Toward New Metapsychologies

Toward New Metapsychologies

Antonio Imbasciati
1) Why Metapsychology?

Freud gave the title “metapsychology” to his 1915 work to indicate that he intended to explain what the psychoanalytic method had permitted him to discover, that is, unconscious events. The term “meta” ( = “beyond”) meant a psychology beyond what was apparent, that is, beyond the conscious mind. In fact, in Freud’s time, by “psychology,” one referred to the study of psychic events (thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc.) in reference to the subject’sconscious reports: one did not suppose that unconscious psychic processes could exist; the mind was identified as consciousness. Freud’s great discovery – that totally unknown psychic events existed, and that these were even more important and furthermore different, indeed often opposed, to what the subject believed in good faith to occur – and indeed the discovery of the unconscious, revolutionized the entire panorama of psychology, and also of all the human sciences, at the point of changing the meaning of the term “psychology.” Today in fact it is understood as the study of all the mental processes and not simply of those rendered observable by the subject, or noticed by him, that is, conscious. But in Freud’s time it was not like that, and therefore in light of the discovery of a psychology of the unconscious, it was appropriate to permit the use of the term “meta”; and furthermore, it was necessary to explain this fact that appeared surprising at the time, that is, to find (or hypothesize) the reason why these unconscious psychic processes might exist.
The first paragraph of the third essay of Freud’s Metapsychology, “The Unconscious,” is entitled “Justification of the Unconscious.” Today we no longer see the necessity of such a justification: we no longer ask ourselves, “Why the unconscious?”; comprehension of the unconscious is the usual area explored by psychoanalysts, and other sciences of the mind, besides psychoanalysis, consider the psychic processes independently from consciousness, for example, the cognitive sciences. Moreover, from the neurosciences, we know that the brain works continuously, during waking hours and during sleep, independently of the fact that the subject might notice or not the corresponding psychic events that are produced. We have furthermore become aware that the patient’s capacity in analysis to comprehend real, deep emotion goes well beyond a “revelation” that the analyst can bring to the patient’s consciousness through verbalizing an interpretation: the patient’s capacities of consciousness have their roots in the same unconscious, and the analyst must communicate with this, beyond the verbalized interpretation; and for this, the patient’s capacities of consciousness are extremely variable in the relational context of the flow of an analysis.
In Freud’s time, the existence of psychic processes that were not conscious required an explanation. The method devised by Freud (the setting, free associations, etc.) had permitted the inference of unconscious psychic processes: it was then necessary not only to describe them, at the clinical level, but also to explain them; and to do so to all the scientists of the era. In the five essays that comprise the “Metapsychology” (there should have been nine, but four were not published), the Master formulated a theory that, while explaining the origin, the development, and the functioning of the mind, aimed most of all at explaining how important psychic events were generated beyond the subject’s awareness, very often in contrast with what he himself felt. This theory was called the “Energetic-Drive Theory”: the concept of drive and that regarding the mechanism of repression were the key to explaining the “why” of the unconscious. As has been noted, he postulated that from various parts of the body, energies of biological origin arose, the drives, which, sustained precisely by an energetic-biological quantum, gave origin and unknown psychic forces that, with all their dynamics (dynamos = force: the theory is also called psychodynamic) and their management, regulated people’s conduct. The drives would have been responsible for the affective “investments” – the affects are defined as “psychic representatives” of the drives – and modulate therefore the perception of objects of reality ( = “investment of the object,” in the service of the energetic charge and of the origin of the individual drive) and overall the perception of other persons (and so of relationships), as well as the parts of the body, the individual’s and others,’ and all feelings and thoughts; also conscious ones. The fundamental concept of Freudian theory, the “trieb,” that is, the “push,” is based on an energetic presupposition, of an energy of instinctual origin (libido), that differentiates itself in different drives and thus would distribute itself throughout the organism, in particular in the central nervous system, structuring in such a way, dynamically, the individual’s psyche. Freud hoped that a biochemical substrate of such energies would eventually be discovered (Freud 1882-95, p. 347; 1901, p. 394 sg; 1905, p. 479 sg, 521 sg, 524 sg; 1906, p. 223 sg; 1914, p. 448; 1915, p. 21; 1915-17, p. 478; 1931, p. 77; 1932, p. 205; Imbasciati 2005a).
