and Contemporary Thought
7, 1984, 147-194.
Notes on a Future Synthesis
DE BEAUGRANDE, Ph.D.
information-processing approach has offered new perspectives on many issues in
human psychology, such as language, memory, and comprehension (Lindsay and
Norman, 1972; Anderson and Bower, 1973; Loftus and Loftus, 1976; Rumelhart,
1977). The basic analogy between information processing and human functions
should be construed on the level of metapsychology, whose domain,
according to Pribram and Gill (1976), should now be a "biological cognitive
control theory" (p. 14). As noted by Rosenblatt and Thickstun (1977), Freud
himself admitted the fundamental possibility of reinterpreting the basic corpus
of psychoanalytic observations by means of a new theoretical superstructure.
Viewing the human as a complex system traversing a pattern of information states
helps us to formulate complex problems and issues in tractable and operational
ways, as demonstrated by research on visual perception (Sperling, 1960; Eriksen
and Collins, 1967; Horn, 1975; Kosslyn, 1975; Minsky, 1975; Waltz, 1975).
the information-processing approach by itself is extremely general and must be
specified with careful attention to the concerns of each domain that it is
applied to. Some of its fundamental assumptions, which will be elaborated
further on, are as follows:
Information is a designation for any configuration in a system as
compared to the alternative configurations of that system, and processing is a
mode of acting upon-building, searching, matching, changing-such configurations.
The performance of a processing system can be viewed as problem-solving,
defined as the search and selection of pathways from one state to another, e.g.,
moving from unknown to known' unfamiliar to familiar, plan to goal, and so forth.
Psychological entities, such as thoughts, meanings, and emotions, are processing
events, where event is defined as a change of state. An object
is one outcome of an event that constitutes (identifies, classifies, etc.) an
entity. A theory for any given psychological entity should represent the
dynamics of the relevant processing events as exactly as possible. Black-box
models that discount all operations between input and output are ultimately
unproductive because, from a human standpoint, input and output must also be
constituted as "events" and hence must reflect their dynamic
Some processes are general; others are specialized. The
interaction between general and specialized processes can create and control
elaborated complexes of behavior and cognition for a wide variety of occasions.
Processes are partly physiological and partly symbolic. On the one
hand, a process involves the activation of nonrandom neural patterns with a
characteristic result; on the other hand, a process represents something that is
related in a symbolic way to those patterns. The physiological and the symbolic'
aspects are present in all modes of processing, although their mutual
interactions and dominances can fluctuate widely from case to case.
A human process can vary; it need not run in precisely the same way for
all people, nor even for the same person on different occasions. Variations can
easily arise from divergences in motivation, time, automaticity, resource load,
-and so on. However, this is not to say that the process is uncontrolled or
random. Rather, a process is properly defined as a community of related
physiological and symbolic events whose preconditions and results are, for human
purposes, classified together. The same results might be attained with different
means on another occasion.
Human actions should be specified in terms of their intentionality; at
some level of processing, the human intends to relate the physiological with the
symbolic and to group together associated actions as a single process. An
account of what humans do includes their beliefs about what they're doing.
However, this intentionality may not be open to introspection or observation. In
particular, automatic processes are constructed and refined precisely to operate
without attentional supervision, and thus to conserve resources. The mind sets a
threshold at which these processes are triggered by appropriate conditions.
Reality is a human model that provides orientation and explanation in the
face of everyday experience. Social order results from a general (though seldom
universal) consensus about the validity of a particular reality-model and of the
human actions that enact, maintain, or interpret it.
Potentially at least, any process can evolve, given appropriate
conditions or intentions. However, not every such evolution is equally
successful or persistent. Learning occurs when the human has undergone an
evolution that modifies or expands his or her repertory of reliable operations.
Ideally, learning could he optimized if we could represent and guide the
evolution of the instrumental processes, about which we still know far too
Errors and dysfunctions occur when there is a serious or
persistent problem in processing operations. A certain error margin is a natural
side-product of the variety and complexity of human processing. Yet, severe
limitations or disabilities can accumulate when operations are non-strategically
organized. Learning disabilities may be less a predetermined product of genetic
potential than an accidental product of unguided, disadvantageous process
value of this approach depends on whether its models of human cognition and
behavior support orientation and explanation in the exigencies of research and
practice. If they do, they (concurrent with other models) meet the criteria of
“reality" as defined above. Some implications and consequences of
building such models for psychoanalysis are outlined below.
PSYCHOLOGY VERSUS PSYCHOANALYSIS
have been several disagreements between empirical science and psychoanalysis in
the course of their history. One of the major disputes has been that of
physiological versus symbolic factors. During his long and busy career, Sigmund
Freud combined physiological issues with symbolic ones in a powerful and
original way. In his later years, he favored a purely "psychological"
approach to psychoanalysis, one that would not rely on biological and
neurological concepts. But, as Pribram and Gill (1976) observed, this separation
is neither feasible nor desirable from the standpoint of contemporary science;
nor was it made in Freud's (1895) original "Project for a Scientific
Psychology." To exclude the biological from the psychological is to
re-create the old Cartesian mind-body dualism and to dangerously fragment our
model of the human being. Moreover, the unconscious is a domain that can have no
place in Cartesian dualism (von Bertalanffy, 1964).
certainly countermanded the most basic concepts of scientific positivism when he
asserted that the physiological was under the control of the psychological. This
new outlook encouraged an undue neglect of biological contexts. The
physiological aspect was consequently displaced by metaphorical constructs, such
as the "anthropomorphic" and "hydrodynamic" frameworks
attacked by Peterfreund and Schwartz (1971). The question is not whether
physiology and biology will be included in the foundations of psychoanalysis,
but only what implicit or explicit frameworks will he used. If physiology is
ignored or discounted, it becomes necessary to invent elaborate substitutes that
cloud our view of the issues, such as the problematic and recently criticized
construct of "psychic energy" (Rosenblatt and Thickstun, 1970;
Peterfreund and Schwartz, 1971).
negative consequence of one-sided "psychological" viewpoints is the
inability to base a consensus on physiological factors. Hence, there has been
almost unlimited diversity of terms and models in psychotherapy (Reisman, 1971;
Brown, 1976) as well as a corresponding tendency among psychoanalysts to adopt a
highly individualistic approach to their work (Ford and Urban, 1963). This has
meant that there are no widely accepted standards for constructing theories or
for turning them into therapeutic methods.
equally negative consequence is that Freud's heritage is not integrated with the
central concerns of empirical psychology in America. For several decades,
behavioral psychology overemphasized the physiological at the expense of the
symbolic, at least as radically as the Freudians had done the opposite. The need
for a metapsychology of higher-order abstractions for making and interpreting
observations was denied for a long time in hopes that simplistic measurements
and tight controls would ensure the validity of evidence. To some degree, this
stance injected into scientific inquiry itself the mind-body dualism by
splitting the scientist into the dichotomy of subject and object. Scientists
failed to acknowledge their own symbolic response to the physiological data they
were gathering. Only recently has this position been recognized as untenable,
especially for psychology (Rosenblatt and Thickstun, 1977).
dispute over physiological versus symbolic factors is only the first point of
contention between empirical psychology and psychoanalysis in America. At least
four others should he noted. The second is the dispute over statistical
generality versus the individual patient. Whereas experimental findings are
customarily stated in terms of what most subjects have in common. Freud and his
successors recognized a strong personal component in the subject's tendency to
assign symbolic functions, especially in dreams. On the one side, statistical
significance is expected to protect empirical science from accidental or
idiosyncratic evidence. On the other side, psychoanalysis deals with, and is
responsible for, the individual patient, no matter how unique the causalities
may be in each case. In fact, many disturbances arise precisely from improbable,
idiosyncratic processing that impedes functional interaction with socially
accepted reality. The third dispute is closely tied to the second, namely,
quantitative versus qualitative discovery. American "science" heavily
favors numerical statements, no doubt because numbers seem relatively "objective"
across a whole community of sciences. The reliance of empirical psychology on
statistical methods conflicted with the need of psychoanalysis to describe
syndromes in terms of features and tendencies, often supplied by the patient's
own introspection. However, as Rosenblatt and Thickstun (1977) point out,
qualitative, introspective data can be quantified with such methods as rating
scales; and "premature and misguided attempts at mathematization of
behavioral data, in emulation of the physical sciences, have on occasion
obscured and stultified the development of original concepts in psychology"
fourth dispute concerns linear versus multiple causality. Again inspired by the
physical sciences, empirical psychology has inherited the Newtonian notion of a
simple, one-way cause/effect chain; but psychoanalysis has to explore circular
and multiple causalities (yon Bertalanffy, 1968). In the classic experimental
design, each stimulus event is assumed to elicit a response event in a
deterministic, lawlike way. But in psychotherapy, a symptom, such as anxiety,
can arise from several causes in interaction and may persist even when such
causes are removed, because others have taken over the same function (see Bowlby,
1969). A causality that explains experimentally controlled responses has
different concerns from a causality that guides therapy.
