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Neuropsychoanalysis: An Interdisciplinary Journal

for Psychoanalysis and the Neurosciences
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Psychoanalytic Theory: Clues from the Brain:

Commentary by Joseph LeDoux (New York)
Joseph LeDoux

Center for Neural Science, New York University, 4 Washington Place, New York, NY
10003, e-mail:
Published online: 09 Jan 2014.

To cite this article: Joseph LeDoux (1999) Psychoanalytic Theory: Clues from the Brain: Commentary by Joseph LeDoux
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Joseph LeDoux

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pointed role of verbally communicating with others."

Where does that stop?
I shall now end by saying a few words on the
way I think Freud should be read. Freud has no special
right to be considered as telling the truth more than
his followers who may disagree with him. But in my
opinion, Freud has considerable theoretical consistency, stronger than any other, even if this is now put
to question. What I recommend is to study his wor k
by trying to grasp this internal consistency more than
by considering the isolated facts to which he drew
attention. This to me is true rigor, instead of hastily
trying to find impossible compromises between incompatible methods. For instance, affects in his work are
mainly considered first in relationship with representations and then in connection with instinctual impulses and the unconscious ego. As far as I know, only
Damasio seems to bother about the relationship of affects to representation.
What psychoanalysts expect from their dialogue
with neurobiologists is not an accumulation of references related to localization circuits or the effect of
chemical substances, but help in understanding the
general patterns of brain functioning. Not that it will

change so much their ways of working (i.e., analyzing)

but it may broaden their views and satisfy their curiosity, if they have any, on the topic that will always
remain of interest to them: the brain-mind problem.

Edelman, G. (1992), Bright Air, Brilliant Fire. New York:
Basic Books.
Freud, S. (1900), The Interpretation of Dreams. Standard
Edition, 5. London: Hogarth Press, 1953.
- - - (1940), An Outline of Psycho-Analysis. Standard
Edition, 23:139-207. London: Hogarth Press, 1964.
Moruzzi, G., & Magoun, H. (1969), Brain stem reticular
formation and activation of the EEG. Electroenceph.
Clin. Neurophysiol., 106:371-392.
Stern, D. (1985), The Interpersonal World of the Human
Infant. New York: Basic Books.
Andre Green
9 Avenue de L'Observatoire
75006 Paris

Psychoanalytic Theory: Clues from the Brain

Commentary by Joseph LeDoux (New York)

Psychoanalytic theory has influenced contemporary
Western culture in innumerable ways. Although I have
never actually tested aspects of psychoanalytic theory
in my research on emotions and the brain, "psychoanalytic-like" concepts (such as the unconscious, affect,
and emotional memory) have been key to the way I
have interpreted my research findings over the years
(LeDoux, 1996). I refer to these as "psychoanalyticlike" because I don't have a deep understanding of
psychoanalytic theory and have borrowed the concepts
more from popular culture (films, novels, and just
plain common knowledge) than from Freud's writings.
Acknowledgments: Supported by PHS Grants, MH46516, MH38773,
and MH00956, and by a grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation to
Joseph LeDoux, Ph.D., is Professor, Center for Neural Science, New
York University.

From time to time, I've looked through books by Freud

for research inspiration, but I never found my experimental muse there. Lacking the training and context
in which to really understand Freud, I don't think I
ever got beyond the surface notions that most college
educated people are familiar with. Consequently, the
article by Solms and Nersessian has done me, and
perhaps other neuroscientists, a great service. Although I have still not found experimental inspiration
in psychoanalytic theory, I feel that I now understand
the theory of affect a little and am grateful for their
translation of the theory in terms that are intelligible
to those of us who are not trained in the area. Below,
I am going to comment on several points made by
Solms and Nersessian in order to do my own translation of some of their notions in terms related to modern work on the brain mechanisms of emotion and
cognition. I'll also comment briefly on Panksepp's
discussion of their paper.

