Cathexis revisited: Lessons from a neurobiology of meaning

Arnold H. Modell

[Paper presented on June 14, 2002, at the Annual Meeting of the Rapaport-Klein Study Group - Pre-Final Draft without citations: please do not quote]


Freud, in his essay "On the Claims of Psychoanalysis to Scientific Interest" (1913) made the following comment: "I should be satisfied if these few remarks have drawn attention to the many respects in which psychoanalysis acts as an intermediary between biology and psychology" (SE, 13, p. 182). The keyword here is intermediary, suggesting that psychoanalysis is a disciplines that mediates between biology and psychology. If we view psychoanalysis as a discipline that stands between biology and psychology, we may find a solution to what has been a futile debate. We do not have to choose between identifying psychoanalysis as either a science or a hermeneutic enterprise, it is something else. The meanings that we select for interpretation are grounded in feelings, that of our own and that of our patients. Feelings, and the construction of meaning cannot be divorced from the body and brain.

If psychoanalysis is a science, it is a very odd kind of science. It is a science without commonly accepted facts or agreed-upon laws. Furthermore, its epistemology, based as it is upon introspection and second person empathic knowledge, does not correspond to any other known scientific discipline. On the other hand, I have always believed that the alternative vision -- psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic discipline, is also seriously flawed. Psychoanalysis is not analogous to the interpretation of a text for a text is not a living organism. The fundamental source of psychoanalytic knowledge is the affectively charged conscious and unconscious communications between analyst and patient. Psychoanalysts do not simply interpret a spoken narrative text, for speech without feeling is devoid of meaning. Texts may also evoke emotion in the reader, but unlike a psychoanalytic relationship the text is not altered by the reader's response. But one aspect of the analogy to hermeneutics is true, psychoanalysis is fundamentally a discipline based upon understanding and interpretation. I use the term interpretation in a broader sense to refer to those actions that result in the creation of meaning.

A biology of meaning assumes that meaning is embodied: that events within the body, mind and brain are the original sources through which the meaning of experience is constructed. Surprisingly, however, some philosophers believed, until recently, that a formal symbolic process that was independent of minds and bodies generated meaning. This philosophic tradition may be reflected in the Lacanian belief that the symbolic order is linguistic and the role of feelings is minimized. The neurobiology of affects, as you know, plays little or no part in Lacanian psychoanalysis.

A biology of meaning can also refer to the assumption that the neural correlates of memory and emotion can explain how the mind constructs meaning. This is what Freud attempted to do when he wrote the Project For a Scientific Psychology (1950 [1895]). When writing the Project Freud believed that neural events could explain the intensity of feeling embodied in a neurotic symptom. He attempted to describe neural correlates that would explain difference between pleasure and pain, a wishful hallucination and perception. We do not know precisely why Freud abandoned the Project but it is assumed that he recognized that the neurobiology of the late 19th-century simply wasn't up to the task. There is a possibility that now, more than 100 years later, with the explosive expansion of neurobiology, we might be able to resume the Project that Freud had discarded.

It is clear from the Project that Freud viewed the psychoanalytic investigation of the neuroses not as an end in itself but as a means of discovering universal laws regarding the human mind. In his construction of psychoanalytic theory Freud was hugely multidisciplinary. His thinking was informed by everything that he knew of contemporary 19th-century science especially evolutionary theory, both Darwinian and Lamarkian. His theory construction was also influenced by psychophysics, especially Fechner's constancy theory - that the nervous system tends to rid itself of excess quantities of energy. Freud also incorporated J. Hughlings Jackson's idea that nervous centers were ordered on a developmental continuum. A list of Freud's scientific assumptions should also include Haeckel's now discredited principle that ontogeny recapitulated phylogeny. Both Jackson and Haeckel's theories contributed to the Freudian concepts of fixation and regression. In addition Freud was sensitive to the guiding scientific principles of the 19th-century that were strictly deterministic and lawful, and believed that a scientific description must include reference to quantity and energy.

