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Birth and Construction of the Mind (Portuguese edition)

Volume chapter author (s): Imbasciati A.

The Freudian theory was successful because it seemed to offer an explanation of the psyche from hypotheses in line with the sciences of his time: the concepts of libido, drive, psychic energy, discharge, instinct, economic principle tracked the contemporary scientific principles and discoveries of neurophysiology and thermodynamics. In such a context, for a long time and up to present day, the popular stereotypes in psychoanalysis are identified with Freud’s theory. This theory nevertheless has been widely criticized, also within psychoanalytical Associations, and for several decades now. In spite of this, the Freudian theory seems “to withstand”. A reason for such a persistence, in the author’s view, can be identified in the fact that different psychoanalytic models have been proposed at different times, without however clearly delineating an alternative explication of what Freud wanted to explain. His Drive Theory did have an explanatory value in this time. Today it may maintain its heuristic value, which may still be useful to understand affects and therefore helpful in clinical practice, but it no longer has an “explanatory” value. To Freud this latter was perhaps more important than the former, but nowadays it is untenable.
Modern epistemology, in every science, distinguishes between levels of descriptive, interpretative and explanatory knowledge. The first two, to different extent, concern the “comprehension” (“how” and “how well”) of the observed phenomena, whilst the third pertains to their “explanation” (“why”). This third level requires, far more than the first two, that the explanation may be in accordance with the explanation produced by other sciences studying the same phenomena from a different observational stance. Freud, rather than merely providing a descriptive-interpretative key to an understanding of psychic events (which would allow for an understanding of subjectivity and its development “from within”), also wanted to explain them, as objectively as possible, in line with the discoveries or at least with the hypotheses of the other sciences. This was achieved with his Enery-and-Drive Theory with reference to instinct and to a psychobiological energy –in accordance with the sciences of the time, particularly with neurophysiology (models of the reflected arc, of the electrophysiological discharge, etc.) and with contemporary thermodynamics.
This accordance no longer exists in relation to modern neuroscience: we cannot attribute an explanatory value to the Drive Theory, even though we want to preserve it in a metaphorical sense as a model (rather than a theory as such) with a heuristic value for clinical practice.
Among the innovative theories that followed the post-Freudian development of psychoanalysis, the so-called “objectual” or “object relation” theories have had great importance. These theories emphasize not so much the power of endogenous forces as the source and origin of psychic development and functioning, but rather the relational experience of the individual, beginning with the first years of his life. Melanie Klein is considered the founder and key figure of this approach. Nevertheless, the object relation theories have been formulated and used to describe and understand “how” the psyche is structured, but the “reason why ” has been set aside, or referred to the Freudian tradition, i.e. to the hypothesis of an “energy” that –shaped by certain “realities”– trigger some dynamic and an economy leading to the psychic structure of the individual.
Many authors have developed object relation theories and have overlooked the energy-drive frame without disowning it: the entire British approach lies along this line. The developments of Bion’s approach, in emphasizing learning from experience, seem to imply that the structuring of the mind does not require endogenous thrusts (libido, drives); in fact it occurs by learning, whose laws do not necessarily appear to be linked to the Freudian paradigm and cannot be placed within the drive-energy framework. Even the concept of aggressiveness –that in Klein seems to be linked (in my view, just formally) to the (death) instinct– is later released from the instinctual paradigm (see the work of Money Kyrle, 1955, 1968) and in Bion’s approach is replaced by the notion of destructiveness. Here it is devoid of all explanatory dimension (“why”) and is used to describe a relational mode (“how”) anchored to the concept of fantasy instead of drive.
The developments of objectual relation theories brought about remarkable differences within psychoanalysis, so that many authors have tried to put both the object relation and the drive model together. We can find examples of this in Kohut’s work, as well as in Gedo and Modell. Other authors have explicitly declared themselves against the drive hypotheses, upon which most of the Freudian theory –and first of all metapsychology – is based. See, for example, the work of George Klein and the critical review made by Eagle.
If we look at current psychoanalytic theories, we are confronted with a variety and diversity of models, concepts, terms, that has led to question the possibility to speak of “one” or “several” psychoanalyses, differing from each other (Wallerstein, 1988). Much discussion has focused on what we mean by psychoanalysis. Is it a theory? A technique? A hermeneutics, or even an art? A science and, as such, is it characterised by homogeneity and consistence provided by a specific method? Is it here that a “common ground” –mentioned by Wallerstein (1990)– is to be found? But then, how shall we define such a method in relation to the intricate wholeness of this very special science?