Freud’s explicit intent in addressing unconscious mental events, and the mechanisms that gave rise to them, was already clear in his “Project for a Scientific Psychology” (Freud 1895). Here Freud intended to explain them in neurological terms, with the neurology of that time: in particular, he tried to explain the neurological mechanism of the process that manifested at the clinical level as resistance and was inferred to be repression; repression of something that would have had to be, according to the conceptions that were dominant until that time, conscious. The “Project” was abandoned, as much as had been written being relegated to the shadows, and in practice repudiated: the neurology of that time did not give Freud sufficient instruments to explain in terms of the brain what his clinical acumen had permitted him to perceive. But his explicit intent remained, and Freud, no longer at the level of the brain, but at least at the general biological level, took it up again and developed it in the “Metapsychology.”
The “Project” can today be defined as a work of psychophysiology. At that time, that discipline had not yet been formed and the relative term was not used in a specific sense. Today we can define both the “Project” and “Metapsychology” as psychophysiological works: they delineate, in fact, a theory (different in each of the two cases) that explains what the clinical describes.[1] Here I recall the distinction between these two terms (the “why” and the “how”), which epistemologically summarizes the ancient philosophical distinction between post hoc and propter hoc.
The major accomplishment of the “Metapsychology” with respect to the “Project” lies in the fact that here Freud does not speculate only along neurological lines, but uses a series of principles taken from various other sciences of his time to construct a theory closer to clinical practice than to the objectivity of brain functioning, then unknown. Thus, in addition to the electroneurophysiological – energy, stimulus, firing – he applied testable principles to the then-developing science of endocrinology: the organic sources of the drives – of thermodynamics – degradation of energy – of that pertaining to physics – homeostasis, communicative vessels – and so on. In that way, he came up with a theory that was closer to the clinical, in relation to the “Project,” than to the functioning of the brain, but much more acceptable. The many-sided aspects of his analogies and the avoidance of a more precise testability with a precise science now permitted him to construct a more “plausible” theory: that is, one consonant with the general principles shared by the various sciences of the time, and with the contemporary “representative” of psychoanalytic clinical practice. About this plausible aspect, and indeed about the fact that his theoretical construction was hypothetical, Freud made no secret: he hoped, in fact, that his drive theory would be confirmed by biochemistry. In the meantime, the theory would have served as a model – a metaphorical one – with which to frame the clinical data.
But analysts after Freud reified his hypotheses: without explicating it, but in practice treating the concepts (drive, libido, charge/discharge, energy flow, investment, repression, management, distribution, etc.) as though they referred to substantial, biological realities. The concept of the drive, thanks to a certain ambiguity – a psychobiological concept – but overall thanks to its very apt expression of clinical validation (trieb = push) was considered, with the process of hypostasis (Imbasciati 1994), a “substance.” That which Freud hoped for in the area of a hypothetical theory (or maybe that Freud had in mind: see Imbasciati 2005a) was considered to have been demonstrated.[2] And thus there was an upheaval of the Freudian spirit: this was centered on the method, or, better, on a tecnè (Vassalli 2001, 2006), more than on the theory (which perhaps Freud, in calling it “the witch,” considered a strategic expedient), while later the emphasis was shifted to fall completely on the theory, furthermore making psychoanalysis become “Freud’s theory,” as unfortunately it is still called by the International Psychoanalytical Association’s statute. It is doubtful that Freud ever intended this: see his definition of “psychoanalysis” (Freud 1922).
It is obvious, then, that in the context of this biological and almost mechanistic tendency, criticisms of the “Metapsychology” began to appear. I will cite some of them.

2) Criticisms of Freudian Metapsychology.

