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Keywords:

  • analytical psychology;
  • archetypes;
  • image schemas;
  • innateness;
  • psychoanalysis;
  • reflective function;
  • self-organization;
  • symbols

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The question of innate psychic contents
  5. The brain as a self-organizing structure: an interactionist model for human psychological development
  6. Image schemas
  7. Clinical vignette
  8. Conclusion
  9. Translations of Abstract
  10. References

Abstract:  This paper challenges the view that mental contents can be innate and offers instead a developmental model in which mental contents emerge from the interaction of genes, brain and environment. Some key steps on this developmental pathway are traced, such as the formation of image schemas. The processes by which mental contents are evaluated and organized are described, notably those of perceptual analysis, representational re-description and appraisal. Jung's concept of the transcendent function is seen to have certain crucial features in common with each of these processes. The emergence of the capacity to symbolize is explored in relation to these concepts and it is suggested that the pinnacle of this capacity is achieved in the emergence of reflective function, in which mind is represented to itself.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The question of innate psychic contents
  5. The brain as a self-organizing structure: an interactionist model for human psychological development
  6. Image schemas
  7. Clinical vignette
  8. Conclusion
  9. Translations of Abstract
  10. References

In November 2002, at the conference to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Anna Freud Centre, Professor Peter Fonagy made a powerful plea that analysts should never displace the subjective, symbolic world from the heart of our theory and practice, that the exciting discoveries in neuroscience, however enriching they are, should not tempt us to risk replacing the study of the mind with that of the brain. Fonagy reminded us that ‘the mind is wrongly seen as a mere product of brain function, it is also its determinant… the mind must be studied in order to understand the brain’ and added the memorable phrase: ‘it is felt disadvantage that is psychologically toxic’. He went on to warn that:

the native world of psychoanalysis, the mental world of beliefs, desires and emotions – central for a while in 20th century psychiatry – is a fragile creature. Maintaining the causal significance of meaning runs the gauntlet of a powerful human need for concreteness and simplicity, which the robustness of the physics and biology of brain research represents.

(Fonagy 2002, in press)

Could I perhaps dare to suggest here that this human need for concreteness and simplicity, this constant pull towards the seductive clarity offered by reductionist models could be a way of re-framing Freud's concept of the death instinct? That it takes the form of a kind of psychological entropy, reducing the fragile wholeness and complexity of the living symbolic world to its component parts, the physical or cognitive mechanisms that underpin the human mind? Victoria Hamilton has pointed out that this reductionist trend exists even in some schools of psychoanalysis which have attempted to ‘study human beings as if they were not human beings, but, rather, mental structures, underlying principles, biological forces or affective outbursts’ (Hamilton 1996, p. 23). Daniel Dennett defines living organisms as systems that temporarily reverse the inexorable entropy of the universe, ‘that defy this crumbling into dust, at least for a while’ and, at a metaphorical level, this is also true of the integrated symbolic functioning of the human psyche (Dennett 1995, p. 68). The human mind can never be fully understood by fragmenting it into the building blocks out of which it is constructed.

The siren call of reductionism emerged most powerfully in the extremes of behaviourism, in which the representational world of the human mind is seen as playing no significant role at all in the scientific study of human life. It was indeed the death of mind. The sad legacy of the behaviourist years is the mutual incomprehension and suspicion that exist to this day between academic psychologists and psychotherapists.

Do neuroscience and cognitive science also run the risk of bringing about the death of mind? I believe it is a risk that the leaders in these fields mostly successfully avoid. Cognitive science has its critics, such as Joseph LeDoux who, mistakenly I suggest, argues that it neglects emotion in favour of thought (LeDoux 1998). We only have to think of the pioneering work of George Mandler whose book Mind and Body (1975) was a remarkable information-processing study of the psychology of emotion and stress, or remember Daniel Schacter's book Searching for Memory (1996), which is an exposition of the relation between memory and personal identity, or the title of Damasio's book The Feeling of What Happens (1999), to see how far cognitive science has come in incorporating emotion and motivation into the study of the human mind. Apart from psychoanalysis and analytical psychology, it was cognitive science that pioneered the renaissance from the dead world of behaviourism and placed the richness of the symbolic mental world at the heart of the study of our humanity.

Furthermore, there has been a remarkable convergence in recent years of cognitive science with neuroscience and psychodynamic theory. The synthesis of research offered by Allan Schore, Wilma Bucci, LeDoux and others demonstrates that the brain does not have to be studied at the expense of the mind and their work can enrich our understanding of our mental world by linking mind and brain, without giving in to the danger of entropy, the fragmenting of the symbolic into its underlying concrete parts. It is a serious misunderstanding of their work to suggest that they reduce mental phenomena to neuro-physiological processes.

Let me return to psychoanalysis and analytical psychology which have prided themselves on their intense and sophisticated study of subjective experience and on avoiding the negation of mind demonstrated by behaviourism or of biological reductionism. It was the mystery of the mind at work that led to Jung's clear distinction between a symbol and a sign; he wrote:

The symbol is not a sign that disguises something generally known – a disguise, that is, for the basic drive or elementary intention. Its meaning resides in the fact that it is an attempt to elucidate, by a more or less apt analogy, something that is still entirely unknown or still in the process of formation

(Jung 1966[1916], para. 492)

It is a distinction that I shall also return to later in this paper.