fifth dispute, and one closely related to the issue of causality, is the issue
of explicit versus concealed motivation. Behavioral psychology devises special
environments in which the subject's actions are controlled by different rewards
and punishments. Supplying clear motives is an explicit part of routine
experimental design, and much less attention is paid to the subject's symbolic
model of everyday reality. By contrast, psychoanalysis assumes that behavioral
patterns can arise from elaborately hidden motives which the disturbed subject
wants to ignore or repress. What counts as a reward or a punishment for the
individual subject might seem fully inconsistent with explicit, general values
and goals in society.
these disputes are substantive and complex, the isolation and fragmentation of
psychoanalysis is regrettable. An important branch of psychological application
is cut off from the mainstream of controlled research on perception,
comprehension, and memory-the basic processing involved in dealing with human
experience and deciding what it means. Future progress crucially depends on
overcoming this separation by means of a cumulative general theory (von
Bertalanffy, 1964).. In this paper, I shall try to outline one prospective
framework. for such a theory and to suggest how some of the Freudian heritage
may be restated in terms of the information-processing approach. Obviously, at
this stage such an attempt can he no more than a preliminary proposal. But, in
view of the pressing need for more concerted interaction between psychoanalysis
and empirical psychology, the effort may prove worthwhile.
now seems reasonably certain that the physiological basis for thinking,
remembering, reasoning, acting, and so on, is electrochemical impulses. In the
past it was fashionable to view the mind as a static filing cabinet with
documents being entered, removed, and carried about, for example, in the "pigeonhole"
view of memory criticized by Kintsch (f977). It now seems more appropriate to
regard the mind as a richly structured apparatus whose "contents" are
patterns of excitation and transmission. For instance, recalling information in
memory requires a change in the activation level of a stored pattern (Morton,
1970), rather than a messenger taking a paper from one pigeonhole and placing it
into another. It is fundamental to the nature of electrical impulses that they
are ongoing events, not fixed objects. It follows that the human brain and body
can be substantially reconfigured by the transmission of neural impulses.
chemical aspect of human processes is another important dimension. Chemical
processes typically change the character of the participating substances. Some
of the changes are irreversible; others trigger further changes in a chain
reaction. The point is that, potentially at least, chemical impulses are able to
fundamentally alter the conditions under which they take place and thus create
new conditions for other impulses. To demonstrate that the basic physiological
conditions are relevant for understanding the character of human processing, we
would have to show that those conditions can account for significant properties
of human cognition and behavior. This demonstration is not too difficult. Let us
consider how some basic differences between a simple computer and the human
brain arise from corresponding differences in their physiological construction.
simple computer is built of stable conductors and insulators. Operations are
mainly executed via the opposition between the open and closed circuits. Each
impulse reconfigures a pattern by closing open circuits and opening closed ones.
In the human brain, in contrast, an impulse can reconfigure a pattern in a
variety of ways that are sensitive to ongoing conditions. One of these
conditions is the state of other patterns in the same system and their strength
of association with the target pattern. The changes effected by electrochemical
impulses during learning, thinking, etc., are vastly complex with respect to the
number and nature of states that can be reached. Hence, we should predict that
this major physiological difference will be reflected in the operational
properties of the simple computer versus those of the brain.
is indeed the case in the well-documented trade-off of storage versus search (Loftus
and Loftus, 1976). The human mind has vast storage but rather unreliable search
capacities, whereas the simple computer has comparatively limited storage but
reliable search capacities. Presumably, the results of an impulse being
transmitted through the system are relevant to this difference. The computer
configures its circuits and leaves them fixed in that pattern and location. (This
is as true of adjunct computer storage devices, such as disks and tapes, as it
is of on-line memory.) Thus, search can go at once to the right place and get
back exactly what was stored. In exchange, though, these fixed and rigidly
maintained configurations and access pathways take up a great deal of space in
the computer's memory and have to be updated by special commands. The brain, in
contrast, configures itself in patterns that may well evolve or update their
Vocational properties (loss, reduction, conversion, etc.) as a by-product of
subsequent impulses. Hence, search can't count on taking the same pathway again
or getting back exactly what was stored before; as a result, search is less
reliable. In exchange, -though, these flexible, interactive configurations allow
for efficient use of storage space and thus for the staggering memory capacity
in humans. Patterns get compacted, simplified, merged, enriched, reused, and
redesigned, in such a way that traces can be retained and integrated from
enormous quantities of material.
dynamic construction of the brain was not given due consideration in early
theories of learning. In the wake of Darwinism, most such theories incorporated
the mechanistic assumption that the brain's capacities were genetically fixed,
like those of a hard-wired circuit-board (Galton, 1883; Spearman, 1904). This
view provided a handy alibi for the failure of a person-or in Jensen's (1972)
"theory," of a whole race-to succeed in school: poor
"hardware" in the head. The "fixed mind" became a banner
notion for such aberrant projects as eugenics, which proposed to sterilize
people with inferior intelligence (Kamin, 1974).
theorists of highly diverse persuasions concur that the potential of the mind
for evolution is much greater than is normally attained, and that it is only to
a small extent fixed in advance by physiological limits (Combs, 1952; Otto,
1968; Ouspensky, 1968; Maslow, 1971; Marks, 1982). As John McVicker Hunt (1970)
concludes from the available evidence, "if the manner in which encounters
with the environment foster the development of intellectual interest and
capacity were more fully understood, it might be possible to increase the
average level of intelligence within the population substantially" (p.
same lesson can be drawn from mental dysfunctions. Although they can be
inherited, they can also result from evolutions during any stage of the person's
life. The capacity of electrochemical impulses to alter their own conditions and
participating substances could account for the variety and uncertainty of mental
evolution. At some point, unfavorable conditions are created for certain
processes or classes of processes, and a disability occurs. If not corrected,
this effect could be intensified and propagated until gross behavioral
disturbances, such as hysteria, are manifested. The fact that such disabilities
can be corrected, at least part of the time, is natural if we assume they have
originated in a vastly flexible and adaptive system.
should follow that physiological countermeasures can be devised for
psychological disturbances. However, such cures cannot be the kind used by early
clinical psychotherapy, whose attitude was like that of a child shaking and
banging a damaged toy in hopes that it will fix itself. Electric shocks and
other gross impulses were administered, even though clinicians lacked a detailed
theory of how or why this might correct a mental disturbance. Clearly, the mind
got thoroughly shaken up; but there was no plausible theory to relate these
gross physiological interventions with the complex and subtle symbolic
causalities of the disturbance. At most, the patient learned to repress or
disguise the symptoms in order to escape further persecution.
lack of knowledge about the symbolic aspect was also a factor in the
heavy-handed tinkering of brain operations. The dysfunctional brain location was
cut out of, or disconnected from, the organism because nobody understood how to
reconfigure the disturbed processes. The patients were "cured" by
trading the disturbance for dismemberment. The symptoms disappeared, often along
with many other brain functions. There was no way to make the operation specific
and controlled enough to provide a cure with the least possible impact on the
symbolic relation exists wherever human processes elect to define or treat one
thing in terms of another. As Langer (1951) points out, even the basic "perception
of form is abstraction" and therefore results from "the process of
symbolization" (p. 59). Some symbolic acts are very simple, as when a
physical sensation is interpreted as "heat" or "cold."
Others are quite elaborated and complex, as when a configuration of experience
is interpreted as "personal failure." Undoubtedly, the strongly
developed symbolic function contributes to the impressive ability of human
processing to conserve resources and storage by grouping comparable things
together and interpreting new experiences according to high-powered
representations of types. But in exchange, the rich and variegated possibilities
for constructing symbolic relations make processing less reliable. Depending on
what representation is needed for a given item, the item may be processed in
many ways. The mind has to declare its current specifications and then to sort
out a large quantity of items that match those specifications in diverse
symbolic modes. Understandably enough, this diversity has made experimental
psychologists reluctant to study the more complex symbolic action domains.
maintains that even simple computers are far less subject to error than humans.
