The Foundations of Normal and Abnormal Psychology/Part 1/XXXI

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The Foundations of Normal and Abnormal Psychology by Boris Sidis
The Principle of Reserve Energy

We have pointed out the significance of inhibitions in keeping back the systemic neuron energy from fully being discharged under normal conditions of life, and we have also shown that the removal of inhibitions results in the full liberation of the accumulated neuron energy. This fact, so striking in the domain of recurrent psychomotor states, almost forces itself on the attention of the student of abnormal psychology. From such a fundamental fact of abnormal mental phenomena, we may draw some conclusions in regard to mental life in general. For, after all, the laws of pathology do not differ from those of physiology in general, the pathological really being the physiological under special conditions. The normal is either the usual, the habitual, the customary, or is, at best, an ideal construction of the variations of life more or less successfully adjusted to the conditions of the external environment.

This adjustment, however, keeps on constantly shifting ground, continually changing the relative position of the normal and the abnormal. From this standpoint pathology is of the utmost importance in the study of organic life. The pathological being the normal out of place, the abnormal being the normal under special conditions, pathology that deals with the abnormal gives us a deep insight into the general laws of normal physiological activity. All the experiments in physiology consist practically in the production of so many pathological conditions and states. When the physiologist makes injections, sections and stimulations by various agencies, what else does he effect if not the production of the pathological, in order to learn the physiological action of the various tissues and organs? In psychopathological studies we follow the interrelations of mental phenomena under special conditions; it is the physiological method of experimentation by production of pathological variations; the conclusion arrived at in psychopathology should apply to mental life in general. What is this conclusion? It is the principle of potential subconscious energy or, more briefly stated, the principle of reserve energy.[1]

The moment thresholds of our moment consciousness, or, put in physiological terms, the thresholds of our psycho-physiological systems, are usually raised, mental activity working in the course of its development and growth of associative processes under ever-increasing inhibitions with ever-higher thresholds. It is enough to compare the educated, the civilized, with the uneducated or with the barbarian and the savage, to realize the truth of our statement. On account of the threshold and inhibitions, not the whole of the psycho-physiological energy possessed by the system or moment is manifested; in fact, but a very small portion is displayed in response to stimuli coming from the habitual environment. What becomes of the rest of unused energy? It is stored, reserve energy.

Biologically regarded, we can well see the importance of such stored or reserve energy. In the struggle for existence, the organism whose energies are economically used and well guarded against waste will meet with better success in the process of survival of the fittest, or will have better chances in the process of natural selection. The high thresholds and inhibitions will prevent hasty and harmful reactions as well as useless waste of energy, unnecessary fatigue, and states of helpless exhaustion. Moreover, natural selection will favor organisms with ever greater stores of reserve energy which could be put forth under critical conditions of life. In fact, the higher the organization of the individual, the more varied and complex the external environment, the more valuable and even indispensable will such a store of reserve energy prove to be.

The course of civilization and education, by continuously raising the thresholds and inhibitions, follows the line of natural selection, and keeps on increasing the disposable store of potential subconscious or reserve energy, both in the individual and the race. It is in this formation of an ever-greater and richer store of disposable, but well-guarded, reserve energy, that lies the superiority of the educated over the uneducated, and the supremacy of the higher over the lower races.

Civilization and education are processes of economy of psycho-neural force, savings of mental energy. But what society is doing in a feeble way, natural selection has done far more effectively. What education and civilization are doing now on a small scale and for a brief period of time the process of survival of the fittest in the ever-raging struggle for existence has done for ages on a large scale. We should, therefore, expect that the natural reserve energy would far exceed that of the cultivated one. The brain and mind of the ancient German differed in nothing from his modern descendant, the German philosopher, and still what a difference in the manifestation of mental energy! The savage brain and mind do not differ from those of their civilized descendants, and still what an ocean of mental life separates the civilized man from his savage progenitor!

It is against the evidence of biological sciences to suppose that the acquisitions of the cultivated brains have actually been transmitted from generation to generation. It is not likely that acquired characteristics brought about by social life will change so radically the brain in the course of some forty or fifty generations that separate the civilized man from his savage progenitor; and the trend of biological evidence hardly favors the transmission of such acquired characteristics.