Of course the body provides the substrate, the anatomical structures and physiological mechanisms that underpin and provide the foundation for symbolic thought. However, a moment's reflection reveals that there are aspects of theory in both psychoanalysis and analytical psychology in which brain and body are thought not only to act as the necessary raw materials for the construction of the mental representational world but also to determine its content – Freud's own idea of instinctual drive subsumes mind to brain and body in relation to the primacy of instinctual drive theory as a determinant of mental process and content. Instinctual drive theory decrees that the concreteness of the body, in the form of innate physiological processes and their associated drives, determines the symbolism of the mind.

In analytical psychology, the concept of the archetype seems to create a similar problem in Jungian theory, in terms of psychic innateness, that instinctual drive does in psychoanalysis. Archetypes are often thought of as pre-formed innate packets of imagery and fantasy waiting to pop out like butterflies from a chrysalis given the right environmental trigger, a model which suggests that something other than mind itself has created these mental contents. One of the main points of disagreement between different Jungian schools has centred on the nature of archetypes, their role in psychic functioning and their contribution to the process of change in analysis and therapy, a debate which parallels that of the psychoanalysts over the degree to which instinctual drive or actual experience shape the internal world.

The question of innate psychic contents

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The question of innate psychic contents
  5. The brain as a self-organizing structure: an interactionist model for human psychological development
  6. Image schemas
  7. Clinical vignette
  8. Conclusion
  9. Translations of Abstract
  10. References

Now that behaviourism, the death of mind, is itself dead, the debate has moved on to this new and more sophisticated form of reductionism, whose insistent siren call draws us to the dangerous concept of psychic innateness. If mental process and content are seen to be predetermined by genetic instruction or to arise directly from essential physiological process, then the mind as a meaning-making structure, generating its own operating principles and rules, is to some degree denied; its content is seen to be predetermined and the symbolic is no longer such but simply a sign pointing to the concrete – the very danger that Jung so succinctly pointed out.

The argument over the degree to which innate processes contribute to the formation of psychic contents has a long history, but I will particularly highlight John Bowlby who became increasingly uneasy with the emphasis in psychoanalytic theory on autonomous intrapsychic processes, which seemed to him to be a solipsistic model which neglected the interactionist nature of the human internal world. He became particularly critical of the Kleinian model which placed instinctual drive theory at the heart of psychoanalysis and which postulated that complex unconscious fantasy could arise in the earliest months of infancy as a direct expression of the libido or of the death instinct. Bowlby felt that this was a view which gave far too great a role to innate processes and which ignored the accumulating evidence from empirical studies in other fields about the processes underlying the formation of psychic contents (Bowlby 1988, pp. 43–4). This kind of scientific understanding does not have to be reductionist but can be integrated with the narrative and interpersonal aspects of analytic work – the scientific and the hermeneutic do not need to be seen as contradictory, but instead the meaning-making process can itself become the object of scientific study.

So let me explore in more detail the thorny issue of psychic innateness. The wealth of research that has emerged in recent years in cognitive science and developmental psychology offers us new paradigms for understanding the relationship between genetic potential and environmental influence on the development of the human mind. The central theme here is that of self-organization of the human brain and the recognition that genes do not encode complex mental imagery and processes, but instead act as initial catalysts for developmental processes out of which early psychic structures reliably emerge. A developmental account of archetype lends considerable scientific support to the key role archetypes play in psychic functioning and as a crucial source of symbolic imagery, but at the same time identifies archetypes as emergent structures resulting from a developmental interaction between genes and environment that is unique for each person. Archetypes are not ‘hard-wired’ collections of universal imagery waiting to  be released by the right environmental trigger, a model which would lead straight into the trap of categorizing them as innate ideas, a concept demolished by Locke long before anyone had ever heard of genes. Locke wrote:

The knowledge of some truths, I confess, is very early in the Mind, but in a way that shews them not to be innate. For, if we will observe, we shall find it still to be about ideas, not innate but acquired; it being about those first, which are imprinted by external things, with which infants have earliest to do, which make the most frequent Impressions on their senses.

(Locke 1997[1689])

This statement is breathtaking in its anticipation, more than 300 years ago, of a contemporary developmental understanding of the emergent nature of mental patterns.

The interactionist model for biological development proposed by contemporary developmental psychologists requires a fundamental and vital shift in our view of innate mental content. It is easy to assume that the term ‘innate’ means that there is information stored in a genetic code waiting, like a biological Sleeping Beauty, to be awakened by the kiss of an environmental Prince. This apparently commonsense view of innateness is frequently implicit in discussion about archetypes, in Jung's own writing and in that of many former and contemporary analytical psychologists. The concept that genetic codes contain a blueprint of complex information views archetypes as biological entities that also contain symbolic meaning.