The notion of "error" is a very literal one here: failure to attain a
precisely specified result from an equally precise operation. In a more powerful
sense, the simple computer is, on the contrary, much more prone to major errors
than the skilled human whenever heuristic reasoning is needed to identify,
define, and structure a new problem. The computer's physical construction, which
enables such reliable search, also severely limits its symbolic potential. Most
programs can't recognize analogies, fit old ideas to new cases, apply common
sense, jump to conclusions, correct odd deviations from the norm, and so on (Collins
and Quillian, 1972; Collins, 1978). For most computers, the symbolic function
demands an explicit statement assigning representations to events (or
vice-versa). Some new approaches to programming have tried to offset these
limitations by stating more abstract patterns that input should match (Pavlidis,
1977; Waterman and Hayes-Roth, 1978) and by taking everyday world-knowledge into
account (Winograd, 1972; Minsky, 1975; Bobrow and Winograd, 1977; Fahlman, 1979;
Schank and Riesbeck, 1981). However, as we'd expect in view of the search versus
storage trade-off, these new programs tend to consume large amounts of memory
and to need considerable respecification for each new domain of knowledge.
Evidently, the human ability to reason about vaguely specified or unstable
domains allows a complexity and subtlety that reduces major errors, even though
it increases minor (literal) ones.
human errors and breakdowns do occur for many reasons. The syndromes studied by
Freud and his successors involve physiological disturbances with highly symbolic
correlates. The "normal" causality, where an acute symptom arises from
an organic lesion, is replaced by a hidden symbolic causality; when the latter
is uncovered during therapy in a way that convinces the patient, the symptoms
may disappear, although they may also persist or return. Here lies the central
problem of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Given the vast, possibly infinite
human potential to assign symbolic relations and functions, how can we determine
and treat the relevant cause of any particular disturbance?
first step would be to identify classes of events that are likely to function as
pathogenic. Freud himself (1923) devised a classification of mental events
according to a trilogy of concurrent constructs he called "ego,"
“superego," and "id." The “superego" was a monitor
created by internalizing the directives of parents and society about what was or
was not acceptable. The "id" was the sum of basic "drives."
The "ego" was the self-concept ("character") being
stimulated by the "id" and controlled by the "superego" in
everyday reality. In a repressive society, the "ego" is likely to be
caught in severe conflicts between these two sources of commands. Any such
conflict could become a plausible candidate for triggering a disturbance. The
events of the conflict would he dismissed from conscious awareness and given
some symbolic representation that in turn waited to reassert itself in an error,
or in severe cases, in a syndrome.
critics have noted that this Freudian scheme tends to propagate an
anthropomorphic (or at least animistic) view of the mind as a set of agents (Peterfreund
and Schwartz, 1971). Freud himself was prone to describe his constructs in terms
that would be more fitting for a person. In one source (Freud, 1940), for
instance, he says: "the ego strives after pleasure.... the ego gives up its
connection with the external world and withdraws into a state of sleep" (p.
146). Nash (1963) comments that "Freud's metaphor of intrapersonal persons"
makes processing look like a "dramatic interaction" of the "inner
players of a play-within-a-play" (p. 341). The unity of the human
processing system is obscured by these agents whose exact relationships to each
other in any specific event or disturbance are very hard to clarify. To view
behavior as driven by inner conflicts among undifferentiated animate opponents
is to grossly oversimplify the case and to obscure the more subtle modes of
more abstract account would be that a causal disturbance can be converted into a
symbolic symptom if the person is rejecting it and refusing to deal with it for
what it is. This rejection could repress the conscious awareness of the
disturbance, but not the unconscious need of the disturbance to be resolved.
Eventually, this need engenders a different-order symbolic disturbance that
appears to demand an organic (usually medicinal) resolution. Yet, since the
causality is elaborately symbolic, organic treatment is more likely to reduce
the symptoms than to provide a cure. Only if the patient would recognize and
deal with the original disturbance could an effective cure be attained.
reasoned that the patient represses the cause if the latter is in some domain
that instills strong negative affects, such as fear, anxiety, or repulsion.
Freud's preoccupation with sexuality stemmed from the evident fact that this
domain, more than any other, aroused those negative affects in the society of
his times. For instance, he assumed that an "instinctual drive" that
was strongly repressed might convert desire to the opposite feeling of
repulsion-a physiologically complex change, but a symbolically simple one. A
thing is more closely associated with its opposite (e.g., "night" and
"day") than with an unrelated thing (e.g., "night" and
"elbow"). The polarity of opposites is recognizable precisely because
of their similarity of structure (Freud, 1916-1917).
grave problem is how to gather evidence of symbolic constructs. Freud freely
took evidence from his own introspection, other people's reports, observed
errors and disturbances, and even myths (e.g., Oedipus). Like many
psychoanalysts after him, Freud often had to take the patient's word for what
the original experience was like and what it meant. Freud's early work used
hypnosis to get patients to reveal clues about pathogenic events. Later, he
found that therapeutic discourse was often more useful. Patients were
encouraged to perform "free association," whose content was a free
flow of symbolically related materials. Freud (1916-1917) hypothesized that this
activity would reveal personal constructs and representations tangential to the
disturbance, e.g., to the pathogenic event for a syndrome. He thought that the
usual monitoring of one's utterances would be relaxed, and that each association
would be "strictly determined by important inner attitudes of the mind,
which are unknown to us at the moment" (p. 96).
soon realized that his success with neurotic patients suggested a very general
phenomenon: the ability of mind and body to create and enact symbolic
representations of all sorts. He surmised that "those commonplace
occurrences which have been cast aside as all too insignificant" can "betray
very important things" (p. 26). The errors of everyday life might be
signals of the "interference of two different intentions" (p. 40). He
saw dreams as a striking illustration that, without conscious control, symbols
for one's real or imagined experience are devised and elaborated with amazing
complexity and subtlety. Here, also, Freud assumed that the tendency to transfer
or convert would be stronger if the person's "conscious" mind had not
resolved the material; and again, sexual issues were the most obvious candidate
for conscious rejection. However, many other sources were also uncovered by
close analysis, such as extravagant wishes, ambitions, guilt feelings, and
unpleasant or salient experiences in one's past.
the other hand, the extreme variability of symbolic constructs is probably being
underestimated if we routinely expect to find sexual issues as the cause. We
clearly need further modes of evidence besides introspection, verbal reports,
and errors. Despite common beliefs to the contrary, there is more experimental
evidence bearing on Freud's theories than on most other theories of personality
or development (Fisher and Greenberg,
1977). However, there is little consensus about how Freud's theories can he
tested or validated, and practical obstacles abound. Subjects might well conceal
or disguise the very data that an investigator would want to evaluate; or if
they did not, then repression and avoidance couldn't be as strong as Freud
claimed. Many developments would require several years (e.g., the impact of
early childhood on adult neuroses), during which continual observation would-be
necessary. In addition, strict, stable causalities are hard to find; for example,
even if one were to reconstruct an experience and then put the patient to sleep,
it is unlikely that the same dream would be triggered again.
are problems even in using the battery of methods in psychiatry and personality
psychology, such as interviews, questionnaires, inventories, Rorschach blots,
and anxiety measures (survey in Fisher and Greenberg, 1977). Many of these
methods entail an elaborately symbolic component-how subjects want to represent
themselves, how they interpret the test and the testing situation, and so
forth-whose elucidation is critical for a full evaluation of the findings. The
symbolic function adds a complex variable to causalities governing much of human
activities, including scientific research itself. Until this function can be
reliably accounted for, psychoanalysis and empirical psychology will not be
PROCESSING OF INFORMATION
is where the information-processing approach offers a major advantage by
defining both physiological and symbolic entities in common terms as structured
events in human processing. It seeks to model the complex dynamics involved and
to find unified modes of representation. It acknowledges that all human actions
have a symbolic aspect, leaving no grounds for excluding from study those
traditionally eschewed as "subjective" by experimentalists; in fact,
there is no way to do so. No mind-versus-body dualism is needed-the
physiological and the symbolic are simply two aspects of processing events.
classical "stimulus-response" mechanism was usually demonstrated with
extremely simple cases. The stimulus was sharp and direct (e.g., an electric
shock), and the response followed regularly and immediately (e.g., pushing a
lever or running through a maze). This simplicity, combined with a preference
for low-order animals as subjects, created the illusion that the whole mechanism
involved no symbolic aspect. The most exaggerated extension was Skinner's (1957)
attempt to explain language itself as direct "conditioning," without
regard for the intensely symbolic character of communication. Predictably, all
of Skinner's illustrations came from reductive situations in which people's
utterances stimulated, or were stimulated by, external events (e.g., "pass
the standpoint of information processing, it is clear that in most human
situations the relationship between a stimulus and a response is partly symbolic,
obeying the cognition that the stimulus and the response represent things that
make them relevant to each other. In the causality of a neurosis, this
assignment of representations is atypically personal and mediated; symptoms are
triggered by events that, in terms of social agreement and physiological
necessity, need not cause such effects. A substantial portion of pathogenic
"conditioning" (configuring of processes) is done in a mental domain
to which both the patient and society are denied immediate access. Impulse
configurations are reconstructed until an idiosyncratic stimulus (converted
experience) elicits a manifest response (external symptom). This exceptional
causality does not make the symptoms any less real or distressing for the
patient. The more the symptoms intervene in one's actions, the more they tend to
acquire "reality" in the sense defined at the start of this paper.