Unfortunately, many of these borrowed ideas such as Haeckel's theory that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, and Fechner's constancy principle were misguided or plainly wrong. But in my opinion the greatest damage was done by Freud's uncritical acceptance of the concept of differentiated instincts or drives that constitute psychobiologic entities. The instinct concept is still a controversial issue amongst biologist and neuroscientists, and it remains probably the most divisive theoretical issue amongst psychoanalysts. Freud admitted that psychoanalysis depended upon biology for its classification of instincts. But I believe that Freud was not only influenced by Darwin's evolutionary biology but also by the romanticism of the 19th-century that included the notion of feelings as a universal spirit. I would predict that in the not too distant future neurobiology will replace the drive concept with the more complex concept of unconscious intentionality. In Freud's defense it should be added that the instinct concept itself was not questioned in the 19th century. It is also true that Darwin used the term instinct, although he noted that it could not be defined. If the idea of instinct is a useful concept in contemporary biology we would expect that it would be employed by those who specialize in the study of animal behavior such as ethologists. However we find that it is seldom used today in ethology, the term has essentially dropped out of sight. One on the reasons for this is the fact that is imbued with so many different meanings so that it is impossible to define. The effects of a misleading instinct concept is one of the reasons that I prefer to return to the early Freud, the Freud of the Project and the Interpretation of Dreams, for within these works he had not yet formulated his dual instinct theory.

With this history of the damage done to psychoanalysis by Freud's importing erroneous ideas from other disciplines, one might justifiably argue, why should we continue to attempt to ground psychoanalysis in biology? A simple answer would be that the heart of the psychoanalytic method consists of creating new meanings through an interpretation of feelings, our own feelings and that of our patients. Therefore, an accurate theory of feelings and emotions should be our central concern. Inasmuch as feelings originate in the body, and the problem of understanding emotions is enormously complex, psychoanalysis needs all the help it can get from neurobiology. (It could also be said that neuroscientists need help from psychoanalysts so that they don't oversimplify the problem of emotion). Psychoanalysts need to know what neuroscience has learned about sensation and feeling without being threatened by the possibility of a naive reductionism.

Feelings and value

As psychoanalysts we interpret the meaning of experience guided and clued in by the quality and intensity of those feelings that give meaning to thoughts. Feelings signify value. We can agree with Freud, that meaning is rooted in the body, and that the root source of meaning can be found in emotions and feeling. Before Freud formulated his instinct theory, emotions were thought to be freestanding, and not subsumed under the concept of drives or instinct. With the advent of instinct theory, emotions became subsidiary to instincts, and as you know, were described by Freud as instinctual derivatives. I believe that Freud's formulation was unfortunate and has lead to a considerable confusion regarding a theory of affects. Emotions cannot be explained as a derivative of instincts or drives for there are no differentiated entities that we can label as drives or instinct. I would argue instead for the primacy of emotion.

I have returned to cathexis as it is a concept that unites feeling and memory. When we cathect something whether it be an idea, a fantasy, a person or activity, that object of our attention is invested with feeling and hence with meaning. As I shall describe, Freud's thinking with regard to the concept of cathexis has undergone an interesting evolution. It started as a neuronal concept and then became an affect concept and ended as an instinct concept. His final belief was that cathexis refers exclusively to a libidinal cathexis; the term also denoted certain a quantum of psychic energy. As the concept of psychic energy became discredited, the term has fallen out of use in theory building, although it remains a popular expression. I will suggest that concept cathexis can be usefully reinvented with the help of contemporary neurobiology. It is a concept that is worth revising as it is a metaphor that bridges, or finesses, the mind/body problem. I will suggest that cathexis can be redefined as value driven selection.

Let me first trace the history of Freud's thinking regarding cathexis. The clinical phenomena that he wished to explain, when he was writing the Project, was the intensity of ideas associated with phobic and hysterical symptoms. Freud assumed that the intensity of belief that was associated with the pathological symptom was a reflection of the intensity of affects. He then transposed the phenomenological observation of the intensity of feeling into a neural and quantitative concept. Neurons that were filled with energy (and by implication feeling) were said to be cathected. The term cathexis is, as you know, a neologism invented by Freud's translator James Strachey to serve as a rendition of Freud's term Besetzen, but we are informed that Freud was unhappy with Strachey's neologism because of his dislike of technical terms (Laplanche & Pontalis, 1973). Besetzen is a German colloquial expression that implies "taking something over and using it in a certain way". It often calls to mind a military image of capturing and holding some place which is then said to be Besetzt, a metaphor that implies force and quantity (Ornston, 1985).