It is a model which is hard for non-scientists to abandon because it seems to offer a simple and clear explanation of the role of innate structures in the human psyche. Furthermore, many evolutionary psychologists seem to have fallen into the same trap; although they have shown no interest at all in examining the parallels between their own concepts of innate, modular, algorithms and Jung's model of archetypes, there are many similarities between them. One such similarity is the mistaken assumption that information is contained in some form, however abstract and schematized, in the genes and that the environment activates and gives detailed embodied expression to that stored abstract potential. However, a developmental perspective reveals the flaws in this logic. One of the most innovative teams of researchers from San Diego, London, Rome and Oxford produced a book called Rethinking Innateness. They write:

The blueprint view of the genome, in which the genetic material somehow contains a literal image of the target animal, is easy to reject. Nothing remotely resembling such a blueprint has ever been discovered. Nor is such a blueprint even logically possible, since there is simply not enough space in the genome to contain a full and complete description of the adult. Those animals in which there is, if not a blueprint, a straightforward and relatively direct relationship between genome and phenotype (as in mosaic species such as the nematode C. Elegans) arguably represent the upper bound of complexity which is possible given this sort of a tight genetic control on development.

The recently completed map of the human genome offers conclusive evidence for the accuracy of these comments. Instead of the 100,000 or more genes which scientists expected to find, there are no more than about 30,000 in the human genetic code. It would be impossible for the complexity of a human being, both body and mind, to be stored as a blueprint of information in such a small number of genes.

An alternative model is offered by this international collaborative research group who state that:

… some innate predispositions… channel the infant's attention to certain aspects of the environment over others. Our view is that these predispositions play different roles at different levels, and that as far as representation-specific predispositions are concerned, they may only be specified at the subcortical level as little more than attention grabbers so that the organism ensures itself of a massive experience of certain inputs prior to subsequent learning… at the cortical level, representations are not pre-specified: at the psychological level representations emerge from the complex interactions of brain and environment and brain systems among themselves.

The profound implications of this model for Jungian theory have been recognized by several analytical psychologists such as Hogenson (2001), Saunders and Skar (2001) and McDowell (2001). In particular this model refutes any possibility of innate (genetically-specified) archetypal imagery.

The brain as a self-organizing structure: an interactionist model for human psychological development

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The question of innate psychic contents
  5. The brain as a self-organizing structure: an interactionist model for human psychological development
  6. Image schemas
  7. Clinical vignette
  8. Conclusion
  9. Translations of Abstract
  10. References

If complex symbolic information cannot be contained in the genes which are passed on from parent to child, a new framework is needed for understanding the psychological development of the human infant. We need to explain the fact that we almost all develop the crucial skills of language, numeracy, reasoning, a sense of identity, a capacity for empathic relationship with others and, central to all these, the capacity to symbolize, so that we acquire a sense that experience is meaningful.

The principle of self-organizing emergent properties of the human mind is rapidly gaining ground over a more genetically deterministic model (Deacon 1997; Dupré 2001; Elman et al. 1999; Schore 1994; Stern 1985). Developmental research supports the view that new meaning is constantly being created as a central part of the process of psychological development. For example, some cognitive scientists are finding evidence that information is repeatedly re-analysed and re-encoded into ever more complex forms of representation, in pace with the increasing cognitive capacities of the human brain during the course of development.

This developmental process whereby complex symbolic representations arise out of the self-organization of the human brain is a model which is revolutionizing our understanding of the human psyche. Allan Schore has investigated, in extraordinary detail, the research evidence that underpins an interactionist framework within which the intense relationships of early life directly influence the development of key parts of the brain. He writes:

The mechanism of imprinting, a very rapid form of learning which underlies attachment bond formation, has been understood to involve an irreversible stamping of early experience upon the developing nervous system.

(Schore 1994, p. 116)

For example, he offers evidence that the mother's face is an arousal generating cue for attachment behaviour and that this effect is produced by direct stimulation of the dopaminergic pathways of the orbito-frontal cortex (Schore 1994, p. 117). This kind of research lends sound support to Peter Fonagy's statement that ‘psychological experience has the capacity to filter and modulate environmental effects upon neural structures that in their turn will have the power to determine a subsequent psychological response’ (Fonagy 2002, in press). The mind, with its patterning of object-relationships, actually creates the patterning of the brain.

This interactionist relationship between mind and brain means that an account of the neurological mechanisms that underpin self-organization in the human brain needs to be complemented by an understanding of the mental contents and structures to which those neurological processes relate. Cognitive scientists are gradually identifying the key processes and stages involved in the developmental aspects of human information-processing. Jean Mandler (1988, 1992), for example, has described the earliest, primitive cognitive structures, image schemas, that are formed in the early days and weeks of a baby's life.

Image schemas

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The question of innate psychic contents
  5. The brain as a self-organizing structure: an interactionist model for human psychological development
  6. Image schemas
  7. Clinical vignette
  8. Conclusion
  9. Translations of Abstract
  10. References

In order to highlight the key features of image schemas I first need to point out the distinction Jean Mandler drew — a crucial distinction between perceptual recognition and perceptual analysis. Perceptual recognition is a sensorimotor activity which takes place automatically and does not require any conceptual framework. Mandler writes:

We should not be misled by the complexity of these perceptual processing mechanisms. They are sophisticated, of course, but then so are the perceptual processing mechanisms of most organisms, or, for that matter, the industrial vision machines that neatly discriminate nuts from bolts.… The industrial machine may throw nuts into one bin and bolts into another (making its choices by, for example, computing the ratio of the diameter of each object to its perimeter), but we would not want to say that it has a concept of nuts and bolts.