From an information-processing standpoint, the "conscious mind" is the
sum of attentional events, whereas the "unconscious mind" is the sum
of nonattentional events. The "preconscious," which Freud (1900)
seemed to view as the buffer for materials passing from the unconscious into the
conscious, would he the sum of events that are close to the threshold of
activation but have not actually arrived (cf. Morton, 1970). If we assume that
the electrochemical processes of thought and memory are constantly acting upon
their own conditions and substances, then there should be some unconscious
activity going on at all times, no matter what the person may be attending to.
Of course, attention can direct a large portion of cognitive resources to an
intended cognition or operation. But, the prior structure of one's knowledge can
"preconfigure" incidental processing whose relatedness to current
attentional focus is accidental or remote.
tended to envision the unconscious as the domain of affect and the conscious as
the domain of cognition, although the foregoing scheme suggests that no such
division is made-there could easily be conscious affects and unconscious
cognition. Weiner (1975) has shown that basic cognitive tasks can bring a
conflict-resolving insight into disturbing affects, indicating a closer
relationship between the affective and cognitive domains than is assumed in
traditional psychoanalysis. However, the fact that affects are evidently
powerful and persistent states makes it probable that they (or events including
them) often elude immediate resolution and call for additional processing on the
unconscious level. This probability would be particularly strong if people try
to deny or conceal affects in social settings-a long-standing tendency in some
In automatic processing, the person selects a preconfigured action pattern and lets it run without conscious supervision (Norman and Shallice, 1980; MacKay, 1982). Automatic process,es are hard to set up and monitor, but once they are working, they are rapid and economical (Shiffrin and Schneider, 1977). Freud (1935 himself noted that slips and errors may he absent during automatic processing, yet may occur when attention is in focus:
great number of actions may be carried out in a purely automatic way with very
little attention and yet quite successfully many acts are most successfully
carried out when they are not the objects of particularly concentrated attention,
and mistakes way occur just on occasions when one is most eager to he accurate,
that is, when a distraction of the necessary attention is certainly not present
ongoing operations cap be influenced or even controverted by some processing
events that are not receiving either attention or intention.
what happens during 'everyday processing. When an event (an experience or
cognition) is registered, it is rapidly interpreted in working memory and then
stored as a representation in longer-term memory. Its nature and significance
are constituted by recognizing it as an instance of, or an analogy to, something
that was already known and stored. This whole operation can he defined as
problem-solving. finding a resolution for the unknown or unfinished, and
carrying out any tasks involved (Newell and Simon, 197@). To the extent that
this particular event is novel, unexpected, or complex, it may not be fully
accounted for before it gets stored. It way remain fragmented, ambivalent,
incomplete, or problematic, and therefore want further processing, even though
the person's conscious resources have been directed elsewhere. It follows that
this problem-solving sequel can only be done unconsciously until some threshold
of satisfactory account is attained; and even then, the dynamic nature of
storage might enact further reorganizations in the wake of still newer events.
The ability to construct rich analogies and associations allows considerable
freedom for further interpretations of any one event. In general, preference
will go to problem-solving operations that impose order and explanation on
experiences. Yet, Freud's famous slips and errors might he a side-effect of
peripheral processing that resolves problems in unexpected or undesirable ways
(e.g., by revealing an intention the person wants to conceal).
that the event is significantly disturbing because it conflicts with major
expectations or motives. The person has to make a choice in a hurry: to retain
the disturbing event in working memory where it is most influential and
conspicuous, and try to resolve it somehow; or to push it out of working memory
into storage where, though still unresolved, it is at least not in the focus of
attention. Obviously, the second solution-immediate release from intense
disturbance--looks attractive, especially when a satisfactory resolution might
demand large and arduous alterations in one's structure of expectations and
motives. However, the event thus "repressed" (dismissed from working
memory) goes on demanding an account and presumably attracts some resources from
the peripheral processes that are steadily acting upon storage. These processes
should tend to convert the event in hopes of reducing or removing its disturbing
aspects. The symbolic function is activated to solve the problem of creating a
version remote from the proximate but unwelcome one. Conditions should now favor
the idiosyncratic and surprising constructs typically uncovered during
psychoanalysis. The person would naturally be unaware of these constructs
manufactured outside of conscious awareness. Later events may trigger
associations with these constructs, though the individual has no way of
recognizing what is going on. Instead, negative associations are elicited by
events whose relation to the original negative sensation is not consciously
known, since the progress of symbolic conversion has not been monitored.
person's set of socially conditioned directives on action constitutes what Freud
called the "superego." One's set of biologically conditioned
directives on action constitutes what he called the "id." However,
these sets are probably neither independent, nor in steady conflict, unless
there is some additional division between the two domains, such as all functions
of the "superego" being conscious or cognitive (rational) and all
functions of the "id" being unconscious or affective (emotional).
However, during everyday processing, the thresholds of conscious versus
unconscious or cognitive versus affective are flexible in regard to both social
and biological motivations. In between the "superego" and the
"id," Freud situated the ,&ego" interacting with everyday
reality and correlating its specifications and requirements with these
internalized sets of directives. The ego should have considerable input from
both the cognitive and the affective domains, but so far, it is not clear why
the ego must be trapped in conflicts between these two domains of a different
order and with different consequences. Peterfreund and Schwartz (1971) suggest
more research is needed to determine why and how acute or pathogenic conflicts
occur between affective and cognitive aspects. Freud (as well as Nietzsche)
assumed that society had adopted an unrealistically hostile outlook toward
biological needs, such that the conscious actions of the "ego" become
diffuse and distorted. In terms of processing, routine events could receive
divisive interpretations and elude definitive resolution until an elaborated
construct of poorly integrated ideas and experiences engenders manifest
disturbances of thought and action, i.e., errors and syndromes.
psychoanalysis operates on the principle of bringing such idiosyncratic
constructs and associations to the patient's attention, where they can finally
be@ reviewed and modified. At least, the possibilities for a resolution are
greatly enhanced if this can be achieved. The analyst typically encourages free
association in hopes of tracing out unconscious relations that a more precisely
defined and controlled memory search would miss or avoid. Of course, the patient
may "resist," i.e., persist in rejecting or concealing the underlying
causalities for the same motives that led to the original act of repression
(Fine, 1973). Weiner (1975) advocates having the patient do conflict-free
cognitive tasks as a means of circumventing entrenched defenses surrounding a
pathogenic conflict. This approach might simplify psychotherapy, which has
traditionally been complicated, circuitous, and time-consuming (Hartley and
sketch indicates, however, that as long as social directives conflict with
biological ones, a tendency to interpret events pathogenically will persist
throughout society. Psychotherapy often brings about improvements that are later
reversed when the patient reenacts the same or similar processes as those that
engendered the original syndrome. Such cases may he instances of "regression"
back to an earlier and/or more primitive conflict-stage (Freud, 1900). However,
they could also result merely because the person's total environment of action
and interaction is still laden with conflict. The system unconsciously repeats
symbolic conversions, even if the person consciously knows from experience that
such a conversion doesn't lead to a resolution.
can we envision the details of a nonattentional symbolic conversion? Probably,
the physiological (neurological) basis is highly influential. Two events could
be contaminated and lead to disturbances or errors if ' in mental storage, they
are contiguous (i.e., because they were originally associated in time or
causality), or analogous (i.e., because their structure or features are similar
in some way). These configurations could "print through" onto each
other and result in a seemingly unaccountable action (Norman, 198 1). The
contiguity or analogy could be quite abstract if it occurred at the very deep
level where events are represented as configurations of electrochemical impulses.
Two events might he stored in contiguity merely because they happened to the
person at roughly the same time or place, or under comparable circumstances.