Commentary on Emotions: Neuro-Psychoanalytic Views

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The "Pleasure Principle" Meets Cognitive

Solms and Nersessian elaborate on Freud's "pleasure
principle." This staple of psychoanalytic theory is
very close conceptually to the "law of effect," a notion proposed by Thorndike in the early twentieth century to explain how learning occurs (Thorndike,
1913). According to the "law" those behaviors that
are followed by reward are stamped in and those followed by punishment are stamped out. The "law"
played an important role in learning theory, which
formed the core of early experimental psychology.
The legendary historian of psychology, E. G. Boring,
pointed out that the "principle" and the "law" have a
historical connection to Jeremy Bentham's eighteenth
century theory of "hedonism," but each with its own
twist: Thorndike's "law" was a hedonism based on
past events, whereas Freud's "principle" was a hedonism based on future expectations (Boring, 1950).
What is interesting is that the two major traditions
in psychology, the clinical and the experimental, have
hedonism as a common theme in their history. Although often completely separated today, these two
basic approaches to the ways in which mental/behavioral functions operate may in the end not be so different at the core, or at least there may be a fundamental
common core to clinical and experimental psychology
that can be used as a conceptual bridge between psychoanalysis and neuroscience. Modern neuroscience is
closely allied with and compatible with experimental
psychology, but conceptually is miles away from psychoanalytic theory. If experimental psychology and
psychoanalytic theory can be fused, even somewhat,
the translation of psychoanalytic concepts into brain
mechanisms might be achieved in steps, and less painfully.
Of course, Dollard and Miller (1950) took a stab
at translating psychoanalysis into experimental psychology terms in the 1950s. In the meantime, though,
experimental psychology was completely overhauled
by the cognitive revolution (Gardner, 1987). As a result, the contribution of Dollard and Miller, while still
immensely interesting, is itself in need of a translation
into modern, especially cognitive, terms. Matt Erdelyi
made an effort in the 1980s to translate psychoanalysis
into cognitive psychology in his book, Psychoanalysis: Freud's Cognitive Psychology (1985), but as far
as I know not much has happened since.
One benefit of the cognitive revolution was the
development of a rich new understanding of how certain aspects of the mind, like perception, attention, and


memory, work. Another benefit was that the unconscious (in this case the cognitive unconscious rather
than the repressed unconscious of psychoanalytic theory) became a scientifically legitimate concept with
broad acceptance (Kihlstrom, 1987). On the other
hand, a major drawback of the cognitive revolution
was that topics like emotion and motivation, and even
learning, were largely ignored. The law of effect, for
example, plays little role in cognitive theories of how
memories are created. Over the last couple of years,
though, the shortsightedness of cognitive theory has
been receding, with cognitive scientists becoming
more and more interested in how emotions and cognition relate and interact.
It seems to me that we are poised for a new approach to the mind, one that could embrace theories
of emotion and personality, learning theory, cognitive
concepts, and even psychoanalytic notions, in an effort to understand how our brains make us who we
are. Some have proposed an "affective neuroscience"
as an antidote to cognitive science. My preference is
for a nonpartisan "mind science" that embraces emotion and cognition (and other facets of the mind) on
neutral ground.

Feelings as the Conscious Perception of

Something Unconscious
Modern ideas about consciousness coming out of neuroscience (and cognitive science) often assume that
working memory is a staging area for consciousness,
a network in the brain that can represent the stuff we
are aware of when we are aware of something (see
Kihlstrom, 1987; Johnson-Laird, 1988; Baars, 1988;
Dennett, 1991; Kosslyn and Koenig, 1992; LeDoux,
1996). Freud's notion, described by Solms and Nersessian, that "felt emotions are a conscious perception
of something-something which is, in itself, unconscious," is compatible with the working memory
For example, we now know that the amygdala is
an important component of the brain system that detects and responds to danger. However, the amygdala
is not directly responsible for conscious feelings of
fear. Building on the working memory notion, I have
proposed that conscious feelings of fear come about
when working memory is occupied with the fact that
the amygdala has detected and begun to respond to
danger (see LeDoux, 1996). The amygdala does these
things implicitly, which is to say unconsciously. When
working memory becomes occupied with the fact that