These procedural skills are just as much in evidence in other animals as in humans and are the automatic outcome of genetically determined behavioural patterns. Daniel Dennett identifies these automatic biological processes as algorithms and these may indeed be largely innate — subcortical routines which are triggered automatically and work effectively in the species-typical environment. However, their mindless inflexibility is easily exposed by changing the environment, as Fabre did when he activated the algorithm in caterpillars for following each other by placing them one behind the other round the neck of a vase; they followed each other relentlessly for days and would have continued to do so to their deaths. More famously, Konrad Lorenz showed that if he changed the species-typical environment by making his face the first thing that a baby gosling saw when it emerged from its shell, the gosling would imprint on him — but no-one would possibly suggest that a baby gosling had an innate image of Konrad Lorenz's face encoded in its genes.

Jean Mandler has convincingly argued that there is another process in operation in the earliest stages of infant life, that of perceptual analysis. She suggests that this is an active process of comparison between stimuli, which is the earliest evidence of a contemplative attitude and that this constitutes the basis of concept formation — the key difference between humans and other animals. She proposed that the first step on the conceptual organizational ladder is the formation of ‘image schemas’. These are the earliest and most primitive form of representation in that they are conceptual structures mapped from spatial structures. Primitive conceptual knowledge takes a very different form from the complex symbolic knowledge of later life. It can be shown experimentally that very small babies demonstrate some kind of grasp of basic physical laws; at three months they show surprise if two solid objects seem to occupy the same space and at four months, if a solid object appears to have passed through a solid surface. However, this does not necessarily mean that babies have an innate complex conceptual knowledge of the laws of physics. One of the foundations of the conceptualizing capacity is the image schema in which spatial structure is mapped into conceptual structure. Image schemas are notions such as UP-DOWN, CONTAINMENT, FORCE, PART-WHOLE, and LINK notions that are thought to be derived from perceptual structure. For example, the image schema PATH is the simplest conceptualization of any object following any trajectory through space, without regard to the characteristics of the object or the details of the trajectory itself. According to Lakoff and to Johnson, image schemas lie at the core of people's understanding, even as adults, of a wide variety of objects and events and of the metaphorical extensions of these concepts to more abstract realms. They form, in effect, a set of primitive meanings.

Mandler gives an example of the concept of animacy and of the part image schemas might play in its formation. She suggests that the image schemas of PATH and LINK constitute the core meanings, so that ‘a first concept of animals might be that they are objects that follow certain kinds of paths, that begin motion in a particular way, and whose movement is often coupled in a specific fashion to the movement of other objects’ (Mandler 1992). There is evidence to show that from an early age, infants can recognize self-motion, which characterizes animal movement (Leslie 1988).

However, the concept of image schemas is much richer than this. It was adopted by developmentalists, such as Jean Mandler, from its original use by the cognitive linguists, Lakoff and Johnson, who suggest that ‘image schemas lie at the core of people's understanding, even as adults, of a wide variety of objects and events and of the metaphorical extensions of these concepts to more abstract realms’ (my italics; Mandler 1992). Image schemas form the basis of polysemy, which is ‘the extension of a central sense of a word to other senses by devices of the human imagination, such as metaphor and metonymy’ (Johnson 1987, p. xii).

In The Body in the MindJohnson (1987) investigates systematically this process whereby image schemas are metaphorically extended from the physical to the non-physical realm. He suggests that metaphorical projections of this sort are one of the chief means for connecting up different senses of a term. For example, he says:

[T]he OUT schema which applies to spatial orientation is metaphorically projected onto the cognitive domain where there are processes of choosing, rejecting, separating, differentiating abstract objects, and so forth. Numerous cases, such as leave out, pick out, take out, etc. . . can be metaphorically orientated mental actions. What you pick out physically are spatially extended objects; what you pick out metaphorically are abstract mental or logical entities. But the relevant preconception schema is generally the same for both senses of picking out.

(Johnson 1987, p. 34)

The image schema is a mental gestalt, developing out of bodily experience and forming the basis for abstract meanings. Image schemas are the mental structures which underpin our experience of discernible order, both in the physical and in the world of imagination and metaphor. One example might be Haiku poetry — cognitive scientists Blasco and Merski (1998) suggest that the combination of simplicity of form and profoundness of meaning in Haiku emerge out of the image schematic and bodily basis of metaphor.

Image schemas would therefore seem to have certain key features that are similar to some of the ways in which Jung conceptualized archetypes. Whilst image schemas are without symbolic content in themselves, they provide a reliable scaffolding on which meaningful imagery and thought is organized and constructed, thus meeting the need for a model that provides for the archetype-as-such and the archetypal image. If we adopt this model for archetypes, we have to discard the view that they are genetically inherited and consider them to be reliably repeated early developmental achievements (Knox 1997).