Structural analogies on this level could obtain between experiences or
cognitions that look quite incongruous to common sense observation or
introspection. The closeness of opposites, cited above and very prominent in
Freud's theories, is a case in point.
more complex possibility would be that memory processing decomposes an event and
works on its components through a variety of associations in such a way that the
end product appears incoherent to anyone who doesn't understand its origin and
evolution. This additional step should confuse the person or the observer
because the complexity of the conversion has now increased by several orders of
magnitude. Such seems to be the case with many dreams where elaborate
interpretations and revisions of memory items take place.
doubt, the complexity and subtlety of such processing, and the absence of
attention, would make it hard to anticipate, recognize, or control the results.
Still, we could try to specify which conditions would encourage conversion:
if any event is too novel or complex to be handled by habitual means;
if processing is overloaded by the current demands imposed on it;
if fatigue or distraction interfere with normal, processing;
if the solutions attained by initial problem-solving are unsatisfactory;
if an unpleasant event is pushed out of working memory before it can he
satisfactorily interpreted or resolved;
if motives or ideas strongly conflict with each other; or
if an internal motivation conflicts with an external compulsion.
all of these cases, processing should be prone to conversions which, under
certain conditions, could become pathogenic. The more pronounced the problem,
the more probable that the converted configuration will appear deviant compared
to the usual modes of sense-making and behaving. Complex physiological and
symbolic conversions could elicit thoughts and actions that countermand what the
person consciously believes or intends. The processing known as spreading
activation occurs when an activated item "spreads" its active status
to items associated with it in the mind (Collins and Loftus, 1975). The
spreading is automatic and helps create contexts that support the recognition
and interpretation of ongoing events and the execution of complex actions (MacKay,
1982). Morton (1970) has proposed that activation depends on accruing levels of
neural ex- citation, and thus is capable of subtle nuances. Freud's "preconscious"
would contain items fairly close to the threshold, while the "unconscious"
would contain ones that are relatively remote; in between would he a gradation
rather than a clear or fixed border. The outcome of spreading activation is pre-
configured in fine detail by the structure of one's current knowledge. Freud
(1935) envisioned comparable prior controls on "free association":
association.... will be strictly determined by important inner attitudes of mind,
which are unknown to us at the moment when they operate.... in spite of our
apparent freedom of choice in such matters we cannot, in point of fact, think of
any name which cannot be shown to be narrowly determined by the immediate
circumstances, the idiosyncrasies, of the person [pp. 96-97]
conjecture is one of the factors that make Freud's theory seem deterministic.
Still, the diversity of available associations in mental storage allows
considerable "freedom" among possible outcomes (compare Knight, 1946).
Freud is merely saying that associations must have some prior structure in order
to become operative; but the person might be wholly unaware of what that
structure is. Freud's position is that all mental events are motivated, not
random. What occurs during processing has to respect both the structure of one's
prior knowledge and the organization of one's neurological processes. This claim
fits the contention that no symbolic function can be entirely separate from its
role of creativity can be defined within this framework. Although a person's
knowledge necessarily has some structure by virtue of the contiguities and
analogies already constructed, the range of possible new constructs is
undoubtedly vast. The difficult question is how such new constructs are
interpreted and motivated once they appear (Beaugrande, 1979). Creative
associations and representations are typically novel, but not random; they do
not deny reality, but renew our perception of reality from an altered
unconscious processing is also in part a vehicle for problem-solving, the
concept of "unconscious creativity" (a domain of the so-called "primary
process") seems quite natural (Neisser, 1967) alongside the more familiar
concept of conscious creativity. The argument has been advanced that the
creativity of dreams is in part a vehicle for problem-solving (French and Fromm,
1964; Lipton, 1967; Greenberg and Pearlman, 1978). Crick and Mitchison (1983)
even contend that dreaming has the task of discharging false or nonsensical
memories generated when the non-specific signals from the brain stem
periodically excite the neocortex during REM sleep (Melnechuk, 1983); since the
goal is to unload the neocortex of worthless signals, the conscious attempt to
remember one's dreams might be counter-productive. However, this conclusion need
not follow. The discharged ideas and images might afford important clues to the
states and preoccupations of the brain and thus shed some light on the nature
and origin of pathogenic signalling.
summary, the information-processing approach would account for the mind's
organization and operation in more abstract and general terms than those
envisioned by the main Freudian tradition. What metapsychology has viewed as
unitary phenomena--ego, drive, regression, depression, and so forth-are explored
as complex aspects of processing in a diversified system (Rosenblatt and
Thickstun, 1977). For example, the domains of conscious, preconscious, and
unconscious are probably constituted not as fixed units, but as adaptable
aspects within the functions of perception, comprehension, memory storage,
planning, and performance. Whatever dominances are found, such as affect versus
cognition, or routine versus creativity, are distributed across this general
system, but not in fixed proportions or sequences. Such fixity would indeed
imply that major acts of learning or therapy, such as those we can observe in
actual practice, should be scarcely attainable. In reality, the most impressive
property of the mind is its potential and inclination for evolution. On the
negative end, pathogenic events cannot be ruled out; on the positive end, there
is always room for processing to be reconfigured in more strategic modes.
mental events are not likely to have a unitary causality (an issue I noted as a
dispute between empirical psychology and psychoanalysis). In emulation of
physics, some psychoanalysts assumed what Peterfreund and Schwartz (1971) call
"simple, cause-and-effect, linear, one-to-one, sum-of-parts explanations"
(p. 81), or what Rosenblatt and Thickstun (1977) refer to as the "billiard
ball conception" (p. 16). The latter authors point out that multiple
causalities are more common in a complex interactive system (compare Waelder,
1936; Moore and Fine, 1968); and that human behavior is determined by the person's
motives and reasons as well as by physical or external causes (compare Sherwood,
1969). These factors greatly increase the complexity of explanation, therapy,
and control. Even the more subtle and ingenious reconstructions of the
psychoanalyst are probably gross simplifications of the actual pathogenesis. In
the future, researchers might profit by pursuing the precepts outlined so far,
Physiological and symbolic entities are defined in common terms as structured
events in human processing.
The conscious is the sum of attentional events, whereas the unconscious is the
sum of nonattentional events; the border between the two is nuanced and flexible.
Because electrochemical processes of thought and memory are constantly acting
upon their own conditions and substances, unconscious activity is always in
progress when the mind is at work.
Associations can he formed through any sort of contiguity (time or causality) or
analogy (similarity of structure or features).
Associations can enable print-through between configurations that, in everyday
observation of behavior, might seem disparate or unrelated.
generality of these precepts reveals the need for extensive specification in
psychoanalytic practice. In the next section, I shall try to outline some
implications for the origin and resolution of mental disturbances.
disturbances, such as neuroses, evidently arise from protracted electrochemical
conversions. Here, the print-through that conflates contiguous or analogous
configurations (or the components of these) must he abnormally extensive and
intricate. A chain reaction or a lengthy reiteration (like a looping circuit) in
nonattentional processing might add up to a massive conversion of otherwise
innocuous or routine configurations.
actually contracts a neurosis should depend on several factors. First, some
proclivities appear to be genetically transferred from parent to child. These
cases should be particularly hard to treat, if, as seems plausible, genetically
transferred tendencies are extremely persistent. However, to explain paranoia
via the 44 automatic interference" of an "archaic theme," as
Peterfreund and Schwartz (1971, p. 261) suggest, seems hardly less vague than
Jung's appeal to "archetypes." After all, the system is in its current
state at any one moment, and its history and residue must be accounted for in
those terms. I suggested already that case of activation or persistence in
memory might be involved.
the events of early childhood seem to he strong determinants. Freud himself
attributed this factor to the attempts of society to repress child sexuality.
However, some negative effects might arise simply because the child's processing
system is prone to be overloaded or confused by the demands of less familiar
experiences. Fewer skilled or automatic routines are developed to conserve
resources. Social directives are not as firmly internalized as in adults.
Thresholds for anxiety and unpleasantness are harder to control. External
compulsions seem unduly strong and restrictive. Thus, the conditions favoring
symbolic conversions, as stated above, would naturally be acute for children,
and patterns could arise that persist into adult life without resolution, until
a neurosis appears.
anxiety can encourage a neurotic interpretation of otherwise innocuous entities.
In processing terms, anxiety is a fairly common state when a person confronts
tasks in which the outcome is uncertain or failure entails unpleasant
consequences. The person feels inadequate, disoriented, or threatened. According
to Murray (1971), moderate anxiety can stimulate performance, but, beyond a
certain threshold, anxiety begins to overload the system and to degrade
performance. In the latter case, a further increase in anxiety is likely to
occur, followed by further degradation, then more anxiety, and so on, in a
self-aggravating loop. If conversion is probable during overload, anxiety would
be a good candidate for the extensive and idiosyncratic conversions that produce
relative probabilities may be a factor (Rosenblatt and Thickstun, 1977).