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the amygdala is active (either by direct connections

from the amygdala to cortical areas, by way of connections from the amygdala to brain stem areas that then
flood the cortex with nonspecific neurochemical messages, or by way of connections from the amygdala
to areas controlling peripheral responses that then
feedback to the brain), then we have some of the ingredients that turn an experience into a fearful experience. Working memory is also able to represent, at
the same time, the perceptual nature of the external
stimulus as well as long-term memories that have been
activated by this stimulus. So the immediate stimulus,
plus the memories it activates, and the fact that the
amygdala has been set into action, all combine to give
rise to the feeling of being afraid. When electrical
stimuli applied to the amygdala of humans elicit feelings of fear (see Gloor, 1992), it is not because the
amygdala "feels" fear, but instead because the vari0us networks that the amygdala activates ultimately
provide working memory with inputs that are labeled
as fear. This is all compatible with the Freudian notion
that conscious emotion is the awareness of something
that is basically unconscious.
Where modern neuroscience might diverge a bit
with the Freudian notion is on the topic of whether
affect is a separate modality of consciousness. As described above, I believe we have one basic mechanism
(the working memory networks) for representing consciousness content. Consciousness (working memory)
can be occupied with mundane or significant events,
depending on the system that is controlling the occupation. Emotional states of consciousness tend to be
more prolonged and intense because of the greater
variety of brain systems that are called into play to
contribute in various ways to working memory. These
additional systems, like brain stem neurochemical systems and peripheral feedback from bodily responses,
including hormonal feedback, help lock us into the
state we are in and ensure that our perceptions, attentions, and memories stay focused on the significant
event and make it harder for other things to bump this
event out of working memory. At the same time, recent data suggesting that working memory is possibly
made up of multiple overlapping networks, some of
which have better connectivity with the amygdala and
other subcortical areas, suggests there could be some
affective compartmentalization in working memory
that could constitute something like a modality for affective consciousness (LeDoux, 1996). However,
much more work is needed on this topic.

Joseph LeDoux

Quantity vs. Quality of Excitation

Solms and Nersessian raise this issue and rightly point
to the long-standing distinction between specific and
nonspecific systems in the brain. There have been
many versions of this notion, but most of them go back
to the concept of the sensory systems being involved in
representing qualities (objects) in the world, and the
reticular formation being involved in nonspecific activation or arousal elicited by those objects. The question has always been, What arouses arousal systems?
How, in other words, does the reticular formation
know that a particular stimulus with a past history of
causing harm is dangerous, but one very similar to it
but without the history is safe? The fact is that to
"know" about stimuli requires that the forebrain
somehow gets in the act. A great deal of wor k has
shown that the detection of danger is done by the
amygdala, on the basis of specific sensory inputs from
the thalamus and cortex. The thalamus and cortex inform the amygdala about features of objects or even
about whole objects. If these features or whole objects
have been "conditioned" by past experiences, the
amygdala will respond. Once the amygdala responds,
it broadcasts to the cortex, to brain stem areas that
control bodily responses, and to brain stem reticular
formation arousal areas that then activate the forebrain
(including the amygdala, cortex, and other areas). In
this view, the amygdala is presynaptic to the reticular
formation in the triggering of nonspecific arousal. The
sensory systems and their representations in the thalamus and cortex provide the amygdala with "quality"
and the amygdala, by way of triggering the brain stem,
participates in the generation of ' 'quantity.' , Of
course, for the creation of a conscious emotional experience with quantity and quality we need to then turn
back to the notion of working memory, elaborated
above. In this sense working memory evaluates the
present stimulus situation in light of the fact that the
fear system has been activated and is producing certain
physiological responses in the brain and body.