The image schema would therefore seem to be a model that, for the first time, offers a developmentally sound description of the archetype-as-such and of the archetypal image. The abstract pattern itself, the image schema, is never experienced directly, but acts as a foundation or ground plan that can be likened to the concept of the archetype-as-such. This provides the invisible scaffolding for a whole range of metaphorical extensions that can be expressed in conscious imagery and language and that would therefore seem to correspond to the archetypal image. These metaphorical elaborations are always based on the gestalt of the image schema from which they are derived.

Does the concept of the image schema effectively make that of the archetype redundant? I do not think that is the case – it may be that the image schema is a more specific and developmentally clear term for the earliest primitive mental representations than the archetype-as-such, but I think that the term archetype, used in the sense of the archetypal image, beautifully captures the sense of the accumulating and inter-weaving metaphorical extensions of the core gestalt; it is as though the concept of the archetype is itself a metaphorical elaboration of the concept of the image schema. Even hard-line neuroscientists such as Panksepp and Pinker use the term ‘archetypal’ in this symbolic sense.

But what exactly are the processes whereby the abstract gestalts of primitive image schemas become elaborated into the rich psychic world of symbolic meaning and metaphor? Whilst image schemas can provide us with an information-processing model of the archetype-as-such, we also need to understand how day-to-day experience is internalized and linked with the image schema to create a pattern of representation-rich meanings. Research, much of it within an attachment theory framework, demonstrates that our expectations of the world are governed not by rules of formal logic but by implicit mental models which organize and give a pattern to our experience (Fonagy 1999; Johnson-Laird 1991). The archetype, as image schema, provides an initial scaffolding for this process, but the content is provided by real experience, particularly that of intense relationships with parents and other key attachment figures. Repeated patterns of experience are stored in the form of internal working models in implicit memory. This kind of memory is not accessible to consciousness, but acts outside awareness, structuring our perception of the world by interpreting it in the light of the generalized gestalt patterns of implicit knowledge.

As we know from our analytic work implicit knowledge may form the unconscious bedrock of our understanding, but we frequently also need to be able to give conscious expression to this knowledge in the form of language. This requires a process Annette Karmiloff-Smith has identified as ‘representational re-description’. This process consists of a series of stages in which information is initially built up and stored implicitly and then re-encoded into ever more explicit format, eventually emerging as concepts which can be expressed in language (Karmiloff-Smith 1992). It is a process that allows knowledge to become increasingly accessible to different parts of the cognitive system, so that consciousness itself can be seen to be an emergent property of the constantly reiterated process of representational re-description. Although she offers this primarily as a developmental model, she also suggests that it underpins the mastering of complex skills in adult life as well, which initially can only be learnt implicitly but can later be re-encoded and described in language. This is a fundamental feature of analytic work – so often we struggle for months or years with implicit awareness about a patient and then suddenly find the words to describe what we, and often the patient, already know. An implicit narrative can gradually become explicit.

Symbolic understanding is therefore a constant two-way process. Conscious explicit experience is internalized and rendered less conscious and more automatic and implicit, its patterns identified and stored as the internal working models of implicit memory; at the same time, unconscious implicit patterns are re-encoded and re-described into ever more explicit representations which can eventually be expressed in conscious symbolic imagery and language.

Jung captured this idea in what I am coming to regard as perhaps his most important concept, that of the transcendent function. Jung used this term to identify the process by which conscious and unconscious attitudes are compared and integrated with each other, reflecting his view of the unconscious as an active contributor to the meaning-making process. Jung stated unequivocally that in the process of symbol formation ‘the union of conscious and unconscious contents is consummated. Out of this union emerge new situations and new conscious attitudes. I have therefore called the union of opposites the ‘transcendent function’ (Jung 1939, para. 524). Jung thus anticipated the contemporary concept of appraisal whereby conscious experience is constantly being organized by unconscious internal working models and unconscious implicit patterns are constantly being identified in conscious language. I have suggested elsewhere that this constant process of appraisal and comparison offers us a new way of conceptualizing unconscious fantasy, which can, in essence, be considered to be the unconscious evaluation of experience and the imaginative exploration of its possible meanings (Knox 2003).

Comparison as the essential feature of the process of symbolization is a view that also gains support from the recent work of neuroscientists and linguists. David Siegel suggests that implicit and explicit representations are intertwined with each other and that the mental models of implicit memory help to organize the themes and ways in which the details of explicit autobiographical memory are expressed within a life story (Siegel 1999). Terence Deacon has clarified the key characteristics that distinguish the symbolic functioning of the human mind from the mental processes of other animals and which allow the emergence of a form of symbolic communication, human language, which is not just quantitatively but qualitatively different from animal communication. The essential distinction is the self-referential nature of mental representations. Pre-symbolic representations may be iconic, in which the image is like the original or indexical, in which the sign points directly to the object. In contrast, true symbolization represents a shift from direct reference to an object to a system in which symbols do not represent things in the world but instead indirectly refer to them by virtue of referring to other symbols — in other words a higher order system of symbol to symbol comparison and mapping rather than representations pointing to material objects is the definitive feature of true symbolism. Deacon suggests that the reason that language is learnt before other cognitive skills, such as numeracy, is that the features of the immature brain, such as distractibility and short attention span, difficulty in remembering specific word associations but instead remembering only generalized patterns in speech, all of which hinder explicit learning, might be advantageous when it comes to language acquisition. Under these conditions, the large-scale logic and pattern of language pop out of a background of specific detail just like a hologram that only becomes visible when you stop looking too hard for it. Language is learnt implicitly and the immature brain is ideally suited to this task.