Intentionality in a biologic context

In 1976 Merton Gill in his influential paper "Metapsychology is not psychology" (appropriately, an essay in memory of George S. Klein) observed that "metapsychology deals with neurology and biology, with the physical substrate of psychological functioning while clinical psychoanalysis is a 'pure' psychology which deals with intentionality and meaning." If Merton were alive today he might be surprised to learn that neurobiology is investigating the problem of intentionality and meaning There are some researchers within the neuroscience community who are investigating the neural correlates of intentionality and the construction of the meaning of perceptual inputs in both human subjects and in animals. In neurobiology as in psychoanalysis, meaning refers to the meaning of experience. One investigator, Walter Freeman, suggests that the meaning assigned to perceptual inputs is solipsistic in that each individual subject constructs the meaning of experiential events in their own idiosyncratic fashion.

The neurobiologist Walter Freeman (1995, 1999) brought intentionality and meaning into a biologic context. Freeman states that "meanings arise as a brain creates intentional behaviors and then changes itself in accordance with the sensory consequences of those behaviors." Freeman embraced the idea of intentionality as described by Thomas Aquinas in 1272 . Thomas Aquinas defined intentionality as the process by which humans and other animals act in accordance with their own growth and maturation. An "intent" is the directing of action toward some future goal that is defined and chosen by the actor. Meaning is achieved through action into the world and, in turn, the self is altered by that action. Freeman's redefinition of intentionality therefore also includes the idea of assimilation - the self changes itself as a result of what it has encountered as a consequence of its actions. It should also be understood that intentionality is fundamentally an unconscious process. Defining intent as the direction of actions toward some future goal, suggests a selective process based on probabilities. My hope is that intentionality, when broadly defined, will ultimately replace the concept of instinct or drive. Cathexis could then be understood as the conscious expression of an unconscious intentionality.

It can be seen that Freeman's understanding of intentionality broadens the traditional or philosophical definition of intentionality. For philosophers, intentionality refers to aboutness, what the philosopher John Searle (1983) describes as a "mind to world direction of fit". The term intentionality can be traced to the philosopher Brentano, whose lectures Freud attended as a medical student. Brentano (1874) understood that what defined mental states was their intentionality, that is, they were about something, a mind to world direction of fit. Brentano thereby defined psychology as a psychology of meaning. Although Freud did not directly refer to Brentano, Rapaport believed that Brentano's influence pervades Freud's papers on metapsychology, particularly in relation to the subject of reality testing.

Meaning and the Project

Although Freud in the Project attempted to quantify experience, he also described a theory of symbolism in that knowledge of one item A could substitute for knowledge of item B. Freud was attempting to include a theory of meaning within his quantitative speculations. In that monograph Freud attributed to the process of repression the hysteric's disruption of meaning. He tried to provide a scientific, that is, quantitative, explanation for repression but was unsuccessful in his attempt. He did however provide a schematic clinical explanation for the symbolic displacement that occurs in symptom formation. His example is actually not an illustration of hysteria but of a phobia. He appended this illustrative case history at the end of the Project.

