Riddle of the Sphinx: Paradox Revealed and Reveiled

Terry Marks-Tarlow. Reflexing Interfaces: The Complex Coevolution of Information Technology Ecosystems. Editor: Franco Orsucci & Nicoletta Sala. Information Science Reference, 2008.


Mythology the world over helps to organize cultural categories and mores by providing roles, rules, models, and narratives about life in the past in preparation for life in the future. Ancient and traditional peoples often treat myths literally as stories about real people and concrete events (e.g., Jaynes, 1976). Especially heralded by the work of Carl Jung (e.g., 1961), contemporary psychology brings a more symbolic, self-referential focus to the ways that myths can illuminate the inner world and culture of the mythmakers themselves.

If one myth rises above all others to signal entry into modern consciousness, it is that of Oedipus. This tale has been analyzed throughout the millennia by well-known thinkers such as Aristotle, Socrates, Nietzsche, Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, and Ricoeur. Some (e.g., Lévi-Strauss, 1977; Ricoeur, 1970) have understood the Oedipus myth as the individual quest for personal origins or identity; others (e.g., Aristotle, 1982, Nietzsche, 1871/1999) have used sociopolitical and cultural lenses to focus on the tale’s prohibitions against the very taboos it illustrates. Prohibitions against infanticide, patricide, and incest help to establish the modern day state by erecting boundaries to protect society’s youngest and most vulnerable members while serving as social glue to bind individuals into larger collective units. From an evolutionary vantage point, these prohibitions prevent inbreeding and maximize chances for survival and healthy propagation within the collective gene pool.

Perhaps the most noted analyst of the Oedipus myth is Sigmund Freud. At the inception of psychoanalysis, Freud’s discovery of this myth fused his theory of psychosexual developmental with his topographical metaphor of the psyche. That this tragic hero killed his father and then married and seduced his mother staked out the psychological lay of the land, so to speak, which became immortalized as the Oedipus complex. Whereas Freud (1900/1966) viewed this myth quite literally in terms of unconscious impulses and fantasies toward real people, his successor Jung (1956) interpreted the Oedipus story sym bolically as an intrapsychic reflection of healthy individuation.

This chapter revisits early origins of psychoanalysis that pivot around the Oedipus myth in order to introduce a second-order cybernetic point of view. Whereas cybernetics establishes the study of information, second-order cybernetics views information science self-referentially by implicating the observer within the observed (see Heims, 1991). From the vantage point of self-reference, the Oedipus story yields important clues about how the modern psyche became more complex through recursive loops in consciousness whereby implicit memory processes become explicit and lead to an increased capacity for self-reflection.

In the section to follow, I refresh the reader’s memory by briefly recounting the Oedipus myth. Then I apply the approach of Lévi-Strauss to treat the myth structurally by introducing a new level of abstraction. I regard the Sphinx’s riddle as a paradox of self-reference, arguing that both the riddle of the Sphinx and the life course of Oedipus bear structural similarities that signify the self-reflective search for origins. This interpretation establishes a foundation to regard the shift within the early history of psychoanalysis from a literal, Freudian interpretation to a more symbolic Jungian one. I demonstrate how this shift itself emerges in part self-referentially through the concrete enactment of the Oedipus myth within the real relationship between Freud as father and king, and Jung as prince and heir apparent.

Next, I follow Feder (1974/1988) to examine the clinical profile of Oedipus, whose restless, relentless search for his own origins plus infantile, primitive attempts to blot out what he ultimately sees are driven by psychobiological symptoms of separation and adoption trauma combined with the physical abuse of attempted murder by his biological father. Then I link Feder with contemporary research on the psychoneurobiology of implicit vs. explicit memory plus a cybernetic perspective that implicates the power of universal Turing machines to fully harness implicit and explicit memory. I conclude with claims that affective, imagistic, and cognitive skills necessary to advance from concrete to metaphorical thinking relate to implicit processes within Lakoff and Johnson’s (1999) embodied philosophy and mature, abstract cognition within Jean Piaget’s (e.g., Flavell, 1963) developmental psychology. Recursive loops in consciousness by which the observer can be detected within the observed signal enhanced internal complexity and the power of self-reflection to break intergenerational chains of abusers unwittingly begetting abusers.