Fairbairn (1952) was perhaps the first (and, later and even more so, his pupil Guntrip [1961]) to explicitly state open dissentions with respect to Freud’s drive theory; significant is the use of the term “personality,” already in the titles of their works. Already in 1965, Holt had produced a substantial work with the title “A Review of Freud’s Biological Assumptions and Their Influence on His Theory,” and subsequently other works, still with exemplifying titles: “Freud’s Mechanistic and Humanistic Image of Man” (1972) and “Drive or Wish? A Reconsideration of the Psychoanalytic Theory of Motivation” (1976), in the volumes of the “Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Sciences” series, edited collaboratively with Peterfreund (Holt and Peterfreund 1972, 1976).[3] Holt and Peterfreund comment on the divergence of, if not the contrast between, the clinical Freud, who explored the psychology of man, and the theoretical Freud, who wanted to explain it with a biological model, which became mechanistic in a forced way. A later work of Holt’s (1981) is called “The Death and Transfiguration of Metapsychology” and appeared in the official publication of the IPA. The inadequacy of Freudian metapsychology thus comes to be recognized, to the extent that it has not “transfigured” itself. In my opinion, this is an attempt to say in a tentative way, to the audience who venerated Freud, that his metapsychology has changed; or at least the way of understanding it has had to be changed. We encounter, in fact, among psychoanalysts a subterranean current of reticence, almost a reserve, to openly “repudiate” some parts of Freud’s work: Freud is the “Master,” his theory a doctrine; as such it is cloaked in holiness. Sometimes the holiness impedes clarification of the object of study.
In the meantime, Peterfreund (1971) proposed a new explanatory system of mental functioning, based on the principles of informational science: a new metapsychology, not described as such, more consonant with what the neurosciences were discovering. In that same year, Pulver (1971) published an article in the IJP that in my opinion has passed almost unobserved, but is important: “Can Affects Be Unconscious?” the author, examining a conductive thread that runs through Freud’s work, demonstrates that Freud presupposed that affects must be conscious and therefore he endeavored to consider the various reasons why analysis uncovered unconscious affects. How is it possible that affects can be unconscious? Thus says the title. In reality, this article contains the nucleus of a problem that today we can much better elucidate: what the analysis uncovers as “affect” is constituted by what the analyst infers and/or by what the patient succeeds in taking notice of and then in expressing in the analytic setting. Both these events are mediated by consciousness, the “equipped” consciousness of the analyst, and that of the patient as he is made more conscious by the analysis. So we can conclude that what is called affect in psychoanalysis is a mental event, or a product of the mind, which reaches us in a form that has been filtered by a certain consciousness; or, better, by a certain capacity for consciousness.[4] Affect, when identified, is conscious: it is revealed to the person who identifies it. What, then, is unconscious affect? It is that which one infers must have been there before the analyst, or the patient, became aware of it. This, however, poses the problem of what it might have consisted of, beyond, or before, the description, which the patient’s expression, his eventual verbalization, as well as the analyst’s capacity for consciousness, permit. An explanation is then necessary. It is necessary to pass from the clinical level to the theoretical level: the former is what one experiences subjectively, but it is also always experienced in the context of a certain capacity for consciousness. The latter is constituted from a hypothesis that might explain to us what can happen beyond every experience and description, that is, beyond every consciousness. In this hypothesis, one can make use of the contributions of other sciences. The explanation was the aim of the Metapsychology (Imbasciati 2005b); Freud did all he could to explain what might be happening in the mind beyond what he could describe with what the experience of the psychoanalytic method had given him. This is the same as saying beyond what is given to us to describe with our capacities for consciousness.
Schafer (1975), too, again in the official publication of the IPA, published “Psychoanalysis without Psychodynamics”: he proposes a psychoanalysis that does not go back to Freud’s dynamic concepts (force, energy), that is, a psychoanalysis without Freudian metapsychology. One year later, Gill entitled a book chapter “Metapsychology Is Not Psychology” (Gill, Holtzman 1976). Freudian metapsychology came to be considered not very congruent with the clinical body of that psychological science that is called psychoanalysis. This thesis has been bolstered and perfected in the work, unfortunately incomplete, of George Klein (1976). He envisioned a psychoanalysis that was purged of all the concepts and dynamic terms of metapsychology; it has come to be considered a muddled biological legacy, and no longer an actually biological one, of the nineteenth century.
Criticisms of Freudian metapsychology center around its biological aspects: in my opinion, this is the result of a misunderstanding by its followers (perhaps due to veneration of the Master), rather than to Freud’s actual conviction; or, better, it is the result of that shift of emphasis from the method – the true foundation of a science – to one of his theories. The energetic-drive theory can still be used today, but in a metaphorical sense, as an aid in clinical formulation, according to Freud’s conjectural spirit (zu erraten): perhaps, with that intention, one can formulate other theories today, and perhaps these could realize Freud’s desires regarding their synthesis with the neurosciences.
