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A discussion of Freud’s view on the nature of affect and the implications of Damasio’s view of the body/brain relation for this aspect of psychoanalysis.

written by Crispin Balfour


crispin balfour psychotherapist In this paper I will explain Freud's view on the nature of affect and discuss the implications of Damasio's view of the body/brain relation for this aspect of psychoanalysis. I will proceed by a careful reading of Freud's texts for references to affect, trying to grasp the "internal consistency more than by considering the isolated facts to which he drew attention." (Green, 1999b, pp.40-44) I will also be guided by, and refer to, André Green's book 'The Fabric of Affect in the Psychoanalytic Discourse' (1999). I will ground my understanding of Damasio's view of the body/brain relation in his book 'The Feeling of What Happens' (2000) but also in references and critiques of his work by other writers. I will use this understanding to think about the implications for psychoanalysis.


sigmund freud In order to explain Freud’s view on the nature of affect, this essay will follow the development of his thinking on the subject as it evolved over the course of his life. Freud's later thought includes, rests upon, and only sometimes, supersedes the earlier, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the evolution of the brain. Just as an evolutionary perspective is helpful in understanding the brain, so also will it be helpful in understanding his view of affect.


Freud’s interest in affect began when working clinically with Breuer on hysteria. They observed their patients had a “surplus of excitation” in their nervous system, which manifested in symptoms. (Freud, 2001a, pp.49-50)  Freud linked this excess psychic energy with alterations in their patients’ thoughts, and “magnification and suppression of feelings” (Freud, p.49). He came to understand hysterical symptoms as the result of a failure to maintain, through appropriate discharge, a constant “sum of excitation” in the nervous system. (Breuer, J. & Freud, 2001, p.12) When this imbalance of psychical energy was corrected through appropriate discharge of their feelings, the symptoms disappeared:

For we found, to our great surprise at first, that each individual hysterical symptom immediately and permanently disappeared when we had succeeded in bringing clearly to light the memory of the event by which it was provoked and in arousing its accompanying affect, and when the patient had described that event in the greatest possible detail and had put the affect into words. Recollection without affect almost invariably produces no result.” (Breuer & Freud, 2001, p.6) (emphasis in the original)

Freud's experience with hysterical patients alerted him to the relationship between the ideational content of memories (the representations) and the affect associated with them. Affect seemed more of the nature of an energetic phenomena, and could be understood as contributing a quantitative aspect to psychic contents:
I refer to the concept that in mental functions something is to be distinguished—a quota of affect or sum of excitation—which possesses all the characteristics of a quantity (though we have no means of measuring it), which is capable of increase, diminution, displacement and discharge, and which is spread over the memory-traces of ideas somewhat as an electric charge is spread over the surface of a body (Freud, 2001b, p.60).

The Project

Freud developed his interest in the energetic aspects of mental phenomena in the 'Project for a Scientific Psychology' (1950), which, although never published in his lifetime, set the scene for his work over the next twenty years and made important contributions to his understanding of affect. In 'The Project', Freud begins by discussing the tendency of the psychical apparatus to minimise its psychical energy through the principles of 'inertia', 'flight from the stimulus' and 'discharge', and yet is required, owing to its complexity, to retain a certain quantity to maintain life and the capacity for specific action. (Freud, 2001m, p.318) He then proceeds, by way of his understanding of neuronal processes and consciousness, to attend to affectual experience.
Investigating the “Experience of Satisfaction” Freud suggests our experience of need is the result of neurones being gradually filled with cathexis, leading to an “effort to discharge” (Freud, 2001m, p.317). This process of gradual filling he calls “summation” (Freud, p.322), whereby endogenous stimuli of an intercellular nature accumulate until they become psychical by engaging the neural network. In response to this filling, at first the naive organism attempts internal change through “the expression of emotions, screaming, vascular change” (Freud, p.317), but since the stimulus (for example hunger) is arising from within, the organism is not able to withdraw or flee and must seek “specific action” in relation to the external world, such as the “supply of nourishment” (Freud, p.318). This subjects the individual to “the exigencies of life” (Freud, p.297). Infants are helpless to carry out the specific action for themselves and need help from outside. Freud notes: “In this way this path of discharge acquires a secondary function of the highest importance, that of communication, and the initial helplessness of human beings is the primal source of all moral motives” (Freud, p.318).
André Green (1999a) comments as follows:

One can hardly stress too strongly this primary link between discharge through emotivity and motricity, and the function of communication, from which language springs. Better still from now on satisfaction will be associated with the image of the object that first aroused it and the moving image of the reflex movement that allowed its discharge (p.24).