Although I refer to Sigmund Freud amply throughout this chapter, my purpose is primarily historical and contextual. I do not intend to appeal to Freud as the ultimate authority so much as the originator of psychoanalysis and precursor to contemporary thought and practice. Especially since Jeffrey Masson (1984) documented Freud’s projection of his own neuroses onto his historical and mythological analyses, including the invention of patients to justify his theories, Freud largely has been decentered, if not dethroned, within many contemporary psychoanalytic communities. Yet, just as contemporary neuropsychoanalysis reinstates some of Freud’s early claims about the nature of the human unconscious (Solms, 2004; Solms & Turnbull, 2002), I hope that this cybernetic reading of Oedipus can reestablish the majesty of this myth to the human plight without sacrificing any gains and insights gleaned by psychoanalysts and other psychotherapists since Freud’s time.

The Myth of Oedipus

In the myth of Oedipus, which dates back to Greek antiquity, King Laius of Thebes was married to Queen Jocasta, but the marriage was barren. Desperate to conceive an heir, King Laius consulted the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, only to receive a shocking prophecy. The couple must remain childless, for any offspring of this union would grow up to murder his father and marry his mother. Out of fear of conceiving an heir, Laius ordered Jocasta confined within a small palace room and placed under strict prohibitions against sleeping with him.

But Jocasta was not to be stopped. She arrived at a plot to intoxicate and fornicate with her husband. The plot worked, and a son was born. Once again desperate to prevent fulfillment of the oracle, Laius ordered the boy’s ankles be pinned together and proclaimed that he be left upon a mountain slope to die. However, the shepherd earmarked to carry out this order took pity on the boy, and took him instead to another shepherd who delivered him to King Polybus in the neighboring realm of Corinth. Likewise, suffering from a barren marriage, Polybus promptly adopted the boy as his own. Due to his pierced ankles, the child was called Oedipus. This name, which translates either to mean swollen foot or know where, is most telling given Oedipus’ lifelong limp plus his relentless search to know where he came from.

As Oedipus matured, he overheard rumors that King Polybus was not his real father. Eager to investigate his true heritage, Oedipus followed in the footsteps of his biological father to visit the oracle at Delphi. The oracle grimly prophesized that Oedipus would murder his father and marry his mother. Horrified, Oedipus also attempted to avoid this fate. Still believing Polybus his real father, Oedipus decided not to return home, but instead took the road from Delphi toward Thebes rather than back to Corinth.

Unaware of the underlying truth, Oedipus met his biological father at the narrow crossroads of three paths that separated and connected the cities of Delphi, Corinth, and Thebes. King Laius ordered the boy out of the way to let royalty pass. Oedipus responded that he himself was a royal prince of superior status. Laius ordered his charioteer to advance so that he might strike Oedipus with his goad. Enraged, Oedipus grabbed the goad to strike and kill Laius plus four of his five retainers, leaving only one to tell the tale.

Upon Laius’ death appeared the Sphinx, a lithe monster perched high on the mountain top. This creature possessed the body of a dog, the claws of a lion, the tail of a dragon, the wings of a bird, and the breasts and head of a woman. The Sphinx began to ravage Thebes, stopping all mountain travelers who attempted to enter the city, presenting them with a riddle: “What goes on four feet in the morning, two at midday, and three in the evening?”

Whereas the priestess of the oracle at Delphi revealed a glimpse of the future to her visitors, often concealed in the form of a riddle, the Sphinx, in contrast, killed anyone unable to answer her riddle correctly. The Sphinx either ate or hurled her victims to their death on the rocks below. Until the arrival of Oedipus, the riddle remained unsolved. With no visitors able to enter the city, trade in Thebes had become strangled while the treasury was depleted.

