Saturday, April 3, 2010

Affect. A Trilogy. Part 1. The Conundrum

In his discussion of empathy during his (Feb. 2010) visit, Frank Lachmann examined affective communication in caretaker-infant interactions and said, in part, “The link between the perception of facial expression and brain activation patterns in the perceiver provides one way of coordinating the emotional state of caretaker and infant. These findings [from caretaker-infant studies] demonstrating how one person resonates with the affective state of the other are relevant to our investigation of the precursors of empathy. They are relevant to precursors of empathizing as well as feeling empathized with.”

It seems that to study empathy is to study affect and since emphatic understanding or psychoanalytic compassion (Orange, 2006) is one important way to help our patients develop new, benign forms of emotional experiencing, I would like to sketchily, for now, review the evolution of our psychoanalytic understanding of affect, that is, the conundrum of affect. What follows is a summary of the first essay in Joseph Jones’s 1995 book, Affects as Process.

Descartes (1641) held that humans differ from animals in a fundamental way. All animals have affects but only humans have the power to reason. We know his philosophy as rationalism. He was the first modern philosopher to propose that the mind comprises two fundamentally different processes: emotions and reason, a dualism known as the “divided mind”. For Descartes the mind (the res cogitans) derives from God, is central to human existence, and operates independently of and is fully different from the body. The emotions or “passions” belong to the body. The body is a kind of automaton, comparable to a machine. As bodily phenomena, the emotions belong to the material world (the res extensa). The relationship between the rational mind and the mechanical body is known as the “mind-body” problem.

Descartes assumed that thought and affects were primary. Action or behavior was derivative and the consequence of one of the other two. Descartes, therefore, constructed an affect-thought model of the mind: Affect OR Thought ➔ Action. Philosophically speaking, affect and thought have metaphysical sanction; action or behavior does not. In the language of systems theory, feeling and thinking are processes, that is, “an internally coherent, integrated way of receiving, processing, and communicating information.” Action or behavior is not a process but a derivative of the other two.

Responding to Descartes’s proud claim that humans were “different,” and influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution, Freud sought to restore “the bond of community between [humans] and the animal kingdom,” while simultaneously creating a set of grounding assumptions for a “scientific dualism.” Freud retained Descartes’s hypothesis of the divided mind but said that the critical dualism was not between affect and thought, but between two types of information processing – primary process and secondary process. Primary process is the concept with which Freud sought to maintain the “bond of community” with the animal kingdom.

Freud’s theorizing sequence was as follows. In his first formulation of psychoanalytic theory, Freud (1893) accorded pride of place to affect --patients became symptomatic because of repressed, affect-laden experiences (“Hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences”) and recovered when the affects were brought back to into consciousness; importantly, “[r]ecollection without affect almost invariably produces no result.”

By 1897, Freud had come to the conclusion that his patients’ memories of traumatizing infantile seduction were not reports of actual experiences but fantasies. Accordingly, Freud’s interest shifted from affect to the instinctual drives as the agent that created the fantasies. Freud’s metapsychology represents his attempt to establish a non-Cartesian dualism that could ultimately be derived from an “instinctual dualism” as the ground for his theory of mind. This theoretical shift from affect to drive stripped affects of their process role, and assigned it instead to action or behavior. In so doing Freud went on to articulate an action-thought model of the mind (Action OR Thought ➔ Affect) that turned Descartes upside down.

By 1915, Freud considered affect a “process of discharge,” arising only when the drive was not carried through to completion. He also considered affects as composites of some kind of “action impulse” and some mechanism that gives the action impulse its cognitive content. These new conceptualizations of affect, in turn, not only led to an unsuccessful and therefore seemingly unending search for some type of ‘primitive thought’ to explain the cognitive content of affect, but also became a significant hindrance in constructing a usable theory of affects. They made it impossible to consider affects for what they simply are: non-symbolic signals that, in and of themselves, convey information.

Unrecognized metaphysical assumptions subtly and unconsciously affect the way we think. Such is the case with Freud’s notion that “affects are composites.” It shows up more than 60 years later as the central tenets of the cognitive theory of emotion. This theory emphasizes knowledge, how we come to see the world, how knowledge organizes our internal world, and therefore how we then react to the world-out-there. Central to the theory is that some sort of cognitive-evaluative process accompanies emotion. Metaphysically speaking, the cognitive theory of emotion is a complicated working out of Freud’s action-thought model of the mind. Freud’s reformulation of affect as a mixture of drive discharge plus some cognitive component was by the 1980s still having the powerful effect of a controlling paradigm on affect theory development, not only in psychoanalysis but in psychology in general.

The roadblocks erected by the notion of affects as composites, helped create another major difficulty in theorizing about affect. The problem is the subtle shifts in the meaning attached to the word cognitive by the authors of the cognitive theory of emotion. The word cognitive derives from the Latin word cognoscere, to know. But, as used in the cognitive theory of emotions, the word cognitive has become a hidden synonym for thought. For example, in Theories of Emotions, Plutchik (1980) entitled his section Emotions and Cognitions. The simple word “and” has had a powerful effect. It subtly shifted the meaning of cognitive from a global term encompassing all types of mental activity to an academic synonym for thought. Plutchik’s use of the word “and” implies that emotions are not “cognitions.” This new vocabulary –cognitions for thought – will lead all but the most careful reader to believe that some progress has been made to resolve the longstanding affect-thought problem. This is not the case; it simply translated the unsolved philosophic problem into the language of cognitive science.

Nowhere have I found a more thorough effort to restate, appreciatively appraise, and respectfully and lovingly critique Freud’s theory of affects, than in Joseph Jones (1995) landmark contribution to the development of a contemporary psychoanalytic theory of affect.” Jones’s work significantly moves forward the effort to resolve the conundrum of affect. I will examine his contributions in a subsequent post.

Ernesto Vasquez, MD
March 30, 2010

Jones, J.M. (1995), Affects as Process, An Inquiry into the Centrality of Affect in Psychological Life. Hillsdale, NJ, The Analytic Press.
Orange, D. (2006), For Whom the Bell Tolls-Context, Complexity, and Compassion in Psychoanalysis. International Journal of Psychoanalytic Self Psychology, 1 (1):5-21.

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