Freudian theory allowed for the progress of psychoanalysis: providing a “strong” explanation, which revealed itself to be an excellent political strategy, in regard to the level of consideration given to psychoanalysis by other sciences of the time: in addition, by involving a great number of scholars, these could promote the perfection of the clinical method, the “setting,” and overall its special instrument, given by personal formation, the affective unconscious, which every analyst arranges to acquire.
The energetic-drive theory has, however, been outclassed, and not only in the wake of the perfection of the method and of psychoanalytic instruments, but also as a consequence of the progress of other sciences of the mind, which, from another point of view (or “vertex”) and with other instruments, have explored the same mental area. I am speaking of experimental psychology, and especially that conducted on children (nowadays also on infants), of the cognitive sciences (Imbasciati 2005b), of many schools of psychotherapy (Imbasciati, Margiotta 2004), and most of all of the development of the neurosciences. In studying the brain, these have established that its function is not based on a dynamic-energetic principle, but on a scientific principle of informatics (that’s computer informational Science), of operative links in a neural network. These are not endowed in an unequivocal way by genetics, nor are they the same for all individuals: experience constructs them and the same experience modulates genetic expressiveness and the transcription of the genes. Therefore, psychic functionality does not obey a norm dictated by nature (as was believed at one time), although it has come to be constructed as the basis of experience of every individual. There is no brain equal to another. Macromorphology, obviously, is the same for all, but micromorphology and functioning are specific to every single individual. For this reason, in considering the psyche, one cannot adopt the medical-biological criterion of normality/pathology (Imbasciati, Margiotta 2004, chapters 2, 13; Turchi, Perno 2002): except in cases of exogenous brain lesions, but here we are in the neurological area, and for the psychological area we have a long continuum between an excellent functionality and a functionality that one has come to construct (from experience) in extremely varied ways, to cases at the extreme in which the mental structure has been put together in such a way as to render the individual very different from average – unhappy, maladapted, incapable, neurotic, or “crazy.”
Freud’s scientific greatness, as well as an epistemological vagueness about the difference between theory and discovery at that time, led psychoanalysts to consider Freudian metapsychology as a discovery rather than a research instrument, for decades, and they believed that the drives truly existed, in physical reality. Furthermore, a sort of veneration of the Master was established, so that his theory became a “doctrine.” In this way, the first developers of psychoanalysis after Freud were cautious and tentative in declaring metapsychology to have been surpassed, and overall inhibited about elaborating another, alternative theory.

3) Perceptions of Other Metapsychologies.

But gradually other metapsychologies began to be delineated. The first, in my opinion, is found in the work of Melanie Klein: her clinical descriptions speak to us of a diverse metapsychology, one not made explicit. In fact, she placed emphasis on the fact that an individual’s relationships form the basis of his psychic structure, that is, for his experience, while Freud gave primary importance to instincts, or at least to endogenous forces. Overall, Klein underlined primary relationships with caregivers, in the first three years of life: what she called “internal objects” and “fantasms” are formed here. This early concept takes off from the point that Freud had affirmed about the interior value that an object (people in particular) assumes for the drive investment that the individual subject has, but then diverges from that point, with Klein maintaining that the object, thus internalized, assumes characteristics that are totally different from reality, and unlike any real object. They are fantastic images, which form what Isaacs (1952) called “phantasies,” using the uncommon English word “phantasy” with “ph,” instead of the current usage of “fantasy,” in order to emphasize that these are not realistic images. In Italian, one uses the term “fantasia,” distinguishing it from “fantasticheria”(fantasy or daydream), or perhaps “fantasmagoria”(a chaotic jumble), or “fantasma”(an illusion, ghost, or phantom); or one speaks of relationships among internal objects.