Confronted with the Sphinx’s riddle, Oedipus responded correctly without hesitation, indicating that it is mankind who crawls on four legs in the morning, stands on two in midday, and leans on a cane as a third in the twilight of life. Horrified at being outwitted, the Sphinx suffered her own punishment by casting herself to death on rocks far below. Thebes was freed, and as reward for saving the city, Oedipus was offered its throne plus the hand of the widow Jocasta. Still unaware of his true origins, Oedipus accepted both honors. He ruled Thebes and married his mother, with whom he multiplied fruitfully. In this manner, Oedipus fulfilled the second part of the oracle.

But the city of Thebes was not finished suffering. Soon it became stricken with a horrible plague and famine that rendered all production barren. Eager to end the affliction, Oedipus once again consulted the oracle. He was told that in order to release Thebes from its current plight, the murderer of Laius must be found. Wanting only what was best for the city, Oedipus relentlessly pursued his quest for truth. He declared that whenever Laius’ murderer was found, the offender would be banished forever from Thebes.

Oedipus called in the blind prophet Tiresias for help, but Tiresias refused to reveal what he knew. Intuiting the truth and dreading the horror of her sins exposed, Jocasta committed suicide by hanging herself. Soon Oedipus discovered that the one he sought was none other than himself. After learning that he had murdered his father and married his mother as predicted, Oedipus was unable to bear what he saw. He tore a brooch off Jocasta’s hanging body to blind himself. Oedipus then faced consequences he himself had determined for Laius’ murderer and was subsequently led into exile by his sister-daughter Antigone.

Here ended the first of Sophocles’ tragedies, King Oedipus. The second and third of this ancient Greek trilogy, Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus, detail Oedipus’ and his sister-daughter’s extensive wanderings. Tragic insight into unwittingly having committed these crimes of passion brought Oedipus to wisdom. Eventually he reached a mysterious end in Colonus, near Athens, amidst the utmost respect from his countrymen. Despite his sins, Oedipus’ life ended with the blessings of the gods. To complete one more self-referential loop, his personal insight informed the very land itself, and Colonus became an oracular center and source of wisdom for others.

New Twists to an Old Myth

To Freud, the tale of Oedipus was initially conceived in terms of real sexual and aggressive impulses toward real parents until his seduction theory later was revised and downplayed to the level of fantasy and imaginary impulses. Within Freud’s three-part, structural model of the psyche, the id was the container for unbridled, unconscious, sexual and aggressive impulses; the superego was a repository for social and societal norms, and the ego was assigned the difficult task of straddling these two warring, inner factions while mediating the demands and restrictions of outside reality.

According to Freud, symptoms formed out of the tension between conscious and unconscious factors, including conflicting needs both to repress and express. Among many different kinds of anxiety Freud highlighted, an important symptom was castration anxiety. Castration anxiety consisted of the fear that one’s incestuous desire for one’s mother would be discovered by the father, and punished by the father by cutting off his penis. Both desire for the mother and fear of castration were sources of murderous impulses toward the father. Working through these feelings and symptoms in psychoanalysis involved lifting the repression barrier and gaining insight into the unconscious origins of the conflict.

Note that Freud’s developmental model of the psyche was primarily intrapsychic. Because he emphasized the Oedipus complex as a universal struggle within the internal landscape of all (the adaptation for girls became known as the Electra complex in honor of another famous Greek tragedy), it mattered little how good or bad a child’s parenting was. Most contemporary psychoanalytic theories, such as object relations (e.g., Klein, 1932), self-psychology (e.g., Kohut, 1971), or inter-subjectivity theory (e.g., Stolorow, Brandchaft, & Atwood, 1987), have abandoned the importance of the Oedipus myth partly by adopting a more interpersonal focus. Within each of these newer therapies, psychopathology is believed to develop out of real emotional exchanges (or their absence) between infants and their caregivers. Symptoms are maintained and altered within the relational context of the analyst-patient dyad.