Inhibition and Affective Taming

Just how the brain brings emotional responses under
control has long been an important question. From
the time of Henry Head (1921) onwards, it has been
believed that the cortex somehow inhibits subcortical
regions, and cortical inhibition of subcortical structures plays some role in the regulation of our emotional reactions. Adapting Plato's metaphor, the cortex

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Commentary on Emotions: Neuro-Psychoanalytic Views


would be the charioteer (reason) that reins in the wild

horses (subcortical emotional systems). Many have
proposed, from clinical observation, that the frontal
cortex might be especially involved in this kind of
inhibition. In studies of rats aimed at understanding
how learned fear is extinguished, we found evidence
consistent with this view (Morgan, Romanski, and
LeDoux, 1993). In brief, when the medial prefrontal
cortex (anterior cingulate/infralimbic region) was
damaged the rats took much longer to extinguish their
fear reactions. This suggests that the medial prefrontal
region might normally be involved in regulating the
amygdala and the fear reactions it controls (connections from the medial cortex to the amygdala make this
suggestion plausible anatomically). When the medial
prefrontal region is damaged, the control is lost, and
the fear remains unchecked. There are several implications of this. One is that it is possible that there are
alterations in the medial prefrontal region of some
people who have difficulty bringing their fears and
anxieties under control. A second implication is that
extinction is sort of like behavioral therapy (desensitization). If the medial cortex is involved in desensitization, it would explain why behavior therapy works
well for simple fears (connections from the medial
cortex to the amygdala make it possible for desensitization to reduce fear reactions).
It is interesting to speculate that talking therapy
involves other parts of the cortex, namely the lateral
prefrontal cortex, which is crucially involved in working memory (Fuster, 1989; Goldman-Rakic, 1993). To
the extent that thinking and reasoning, and especially
conscious awareness of one's thoughts, involve working memory, working memory networks of the lateral
prefrontal cortex might playa key role in talking therapy. However, the connections of the lateral prefrontal
cortex, with the amygdala, in contrast to the medial
prefrontal cortex, are meager and indirect. This may
account at least in part for why talking therapy generally takes longer to achieve effects than extinction approaches. But time is not the only consideration since
desensitization does not work for everything. And if,
as speculated above, people with uncontrollable fear
have alterations in the medial prefrontal cortex, it may
be that the best psychotherapeutic hope for them is in
the form of talking cures.

tive explanation that might account for some of what

has been called repression. I am not proposing that
repression is an invalid concept, but only that this
other explanation should be ruled out when repression
is considered to be involved.
The key to our conscious memories is a network
in the medial temporal lobe involving the hippocampus
and related brain regions (see Squire, Knowlton, and
Musen, 1993; Cohen and Eichenbaum, 1993; Milner,
Squire, and Kandel, 1997). It is now known that stress
(by way of adrenal steroid hormones) adversely affects the function of the hippocampus (McEwen and
Sapolsky, 1995). Thus, it is possible that in periods of
intense stress the hippocampus is in effect shut down,
or impaired, to the point of being unable to perform the
normal functions that create memories. Thus, amnesia
after being raped or mugged might have as much to
do with the adrenal shut down of the hippocampus as
with the shunting of unpleasant memories from consciousness. One might even go out on a limb and attempt to explain repression in biological terms, but at
this point it may be best to keep these notions separate.
But how can the effects of stress continue to affect the traumatized person if the stress interfered with
the ability to store the experience? The answer comes
in the form of multiple memory systems. We now
know that there are many kinds of memory, each mediated by different brain systems (see Squire et aI.,
1993; Cohen and Eichenbaum, 1993; LeDoux, 1996;
Milner et al. 1997). The two of interest to this discussion are the medial temporal lobe system, which mediates our conscious or explicit memories, and the
amygdala, which is involved in implicit (unconscious)
storage of memories about harmful situations. And
while stress impairs the functions of the hippocampus,
it seems to amplify the functions of the amygdala (for
discussion see LeDoux, 1996). So the exact conditions
that might lead one to have an amnesia (loss of conscious memory) for the events surrounding a traumatic
event, might also lead to a particularly powerful unconscious memory that has direct influence on the way
the person acts and feels. Because these influences are
operating unconsciously, the person would have little
understanding of why the actions or feelings occur.