Deacon suggests that many animals may be capable of using an indexical sign system but, with the exception of one young bonobo chimpanzee called Kanzi, no other species has developed the ability for the true symbolic communication which defines language. Deacon suggests that Kanzi provides convincing evidence that language is not an innate instinct – he is a chimpanzee, not a human. But Kanzi learnt, when he was a new-born baby of a degree of immaturity in monkeys similar to that of an 18-month old human child and he was not himself taught; he listened whilst his mother tried to learn simple language – in other words he was not only an ideal age, he was also not trying hard, another key feature of implicit learning.

I want to turn now to the final area of discussion in this paper and I will introduce it with what I hope will be a controversial statement – that the full flowering of reflective function is the pinnacle of human psychic development, representing another and final twist in the spiral of development of the full symbolic functioning of mind.

Reflective function allows us not only to construct meaning from experience and to communicate that symbolic meaning in language, it also requires the conscious self-awareness of our own minds and other people's minds, with the whole range of thoughts, beliefs, desires, intentions, wishes, fears and emotions of which the human mind is capable. Edelman, Damasio and others have identified this self-awareness as the form of consciousness unique to humans. An English philosopher, John Dupré, has described this key feature succinctly: ‘Humans are self-conscious. They not only represent the world to themselves, but they are aware that they do so’ (Dupré 2001, p. 34). Reflective function thus represents a higher order of the symbol to the symbol mapping described by Deacon in that it is the mind's very process of symbolization that is represented to itself.

Once again, Jung showed a remarkable understanding of the essential feature of this contemporary concept, namely that the capacity to relate to the symbolic world of other people, their minds, links with the awareness of one's own mind. Jung saw this as an inevitable outcome of the transcendent function, which is the basis of the symbolic process of the human mind. He wrote:

The present day shows with appalling clarity how little able people are to let the other man's argument count, although this capacity is a fundamental and indispensable condition for any human community. Everyone who proposes to come to terms with himself must reckon with this basic problem. For, to the degree that he does not admit the validity of the other person, he denies the ‘other’ within himself the right to exist — and vice versa. The capacity for inner dialogue is a touchstone for outer objectivity.

(1957 [1916]), para. 187)

Jeremy Holmes makes a similar point: ‘There is always another to whom the Self is telling his or her story, even if in adults this takes the form of an internal dialogue’ (Holmes 2001, p. 85).

The early manifestations of this capacity emerge with the development of ‘theory of mind’ at about the age of three years, the approximate age at which children first show that they are aware that other people may have different beliefs from their own. However the full achievement of reflective function is much more than this, depending on the ability to see that states of mind can be causal and on the capacity to make judgements, to have desires and appetites and to have a sense of one's own separate and unique identity.

For reflective function to develop the infant has to internalize the parent as someone with a mental image of the infant, a parent who sees the infant as someone with a mind and emotions. Bion's concept of ‘reverie’ describes the mother's role in interpreting her infant's various behaviours as meaningful communications and the infant gradually internalizes the meaningful links that she has made for him. In this way he gradually acquires the awareness of his own mind with its feelings and thoughts and the sense of his mind as an agent of change, because when he wants something, his mother produces it.

This capacity of reflective function to link experiences in a meaningful way is a crucial part of human psychological development and is intuitively nurtured by most parents in the early development of their children as much, for example, as the nurturing of language itself. One of the defining features of any child's bedtime story is that it links events in a meaningful way through the desires and intentions of the people who play the various roles in the story, whether fictional or not. It is minds which are the agents of change, giving rise to decisions, choices and actions which produce effects and which link events into a coherent structure. Without mental agency, there would be no meaningful thread tying events together and those events would appear random and meaningless.

Fonagy suggests that a child who has not received recognizable but modified images of his affective states, through his parent's responses to him or her, may fail to develop an intrapsychic awareness of mind and so to develop a sense of psychological separateness (Fonagy 2001, p. 172). In this situation emotions and even words themselves are not used or experienced as communications but as coercive manipulations, which force other people to do things rather than conveying one's own mental state to them to respond to as they choose.

The other side of this coin is that the suffering of knowing one's own mind, whilst still feeling that one is treated like a mindless object by others, may lead to a defensive avoidance of reflective function. Patients who frequently cut or burn themselves or take repeated small overdoses sometimes acknowledge that physical pain is more endurable than the mental pain of having a mind with thoughts, beliefs, desires and intentions, when these are treated as worthless by others. Self-harm often seems to be a defensive diversion from facing the full implications of rejection or abuse by another and the sense of personal worthlessness that this creates. Such patients often describe themselves as bad, disgusting or dirty. I have found that some progress can be made by pointing out the patient's unconscious fantasy that to be independent minded, to have a mind of one's own, is threatening to her parent. She feels she can only be lovable and valuable when she is totally attuned to the needs of the attachment figure, a kind of ‘reverse parenting’ which may result from the parent's inability to tolerate her child's critical evaluation and independent judgement of her. A parent who dreads her child's independent mind is internalized, so that the child comes to believe that she is bad and dangerous whenever she thinks for herself. If reflective function itself has come to be perceived as a threat, then emotion or bodily symptoms may act as a signal that the meaning-making process itself must be avoided.