Prior to these relational theories, near the origins of psychoanalysis, the myth of Oedipus took on an ironic, self-referential twist by becoming embodied in real life. Carl Jung, a brilliant follower of Freud, had been earmarked as the “royal son” and “crown prince” slated to inherit Freud’s psychoanalytic empire (see Jung, 1961; Kerr, 1995; Monte & Sollod, 2003). The early intimacy and intellectual passion between these two men gave way to great bitterness and struggle surrounding Jung’s creative and spiritual ideas. In his autobiography, Jung (1961, p. 150) describes Freud as imploring, “My dear Jung, promise me never to abandon the sexual theory. This is the most essential thing of all. You see, we must make a dogma of it, an unshakable bulwark…against the black tide of mud…of occultism.”

For Jung, Freud’s topography of the psyche maps only the most superficial level of the personal unconscious, which contains personal memories and impulses toward specific people. Partly on the basis of a dream, Jung excavated another even deeper stratum he called the “collective unconscious.” This level has a transpersonal flavor by containing archetypal patterns common in peoples of all cultures and ages.

By acting as if there was room only for what Jung called the personal unconscious within the psyche’s subterranean zone, Freud appeared compelled to reenact the Oedipus struggle in real life. He responded to Jung as if to a son attempting to murder his symbolic father. This dynamic was complicated by yet another even more concrete level of enactment: Both men reputedly were competing for the loyalties of the same woman, initially Jung’s patient and lover, and later Freud’s confidant, Sabina Speilrein (see Kerr, 1995).

Freud and Jung acted out the classic Oedipal myth at multiple levels, with Jung displacing Freud both professionally (vanquishing the king) and sexually (stealing the queen). An explosion ensued when the conflict could no longer be contained or resolved. As a result, the relationship between Freud and Jung became permanently severed. Jung suffered what some believe was a psychotic break (Hayman, 1999) and others termed a creative illness (Ellenberger, 1981), and then recovered to the symbolic wealth of his own unconscious.

Jung overcame his symbolic father partly by rejecting the Oedipus myth in favor of Faust’s tale: “Jung meant to make a descent into the depths of the soul, there to find the roots of man’s being in the symbols of the libido which had been handed down from ancient times, and so to find redemption despite his own genial psychoanalytic pact with the devil” (Kerr, 1995, p. 326). After his break with Freud, Jung self-referentially embodied his own theories about individuation, which took the form of the hero’s journey. Whereas Jung underscored the sun hero’s motif and role of mythical symbols, mythologist Joseph Campbell (1949/1973) differentiated three phases of the hero’s journey: separation (from ordinary consciousness), initiation (into the night journey of the soul), and return (integration back into consciousness and community). This description certainly fits Jung’s departure from ordinary sanity, his nightmarish descent into haunting symbols if not hallucinations, and his professional return to create depth psychology.

Jung and his followers have regarded the Oedipus myth less literally than Freud. In hero mythology, as explicated by one of Jung’s most celebrated followers, Eric Neumann (1954/1993), to murder the father generally and the king in particular was seen as symbolic separation from an external source of authority in order to discover and be initiated into one’s own internal source of guidance and wisdom.

Whereas Freud viewed the unconscious primarily in terms of its negative, conflict-ridden potential, Jung recognized the underlying universal and positive potential of the fertile feminine. However, in order to uncover this positive side, one first had to differentiate and confront the destructive shadow of the feminine. At the archetypal level, some aspects of the feminine can feel life threatening. To defeat the Sphinx was seen as conquering the terrible mother. In her worst incarnation, the terrible mother reflected the potential for deprivation and destructive narcissism within the real mother. In some cultures, for example, as portrayed in the Germanic fairytale of Hansel and Gretel, the terrible mother appeared as the Vagina Dentate, or toothed vagina, a cannibalistic allusion not to the Freudian fear of castration by the father, but rather to the Jungian anxiety about emasculation by the mother.