Repression, Stress, and Multiple Memory


Panksepp's Consilience

The notion of repression is central to psychoanalytic

theory. Modern neuroscience has provided an alterna-

Panksepp's detailed discussion of Solms and Nersessian provides a valuable aid to those seeking to link
neuroscience and psychoanalysis. However, I do take

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issue with some of Panksepp's basic assumptions
and conclusions.
Let me first point out that Panksepp's idea of
emotional command systems is very important and
useful. From a purely conceptual point of view it
seems likely that if emotions are survival functions
then different emotions should have different neural
underpinnings. The logic here is simple: Since different aspects of survival are achieved by different kinds
of behavioral responses and these require different
neural control networks that are called upon in different situations, then different neural systems might very
well be involved. My work has concentrated on the
fear or defense system, which we have mapped out in
some detail (LeDoux, 1996). However, others, including Panksepp, have collected data suggesting that different emotions involve different (at least somewhat
different) brain systems.
I part with Panksepp on the implications of the
findings. He proposes that since the command networks are the same in humans and other animals, then
the subjective states experienced should be the same.
That is, activation of the fear command system should
produce similar feelings of fear in people and other
mammals (and perhaps other animals as well). This is
of course possible. However, as outlined above, my
view of subjective feelings is that they involve the
representation in working memory of the activity of
unconsciously operating systems (like the emotional
command systems that Panksepp talks about). In this
sense, the conscious experience of being in danger (the'
feeling of being afraid) is mediated in the same way
as the conscious experience that an apple is red. The
difference is that the fear experience involves more
brain and body systems. The reason emotions feel different from nonemotions, in this view, is because of
these additional inputs to working memory: They add
intensity and duration to emotional states, which
would otherwise disappear from consciousness as
soon as something else comes along. If we are in the
throes of danger, or rapt in love, it makes good sense
(from the point of view of survival) to maintain those
states unless something more important comes along.
In general, Panksepp and I seem to disagree at a
fundamental level about what behavioral data can reveal about an animal's brain. Can we say that because
rats and people respond the same way in situations of
danger or play, that fear or joy that a person experiences is also experienced by the rat? Panksepp says
yes. I say there is no way to know. This is not exactly
the same as the philosophical problem of other minds,
which asks how can I know if anyone other than me

Joseph LeDoux
is conscious. At least with other people we can draw
upon the fact that we all have basically the same kinds
of brains and may therefore have the same kinds of
mental states. But when it comes to making such comparisons across species, where the brains differ significantly, at least in terms of the neocortex, we face
very difficult problems. These problems are compounded by the fact that the prefrontal cortex, which
contains the working memory networks and therefore
is believed to be involved in human conscious experience, is the region the differs most between human
and other brains. For these reasons, when I think about
emotion as a subjective conscious feeling, I prefer to
restrict my theorizing to human brains.

We are far from bridging psychoanalysis and neuroscience. However, Solms and Nersessian have provided
a very nice launching pad for this endeavor.

Baars, B. J. (1998), A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness.
New York: Cambridge University Press.
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Cohen, N. J., & Eichenbaum, H. (1993), Memory, Amnesia,
and the Hippocampal System. Cambridge, MA: MIT
Dennett, D. C. (1991), Consciousness Explained. Boston:
Little, Brown.
Dollard, J. C., & Miller, N. E. (1950), Personality and Psychotherapy. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Erdelyi, M. H. (1984), The recovery of unconscious (inaccessible) memories: Laboratory studies of hypermnesia:
In: The Psychology of Learning and Motivation: Advances in Research and Theory. New York: Academic
Press, pp. 95-127.
Fuster, J. M. (1989), The Prefrontal Cortex. New York:
Gardner, H. (1987), The Mind's New Science: A History of
the Cognitive Revolution. New York: Basic Books.
Gloor, P. (1992), Role of the amygdala in temporal lobe
epilepsy. In: The Amygdala: Neurobiological Aspects of
Emotion, Memory, and Mental Dysfunction, ed. J. P. Aggleton. New York: Wiley-Liss, pp. 505-538.
Goldman-Rakic, P. S. (1993), Working memory and the
mind. In: Mind and Brain: Readings from Scientific
American Magazine. New York: W. H. Freeman, pp.
Head, H. (1921), Release function in the nervous system.
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Commentary on Emotions: Neuro-Psychoanalytic Views