Klein maintains that these objects are the work of drives that would behave in a particular way, structuring the psyche,[5] but from the description of her clinical cases (with children), these objects appear as though they were images: sui generis images, shapeless, unlike the originals, absurd, irrational, and which did not represent any real object but were always “representations of something.” At the same time, the Kleinian emphasis on relations – she develops the concept of object relations (“objectal”) to an extreme – tells us very little about an instinctual, endogenous conception like Freud’s, while it speaks to us of something that is structured in the mind as a consequence of experience; primary, childhood, affective. So one is dealing with the acquisition of “learning,” even though Klein never speaks in these terms. These same affects, from the moment that they are structured as a consequence of relationships, are to be considered acquired, and not as stemming from the instincts and from drives: so, we can say that they are learned. We must remember that the concept of learning, at the beginning of the twentieth century, was extremely primitive: one thought that learning consisted of an “internal imprinting” of what came from the outside, and one had no idea of how many transformations and elaborations that experience underwent before being learned, nor of how much could be learned beyond every awareness. The development of a more accurate psychology of learning fell to the experimental studies of various schools of thought that have followed from the 1930s onward. I believe that precisely because of a simplistic conception of learning, today obsolete, Klein (and all analysts, for a long time) never used the term learning. But substantively, underneath the clinical descriptions that she tried to explain in terms of drives, a conception appears that is totally different: a mind that develops by experience and that is structured as a series of internal representations: today we can say that it is formed by learning and by memories. Obviously, the concept of memory is also understood as today it has come to be recognized: implicit memory. Because of this, I have maintained (Imbasciati 1990, 1994, 1998) that the Kleinian clinical approach is completely detached from its theoretical tenets: these might instead have been added as a forced adherence to the Master’s “doctrine.” In effect, on the underside of Kleinian clinical descriptions, there is an implied, understood, and disguised, different Metapsychology.
In the development of psychoanalysis, not long after and almost contemporary with Klein’s work, we encounter two scholars in whose works a different metapsychology from Freud’s appears, more clearly expressed than that understood by Klein, even though not yet declared as such. Here I am thinking of the authors, in addition to Klein, who developed object theories. We can consider the Scottish school of Fairbairn (1952) and Guntrip (1961) as a pioneer among them. Fairbairn openly contested some of the fundamental propositions of Freudian theory: he affirmed that it is not libidinal energy or the drives’ qualities that give birth to internal objects, but real objects, particularly the parents, who shape the drives. That is, here we have an affirmation in support of the experientiality of psychic development and against the endogenous, instinctual conception.
Another famous scholar, with his own school, was Winnicott. His vast body of work, centered on the observation and analysis of children (and of mothers) emphasizes the relationality of the inseparable mother/child dyad as a matrix of the mind’s origin and of all its developments. A particular feature of all Winnicott’s work is the neglect of the energetic Freudian conception and the very elastic usage of every theoretical metapsychological term, as well as the total focus on the clinical events of child development without explanatory concerns. But precisely from his intricate observation and description, one infers a possible explanation, which cannot be the endogenous one of Freud. In Winnicott’s work, another metapsychology is implied, unexpressed, of experiential origin, in which the affects dominate, generated in a unique way from relationships, from relational dialogue, and therefore conceivable in terms of a representational, interior, acquired semantics, of which one is not aware, which structures itself in mental functioning: in other words, we could say, it is structured in memory. This gives rise to the idea that affects do not stem from innate forces in the “nature” of the psyche, but from a system of acquired representations (Imbasciati 1990). This means, today, “learning.”
Ultimately, we have another scholar, whose work has truly revolutionized the psychoanalytic panorama and in which the explanatory intent of a new metapsychology is evident: Wilfred Rupert Bion. Significant is the appearance, even in the title of his second published book (Bion 1962), of the term learning, which had disappeared from the lexicon of all the preceding psychoanalytic literature: Learning from Experience, a title that could be the emblem of all this scholar’s subsequent work. It is experience that gives origin and development to the mind, but not because one learns that of which one makes experience, but “from,” that is, through, an interior elaboration of the experience itself. The experience is primarily and essentially an interior one – analysts have called it affective – and it has come to be described primarily, both in the child and in the adult, as the basic mental activity, of relational origin, that modulates the formation of thought. Bion’s clinical descriptions, conducted overall in terms of transference and countertransference analysis, demonstrate a different, nuanced, explanatory side of the traditional approach: a progressive learning that generates thought. Learning is, by contrast, “teaching,” on the part of the caregiver.