He described a patient called Emma, who suffered from a prohibition that prevented her from being able to go into shops alone. Emma attributed this inhibition to a memory from the time when she was 12 years old. Significantly, this was shortly after puberty, suggesting the workings of the process of nachträglichkeit - that an earlier traumatic event became meaningful as a result of the recontextualization of memory that follows the sexual awakening of puberty (Freud, 1918). She went into a shop to buy something, saw the two shop assistants laughing together and ran away in a state of fright. Emma further associated to the memory that the two of them were laughing at her clothes and that one of them had "pleased her sexually". I assume that Freud meant that one of the shop assistants aroused her sexually. Freud observed that this memory made no sense if it were to serve as an explanation for her inability to enter into a shop by herself. Freud goes on to say that further investigation now revealed a second memory, which she denied having had in mind at the moment of the scene just described. This second memory proved to be a more salient explanation of the neurotic symptom. On two occasions when she was a child of 8 she'd gone into a small shop to buy some sweets, and the shopkeeper had grabbed at her genitals through her clothes. In spite of the first experience she'd gone there a second time; after the second time she stopped going. She now reproached herself for having gone there the second time, as though she had wanted in that way to provoke the other assault. In fact the state of "oppressive bad conscious" is to be traced back to this experience. Freud explained that the experience of the first memory of shop assistants laughing at her evoked the second memory of having been sexually assaulted by a shopkeeper. Due to repression the meaning of the experience was disrupted and only the second memory remained unconscious. Freud described the displacement of meaning between the first and second memory as follows: memory A had stepped in to memory B's place; A has become a substitute for B. In this simplified and schematic fashion Freud describes a paradigm for the transformation of meaning that occurs in symptom formation in which will later also described as the difference between the manifest and latent content of the dream. Meanings can be displaced symbolically and the displacement is preserved by means of a process that he never adequately explained, the process of repression. In this section Freud also implies that the meaning of the sexual abuse did not become manifest until after puberty as he attaches some significance to the fact that memory A occurred at the age of 12. He was introducing the concept of the nachträglichkeit: that the meaning of experience is continually recontextualized in the course of development.

Feeling and cognition

I have suggested that cathexis be re-defined as value driven selection and furthermore that cathexis can be viewed as the conscious expression of an unconscious intentionality. We need now to consider the term value in some greater detail. We owe to William James the idea that consciousness is primarily a selecting agency, and what it selects we can label as a value. The following is a quotation from his Principles of Psychology:

"Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me, my experience is what I agree to intend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind - without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, lighting and shade, background and foreground - intelligible perspectives in a word. It varies in every creature, but without it the consciousness of every creature would be a gray chaotic indiscriminateness, impossible for us even to conceive." (James, 1890, vol. I, p. 402).

In summary: emotions and feelings select items of value. Value in this sense, depending on context, could refer to biologic value to the organism or value to the self, as I will illustrate. In a recent book on emotion, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum views emotions as judgments of value, judgments that are salient for our entire well-being. For Nussbaum emotions are judgments of value with regard to the self. To view emotions as a selecting agency and a form of judgment is to acknowledge that emotions are a source of knowledge. This would deny the age-old distinction between cognition and emotion, maintained by traditional philosophy and a facultative psychology. No practicing psychoanalyst can possibly believe in the distinction made by academic psychologists between cognition and emotion. But how emotion becomes a source of knowledge remains a theoretical problem for psychoanalysis as well as academic psychology.

The concept of biologic value was introduced into neuroscience by Gerald Edelman (1989, 1992). Value is a central component in Edelman's theory of how the brain works. In Edelman's theory, the homeostatic requirements of the individual exert a bias on memory and perception, expressed as value. Similar to Nussbaum, value refers to emotional judgments that effect the entire well-being of the individual. Edelman describes value as a necessary component of the selective process that occurs within reentry. In Edelman's theory, value implies a bias derived ultimately from the constraints of evolution resulting in a probabilistic expectancy.

The neurologist Antonio Damasio (1994) has also demonstrated that emotions and feelings are a vital source of knowledge. He described a man who suffered extensive damage to his right ventro-medial cortex which receives inputs from the limbic system. Damasio's patient's intellect was intact but he showed an extensive affective flattening, he seemed to lack the capacity to make discriminate judgments and therefore could not make decisions. The frontal lobe area of his brain was dissociated from his emotions. His memory and intelligence was intact but as he was not guided by feelings, in judging future expectations he made disastrous financial decisions, in striking contrast to his previously sound judgment. In every day life he could not establish priorities, I would say that he was unable to cathect items that were of value to himself.

That judgments of value derived from feeling are essential for adaptation can also be observed in our primates cousins. If the amygdala is bilaterally removed in ververt monkeys, they can survive in captivity but not in the wild: "returned to nature, it [the monkey] cannot maintain itself and soon dies. The reason is poignant: the monkey ostracizes itself from the group of monkeys in which it was a part. Indeed, it exhausts itself evading its peers. It seems to be constantly anxious and depressed. The amygdalectomized monkey can no longer distinguish between friendly and unfriendly gestures on the part of other monkeys, and perceives all approaches as a threat" (Nauta & Feirtag, 1986). The monkey is unable to interpret social signals so that feelings can no longer function as a marker for value.