Symbolically, once the dark side of the terrible mother was vanquished, her positive potential could be harvested. To have incest and fertilize the mother represented overcoming fear of the feminine, of her dark chaotic womb, in order to tap into riches of the unconscious and bring new life to the psyche. Psychologically we can see how the Sphinx and incest fit together for Neumann (1954/1993): The hero killed the mother’s terrible female side so as to liberate her fruitful and bountiful aspect. For Jung, to truly individuate was to rule the kingdom of one’s own psyche by overthrowing the father’s masculine influence of power, the ultimate authority of consciousness, while fertilizing and pillaging the mother’s feminine territory, that of the unconscious. By breaking with Freud and finding his way through his psychosis, Jung killed the king and overcame the terrible mother to harvest her symbolism for his own creative development, both in theory and in self.

Judging from the drama of real life, Freud and Jung each arrived at their ideas partly self-referentially by experientially living them out. Along with affirming Ellenberger’s (1981) notion of “creative illness,” this coincides with Atwood and Stolorow’s (1979/1993) thesis that all significant psychological theory derives from the personal experience and worldview of its originators.

Riddle as Paradox

In the last several decades, the Freudian interpretation of the Oedipus story has largely been laid aside. With the early advent of feminism, the significance of the tale to a woman’s psyche was challenged. With the recognition that sexual abuse was often real and not just fantasy, later feminist thought challenged Freud’s early abandonment of his seduction theory. As knowledge about the psychophysiology of the posttraumatic stress condition increases (e.g., Rothschild, 2000; Schore, 2007), so has clinical interest in vertical, dissociative splits within the psyche vs. the horizontal splits that maintain Freud’s repression barrier (see Kohut, 1977). Greater relational emphasis among contemporary psychoanalysts shifts interest toward early mother-infant attachment dynamics, as well as here-and-now intersubjective relations between psychotherapist and patient. Finally, the current climate of multiculturalism disfavors any single theory, especially one universalizing development.

In the spirit of Lévi-Strauss, I propose a different way of looking at the Oedipus myth. I aim to harvest meaning primarily by sidestepping narrative content to derive an alternative interpretation that is both structural and cybernetic in nature. When understood literally, both the improbable form the Sphinx embodies plus her impossible-seeming riddle present paradoxes that appear to contradict all known laws of science. Surely no creature on earth can literally walk on four, two, and then three limbs during the very same day. With the possible exception of the slime mold, no animal changes its form of locomotion this radically, and not even the slime mold undergoes such complete metamorphosis in the course of a single day.

The Sphinx’s riddle presents the type of ordinary paradox that science faces all the time. Here, a paradox is loosely conceptualized as a set of facts that contradicts current scientific theory. Just as Darwin’s embodied evolution proceeds in fits and starts (e.g., Gould & Eldredge, 1977), so too does the abstract progression of scientific theory. Kuhn (1962) described the erratic evolution of scientific theory, when the resolution of ordinary contradiction leads to abrupt paradigm shifts that offer wider, more inclusive contexts in which to incorporate previously discrepant facts.

However, the Sphinx’s riddle went beyond this type of ordinary scientific paradox to present itself more formally as a paradox of self-reference. Its solution, humanity, required deep understanding of the nature of being human, including knowledge of self. In order to know what crawls on four legs in the morning, walks on two in midday, and hobbles on three in the evening, Oedipus had to understand the entire human life cycle. He needed to possess intimate familiarity with physical changes in his own body, ranging from the dependency of infancy, through the glory of maturity, to the waning powers of old age.

To approach the riddle without self-reference was to look outward, use a literal understanding, and miss the potential for a metaphorical interpretation. To approach the riddle with self-reference was to seek knowledge inward through introspection. Oedipus was uniquely positioned to apply the riddle to himself: Almost killed at birth and still physically handicapped, he harbored virtual, vestigial memories of death in life. His limp and cane were whispers of a helpless past and harbingers of a shattered future.