Freud writes that the residue of this experience of satisfaction is a “wishful state” (desire), because it leaves 'facilitations' in the neuronal network that result in a positive attraction of a “compulsive kind” towards the mnemic image of the desired object, which in turn greatly increases the cathexis of perception of an actual object. (Freud, 2001m, p.322)

Freud then turns his attention to "Pain", which he understands as “irruption”  into the psychical apparatus of excessive quantities of excitation (Freud, 2001m, p.307). Pain is experienced as ‘unpleasure’ owing to the rapid increase of cathexis, which the organism wants to rid itself of as quickly as possible.

In the case of pain caused by an external phenomenon, the source of the overwhelming excitation is the environment. When pain arises from perceiving, but not being impinged upon by, a ‘hostile object’ (previously-experienced-pain-producing-thing), Freud suggests the perception accesses memories which release unpleasure from the interior of the body through the action of “secretory” or “key” neurones (Freud, p.320). These 'secretory neurones' increase the endogenous production of psychical energy supplying it in “roundabout ways” (Freud, p.320) which Freud suspects may include “chemical products” (Freud, p.321). He compares the process to "sexual release" (Freud, p.321).

In either case the overwhelming excitation seeks discharge, resulting in both a strong reaction to the hostile object - a “reflex defence” (Freud, p.322), and also a “disinclination to keeping the hostile mnemic image cathected” (Freud, p.322).

Freud notes it is harder to explain this latter abandonment of the mnemic image which he names as “primary defence” or “repression”.  He suggests an answer lies in the way the pain was brought to an end, which resulted in the “emergence of another object in place of the hostile one”: This signal of the end of pain teaches the organism biologically to seek to reproduce the state which marked the cessation of pain. Freud adds another consequence is that painful memories will tend to be forgotten by their association with an increase in excitation. (Freud, p.322)

Only the internal discharge, “endogenous and secretory, bound up with the memory-trace of the hostile object” is specifically affect in Freud’s schema (Green, 1999a, pp.25-26), and it is associated with violence, body and defence:

A dimension of violence is added here in the reaction and bodily participation that confer this specificity upon it. It should also be stressed that the affect is produced during the repetition of the bodily experience of pain. It is this reproductive quality that gives it its properly psychical dimension. Note, furthermore, the stress laid on the closeness of the bonds between the affect and the defence that it mobilises. This defence is aimed at an ever more advanced sensitivity of the psychical apparatus to the evocation of the affect, qua the signal mobilised by the increasingly discrete cathexes of the memory-trace of the hostile object (Green, 1999a, p.26.).

Although desire involves an affective state in the everyday sense of the terrn, Green suggests Freud does not include it as such (Green, 1999a, p.25). However Freud seems to be suggesting both pain and desire are the result of a process of accumulation of endogenous stimuli of an intercellular nature accumulating. The difference between pain and desire is that in the former case (pain) the accumulation is too rapid and overwhelming, whereas in the latter (desire) it is measured. As Green notes, Laplanche and Pontalis overcome this disparity by suggesting the “traumatic character of any instinctual manifestation prior to the satisfaction or unsatisfaction that follow it”. (Green, 1999a, n.1, p.26).

The Interpretation of Dreams

Freud's great break with his "epistemological roots" comes with the publication of 'The Interpretation of Dreams' (1900) (Green, 1999, p.31) and he returns to affect, asserting its importance in dreams (Freud, 2001c, p.460): He suggests affects, in contrast with ideational content, remain “unaltered” by dreams (Freud, p.460). Freud then apparently contradicts himself by suggesting affects are changed by “elimination, diminuition and reversal” (Freud, p.477). However there remains a difference between the way a dream treats the representative contents (thoughts), which are subject to all manner of distortions, and the way a dream treats affects: Affects remain as wholes and “resist fragmentation”. (Green, 1999a, p.34)
The “reversal of affect” (Freud, 2001c, p.471), mentioned above, appears again in Freud’s analysis of Dora (Freud, 2001d, p.28), where he links affect with another feature of the instinctual life, 'contrasted pairs', which Freud mentions in his analysis of “Little Hans”:

The emotional life of man is in general made up of pairs of contraries such as these.  Indeed, if it were not so, repressions and neuroses would perhaps never come about. In the adult these pairs of contrary emotions do not as a rule become simultaneously conscious except at the climaxes of passionate love; at other times they usually go on suppressing each other until one of them succeeds in keeping the other altogether out of sight. But in children they can exist peaceably side by side for quite a considerable time (Freud, 2001d, p.113).