Feelings and memory

When an item of consciousness is cathected, that selection is understood to result as the conjunction two neuro-psychological systems - that of feeling and memory. Although memory and feelings are usually treated as separate topics for investigation by neuroscientists, for a conscious animal such as ourselves and probably all mammals as well, memory and feelings form a unified functional system. Interestingly enough, Freud recognized in the Project the functional union of memory and endogenous sensations in that he attributed this dual function to one category of neurons to which he appended the Greek letter psi. This classification was not based upon anatomical differences between classes of neurons, but was strictly functional in accordance with this group of neuron's ability to retain a quantity of energy, in contrast to other neurons that were permeable with regard to energy. It is to this class of neurons, that retained energy, that Freud attributed the function of memory as well as the reception of endogenous excitations, that is to say the reception of feelings signaling the internal needs of the organism. Freud intuited that memory and endogenous sensations, that could be described as motives, formed a unified system. From our current position I would say that Freud attributed to this class of neurons the function of an unconscious intentionality. Here Freud had gotten it right. Unfortunately this early vision was later clouded over by the advent of instinct theory that downplayed the significance of memory and separated memory from what cognitive scientists would refer to as a motivational system. For example, he would later attribute the repetition compulsion to the death instinct rather than to memory and an unconscious intentionality. When instinct theory became the central explanatory concept of psychoanalysis, Freud no longer viewed memory, feelings and motives as a single functional system. Accordingly, the ideational aspect of feeling was no longer central to analytic theory.

How emotions become a source of knowledge - the problem of unconscious emotions

If Freud had retained his conception that memory and endogenous sensations that give rise to affects and feelings, formed a unified system, psychoanalytic theory would be in much better shape. Unfortunately Freud gave up this idea but on the other hand retained the association of affect with energy and quantity, which has remained a continuing problem for psychoanalytic theory. As you know, Freud's energic concepts have been under attack by Robert Holt and others since the 1960s. Holt observed, correctly, that energy was a kind of buzzword which at the end of the 19th century indicated that its user was not a vitalist. As I (Modell, 1963) was the reporter of the panel that discussed Freud's theory of psychic energy in 1962 I will cite Holt's comments:

"We need to be quite clear that the difficulty is not simply with the concept of psychic energy; we cannot hope to accomplish anything by simply replacing this with a more methodologically tenable concept: it is too firmly and pervasively built into the basic model, the very fabric of the theory. This model, I believe, is long overdue for a complete overhaul." (Holt, 1962; see Modell, 1963, p. 609)

But despite the fact Freud may have led us into some dead ends, I believe that the Project represents Freud at his most brilliant; it represents an unparalleled burst of creative energy. As a biographical aside, in a letter to Fliess, Freud writes:

"I've devoted every free minute of the last few weeks to work like this; I have spent to the night hours of 11 to 2 with imaginings, transpositions and guesses like these; and I have never stopped until I came up against some absurdity or till I had truly and seriously overworked, so that I found I had no interest left for my daily medical activity."

As has been widely recognized , the ghost of all the basic elements of psychoanalytic theory can be found in this manuscript. The Project contains several uncanny insights that were a hundred years ahead of his time such as his recognition of synaptic barriers and his Hebbsian account of learning. However he was led astray by his abstract quantitative formulations which has had an unfortunate persisting influence on the psychoanalytic theory of affects. Freud believed that quantity and quality were subserved by separate neural systems. Because of the intensity of feeling seen in hysterical symptoms, Freud placed affects within a quantitative system separated from quality. Quality is an aspect of consciousness, corresponding to the philosopher's qualia. So that the system that subserves quality is also a system that can be considered as the neural correlate of experience and meaning.

His attempt to translate clinical observation of affects into an abstract formulation involving quantity was no doubt influence by the new scientific psychology of psychophysics that was dominant at the end of the 19th century. Psychophysics was judged to be the leading scientific psychology at that time because it was quantitative. Freud did recognize that quantity cannot account for the quality of experience that characterizes consciousness. But in assigning quality to a separate neural system he made it difficult to account for the cognitive aspect of emotions and feelings. Quantity was assigned in the Project to the psi class of neurons while quality was a function of the permeable perceptual neurons phi.