Clinical vignette

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The question of innate psychic contents
  5. The brain as a self-organizing structure: an interactionist model for human psychological development
  6. Image schemas
  7. Clinical vignette
  8. Conclusion
  9. Translations of Abstract
  10. References

A patient dreamt that he was taking a history exam but he could not understand any of the questions and started to suffer from an intense headache; he left the exam but returned on another occasion for a second attempt. This time the crippling headache started as he was walking up the stairs towards the examination room. The examiner, a friend of his father’s, expressed severe disappointment in him and told him he had expected him to do better.

It seemed to me that this dream demonstrated how difficult my patient found it to make meaningful sense of his own history (taking a history exam) and how painful this was for him, an awareness conveyed in the dream image of a headache. His parents had expected him only to fit in with their needs and demands, which had made it impossible for him to construct his own history. The second attempt in the dream would suggest that this was also what he feared would happen in the analysis.

However this kind of empathic and developmental failure can be repaired in the analytic dialogue. Our analytic theories are narratives that we construct so that we can provide an analytic reverie which allows us to find meaning in our patients’ verbal and non-verbal communications when the patients themselves cannot yet do so. A successful analytic narrative is one that can become meaningful to our patients so that they can take it over, use it for themselves and adapt it to establish their own sense of psychic causality, of the link between intra-psychic experiences and the external world. The analyst places his or her own reflective function at the disposal of the patient. Holmes describes the psychotherapist's role in this respect as that of an ‘assistant autobiographer’, whose role is to find stories that correspond to experience.

In addition to its essential role in the construction of symbolic meaning, I would suggest that the concept of reflective function also offers a meta-theoretical framework, which may explain the research finding that the therapeutic effect of analysis does not seem to depend on the theoretical model the analyst uses. This could be the case if what matters in analysis is the fact that the analyst consistently finds meaning in behaviour (enactments) that the patient himself or herself does not yet realize are meaningful. When, as Michael Fordham described in an account of a clinical session, he attributed psychological intentionality to a patient's polishing his glasses, interpreting this as his wish to see more clearly, he was doing what mothers do with small infants (Fordham 1985). He was helping the patient to construct an image of himself as a person with desires and intentions, which the analyst could recognize through the patient's actions.

The art of being an analyst requires us constantly to focus on the subjective, to fine-tune to the intuitive, poetic, symbolic narrative that emerges in an analytic session. Peter Levi has described the way in which a good poet can help us to hear our language, just as an eighteenth century sailor ‘could pick out intuitively the sound of every strain or creak or squeak in a great ship at sea’, a metaphor which could equally well describe the intuitive listening of a well-trained analyst or psychotherapist during a session (Levi 1977, p. 12). It is an art which requires years of personal analysis, training and supervision to nurture the capacity to resonate with the multiple and sometimes contradictory threads of the patient's narrative. It also requires a deeply ingrained respect for the symbolic process. For example, analysts who enter into sexual relationships with their patients not only abuse such a patient physically but are also engaging in a fundamental violation of the fragile co-construction of a symbolic space, a psychological abuse which may destroy the last hope that patient has of finding the symbolic ‘holding’ that is a pre-requisite for individuation.

In other words, it is crucial for our patients that analysts constantly nurture and develop our own reflective function, since this is the fundamental analytic tool we can offer. It probably does not matter too much whether the analyst's interpretations about the patient's intentions are entirely accurate; indeed the analyst's inaccuracies, if not too great, may help the patient discover himself what his intentions are just as a baby corrects a mother's small misattunements. It is this ability to repair disruption that is the essence of secure attachment, not the lack of disruptions, and that repair depends on the analyst's reflective function, his or her attentiveness and sensitive responsiveness to the feedback from the patient. The analyst may believe that his or her interpretations are effective because they identify some specific unconscious conflict, whereas it may, in reality, be the analyst's constant search for unconscious meaning in the patient's communications which is the effective agent of change. Support for this view comes from research which demonstrates that successful therapy is accompanied by an increase in reflective function in the patient (Fonagy 1995, p. 267).

The analyst's demonstration of his or her own reflective function seems therefore to be increasingly recognized as a vital part of analytic technique. I would argue that the attachment theory model of the creation of new internal working models which contain representations of reflective function offers the most comprehensive and cogent explanation for this aspect of analytic effectiveness, regardless of the theoretical framework which the analyst consciously uses.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The question of innate psychic contents
  5. The brain as a self-organizing structure: an interactionist model for human psychological development
  6. Image schemas
  7. Clinical vignette
  8. Conclusion
  9. Translations of Abstract
  10. References

The main theme that runs through this paper is that mind and meaning emerge out of developmental processes and the experience of interpersonal relationships rather than existing a priori. The earliest psychic concepts to develop are the image schemas which are experienced in non-verbal, and embodied ways, rather than as pre-existing fully-fledged symbolic meanings waiting to be activated.