"There sits the savage," once exclaimed a friend of mine, an eminent neuro-pathologist, "with three quarters of his brain unused." Yes, there sits the savage with a brain far surpassing the needs of his environment, harboring powers of a Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, of a Shakespeare, Goethe, Darwin, and Newton. The ancient German and Briton hardly differed in their mental powers from their contemporaries, the civilized Egyptian and Babylonian. What, then did those Aryan savages do with their richly endowed mental energies? Nothing. The mental energy was lying fallow―it was reserve energy―energy for future use, for the use of future ages of coming civilization.

But what about the cultivated man? Does he suffer from neurasthenia, from nervous impotence, because, as some would have it, on account of the strain of civilized life he has exhausted his store of nervous energy? One may well ponder over the significant fact that it is the neurasthenic, the "psychasthenic" who is doing the world's work. We must remember that civilization is but of yesterday, and that the reserve energy is hardly touched upon.

In the treatment of the phenomena of psycho-physiological dissociation, in the protean symptoms of nervous and mental exhaustion, we should not forget this biological principle of reserve energy, and should make attempts to use it. In many cases the inhibitions become too heavy and the thresholds too high. We must loosen the grip of some of the inhibitions and lower the thresholds, thus utilizing a fresh supply of reserve energy.

The treatment of psychopathic diseases should be based on this biological principle of dormant reserve energy. In many cases the inhibitions become too heavy and the threshold too high. We must loosen the grip of the inhibitions and lower the thresholds, utilizing a fresh supply of dormant reserve energy.[2]

A similar train of thought was developed by Dr. S. J. Meltzer, in his excellent paper on "The Factors of Safety in Animal Structure and Animal Economy." By a striking series of instructive facts, Dr. Meltzer points out that "all organs of the body are built on the plan of superabundance of structure and energy." I cannot resist the temptation of quoting Dr. Meltzer's conclusions at some length, because they so clearly elucidate our principle of reserve energy, which is all the more valuable, as Dr. Meltzer has formulated it independently on widely different grounds. "Of the supplies of energy to the animal, we see that oxygen is luxuriously supplied. The supply of carbohydrates and fats is apparently large enough to keep up a steady luxurious surplus. . . . The liberal ingestion of proteid might be another instance of the principle of abundance ruling the structure and energies of the animal body. There is, however, a theory that in just this single instance the minimum is meant by nature to be also the optimum. But it is a theory for the support of which there is not a single fact. On the contrary, some facts seem to indicate that Nature meant differently. Such facts are, for instance, the abundance of proteolytic enzymes in the digestive canal and the great capacity of the canal for absorption of proteids. Then there is the fact that proteid material is stored away for use in emergencies just as carbohydrates and fats are stored away. In starvation, nitrogenous products continue to be eliminated in the urine, which, according to Folin, are derived from exogenous sources, that is, from ingested proteid and not from broken-down organ tissues. An interesting example of storing away of proteid for future use is seen in the muscles of the salmon before they leave the sea for the river to spawn. According to Mescher the muscles are then large and the reproductive organs are small. In the river where the animals have to starve, the reproductive organs become large, while the muscles waste away. Here, in time of affluence, the muscles store up nutritive material for the purpose of maintaining the life of the animal during influence on the destiny of humanity. The constant wars and national misfortunes of the Jews released their reserve energy making of them a race of prophets, apostles and martyrs, deeply affecting the course of human civilization. The wars of the Reformation open a new era of free development of modern European civilization. The English, American, and French revolutions have released new supplies of energies and have opened a new arena for the free development of political, social, and industrial forces. In our own times we meet with the example of the Japanese, who, under the strain of great national danger, have released a reserve energy unsuspected in races of the Mongolian stock.

Reserve energy becomes manifested under the influence of radical changes in the environment, just as we have found that psycho-physiological systems react and start into function under the influence of special conditions and special appropriate qualitative stimuli. In the study of functional nervous and mental diseases, in the study of neurasthenia, or psychasthenia, hysteria, and insistent or recurrent mental states, one becomes more and more impressed with the fact that beyond the psycho-physiological limits of energy, available for the habitual adjustments to the ordinary external conditions of life, there is a vast store of reserve energy whose depths one cannot gauge.


Aus dem Keiche dieses Geisterreiches Schäumt ihm seine Unendlichkeit.


  1. When this principle was formulated by me in a series of articles published in The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal for March and April, 1907, James sent me his article, "The Energies of Men," in which he developed a similar point of view, though on widely different lines. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to find myself in accord with the great American psychologist and philosopher.
  2. The principle of reserve energy is of great importance in education. I hope to work out this subject elsewhere. I have also shown the importance of the principle of reserve energy in my work The Psychology of Laughter.