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Johnson-Laird, P. N. (1988), The Computer and the Mind:

An Introduction to Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press.
Kihlstrom, J. F. (1987), The cognitive unconscious. Science,
237: 1445-1452.
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Cognitive Neuroscience. New York: Macmillan.
LeDoux, J. E. (1996), The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious
Underpinnings of Emotional Life. New York: Simon &
McEwen, B. S., & Sapolsky, R. M. (1995), Stress and cognitive function. Curro Opinion in Neurobiol., 5:205-216.
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Morgan, M. A., Romanski, L. M., & LeDoux, J. E. (1993),

Extinction of emotional learning: Contribution of medial
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Joseph LeDoux
Center for Neural Science
New York University
4 Washington Place
New York, NY 10003

Commentary by Allan N. Schore (Los Angeles)

Over the last two decades, Freud's seminal model of

a dynamic, continuously active unconscious mind has
undergone a major transformation. Yet most disciplines that border psychoanalysis, "the science of unconscious processes," are unaware of these important
advances. A rapidly evolving trend within contemporary psychoanalysis, at both the levels of theory and
practice, is an increasing appreciation of the centrality
of affective phenomena. Freud first delineated his
ideas about affect in 1895 in the "Project for a Scientific Psychology," an attempt to create a systematic
model of the functioning of the human mind in terms
of its underlying neurobiological mechanisms (Schore,
1997a). Although he subsequently contended that the
work of psychotherapy is always concerned with affect (1915), it is only recently that an increased emphasis on affect is impacting clinical models.
In this same time frame, after a long period of
neglect, the other biological sciences have begun to
earnestly explore the problem of emotion. As the first
issue of this important journal demonstrates, affect
and its regulation are a potential convergence point of
psychoanalysis and neuroscience. In the following I
will briefly comment upon Solms and Nersessian's
and Panksepp's essays, and then, utilizing an interdisciplinary perspective, offer some ideas about affect
and its development. Throughout my commentaries, I
Allan N. Schore, Ph.D., is Assistant Clinical Professor, University of
California at Los Angeles School of Medicine; and Faculty, Institute of
Contemporary Psychoanalysis, Los Angeles.

will argue that a common ground of both psychoanalysis and neuroscience lies in a more detailed charting
of the unique structure-function relationships of the
right brain, which Ornstein (1997) calls "the right
mind." Psychoanalysis has been interested in the right
hemisphere since the split brain studies of the 1970s,
when a number of psychoanalytic investigators began
to map out its preeminent role in unconscious processes (Galin, 1974; Hoppe, 1977). I will suggest that
Freud's affect theory describes a structural system, associated with unconscious primary process affectladen cognition and regulated by the pleasure-unpleasure principle, that is organized in the right brain.

A Perspective from Classical Psychoanalysis

In their concise presentation of Freud's theory of affect Solms and Nersessian underscore his ideas that
"basic emotions" are forged in early development,
and that in later life they represent "reproductions of
very early experiences of vital importance" to not
only the "individual but of the species" (Freud
1916-1917). There is now an intense interest in "biologically primitive emotions" which are evolutionarily very old, appear early in development, and are
facially expressed. The early maturing right hemisphere is dominant for the first three years of life
(Chiron, Jambaque, Nabbout, Lounes, Syrota, and Dulac, 1997), and it contains a basic primitive affect system (Gazzaniga, 1985) that is involved in the