The emergence of archetypes out of the earliest stages of psychic development forms the foundation for the development of core meanings as we gradually construct mental models of the world around us, organizing day-to-day experience into patterns which can then guide our future expectations of life in all its aspects, including our expectations of relationships. In analysis, the activation of image schemas, or archetypes, in analysis may provide the first step towards the gradual emergence of the capacity to symbolize. The creation of narrative competence, the ability to connect past and present experiences together into a meaningful story is the next stage in this process. At the highest levels of psychic complexity, the mature achievement of reflective function is also emergent and forms the basis for the creation of new patterns of meaning and relationship in analysis.

At each level of complexity, the patterns that emerge are profoundly influenced by earlier stages of development but are also governed by their own constraints, the rules that operate at that particular level of complexity (Dupré 2001, p. 108). This is as true of the human mind as it is of the human body and at each stage of development the environment plays a key role in shaping the direction of each person's developmental potential. An account of this interaction and the forms that it takes is a major task for analytical psychology and psychoanalysis in the 21st century.

Translations of Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The question of innate psychic contents
  5. The brain as a self-organizing structure: an interactionist model for human psychological development
  6. Image schemas
  7. Clinical vignette
  8. Conclusion
  9. Translations of Abstract
  10. References

Cet article met en question l’idée que des contenus mentaux peuvent être innés et propose à la place un modèle développemental dans lequel le contenu mental émerge de l’interaction entre les gènes, le cerveau et l’environnement. Certaines des étapes clés de ce cheminement développemental sont données, comme par exemple la formation des schémas organisateurs des images. Sont décrits les processus par lesquels les contenus mentaux sont évalués et s’organisent, notamment ceux de l’analyse par la perception, et ceux de l’évaluation et de la re-description pour la représentation. Il est montré que le concept défini par Jung en tant que fonction transcendante a certains traits fondamentaux en commun avec chacun de ces processus. L’émergence de la capacitéà symboliser est explorée en relation avec ces concepts ; il est avancé que le summum de cette capacité est atteint par l’émergence d’une fonction de réflexivité, dans laquelle l’esprit se regarde lui-même.

Diese Arbeit stellt die Sicht infrage, daß psychische Inhalte angeboren sein können und entwirft stattdessen ein entwicklungsgeschichtlich orientiertes Modell, in dem psychische Inhalte aus der Interaktion von Genen, Gehirn und Umwelt entstehen. Einige Schlüsselstellen auf diesem entwicklungsgeschichtlichen Pfad werden aufgesucht, zum Beispiel die Formung von Bildschemata. Die Prozesse, mit denen psychische Inhalte bewertet und organisiert werden, werden beschrieben, insbesondere diejenigen der Wahrnehmungsanalyse, der erneuten Beschreibung und Bewertung durch Repräsentanzen. Nach Ansicht der Autorin hat Jungs Konzept der transzendenten Funktion wesentliche Eigenschaften mit jedem dieser Prozesse gemein. Die Entstehung der Symbolisierungsfähigkeit wird in Beziehung auf diese Konzepte untersucht, und es wird vorgeschlagen, daß die Spitze dieser Fähigkeit in der Entstehung der reflexiven Funktion erreicht wird, in welcher die Psyche sich selbst vorgestellt wird.

Questo lavoro contesta l’idea che i contenuti mentali possano essere innati e offre invece un modello evolutivo nel quale i contenuti mentali emergono dall’interazione dei geni, del cervello e dell’ambiente. Vengono tracciati alcuni passaggi chiave di tale sentiero evolutivo, quali la formazione di schemi di immagine. Vengono descritti i processi attraverso i quali i contenuti mentali vengono valutati e organizzati, in particolare quelli dell’analisi percettiva, della ri-descrizione e valutazione rappresentativa. Il concetto junghiano di funzione trascendente sembra avere certi aspetti cruciali in comune con ognuno di questi processi. L’emergere della capacità simbolica viene poi esaminata in relazione a tali concetti e si ipotizza che il culmine della sua capacità si raggiunge con l’emergere della funzione riflessiva, in cui la mente è in grado di rappresentare se stessa.

Este trabajo desafía la visión de los contenidos mentales puedan ser innatos y propone en su lugar un modelo de desarrollo en el cual los contenidos mentales emergen de la interacción de los genes, el cerebro y el medio ambiente. Se establecen algunos puntos clave para el camino de este desarrollo, tales como la formación de imágenes de esquemas mentales. Se describen los procesos mediante los cuales los contenidos mentales se evalúan y organizan, en especial aquellos del análisis perceptual, redescripción representacional y evaluación. Se explora el concepto Junguiano de Función Trascendente para obtener ciertas características comunes a estos procesos. Se estudia la emergencia de la capacidad para simbolizar en relación a estosconceptosy se sugiere que el pico de esta capacidad se logra con la emergencia de la función reflexiva, en ella la mente se representa a sí misma.

References

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  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The question of innate psychic contents
  5. The brain as a self-organizing structure: an interactionist model for human psychological development
  6. Image schemas
  7. Clinical vignette
  8. Conclusion
  9. Translations of Abstract
  10. References
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