanding transference and counter-transference; interventions using various group modalities; the process of clinical diagnosis; and the neurobiology of attachment and clinical work. Dr. Montgomery has made numerous presentations on topics such as foster care issues; anti-social children; emotional aspects of C-sections; sexually abused children’s special problems with intimacy; forming therapeutic alliances with difficult children and adolescents; eating disorder identification in schools; supervision issues regarding counter-transference; keeping therapeutic alliance in short-term therapy; and neurobiological findings relevant to the therapeutic alliance, treatment considerations and ethical considerations. She also has a private practice with a focus on clients affected by trauma and is a clinical supervisor for Licensed Masters Social Workers fulfilling their requirements for the Licensed Clinical Social Worker licensure. She has been the Director of Social Services at Child and Family Service, the Settlement Club Home, and Meridell Achievement Center in Austin, Texas area.  She is the author of Neurobiology Essentials for Clinicians: What Every Therapist Needs to Know (W. W. Norton, 2013).


Reference List

Panksepp, J. 2008. The power of the word may reside in the power of affect. Integr Psych Behav 42:47-55. DOI 10.1007/s12124-007-9036-5. Published online: 4 December 2007.

Schore, A.N. (2003a). Affect Dysregulation and Disorders of the Self. New York: Norton.

Schore, A.N. (2012). The Science and the Art of Psychotherapy. New York: Norton

James Strachey, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXI(1927-1931). New York: Norton, 1961.

© 2017 CSAR - Center for the Study of Affect Regulation All rights reserved.
Skip to toolbar