Bionian theory contains a new metapsychology, not named as such, but equally described; and such it has been declared by other, subsequent authors. This metapsychology acts as a revaluation of learning: the complexity of the “transformations” described by Bion are well in accord with what we know today from other psychological sciences, and from the neurosciences themselves, about the elaboration that learning always entails with respect to what can be received, as well as the subsequent, continuous transformation of every memory trace that is set down (the plasticity of the memory). Bion does not specify memory, but in demonstrating the constant transformations that happen in mental processes, he implies its continual, changeable work. Bionian theory can therefore constitute a psychophysiological basis for a new metapsychology. It is necessary, however, to separate out the biological correlates.

4) Proposal for a New Metapsychology: A Psychophysiological One.

The brief excursion sketched out here demonstrates that in psychoanalysis, over the last fifty years, there has been a need to formulate new theories having a metapsychological character (Imbasciati 2006c), different from the Freudian one. These theories await, however, a systematization; they need to be stated as metapsychologies, and need more precise psychophysiological verifications. Such a development will require a complex process of integration between analysts and neuroscientists.
A traceable common denominator at the base of the new psychoanalytic theoretical formulations is a continual indication of the constant work that the mind continues to perform on the experiences that reach it, and how this may be modulated by interior processes that the individual subject has elaborated and continually elaborates in human relations, in integration with the functional modality of the minds of others. That emphasis is syntonic with what the neurosciences tell us today about the continual work of the brain and with experimental psychology’s actual studies on communication (nonverbal).
A psychological science that has asserted itself for some decades is that called “of the cognition” or “cognitivism.” Much of the data of this focus of study can be usefully integrated with the more current data of psychoanalytic science (Bucci, 1997; Imbasciati 2005b, 2006a, 2006b, 2006c): on this basis it is possible to delineate a new metapsychology that may furnish a psychophysiological explanation of what is structured as the mind and of that which happens there, superimposable on biological explanations (neurobiochemical and genetic-molecular) provided to us by the neurosciences about the formation of neural networks responsible for the functioning of an individual’s brain. This is the work that I am undertaking. Here we recall that no one has a brain functionally identical to that of another: the macromorphology is equal for all, but the micromorphology and the physiology are data from which, for each individual, his particular experience has selected neural populations and from them constructed functional networks. The mind of an individual therefore cannot be replicated.
The mind constructs itself, differently for each person, based on experiences that are structured beginning in the prenatal period (Imbasciati, Dabrassi, Cena 2006). Every experience is modulated by relationships: even what the fetus learns is conditioned by the relationship with the pregnant mother (Manfredi, Imbasciati 2004). In a continual relationality, the mind constructs itself, and that construction, already initiated in the prenatal period, continues progressively for almost all the person’s life.
My parallel development as a psychoanalyst and as an experimental psychologist researcher in a university has allowed me to observe the insufficient integration between psychoanalysis and the other sciences of the mind, and also to conclude that such an integration can be useful for psychoanalysis. From within this personal framework, for many years (Imbasciati, Calorio 1981) I have sought comparisons, and I have published many proposals on the subject. Gradually, I have delineated a theory on the origins, development, and functioning of the mind, which I have called the Theory of the Protomental, and which today I am proposing as a new metapsychology.
Obviously, I cannot expound the entire theory here due to space constraints, and I therefore refer the reader to some of my previous work (1983, 1994, 1998, 2001, 2002a, 2002b, 2003, 2004, and in particular 2006a, 2006b). Here I can say that I am speaking of a mnestic, syntonic theory, at a psychological level, with a neural level as well, which today we know supports the construction of neural populations and relative networks during development, especially in childhood. From the earliest relationships – prenatal, perinatal, and neonatal – in the first months of life, primitive learning consists of organized tracks of very elementary meanings: we are not talking about representations (unless in a very broad sense), but of tracks of functions, each of which permits the utilization of further input (corporeal-relational) in order to construct further functionality. These permit further learning, with relative tracks, constructing in such a way a progressive functional structure capable of elaborating in a more and more complex way, in mnestic organizations, both what can arise from the senses, and what the system itself, thus constituted, begins to produce. The mind can thus construct itself, in a continued and ever more complex elaboration of relationality, both for the mnestic functional tracks that give origin to what was until now called “affects,” and for subsequent organizations, which permit a “reading” of what happens inside: distinguishing what happens in the external world from what happens inside the self, and here ultimately can have some capacity to distinguish what happens in the body from what happens in the mind (capacity of consciousness). Thus a symbolic-creative system constructs itself, which develops as the progressive capacity of symbolization and so as “thought.”