These permeable perceptual neurons, devoid of memory, in turn interacted with a third class of neurons correlated with consciousness, omega. In accordance with the neuronal system of the Project, affects were indelibly stamped with quantity and so they remained. If quality and quantity were served by separate neuronal systems, it is difficult to explain how affects could serve as the carrier of meaning.

That Freud's quantitative concepts, derived from the Project still continue to bedevil psychoanalytic theory, especially the psychoanalytic theory of affects, can be illustrated by turning to a recent paper of André Green. It is his 1999 paper given at the Santiago Congress "On discriminating and not discriminating between affect and representation", Green attempted, in my opinion, unsuccessfully to solve the problem of how affects are the carriers of meaning. We can see in a very useful commentary on Green's paper provided by Ruth Stein that Green's difficulty in reconciling affects and meaning can be traced to Freud's energic and quantitative concepts. Stein claims that one of the major blocks in Green's theory of affects is the bondage to the presumption that unconscious affects are necessarily relatively simple [quantitative] vectors without quality. She states: "Green now finds himself with the following dilemma: if affects are 'unconscious', they are in accordance with Green's definition, 'psychoanalytic', then they have no meaning, whereas if affects have meaning, they must be conscious and therefore strictly speaking 'non psychoanalytic'. In other words affects are either unconscious and meaningless, or conscious and non psychoanalytic." Is not clear from Freudian theory how unconscious affects can be the carrier of meaning.

Unconscious emotions and memory

If one removes all quantitative concepts from the theory of affects, and view affects and memory as a combined system as Freud did initially, it is evident that memory provides unconscious affects with meaning. Meaning in this sense must be considered as potential meaning. Evolutionary theory and contemporary neuroscience supports the psychoanalytic idea of unconscious affects. I discuss this subject in my forthcoming book Imagination and the Meaningful Mind, where I adopt the convention of referring to unconscious affect as emotion and conscious affect as feeling. It is reasonable to assume that emotions appeared in evolutionary time, prior to the evolution of consciousness; it is probable that vertebrates possessed a limbic system before the advent of consciousness. There is recent evidence that a limbic system, the neural substrate of emotions, can be found in proto-vertebrates. A rudimentary limbic system has been observed in the lancelet, a primitive, proto-vertebrate, a marine organism that is a relative of the lamprey (Zimmer, 2000). The evolution of the limbic system may be related to the organism's need to monitor its internal state as a preparation for action into the environment. The limbic system's appearance seems to have coincided in the lancelet with the animal's transition from passive feeding to predatory behavior. For unlike the passive feeder, the predatory animal must be prepared to react to internal signals that prime the animal to either fight or flee. It seems likely that appearance of emotions in evolutionary time is linked to the organisms need for action into the environment.

Within the neuroscience community there is considerable controversy regarding the attribution of consciousness to other species. And there is no clear answer to the broader question: when did consciousness appear in evolutionary time? There are some hard-liners who would deny consciousness to any other animal other than ourselves. But this seems to me to be rather foolish for anyone who owns a dog knows that dogs have feelings and they respond to our own feelings. I believe that all mammals are conscious and perhaps some intelligent birds as well, such as gray parrots. But regardless how this controversy becomes resolved, it is a reasonable inference that emotions existed unconsciously for millions of years as an internal signaling system that responded to the vital needs of the individual animal. It is also reasonable to assume that the limbic system, the structural neurophysiological system, the neural correlates of such an unconscious emotional process has remained in place as the source of an unconscious intentionality. Such unconscious emotions do not necessarily create conscious feelings yet no analyst can doubt that unconscious emotion can profoundly influenced the course of one's life. The effect of unconscious guilt can hardly be underestimated. Even at the purely physiological level there is evidence of the influence unconscious emotions. For example, one may be unaware that one is anxious, but there may nonetheless be a corresponding elevation of blood pressure which also remains unconscious.