In the complex and multifaceted Freudian body there is some sort of bond that seems to hold it together on behalf of scientificity and that in the past was perhaps the most important aspect in the scientific confrontation of psychoanalysis with the other sciences. It was the importance that Freud gave to his libido theory –and its relative metapsychology– and mostly to the energy and drive conception of the psyche, its origin and development. This “general theory of the mind” gave not only a description of psychic processes, but also their explanation and, through such explanatory value, it placed psychoanalysis at the same level as the other sciences of the time.
The Drive Theory formulated by Freud “kept psychoanalysis together” for decades, at first scientifically (in accordance with the scientific theories of the time) and then charismatically. Between the 1930’s and the 1950’s, differences have been somewhat disguised (Greenberg, Mitchell, 1986). In the 1960’s the “metapsychology witch” was radically criticized (Fabozzi, Ortu, 1996) and rejected by many analysts, especially in the United States, as shown in the works of George Klein, Peterfreund, Gill, Rubinstein. After the attempts to reconcile very different conceptions –see Kohut– alternative proposals followed. The one offered by Peterfreund is of some interest, because of a principle in common with our theory. Freudian descriptions of childhood development have been criticized as being adultomorphous and pathomorphous (Fossi, 1983) and those of the internal world as being anthropomorphous. Nevertheless, for several decades, and perhaps even today, the Drive Theory is held valid by many psychoanalysts and psychotherapists, even if this acceptance has some doctrinarian rather than scientific side to it.
To maintain this basic construct, complicated by a number of fine distinctions it has gone through over the years, damages psychoanalysis, because it holds scientificity as being inherent in theory and obscures the actual scientific value of psychoanalysis, i.e. its method. Moreover, it colludes with a kind of compliance towards an inadequate distinction and definition of terms and concepts on the part of analysts, in the name of some technical plurality. Among these concepts let us mention, first of all, the notion of an actual psychoanalytic “theory”.

In my book (Birth and Construction of Mind), by unifying my previous formulations, I focused on their underlying theoretical structure and I outlined a general theory of the mind with an explanatory value concerning the origins and functioning of the mind: a theory in which we may have a clearer distinction between what we mean by “method” and by “theory” in psychoanalysis. My theorization introduces a picture in line with the current state of psychological and neuropsychological sciences (and at the same time it lies within psychoanalysis); therefore, it stands as an alternative to the explanatory value of Freudian theory. Thus, it is a psychoanalytic theory capable of “explaining” development without appealing to Freud’s hypotheses concerning energy and drives. I hope that this will not raise any prejudice in some too obsequious custodian of orthodoxy. My theory aims to bridge psychoanalysis with the other psychological sciences, particularly cognitive psychology: to this end I have used the term “psychoanalytic cognitivism.” I believe that the psychoanalytic method has its own specificity, but that a general psychoanalytic theory cannot survive without integrating with the theories of mind coming from neighbouring sciences.
The theory I have tried to systematize (its first draft was presented in The Protomental, 1978) originates by considering the psychic development as a product of progressive learnings, each of which affects the quality of the following one, starting from the fetal-neonatal stage.
Psychoanalytic studies in the last decades – particularly the contibutions from the neo-Kleinian approach, Bion’s school, Winnicott’s, Bick’s works, etc.– have strongly emphasized the relational experiences of the first two years of life as a foundation of the entire mental development, both in normality and in the multifaceted pathologies that we encounter in our clinical practice with children and adults. These “experiences” –or according to Bion’s observation, this “learning from experience”– have been described uniquely in terms affective, overlooking the fact that, if we are confronted with experiences and therefore with learning, we should be able to describe them as such, i.e. in cognitive terms. This means that we should speak about them in terms of mnestic traces, sensory and perceptive organisation, representations, ability to ‘read’ and recognize, etc. In the psychoanalytic approaches that emphasize the relational experience, and in general in all the object relations theories, there seems to be missing an adequate consideration of the “relationship” understood as experience and therefore learning. Shortly, in psychoanalysis a cognitive-mnestic theory is missing.