This “double structure of the affect” (Green, 1999a, p.37) leads Freud to thinking about ambivalence and the ways in which “opposed feelings may subsist side by side”. (Freud, 2001e, p.239).


Freud returns to affects in his metapsychological paper 'Repression' (1915a): He divides what is repressed into two elements, “the idea” and the “quota of affect” (Freud, 2001g, p.152).  The fate of the repressed idea is that it should vanish from consciousness, whereas the ‘quota of affect’ may either:
i) Be completely repressed along with the drive;
ii) Appear as a qualitatively defined affect;
iii) Change into anxiety. (Freud, p.153)

Freud has made a distinction here between a ‘quota of affect’ and a ‘qualitatively defined affect’. ‘Quota of affect’ refers to “... the instinct in so far as the latter has become detached from the idea and finds expression, proportionate to its quantity, in processes which are sensed as affects.” (Freud, 2001g, p.152) ‘Qualitatively defined affect’ has become “the subjective transposition of the quantity of instinctual energy” (Laplanche & Pontalis, 1973, p.14)

In terms of repression, Freud places affect centre-stage, since the whole aim of repression is the total inhibition of the affect of unpleasure: “If a repression does not succeed in preventing feelings of unpleasure or anxiety from arising, we may say that it has failed, even though it may have achieved its purpose as far as the ideational portion is concerned.” (Freud, 2001g, p.153)

The third possible fate of affect subject to repression (mentioned above) is that it should be transformed into anxiety. Freud does not think anxiety should be distinguished in nature from the other affects, both anxiety and the other affective states are “reproductions of very early, perhaps even pre-individual, experiences of vital importance” comparable to “universal, typical and innate  hysterical attacks” (Freud, 2001k, p.133, quoted in Laplanche & Pontalis, 1973, p.14).

The Unconscious

In his next metapsychological paper 'The Unconscious' (1915b) Freud asks the  question whether affects can be unconscious, either as ‘quota of affect’, ‘qualitatively defined affect’, or ‘anxiety’. Although feelings originate in instincts, which can never become conscious and even in the unconscious only exist as represented by an idea, “it is of the essence of an emotion that we should be aware of it”. (Freud, 2001h, p.178) Freud is certain there can be no unconscious affects in the same way as ideas, because ideas are cathexes of memory traces, “whilst affects and emotions correspond to processes of discharge.” (Freud, p.178.)

Freud suggests when an affect is repressed it remains only as “a potential beginning that is prevented from developing.” (Freud, 2001h, p.178) He mentions how repression therefore extends beyond just withholding things from consciousness, to include both preventing development of affectivity and also preventing the muscular activity that is the external expression of such, noting that “Affectivity manifests itself essentially in motor (secretory and vaso-motor) discharge". The effects of this are twofold: Firstly, "an (internal) alteration of the subject's own body without reference to the external world"; and secondly, "motility, in actions designed to effect changes in the external world.” (Freud, p.178)

However Freud considers repression of affectivity is necessarily uncertain, resulting in a constant battle between the two systems Cs. and Ucs. as to its fate. Where affect proceeds directly from the system Ucs. it always has the character of anxiety, “for which all ‘repressed’ affects are exchanged.” (Freud, 2001h, p.179)  Most often however the repressed instinctual impulse will wait until it finds a substitute idea in the system Cs. and this idea will determine the nature of the affect that manifests.

The Ego and the Id

In 1923 Freud published ‘The Ego and the Id’ and took up the problem of affects again. He begins his enquiry considering what it means to make something conscious now he has moved to a dynamic model of the psyche. He refers back to ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ where consciousness is related to the perceiving surface of the mental apparatus (Freud, 2001i, p.25-27) which receives sense-perceptions from without and within. (Freud, p.19) However other internal processes such as thoughts and affects, which are not sensate as such, present a special problem. Freud is of the opinion that only what may be perceived by the perceptual system can be thought of as conscious:

... it dawns upon us like a new discovery that only something which has once been a Cs. perception can become conscious, and anything arising from within (apart from feelings) that seeks to become conscious must try to transform itself into external perceptions. (Freud, 2001j, p.20).

In the case of thoughts, Freud suggests the difference between an unconscious thought (idea) and a conscious thought (idea) consists in linking the unconscious idea with a “word-presentation” which brings it into the preconscious where it is available to consciousness. These word-presentations are memory-traces, that is they are mnemic residues of something that was once conscious (perceived), and as such may become conscious again.