Basically, the whole nervous system could he probabilistic at the level of the
firing of individual neurons (Burns, 1968). On higher levels within a large
system of possible states and events, there is always some probability of
pathogenic interpretations and conversions occurring in nonattentional
processing. That probability should increase according to the conditions
suggested above-novelty, processing overload, conflicts, and so on. But every
system would be subject to at least some. probability for mildly pathogenic
occurrences. These might be resolved without the emergence of a neurosis; or the
neurosis might take on a harmless nature and eventually subside. However, the
chance of more virulent syndromes would he very hard to rule out in any one
shall now look at some specific types of disturbances within the framework
applied so far.
error would be probable whenever the person has a choice among two or more
actions whose organization encourages a conflation (Norman and Shallice, 1980).
Dyspraxia is the condition where errors occur frequently in persistent patterns.
As already noted, structural analogy is one important contributor. Freud
(1916-1917) listed such occasions as when a person tries to open an office door
with the key to his house door. Contiguity is another important contributor.
Reverend Spooner is reported to have sprinkled claret on some salt he'd spilled,
whereas it was normal to sprinkle salt on spilled claret to relieve stains (Potter,
1976, p. 3); the actions were interchanged because they were often done
contiguously. However, the structural analogies and contiguities that lead to
disturbances need not be obvious to introspection or observation. Although
neurotics are evidently not conscious of the associations they make, healthy
persons might also be unaware of their own mental structures.
suggested that the person unconsciously wishes to commit the error as a form of
escape, release, self-punishment, and so on. For example, the man who tried to
open his off-ice door with the key to his house door is claimed to be wishing he
were back home; the lady who injured her face and the one who broke her leg
jumping from a carriage were diagnosed as punishing themselves for
self-appraised misconduct (Freud, 1916-1917). Unlike the relation between prior
knowledge and processing, this determinism seems unduly strong and implies
single rather than multiple causality. The analyst is obliged to reconstruct
motives, whether or not the evidence calls for it in a given case. In effect,
the probability of accidental, unmotivated error.% is not properly evaluated.
Surely, the analogy or contiguity leading to conflation need not involve a
hidden wish; at most, a wish could use those contributors to assert itself at a
see how this might work, let us suppose that a strong wish arose, where "wish"
is defined as an "impulse directed toward a representation of a desired
future state of the world." Suppose also that the wish is consciously
rejected as conflicting with social directives. According to the model I
sketched, the impulse would not just go away, but would be dismissed from
working memory without resolution, Then, the impulse might wait to assert itself
when an analogous or contiguous action that was not rejected came onto the
agenda. Or, the impulse might merely search for any weak spot in the system.
Then, an error would be made when the person was performing an action normally
taken for granted; a mental disturbance could symbolize itself in symptoms of
organs that are easily afflicted (headaches, sore throats, upset stomachs,
etc.); and so on. Note that the error or disturbance is still a product of
problem-solving in that the manifestation implements (albeit in another domain)
an impulse waiting for resolution.
as Freud noted, errors also intrude precisely when the person is straining to
avoid them. Apparently, the impulse to reject the error has been reconfigured in
nonattentional processing by converting or filtering out the inhibition
component from the total representation. The person, unaware of this unconscious.
change, might register and execute the unblocked impulse without recognizing it.
The erroneous action then appears to be just as deliberate as a correct one. A
rejected wish would naturally try to unblock its execution in this way, but many
other actions could occur without a wish simply because pf structural conflation.
may be another decisive contributor. Each time an idea comes to mind, the
corresponding electrochemical configuration is activated. Each repetition could
add a few degrees of concentration that eventually add up to a profound
substantive change at that location, e.g., a high density of neurotransmitters.
The change eventually unblocks an erroneous or rejected action the person had no
intention of performing. If so, constantly worrying about an error is likely to
bring it about rather than to prevent it. Inattention arising from repetitious
actions can lead to costly and dangerous errors, e.g., in the operation of
complicated machines (Fitts and Jones, 1961).
antisocial act could be an extreme stage of this conversion process. Either the
mental representation of a strongly rejected action was stripped of its
inhibition component, or the inhibition was converted to its opposite, the
compulsion. As already noted, opposites encourage print-through via their
analogous structure. It is striking how often an antisocial act flies directly
in the face of basic social directives. Many crimes might have no other motive
than the fact that they are, indeed, crimes. Their rejection is contaminated by
their (similarly structured) affirmation; if this process happened frequently,
then probabilities favor the outcome that, in a certain percentage of cases,
antisocial acts are actually performed with the same directedness as their
positive counterparts, e.g., murder vs. life-saving, stealing vs. giving,
destruction vs. preservation, and so on. The
person might never have consciously "wished" to commit the act;
the mere knowledge of the act, plus the unconscious conversion that leads to
unblocking, could suffice as a trigger.
could result from a variety of conflations and conversions outlined above. In
the traumatic syndrome, one very stressful event triggers processing that the
person strongly desires to dismiss from attention, but the powerful affects
involved preempt considerable resources in unconscious processing and lead to
pronounced disturbances. The phobia is a specific reaction to a symbolic object
not normally considered to elicit extreme anxiety. The massive strength of the
phobia corresponds to its narrow focus, as compared to anxiety in general. A
Association interrupts processing, e.g., in loss of memory or orientation, as an
escape from possibly undesirable results. A compulsion (or "obsession")
causes the constant performance of seemingly meaningless acts that, in extreme
forms, entail perversion, aggression, or violence: the unblocking conversion has
attained an extreme concentration at the opposite end of the scale. These
symptomatic neuroses arise from milder, more sporadic conversions than do the
character neuroses. The latter emerge when pathogenic conversions come to
dominate a person's routine processing, leading to such syndromes as erratic
delusions, jealousy, grandiosity, and feelings of persecution. Apparently, the
converted processing establishes itself in a stable and resistant organization
and dominates processes that would otherwise he unrelated and unaffected.
fixed idea is a striking case of a self-perpetuating repetition, like a looping
circuit or an absorption state in systems theory. The pervasive and damaging
character of the fixed idea could arise from a drastic chemical imbalance as
repetition creates an extreme concentration level, far beyond the normal level
of a mental configuration. The idea can then print-through onto an abnormally
wide range of otherwise unrelated ideas and comes to dominate cognition and
behavior. Naturally, the same imbalance is prone to distort the idea itself as
well as the patient's view of the idea.
hysteria, conflation and imbalance are sufficiently intense to cause extreme
manifestations, such as acute pain or paralysis. A pathogenic event, or an event
subjected to strong pathogenic conversion, continues to build deep-level
discomfort until an external release-valve is found. That valve may simply be a
weak or susceptible point in the physiological system, as appears to be true of
some familiar psychosomatic illnesses. A cure may be brought when the
"insight" of psychoanalysis brings the original event and its
conversion to conscious attention, where it can also be more readily
reconfigured and thereby converted back to a harmless version. The loop is
broken and the event loses its power to generate the symptom. Still, this result
might not be dependable: the analysis might fail to reconstruct the correct or
complete pathogenesis; the patient might use some other event to trigger the
same effects; or, in some types of regression, the loop seems to be
re-established after the harmless version is displaced from attention and
dissipated in the continuing activities of mental storage. Hence, hysteria might
resist a lasting cure through analysis-as Freud had to admit.
has been defined since Bleuler as a lack of coordination among human systems.
Presumably, the reconfiguration of mental storage, while creating new
associations via print-through, also produces dissociations. A dominant but
abnormal configuration might defend itself against inspection or change by
blocking access from other configurations. Soon, this blocking of access
disrupts the unity and consistency of cognition and behavior and projects
disparate characters for the same person, since "character" is an
abstraction across a person's actions and attitudes. Another explanation might
be that print-through begins doubling or multiplying alternative configurations
for the same set of events, until two or more conflicting systems have been
assembled and compete for control of processing. A massive print-through between
alternative constructs is followed by a profound confusion of categorical
boundaries. To the outsider, the assignment of dominance to one system or
another might appear random and erratic; but in the patient's own mind, certain
events could, on a deep level, tend to prefer one system over the other and
thereby act as triggers for an abrupt character shift.
psychosis, the patient's relationship to the whole model of socially established
reality undergoes a dissociation, possibly along the lines depicted a moment
ago. If we assume that "real" versus "unreal" are components
or markers of stored knowledge configurations, then the psychotic patient is one
who regularly fails to maintain those components. Despite this change or
deterioration, other components of circumstantial detail may remain unaffected.