This vertex has been largely developed by experimental studies, cognitive approaches and Infant Research. Some authors (we could mention Stern, Trevarthen, Bowlby, Lichtenberg) have looked for an integration between the cognitive and psychoanalytic stances and have achieved fruitful results for the clinical practice as well as for the development of theories placed side by side with those from the psychoanalytic tradition. But I think that such an integration –originated from the clinical practice– can lead also an integrated psychoanalytic theory, rather than to theories placed side by side with the classical psychoanalytic ones; a theory that will bridge the explicative gap left by the decline of the Freudian drive theory. In my view, such a gap can be bridged by reconsidering the studies of early relational experiences in terms of learning and mnestic organisation of the traces of experience.
In other words, it is possible to outline a general psychoanalytic theory –of a semantic-mnestic type– in which the role of the concept of drive, developed in the Freudian theory, is replaced by that played by mnestic traces. The psychic dimension, and above all its origin and development, rather than being “explained” as an economy of drive energies, can be explained, more likely and in accordance with modern neuroscience, as a processing of mnestic traces. The explicative value can no longer be backed up by the Drive Theory, as the Freudian hypothesis of the biochemical support of drives (Freud, 1882-95; 1901; 1905; 1906; 1914; 1915a; 1915b) has not been confirmed, but it can be identified in the RNA and DNA biochemical metabolism, which is the base of processing and transforming mnestic traces.
Yet, the Theory of the Protomental is psychoanalytic, although it refers to its psychophysiological underpinnings; it describes and explains how early afferential inputs, in the baby and even in the fetus, can become organised to form the first processing structures capable of understanding and organising subsequent afferences, shaping them in mnestic traces, so that the latter can operate for further understanding and organisinging subsequent experiences. It is the transition from neurosensory to psychic dimension and therefore to the possibility to “learn from experience”. In this picture the starting point is psychoanalytic: the identification of protomental processes takes as first reference the events that psychoanalytic studies about the first years of life of the baby and the infant have shown in clinical practice, in order to redescribe them in cognitive terms of processing mnestic traces for the construction of functions to “read” the experience, first of all the relational ones. This redescription helps us understand protocognitive processes on the one hand, and it gives to psychoanalytic theory a new explicative value in accordance with current neurosciece, on the other.
In the picture outlined in the book the “internal objects” –understood in affective terms by psychoanalysts– can be reconsidered in terms of primary cognitive structures and therefore viewed as the product of learning and of a specific organisation of the mnestic tarces. The primary mother-child relationship can be equally regarded as a modulation of mutual (non verbal) communications that organises the mnestic traces of sensory afferences so that they become mental operational patterns, i.e. cognitive functional structures. Thus, the “Protomental” is the initial beginning of the construction of the functional system that we call “mind”. What has been called “affects” so far is formed of the most macroscopic “effects” of protocognitive operations.
This is true also for the adult. The affective functioning is what, in the mature system, remains active of the protomental cognitive operations. In this context, for example, the schizoparanoid and depressive situations, their dialectic and their alternation, both in the infant and in the deep affective functioning (see Bion’s PS-D oscillation), can be redescribed in terms of organisations and re-organisations of mnestic traces in order to form functional-mental interrelated structures, integrated in the appearance of adult cognition and opposing in the dialectic of deep affects.
The construction of the mind is therefore the formation or rather the construction of progressive cognitive operations capacities, starting with protomental operations. Every early construction affects the subsequent use of experience in terms of quality of the following constructions. As to the “birth” the questions remains open. In other words, when does a sensory experience starts to get organised in a protocognitive structure? If, in order to learn, we need a protocognitive structure capable of using experience and if, in order for such a structure to get constructed, some learning needs to occur, when and how does it start? The answer to these questions is: in the fetus. But we are still groping in darkness, or at least in a thick fog waiting for more clarification by future research in many different sciences.

This book has been published in Argentina (Nacimiento y construccion de la mente, Editorial Lumen, Buenos Aires, 2003) and in Portugal (Nascimento e costruçao da mente, Climepsi, Lisboa, 2003). A wider and updated edition has been published in English in 2006 (Constructing a mind. A new basis for psychoanalytic theory. Brunner Routledge, London, 2006).