On the other hand, feelings occupy a special place, arising as they do “in the most diverse and certainly also in the deepest strata of the mental apparatus ... they are more primordial, more elementary, than perceptions arising externally and they can come about when consciousness is clouded” (Freud, 2001k, p.21-22) They are “multilocular” arising in different parts of the organism’s interior much like external perceptions arise from the different senses:
... the excitations in the deeper layers extend into the system directly and in undiminished amount, in so far as certain of their characteristics give rise to feelings in the pleasure-unpleasure series. The excitations coming from within are, however, in their intensity and in other, qualitative, respects—in their amplitude, perhaps—more commensurate with the system's method of working than the stimuli which stream in from the external world.  This state of things produces two definite results. First, the feelings of pleasure and unpleasure (which are an index to what is happening in the interior of the apparatus) predominate over all external stimuli. (Freud, 2001i, p.29)

Freud suggests the best examples of these sensations and feelings are those belonging to the “pleasure-unpleasure series” and he wonders whether the quantitative and qualitative ‘something’ that they are, can “become conscious in the place where it is, or whether it must first be transmitted to the system Pcpt.” (Freud, 2001j, p.22) He reminds us that these inner sensations and feelings can compel the ego without it noticing, only becoming conscious if they encounter some form of resistance to their influence. (Freud, p.22)

Freud does not elaborate on how these compulsions become conscious, although it is clear they must enter the system Pcpt. but unlike ideas (thoughts) they do so directly without the intermediary of language (word-presentations). “Feelings are either conscious or unconscious” (Freud, 2001j, p.23). As Green puts it so succinctly: “Affect may allow itself to be expressed by language, but it is essentially outside it.” (Green, 1999a, p.48-49)

How affects are perceived might be inferred from the following Freud writes a few pages later:
Another factor, besides the influence of the system Pcpt., seems to have played a part in bringing about the formation of the ego and its differentiation from the id. A person’s own body, and above all its surface, is a place from which both external and internal perceptions may spring. It is seen like any other object, but to the touch it yields two kinds of sensations, one of which may be equivalent to an internal perception ... The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego; (Freud, 2001j, pp.25-26)

I understand Freud here as indicating affects become conscious through their effect on the body which is available to the system Pcpt. in various ways. This makes sense in terms of his suggestion “mental processes are in themselves unconscious” (Freud, 2001h, p.171). Therefore mental events of the nature of affect come to consciousness through being perceived in their effect on the body (including the brain) and mental events of the nature of idea come to consciousness through being linked with memory-traces of previous perceptual events (words).


At this point, as we teeter on the edge of reducing the psychical to the physical, we would be wise to remind ourselves of Freud’s opening remarks to his essay on 'The Unconscious' (1915):

... mental processes are in themselves unconscious, and ... (we may) ... liken the perception of them by means of consciousness to the perception of the external world by means of the sense organs ... Kant warned us not to overlook the fact that our perceptions are subjectively conditioned and must not be regarded as identical with what is perceived though unknowable, so psycho-analysis warns us not to equate perceptions by means of consciousness with the unconscious mental processes which are their object. Like the physical, the psychical  is not necessarily in reality what it appears to us to be. (Freud, 2001h, p171.)


antonio damasio Antonio Damasio (right), by his own admission, is a relative stranger to Freud (Damasio, 1999, p.38). He was working as a behavioural neurologist before he turned his attention to neuroscience and the nature of emotions and consciousness. He is a member of the editorial board of neuropsychoanalysis and has conducted extensive neurological research with subjects with brain lesions into the functioning of the brain and consciousness.

According to Damasio, both emotions and consciousness are evolutionary adaptations aimed at ensuring an organism’s survival, and both are rooted in the representation of the body. Damasio is careful to organise his semantic territory: There are three stages to the process of emotions beginning with a state of emotion which is an organism’s somatic response to an emotions-inducing object; then proceeding to a state of feeling, which is the organism’s perception of the changes the emotion has manifested in the organism, and; finally, consciousness of the feeling as a feeling. Damasio suggests that emotion is vital to processes of reasoning and decision-making, noting that either too much of it or too little can interfere with our ability to make good decisions. However the combination of feelings and consciousness is for Damasio the key to our success as a species.


Damasio is interested in the mechanics of how emotions contribute to the phenomenon of consciousness, suggesting a “proto-self”, which is “a coherent collection of neural patterns which map moment by moment, the state of the physical structure of the organism in its many dimensions.” (Damasio, 2000, p.154)

The brain structures that implement the proto-self are:
1. Several brain-stem nuclei;
2. The Hypothalamus;
3. Some of the somatosensory cortices, specifically
⁃ the insular cortex
⁃ the cortices know as S2
⁃ the medial parietal cortices, located behind the splenium of the corpus callosum.