Thus, the psychotic may seem intelligent, alert, and efficient much of the time.
Yet when the "real/unreal" parameter becomes acute, behavior can he
totally unpredictable to the outsider.
is a collusion of anxieties or phobias that leaves the patient in constant fear
of persecution. Presumably, a defense component participates in the routine
interpretation of events, leading to such familiar conversions as sublimation,
isolation, projection, repression, and so on, which comprise an abstract
repertory of displacements in directional, temporal, and numerical contiguity,
or in structural analogy (Holland, 1973). These defense conversions might he
grossly overactivated by an undue electrochemical concentration. Virtually any
event could then he taken as a symbol for danger or disaster, and this pattern
would reinforce the concentration each time it was repeated. The intensely
symbolic nature of the threat allows the paranoid to persist in unfounded fears
despite the lack of genuine occasions for defensive action. When a very advanced
stage is reached, the paranoid may be no longer able to initiate any actions (including
ones that might alleviate the condition) because all consequences, are feared.
(or "delusions of grandeur") compensates for feelings of anxiety and
inadequacy by converting one's self-concept into an aggrandizing symbolic
construct. This conversion might leave intact some domains not closely
associated with the explicit role of the self. Thus, the patient appears
rational until the parameter of "self versus other" becomes acute. Of
course, one's self-concept influences so many actions that grandiosity is likely
to be almost as pervasive and debilitating as paranoia. The grandiose patient
overperforms as radically as the paranoid patient underperforms. Eventually,
repetitive enactment could cause such a high concentration of the imbalance that
the customary coherence of thought and action are severely and consistently
sketch of some classical syndromes in the previous section, although obviously
tentative, suggests some reasonable conclusions. First, a certain probability of
errors and neuroses is built into the system of human processing, with its
concurrent physiological and symbolic aspects. Given the complexity and
adaptability of the system and the staggering number of possible event sequences,
there will always be some probability of pathogenic constructs. Moreover,
society will always have motives to reject some of a person's wishes, especially
a child's, in the interests of order and unity. Every person will at some time
undergo "repression" from without and impose it from within.
it follows that a "healthy" person is not one who has eliminated all
chance of pathogenic constructs, but one who can confront and control them or
their manifestations before a damaging level of intensity is reached. A certain
amount of errors and symptoms in everyday life is presumably a beneficial
release-valve for reducing and regulating the load on the system, e.g., rejected
wishes waiting for resolution. In a certain percentage of cases, this release
becomes imbalanced and detrimental. However, since pathogenic constructs have a
physiological basis as well as a symbolic one, and since the nature and control
of these constructs are poorly understood, it is senseless to blame the patient
for the syndrome. The neurosis is just as motivated and "real" (i.e.,
participates in one's orientation) as an illness due to an organic lesion; the
causalities are just more complex, idiosyncratic, and mediated than in
such oppositions as "healthy" versus "unhealthy" and "organic"
versus "neurotic," are not strict demarcations, but subtle shadings
sensitive to the Person's context. By overstressing these oppositions, we only
exaggerate the difficulty of therapy and cure. Moreover, the traditional labels
have the effect of giving the patient a role to act out, thereby reinforcing the
imbalance that engendered the syndrome in the first place. In the role of "schizophrenic,"
"paranoid," etc., the patient finds an elaborated symbolic system for
thought and behavior. in incurable or highly resistant patients, this system has
evidently enacted a conversion so powerful and extensive that it can't be
dislodged, or can be so only temporarily. Its constructs print through onto
virtually all events of processing.
the classical methods of Freudian and post-Freudian psychoanalysis are
inadequate to the extent that they are fixated not merely on the symbolic aspect,
but on restrictive assumptions about it. For example, Freud himself found the
issue of sexuality implicated in so many patients that he failed to consider the
possibility of its being a special case rather than the general case. He tended
to view sexual conflict as the cause, rather than the effect, of nearly all
syndromes. For instance, he tried to define "personality types" as
determined by the stages of childhood sexuality ("oral,"
"anal," and "genital") (Freud, 1908); however, Freud didn't
consider that these types and stages might themselves be only one set of symbols
for more abstract symbolic proclivities, e.g., modes of defining self versus
nonself or for imposing order on experience. In this view, the “oral"
type would be dominated by symbols of ingestion (absorption, accumulation,
etc.), while the "anal" type would be dominated by symbols of
elimination (purification, externalization, etc.). There is no doubt that
childhood sexuality is prone to engender anxieties and conflicts in a society
that drastically denies and represses it; but many other events can trigger
disproportionate was Freud's (1915) conviction that all paranoid delusions are
defensive attempts to negate and contain homosexual impulses. His grounds were
that such impulses appear to be disturbing to many paranoid patients, a
suggestion that has been confirmed by some clinical studies (Zamansky, 1958;
Sternlof, 1964) but not others (Sheflin, 1969; MeLaughlin, 1972). This
divergence of findings is accountable if we assume that paranoids are generally
anxious about strong social prescriptions, among which homosexuality may or may
not be chosen as a representation. Thus, a more basic and pervasive tendency for
exaggerated anxiety could encourage a pathogenic interpretation of specific
sexual issues and events-not just the other way around.
four conclusions indicate that psychoanalysis could become more flexible and
general if we were able to redefine its central notions within a more abstract
theory of human processing. Above all, we could use a model of how people
process their knowledge and experience in order to anticipate pathogenic
developments (estimated in terms of probabilities) and to redirect them before a
syndrome becomes pronounced or entrenched. This project calls for vastly more
differentiated methods of description and diagnosis. Although analysis is
obliged to use the patient's introspective reports, we need a more complete
theory of how these relate to relevant mental data (Peterfreund, 1975, 1980;
Labov and Fanshel 1977). Even under hypnosis, such reports are not always
reliable (Loftus, 1980).
implicitly and explicitly, psychoanalysis has already evolved from the state
Freud left it in toward more abstract and encompassing models. Alfred Adler
stressed the balance between inferiority and superiority as motivations. Carl
Gustav Jung subsumed in the collective unconscious the individual unconscious
that dominated Freud's approach. Harry Stack Sullivan, Erik Erikson, Erich
Fromm, and Karen Horney highlighted social and environmental factors Freud had
neglected. Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow defined humans as capable of "self-actualization"
in a uniquely experienced world, where strategies must he devised and
implemented to fulfill the person's needs. In the wake of such revisions, the
influence of social interaction upon the ego has been given as much weight as
its internal preoccupations, and the role of sexuality is no longer considered
the same, my impression is that these revisions have mainly adopted the Freudian
framework as their point of orientation. For instance, the theories are still
predominantly conceptualized in anthropomorphic terms with agents:
"ego," "id," "superego," "self,"
"me," "parent," "family," "persecutor",
etc., that "defend," "repress," "project," "displace,"
"threaten," "evaluate," and so on. We should explore the
merits of a "Project" in which a fundamentally distinct framework,
such as the information-processing approach, is used to model the Freudian
framework from the outside. We would improve our understanding and treatment of
syndromes if we could build detailed process models of their origin and
operation. By recasting the usual agents, such as "ego," in terms of
processes, we can restore them to their original dynamic meaning as collective
designations for patterns of human actions.
itself is still sparsely mapped out in terms of processing. Freud and his
successors relied mainly on the therapeutic value of uncovering and reenacting
past experiences. The analyst is expected to interpret materials, help lower the
patient's resistance, and foster insights (Wolberg, 1967; Fine, 1973). However,
if analysis itself tends to predict certain findings, it may reduce or bias the
range and interpretation of evidence. For example, given Freud's emphasis on
childhood events, the analyst is typically cast in the role of a parent (Hartley
and Strupp, 1980). Moreover, patients ideally improve when, with the analyst's
help, they consciously figure out the origins of their syndrome and restructure
the pathogenic conversion of the causal event. The frequent protraction or
failure of analysis shows the vulnerability of this ideal and calls for a more
process-oriented account of therapeutic evolution.
account we might explore is that an insight helps to substitute a balanced
counterpart for a pathogenically imbalanced processing configuration. However,
assuming that a record of that configuration persists, the patient cannot
actually expel it entirely from memory; at best, skillful psychotherapy can
bring about a synthesis between the balanced and the imbalanced configurations
so that whatever remains of the latter now has a new and positive function. What
conditions ought to be necessary or supportive for such a synthesis?
possibility is that conscious attention paid to a non-pathogenic event allows it
to override the pathogenic event that had exerted itself in nonattentional
processing. Probably, however, this attentional effort must be of a certain kind
before the positive effect can occur and the syndrome is overcome. Otherwise,
attention may only fixate the problem but not resolve it, or may even aggravate
it. At the very least, the focus of attention should be accompanied by the
patient's strong conviction that an improvement will occur. Another possibility
is, that the analysis triggers a general destabilization of processing
tendencies so that a major reorganization can begin. "Dynamic"
therapies, such as those of the “gestaltists" (e.g., Fritz Perls) and the
"phenomenologists” (e.g., Carl Rogers, George Kelley), aim at this
fundamental reorganization by redefining and transforming personal relationships,
especially between analyst and patient. Since their focus is much broader, the
chances are better for influencing a syndrome with abstruse or multiple causes.
