Saturday, April 3, 2010

Affect. A Trilogy. Part 3. Thinking with our Hearts

There were two presenters for the ‘Meet the Authors’ session at the fall meeting of the International Association of Psychoanalytic Self Psychology in 1995, Joseph Jones and Donna Orange. In his presentation, Jones offered a sustainable argument for his hypothesis that affect is the center of all of psychological life, a sketch of which I present in the first two posts of this trilogy.

Thinking with our heart is the metaphor with which I try to capture Jones’s (1995) understanding of a sense of self as “the personal organization we experience when we are able to effectively integrate our affective experience with what we think in a relatively stable internal relationship…it is the ability of the individual to create a relationship between his feeling core and his thinking “I” that is at the heart of selfhood. It is affective-symbolic integration that leads to the creation of the sense of self.” To which I would add that thinking with our heart is what truly distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. I would also like to say that, in my opinion, the relative stability of that network is the crucial factor: too much or too little of each component can cause a rupture. Our patient’s report that disruption sometimes saying: “and when she or he said that!, right then I lost it…”; thought acts like a brake to regulate affect, but this function becomes ineffective in the presence of increased affect, the network falters.

Orange’s presentation was so vastly rich that any attempt to summarize it would be a daunting project; Emotional Understanding (1995) and her subsequent books are to be carefully studied over time. Some of her comments, however, were directly applicable to certain aspects of the work on affect Jones had just reported.

Regarding terminology Orange suggested to use “the words “emotions” or ‘emotional life” for what can only be known by introspection or empathy, that is, psychoanalytic methods of observation... “Emotional life” [refers] also to the totally or complexity of subjectively experienced feeling.”

Orange, moreover, challenged “an atomistic treatment of single primary affect states, such as excitement, as underlying prime matter... These views suggest the existence of original or fundamental affects, which, like the elements of the periodic table, may combine, that we can study in isolation. Emotions in such view are like the empiricist’s sense data, lacking the complexity and relational meaning they should have if…they are intersubjectively regulated and maintained.” She suggested to replace the atomist conception of affects with an attentiveness to the totality and complexity of person’s emotional life. The details and the history of the particulars are important but only as far as they conduce toward understanding a person’s organized emotional “sense of things”. We must neither reduce the whole of emotional life to the sum of its parts nor mistake the affective tress for the emotional forest.”

I believe Orange’s comments about affects are equally applicable to the study and understanding of intellectual functions (thought). We must reread Piaget’s work then with contextualist eyes, keeping in mind that what he researched in such detail and described so well is really our intellectual life.

But I wonder if these notions, whether affect and thought or emotional life and intellectual life, can be seen in yet one more light. In Being and Time (1927), Heidegger talks about ‘affectivity’ (emotions, moods) as a mode of living, of being-in-the world, a human quality or attribute, profoundly embedded in constitutive context, a notion of something which “underscores the exquisite context-dependence and context-sensitivity of human…life.” (Stolorow, Atwood, and Orange, 2002).

Perhaps we could consider ‘thinking with the heart’ as well-- a quality of being human, a sensibility, an inclination, one which, like the capacity for empathy, we are to value, to care for, and to cultivate over time, and in many ways.

Ernesto Vasquez, MD
April 3, 2010

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and Time. Transl. J. Maquarrie and E. Robinson. New York: Harper and Row. Original edition 1927.
Jones, J.M. (1995), Affects as Process, An Inquiry into the Centrality of Affect in Psychological Life. Hillsdale, NJ, The Analytic Press.
Orange, D. (1995), Emotional Understanding: Studies in Psychoanalytic Epistemology. New York: Guilford Press.
Stolorow, R., Atwood, G., and Orange, D. (2002), Worlds of Experience. Interweaving philosophical and clinical dimensions in psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books.

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