We are never conscious of the proto-self. (Damasio, 2000, p.174.)

Core Self

The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of ConsciousnessDamasio believes consciousness first arises as a result of the “core self”, which inheres in the transient “second-order nonverbal account that occurs whenever an object modifies the proto-self ... continuously generated and thus appears continuous in time” (Damasio, 2000, p.174.)

Autobiographical self

The core self is the basis of the “autobiographical self” , which is constituted by “implicit memories of multiple instances of individual experiences of the past and of the anticipated future ... partially modifiable with further experience.” (Damasio, 2000, p.174-175).

Evolution of Feelings

Damasio records five steps in the evolution of a feeling:
1. Perceptual engagement by the organism of an emotion-inducing   object, either actual or as-if;
2. Emotion-induction neural sites in the brain that are preset to respond   to the particular class of object are activated by the perceptual signals;
3. The activated emotion-induction neural sites trigger signals    (neurological and chemical) towards the body and other brain sites,   unleashing a range of body and brain responses that constitute    emotion;
4. Neural structures associated with the proto-self represent changes in   body and brain state and feelings emerge although still unconscious;
5. The inaugural proto-self, the pattern of neural activity at the emotion-  induction sites and the ensuing changes in the proto-self are mapped   in second-order neural structures and the feelings are felt. (Damasio, 2000, p.283)

Freud and Damasio

As has been commented on by Mark Solms (1997) in his review of 'Descartes Error', Damasio’s approach to emotions has much in common with early Freud:

Like the early Freud, Damasio conceptualizes the mental apparatus as a phylogenetically evolved “sympathetic ganglion” (Freud 1950, p. 303)  that mediates between compelling demands arising from the internal milieu of the body, on the one hand, and the practical constraints of external social reality on the other. Also like the early Freud, Damasio suggests that emotions contribute to the regulation of this adaptive, self-preservative process by generating signals of pleasure and unpleasure, which reflect the vicissitudes of the internal milieu with reference to an underlying economic or homeostatic principle (Solms, 1997, p.959).

Giampaolo Sasso (2007) writes: "Freud ... would today certainly agree with Damasio's description of how the organism responds to changes induced by the object and how emotions is at the basis of consciousness." (Sasso, 2007, p.53)

Solm's suggests Damasio’s contribution is his attempt “to delineate the physical, neurological organisation of these basic mental mechanisms” (Solms, 1997, p.960 emphasis in the original), and because of the near correlation of aspects of his schema to Freud’s it invites the possibility of being able to map some of the affectual processes Freud has suggested onto a physiological model, providing a “conceptual bridge between psychoanalysis and contemporary neuroscience”. (Solms, p.962)

Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human BrainHowever Solm’s sounds a note of caution, because Damasio lacks a clear conceptualisation of the nature of the relationship between the mind and body in psychoanalysis. Damasio conceptualises consciousness as mental and unconsciousness as physical, and the mind is the product of the brain. and, “neural representations ... become images in our minds.” (Damasio, 1994, p. 90, quoted in Soms, 1997, p.962)

The implications for psychoanalysis of Damasio's view of the brain/body relation are uncertain beyond this mapping of Freud onto the organs of the brain. Perhaps it lends some support to the psychoanalytic method, and perhaps it might lead to an attempt to demonstrate the usefulness of psychoanalysis. However I suspect the model of the brain being developed by Edelman and Tononi is more likely to offer psychoanalysis useful insights into its practice. (Edelman & Tononi, 2000)

I will end by quoting Edelman and Tononi (2000):
... emotions are fundamental both to the origins of and the appetite for conscious thought ... we think it likely that it was mainly emotions that impelled him to create his magnificent edifice of thought. Value systems and emotions are essential to the selectional workings of the brain that underlie consciousness. Further neuroscientific research on these systems and their modification by learning should shed light on an important issue: the place of value in a world of facts (p.218).


I have followed the trajectory of Freud's thinking on the subject of affect from its beginnings in his studies of hysterics to his mature conceptualisation of the dynamic unconscious in order to arrive his view of affect. I have briefly summarised the thinking of Damasio in linking emotion and consciousness and critiqued it from the vertex of the psychoanalytic neuroscientist Mark Solms. I have concluded there are limited implications of Damasio's thinking on the relationship between body and brain for psychoanalysis and suggested a more fruitful collaboration with Edelman and Tononi.


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Crispin Balfour is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Auckland  » see website

Article posted 3 April 2012