Self-referentially, Oedipus’ own life trajectory showed the same three parts as the Sphinx’s riddle. Through the kindness of others Oedipus survived the traumatized helplessness of infancy. In his prime, he proved more than able to stand on his own two feet: strong enough to kill a king, clever enough to slay the proverbial monster, and potent enough to marry a queen and spawn a covey of offspring. Ironically, in the case of our tragic hero, it was Oedipus’ very insight into his own origins that led to the loss of his kingdom and wife-mother, leaving him to hobble around blindly in old age, leaning on his cane, and dependent upon the goodness of others, primarily his daughter-sister Antigone.

The namesake and body memories of Oedipus connected him with chance and destiny, past and future, infancy and old age. Recall that the name Oedipus means both swollen foot and know where. Feder (1974/1988) analyzed the Oedipus myth in terms of the clinical reality of adoption trauma. Like many adopted children, Oedipus was relentlessly driven to seek his own origins in order to know where he came from both geneti cally and socially.

Taking this approach a step further, we can see the impact of early physical abuse—attempted infanticide—on the neurobiology of different memory systems. Oedipus knows where he came from implicitly in his body due to his swollen foot, even while ignorant of the traumatic origins explicitly in his mind. This kind of implicit memory has gained much attention in recent clinical lore (e.g., Rothschild, 2000; Siegel, 2001). In early infant development, implicit memory is the first kind to develop. It helps tune ongoing perception and emotional self-regulation in the nonverbal context of relationships with others. In this way, contingent vs. noncontingent responses of caretakers become hardwired into the brain and body via particular neural pathways. While alluded to by others, for example, Ornstein (1973), Allan Schore (2001) specifically proposes that implicit memory exists within the right, non-verbal hemisphere of the human cerebral cortex to constitute the biological substrate for Freud’s unconscious instincts and memories. Although hotly contested, neurobiological evidence mounts for Freud’s repression barrier as hardwired into the brain (e.g., Solms, 2004).

Schore (2001) proposed a vertical model of the psyche, where the conscious, verbal mind is localized in the left hemisphere of the brain, while the unconscious and body memory is mediated by the nonverbal right hemisphere (for most right-handed people). The hemispheres of the brain and these different modes of processing are conjoined as well as separated by the corpus callosum. Early trauma plus his secret origins caused a haunting and widening of the gap between what Oedipus’ body knew vs. what his mind knew. Oedipus’ implicit memory of his early abandonment and abuse became the invisible thread that provided deep continuity despite abrupt life changes. His implicit memory offered a clue to the commonality beneath the apparent disparity in the Sphinx’s three-part riddle.

Structurally, to solve the riddle became equiva lent to Oedipus’ self-referential quest for explicit memory of his own origins. This interpretation meshes with anthropologist Lévi-Strauss’ (1977) emphasis on structural similarities within and between myths, plus the near universal concern with human origins. It also dovetails with Bion’s (1983, p. 46) self-referential understanding of the Sphinx’s riddle as “man’s curiosity turned upon himself.” In the form of self-conscious examination of the personality by the personality, Bion uses the Oedipus myth to illuminate ancient origins of psychoanalytic investigation.

Metaphorical Thinking and Cognitive Development

In order to solve both the riddle of the Sphinx as well as that of his own origins, Oedipus had to delve beneath the concrete level of surface appearances. Here he would have lived happily, but in ignorance, as children and innocents are reputed to do. Ignorance may be bliss, but it does not necessarily lead to maturity. Prior to Oedipus solving the riddle, humankind lived in an immature state, an idea supported by the work of Julian Jaynes (1976). Writing about the “bicameral mind,” Jaynes speculated that ancient humanity hallucinated gods as living in their midst. Here myths were concretely embodied, serving as external sources of authority before such executive functions became internalized within the cerebral cortex of the modern psyche, including our increased capacities for self-reflection, inner guidance, and self-control.