Everything that we know as psychoanalysts indicates that emotional memory, that is itself unconscious, exists as potential meaning. The details of this process, how emotional memory translates into meaningful feeling, is a subject that I shall now attempt to address in a condensed and somewhat schematic fashion. I have discussed this problem in greater detail in Imagination and the Meaningful Brain. As it is memory that gives meaning to emotion, let us return to the consideration of memory.

Let us start with the recognition that we are born into a world that is an unlabeled place to which we adopt by creating categories. This categorizing of experience, a basic function of the mind, is another way of describing memory. A fundamental function of memory is the detection of novelty, the detection of similarity and differences within the ever-changing flood of perceptions from inside the body and from the outer world. Edelman describes memory as "the enhanced ability to categorize associatively." If categorization is a basic function of memory, this would mean that our salient experiences form potential memorial categories. In Other times Other Realities (Modell, 1990) I introduced the concept of affect categories, which was intended to replace the old psychoanalytic term "complexes". Affect categories, are largely relational, the unconscious residues of both pleasurable and painful experiences with others. In Bollas' (1987) memorable phrase they are unthought knowns, unconscious foci of potential meaning. We are compelled to match unconscious affect categories with current experience. I have claimed that this correspondence is based on metaphoric similarities. I believe this to be a better way of explaining transference repetition and the need to repeat old traumas. It is an explanation based upon the interlocking system of memory and emotions rather than an explanation based on instinct or drive. From this point of view the repetition compulsion is indeed an attempt to return to an earlier state, but an earlier state based upon pre-existing memorial categories rather than an expression of the death instinct, as Freud believed. Salient emotional experiences form unconscious memories that have potential organization in accordance with their metaphoric similarities. I hypothesized the existence of an unconscious metaphoric process that is the potential source of affective meaning and creative apperceptions; in this sense metaphor is the currency in mind. Another way of stating this is: unconscious metaphoric categories are potential sources of meaning that select and interpret experience. Affect categories contribute to unconscious intentionality so that specific items of consciousness are cathected.

One's imagination cannot operate without metaphor but in the case of trauma, metaphor becomes fixed, constricted and frozen, which severely limits the freedom of the imagination. Artists are of course an exception were trauma becomes the fount of imagination. I can provide a brief clinical illustration (taken from Imagination and the Meaningful Brain): A woman's loving relationship with her father was irrevocably lost, when, in her early childhood, her father developed a brain tumor that led to the gradual deterioration of his personality and his eventual death. As an adult she was compulsively driven to uncover defects in men, almost is if it were a matter of her survival. These presumed defects were then selectively perceived to the exclusion of whatever other virtues that might be present. For example, she noted that her husband was driving slowly, overly cautiously, and, in her judgment, incompetently. She then wondered whether he was developing brain damage and becoming precociously senile. She became anxious and responded to her anxiety with an enraged outburst. One could say that her husband's driving was highly cathected and that the memory of her relationship with her defective father remained as potential affect category giving rise to countless metaphoric displacements.

The potential meaning that exists as unconscious memory can be invoked by metonymic or metaphoric triggers in current time. What I have described as unconscious categorical memories includes the affective memories of intersubjective experiences. I may be overlapping here upon the concept of affectively charged internalized object relationships such as portrayed by Fairbairn and later by Kernberg.

All of this is an attempt to illustrate how feeling embodies judgment and knowledge: emotions and feelings are the carriers of meaning. The range and freedom of associations that are evoked by the activation of an unconscious affect category will vary enormously from the constricted possibilities as I described in the clinical case, to the nearly infinite range of associations that attest to the power of the imagination. We know also that the meaning of a feeling is subject to interpretation at every level from that of an unconscious neurophysiological process to that of conscious intention.

To summarize: advances in neurobiology enable us to redefine Freud's concept of cathexis. I suggested that we retain Freud's vision, found in the Project, of combining affect and memory into a unified system, but remove his misguided reference to quantity and energy. Cathexis can then be understood as the conscious expression of an unconscious intentionality. The idea of unconscious intentionality can be seen as a promising substitute for the concept of instinct and drive as unconscious intentionality is probabilistic, nonlinear and future directed. Moreover it gives full play to the imagination that is the ultimate source of the meanings that are generated by feelings.

References [edited by Paolo Migone]

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