This second possibility lends credibility to the notion that neurosis is in part
controlled by the patient's inclination to act out the role of a neurotic. The
old practice of incarcerating patients together in isolation from nonneurotics
afforded ample opportunity to understudy a role. Because attention is decisive y
in learning, remembering, and behaving, paying attention to neurotic symptoms
may reinforce them better than nonattentional processing could. Perhaps a
neurosis can become a symbolic representation of itself as well as of a
converted event in one's experience, and if so, the chain of causalities would
be more complex. Such a factor could explain the unregenerate quality displayed
by many patients receiving traditional therapy that presupposes the simpler
origin. In contrast, the dynamic therapies seek to dismantle the role of "neurotic"
and to reinterpret one's available character components as parts of a healthy
personality. The information-processing approach is in turn far more
encompassing than the dynamic revision therapies. The drawback is that the
abstractness, complexity and diversity of information-processing makes the
operationalizing of tests and therapies extremely difficult. However, the state
of the art in direct testing is not much more refined within traditional
approaches. For example, trying to recognize neurotics on the basis of
conventional physiological gauges (e.g., electroencephalographs, brain scans,
X-rays, angiograms) has turned out to be less reliable than tests having
symbolic (e.g., categorizing, speech perception) as well as physiological (e.g.,
finger-tapping, rhythm) elements, such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale
and the Halstead-Reitan Battery (Levine and Feirstein, 1972; Filskov and
Goldstein, 1974; Goldstein and Halperin, 1977). By and large, tests direct
people to think and behave in ways that may not reveal what occurs spontaneously
in everyday life. Therefore, we need more abstract models and more sensitive
methods to determine the reliability of correlations between detectable
electrochemical states and processing states. Refined and nonnoxious organic
detectors, among which positron emission tomography seems quite impressive (Ter-Pogassian
Raichle, and Sobel, 1980), especially with computer enhancement, could analyze
and compare a wide range of electrochemical states in healthy, neurotic, and
organic patients. If characteristic configurations are found, these three groups
could he identified independently of how they classify themselves or are
classified by individual therapists or conventional tests. Reliable correlations
between physiological versus symbolic functions might even enable us to
differentiate patterns Specifically enough to recognize subtypes of
psychopathology, such as hysteria, paranoia, and schizophrenia. The same data
might serve to develop much more finely tuned means of intervention. Electric
and chemical changes could be precisely designed and controlled in order to help
reconfigure nonhealthy electrochemical states as healthy ones. Traditional
electroshock, medication, and surgery are too much like salvo-bombing -- massive
discharge throughout the system in hopes of hitting a small 'elusive target (with
impact on many nontargets). A refined knowledge of the nature and constitution
of electrochemical states in human processing would enable specialized, accurate
physiological targeting, such as changing the concentrations of
the discovery of reliable correlations between detectable electrochemical states
and processing states would support a more perspicuous interpretation of the
patients' verbal evidence-complaints, reports, interviews, and so forth. Several
of my students have analyzed discourse samples from patients diagnosed as having
schizophrenia, Alzheimer's disease, and closed-head trauma. Although we
observed that certain linguistic features are typical of neurotic discourse,
such as word-repetition and rhyming, these features are far from adequate for
diagnostic purposes, and are not entirely absent from normal discourse. Moreover,
a few patients appeared to be cultivating those features (especially rhymes) in
order to play their role as neurotics. We also tested the attitudes of outside
observers by comparing their judgments of samples from neurotics versus samples
from healthy subjects, and the features identified as neurotic were found in the
control samples as well. These common conceptions about the presumed features of
neurotic discourse could easily become part of a patient's role-playing.
findings indicate that, as a configuration of symbols, the surface text by
itself is not a very reliable indicator of the speaker's cognitive states; at
the very least, the production of the text is a vastly complex processing event
(Beaugrande, 1984). A therapist frequently has to rely on intuition and
guesswork when inferring a syndrome from what patients say. However, if we could
gauge electrochemical states characterizing the syndrome and correlate them with
electrochemical states characterizing the production and reception of discourse,
we would finally have independent criteria for assessing the ratio between
pathological manifestations and symbolic representations in language. We would
also he better able to understand and control syndromes by taking into account
the pathogenic and therapeutic potential of discourse itself (Labov and Fanshel,
1977). Moreover, we could provide a better account of the larger sociological
contexts of human communication, such as those whose importance has been shown
in the "dynamic" therapies.
this presupposes a method of analysis to capture extremely fine differentiations
in both physiological and symbolic substrates. Highly detailed theoretical
models of cognition, far beyond those now in circulation, will be required for
this enterprise. Otherwise, even the most exact physiological data can elude
consistent and meaningful interpretation; the greater the exactness, the more
stringent the theoretical demands. Models of human knowledge are required on a
large and ambitious scale (see Minsky, 1975; Brachman, 1978; Fahlman, 1979;
Findler, 1979). For some time, these models will necessarily remain
underdifferentiated in comparison to the human processes themselves, but at
least steady progress can be expected. This is not true as long as we tolerate
an extensive theoretical gap between the physiological and the symbolic.
recourse I have tried to outline could bear on many issues other than
psychotherapy. The most obvious one is developmental learning. So far, we can
gauge only the gross results of learning that can he practically manifested in
certain classes of performance. We have little notion of the physiological and
symbolic changes that occur in successful learning, as compared to failure or
limited success. Though still disputed, the phenomenon of "visceral
learning" demonstrated by Neal Miller signals that even fairly gross
electrochemical intervention can y bring about complex learning (Jonas, 1973). A
vastly more refined mode of intervention might well open an unprecedented
technology for guiding and optimizing human learning. Here too, the theoretical
basis may prove harder to create than the technological implementation.
applications are not hard to envision: the improving of self-concepts and social
expectations, the circumvention of defenses that block cognitive development,
the reduction of routine errors, the alleviation of aggression and hostility,
the correction of criminal and other antisocial tendencies, and many more. Of
course, a malignant authority might abuse the same methods to bring about
harmful effects. Still, it seems reasonable to hope that the positive
applications could at least reduce people's inclinations to carry out the
negative ones. As such, this particular advance could mediate against human
tendencies to abuse it.
the practicing psychoanalyst and empirical psychologist, this project may seem
utopian-as indeed many notions we now take for granted seemed in times past.
However, the project is derivable from recognized fundamental principles in
physiological and symbolic processing. Admittedly, the details have yet to be
supplied in a great many domains, and there is danger that the correlation
between these two basic aspects of processing may prove unreliable or at 'least
unsystematic within our normal understanding of the notion of "system."
Nonetheless, I hardly think that this correlation can be random, given the
extent of uniformity needed to support human cognition of reality and
communication of ideas. At the very least, we ought to probe the correlation
before we make a judgment.
the project were to succeed, we would probably want to revise the theory and
practice of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. However, we would also want to
retain parts of them with a clearer understanding of why they work and under
what conditions. The present lack of interchange between psychoanalysis and
process psychology is neither in the interests of patients nor investigators,
nor indeed of a society consistently beset by its own failure to control and
recast pathogenic constructs.
helpful comments on a draft of this paper, I am greatly indebted to Robert Boice
(Albany), Michel Grimaud (Wellesley), Norman Holland (Gainesville), Elizabeth
Loftus (Seattle), Don MacKay (Claremont), Donald Norman (La Jolla), Begonia Roji
Menchaca (Salamanca), Bernard Paris (Gainesville), David Rubin (Durham), and
Insup Taylor (Toronto).
He didn't suspect that, as recent research indicates, hypnotized persons can
make inaccurate reports (Loftus, 1980).
Our culture consistently confronts us with the enactment of antisocial acts as
"entertainment" in mass media. Empirical studies of violence in the
media, however, often fail to prove a link to real-world criminality. If my
conjecture is correct, the conversion of mental representations could be too
subtle and idiosyncratic to be detected via the standard empirical modes of
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