The Sphinx’s riddle was a self-referential mirror reflecting and later enabling explicit memory and knowledge of Oedipus’ traumatic origins. Upon successfully answering the riddle, Oedipus bridged the earlier developmental territory of the right mind with the evolutionarily and developmentally later left brain (Schore, 2001). In the process, Oedipus healed and matured on many levels. Not only did he address his castration fears by conquering the terrible mother in the form of the Sphinx after killing the terrible father, but also and perhaps more significantly, Oedipus made the leap from concrete to metaphorical thinking. By understanding morning, midday, and evening as stages of life, he demonstrated creativity and mental flexibility characteristic of internal complexity. Cognitive psychologists Lakoff and Johnson (1980) have suggested that metaphor serves as the basis for all abstract thinking. More recently, Lakoff and Johnson (1999) argued that metaphor forms part of the implicit memory of the cognitive unconscious, where its immediate conceptual mapping is hardwired into the brain.

The leap from concrete to metaphorical thinking not only was an important developmental step in the history of consciousness, but it also can be understood within the historical trajectory of the individual. Here Jean Piaget’s developmental epistemology (e.g., Flavell, 1963) becomes relevant. Though details are still disputed, overall, Piaget’s theory has remained one of the most important and universal accounts of intellectual development to date (Sternberg, 1990). Using careful observation and empirical studies, Piaget mapped the shift from a sensorimotor period of infancy, through the preconcrete and concrete operations of early childhood, into a formal operations stage of later childhood characterizing the adult, mature mind. Piaget’s hallmark of maturity involved freedom from the particulars of concrete situations, granting cognitive flexibility necessary for both abstract and metaphorical thinking.

Self-Reference and Universal Turing Machines

So far, I have suggested that self-reference is central to a metaphorical solution of the Sphinx’s riddle. However, self-reference also proves to be an essential part of cybernetics, the sciences of information. A computational model views the human psyche as a recursive system, where present behavior depends upon how it has processed its past behavior. Within abstract machines, different computational powers depend deterministically upon a system’s retrospective access to memory.

In computational science, power is ranked according to Chomsky’s hierarchy. At the bottom of the hierarchy lies the finite-state automaton. This machine possesses only implicit memory for its current state. In the middle lies the pushdown automaton. This machine possesses explicit memory, but with only temporary access to the past. At the top of Chomsky’s hierarchy lies the universal Turing machine. This abstract machine possesses unrestricted, permanent, and explicit memory for all past states.

Cyberneticist Ron Eglash (1999) provides a text analogy to contrast these differences: The least powerful machine is like a person who accomplishes all tasks instinctively, without the use of any books; in the middle is a person limited by books removed once they have been read; at the top is a person who collects and recollects all books read, in any order. The power of the universal Turing machine at the top is its capacity to recognize all computable functions.

The point at which complete memory of past actions is achieved marks a critical shift in computational power. It is the point when full self-reference is achieved, which brings about the second-order cybernetic capacity of a system to analyze its own programs. My reading of the Oedipus myth illustrates this very same point in time—that powerful instant when full access to memory dovetails with self-reference to signal another step in the “complexification” of human consciousness.

The Riddle as Mirror

Just as the Sphinx presented a paradigm of self-reference to hold a mirror up to Oedipus, the myth of Oedipus also holds up a mirror to us as witnesses. The story of Oedipus reflects our own stories in yet another self-referential loop. Like Oedipus, each one of us is a riddle to him- or herself. The story rocks generation after generation so powerfully partly because of this self-referential quality, which forces each one of us to reflect upon our own lives mythically.

Throughout the tale, there is dynamic tension between knowing and not knowing, in Oedipus and in us. Oedipus starts out naïvely not knowing who he is or where he came from. We start out knowing who Oedipus really is, but blissfully unaware of the truth in ourselves. By the end of the tale, the situation reverses: Oedipus solves all three riddles, that of the oracle of Delphi, that of the Sphinx, and that of his origins, while ironically, we participants and observers are left not knowing. We harbor a gnawing feeling of uncertainty, almost as if another riddle has invisibly materialized—as if we face the very Sphinx herself, whose enigma must be answered upon threat of our own psychological death.