The theory alluded to here proposes an explanation of how the mental structure is created, originating from experience and modulated by relationality, with a very particular and unique type of processing (working through for psychoanalysts) for every individual: this process will regulate his behavior on the basis of the type of processing that the system can then perform on every new event. In addition, it will regulate the type and degree of the capacity for consciousness with which each individual will be capable of reading the world and the persons around him, distinguishing them from what happens and is produced in his own mind.
My theory delineates a complex and progressive informational system, in which “forces” do not operate, but elaborative networks guide what happens in the individual and to the individual. The concept of the unconscious is obvious; the problem of the capacity for consciousness is resolved according to the type of elaboration that comes to operate on information emanating from relationality (for example, I assign much value to nonverbal communication), and the biologized dichotomy of normality/pathology comes to be replaced by the consideration of a continuum of excellence/deficit.
This theory of mine has proved to be useful in my clinical work, especially in how much it has made me aware of primitive deficits: those that often pass unobserved in patients who seem, instead, to have an evolved capacity for symbolization; those patients who appear capable of “insights” which then vanish; or they reveal it to be mere adherence to, or collusion with, the analyst. The analyst’s attention to the limitations of complex interpretations derives from this awareness, in favor of a kind of work similar to that of a caregiver who helps a child learn to think during the first two years of life (Imbasciati 2006c, 2006d); work that is similar in many ways to that described by Greenspan (2001) in his Developmentally Based Psychotherapy; psychotherapy that I have considered essentially psychoanalytic: the “therapeutic” problem, indeed, puts to a rigorous test exactly the capacity of reverie that an analyst must possess and exercise (Ferro 2006).
My “Theory of the Protomental” is a task that is anything but completed: it is a proposal, of a new metapsychology, to all my colleagues who conduct research and who think that psychoanalysis must be continually integrated with the other sciences of the mind; a stimulus, in fact, for many “scientists.”

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Freud formulated his metapsychology motivated by the intent to explain what his clinical work permitted him to discover and describe. His theory is therefore a psychophysiology consonant with the science of his time. His metapsychology has been amply criticized, for some decades, by many authors. In particular, the energetic-drive conception is criticized. A certain respect for the Master has overall impeded the developments in psychoanalysis, in the almost eighty years since his death, that would have explicated an alternative metapsychology. In these developments, however, other metapsychologies are present in an implicit way. The author identifies them. Ultimately, he proposes his own new psychophysiological theory as the basis for formulating a new metapsychology that is syntonic with the actual neurosciences.

Translated by Gina Atkinson
March 2, 2007

[1] The descriptive level (how) has to do with discovery. The explanatory level necessitates an invention: a theory. Often in psychoanalysis, one confuses discoveries with theories: the unconscious is a discovery; metapsychology is an invention: one that has been useful, but today no longer is.
[2] Perhaps this semantic slip occurred in part due to his having coined a new term for the neo-Latin languages, an unusual one, with a sort of mythical halo: pulsione, the drive, rather than the more current German word, “trieb.”
[3] Significant is their use of the term motivation, corresponding more to the German trieb and to the American drive than to the terms instinct of the British and pulsion of the neo-Latin language speakers.
[4] We recall here that consciousness is not a natural endowment possessed by all in an equal way; nor is it dichotomous. To use the term consciousness can be equivocal: consciousness is a continuum, from zero to a(n) (infinite) point of full lucidity. It is better, then, to speak of the “capacity for consciousness.” Each person has his own quantum, or amount, of capacity for consciousness, his quality of his consciousness, and that capacity, besides varying from person to person, in the same person varies according to the moment and the relational context. We have proof of that as the analysis evolves in the analytic relation, in the flow of various sessions, where the capacity to notice something that seems “understood” varies, decreases, disappears, returns. For such variations, to go back to the relative concept of the mechanism of repression is insufficient (Imbasciati 2005a, 2005b, 2006a, 2006b, 2006c).
[5] It is put forth that the drive forces (libido and death instinct) “split” real objects into good and bad ones. In reality, Klein’s discussion is complex and at the same time confused (Imbasciati 1990, 1994, 2005a, 2005b, 2006a, 2006b) and thus implies, as at one time was believed, that the brain always reflected objects perceived in reality as a mirror does, barring the intervention of drive forces.