Eglash (1999) notes that the power of the universal Turing machine lies in its ability to not know how many transformations or applications of an algorithm a system would need ahead of time, before the program can be terminated. Paradoxically, to achieve full uncertainty about the future and its relationship to the past is symptomatic of increasing computational power. This kind of fundamental uncertainty is evident collectively within the modern sciences and mathematics of chaos theory, stochastic analyses, and various forms of indeterminacy. For example, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states the impossibility of precisely determining both a quantum particle’s speed as well as its location at the same time. Meanwhile, chaos theory warns of the impossibility of precisely predicting the long-term future of highly complex systems, no matter how precise our formulas or capacity to model their past behavior.

Experientially, we must deal with fundamental uncertainty with respect to the riddle of our own lives, a task that leaves us ultimately responsible to glean meaning from this self-reflective search. The Oedipus myth presents a self-referential mirror through which each one of us individually enters the modern stage of self-reflective consciousness. Capabilities for full memory, to consider the past and future, to contemplate death, to confront paradox, to self-reflect, and to consider self-reference all represent critical levels of inner complexity that separate human from animal intelligence, the infant from the mature individual, plus the weakest from the most powerful computing machines.


Every myth remains alive in the collective psyche so long as people continue to milk meaning from its narrative. With this purpose in mind, I revisit the myth of Oedipus through lenses of contemporary neuroscience and computational studies. Whereas Freud found a story about psychosexual development and Jung told a tale about individuation, this chapter highlights the centrality of paradoxes of self-reference for affective, cognitive, and behavioral integration. However, here is the irony: To see deeply into our own origins is as impossible as to know our own DNA through self-reflection or to glimpse the back of our eyeballs through their rotation. Yet the very act of facing an impossible quest is what develops inner complexity. Within the human psyche, full self-reference serves as a springboard, if not a prerequisite, to a fully self-actualized human being. To possess thorough access to memory of the past plus the cognitive flexibility to not have to know the future represents integration—between left and right brain hemispheres, between body and mind, and between implicit, procedural memory vs. explicit memory for events and facts. The negotiation and continual renegotiation of this integration maximizes our potential to be spontaneous, original, and creative, all hallmarks of successful maturation and individuation.

In conclusion, I argue that a complex state of “good-enough” self-reflective awareness is central to conscious self-fulfillment and is necessary to break the tragic intergenerational chain of fate and trauma symbolized by Greek tragedy in general and the Oedipus myth in particular. Echoed by a Greek chorus, the observation that those born into abuse unwittingly grow up to become abusers lies at the heart of the Oedipus myth. Laius’ unsuccessful attempt to kill his son all but sealed Oedipus’ fate to escalate this loop of violence by successfully killing his father. From a neurobio-logical standpoint, abusers beget abusers by means of posttraumatic residues of the original abuse when emotional unregulation plus amygdala-driven fight, flight, and freeze reactions are carried by implicit processes that are disconnected from higher cortical levels and controls. The only way out of this fatalistic tragedy is enough conscious insight to unearth violent instincts before the deed is done, followed by the exertion of sufficient self-control to resist and transcend such instincts. The telltale sign of these capacities is the ability to tell a cohesive, self-referential narrative. Multigenerational, prospective research within the field of attachment (e.g., Siegel, 1999) suggests that the best predictor of trauma prevention plus secure attachment in children is their parents’ success relaying a cohesive narrative about their own early childhoods. It matters little whether the quality of this narrative is idyllic or horrific. What counts is that parents possess enough self-reflective insight to maintain memories concerning their origins that can be cohesively woven into the fabric of current life without affective disruption during recall. I believe this kind of self-referential reflection carries the full computational power of a universal Turing machine, the only platform strong enough to break intergenerational chains of emotional and physical abuse. Only by having full access to the past can we be freed from the necessity of its repetition.