Object relations theory and synesthesia

March 24, 2015

I’ve been mulling over options for conceptualizing a theory of aggression for a few months now, looking for ways to link Freudian psychology with the Cultural Cognition Project‘s egalitarian/hierarchical dichotomy of personality types. The Cultural Cognition Project ties into a favorite book of mine, inspired by Plato’s Republic, which sorts various cultural norms into two groups, one favoring hierarchy and the use of force, and the other favoring equality and the use of commerce.

The book is Systems of Survival, and I’ll be writing more about it as I delve deeper into the topic of aggression. It argues that the two mutually exclusive codes of conduct are symbiotic when they co-exist separately, but that intermingling their values only leads to corruption, because their values contradict one another explicitly (adhering to one code of conduct entails violating the rules of the other). My interest in it has to do with the evidence that political affiliation is biologically driven and related to the fear response in humans.

What if there is a threshold in brain function and structural differentiation that determines what values make sense to us and which norms are consistent with our perceptual capabilities and behavioral instincts? What are the ethical and political implications of this kind of neurodiversity?


Relating cultural cognition to Freud is about searching the early years of neurodevelopment for commonalities between the two phenotypes, identifying unifying principals of cause and effect and explaining how the two patterns of behavior diverge. At least, I had assumed I would be using Freud. Instead, I’ve decided to use an off-shoot of Freudian psychoanalysis known as Object Relations Theory.

Where Freud gave all the explanatory power in psychoanalysis to the pleasure principle and formative experiences of sexuality, Otto Rank, Melanie Klein and other proponents of object relations theory focused on infantile development and the intense bond between mother and child. They saw fear of abandonment and desire for human contact as more important than pleasure itself, and argued that personality is shaped by the process of achieving independence from a primary care-giver, and the development of the maturity needed to forgive an imperfect parent.

Like Freud, they linked paranoid phases in psychological individuation to projection and identification with one’s parents, in a process called “splitting” that is characterized by black-and-white thinking. When a care-giver is attentive, the child idealizes her, and when the child feels abandoned, the care-giver is rejected as inadequate. The child identifies with the idealized care-giver as a self-soothing technique, and imagines achieving omnipotent mastery over the care-giver when disappointed. The “object” in all this is the image of the parent in the child’s mind, often only a partial image, and at its most primitive, only a breast.


What I like about this theory is the description of infant  psychology as a constant battle for composure in a state of abject helplessness, a desperate search for self-soothing techniques with which to cope with constant anxiety. Here illusions are adaptive, therapeutic, necessary. Identifying with the breast brings a sense of tranquility to a life spent waiting helplessly for rescue from hunger and cold. The irrational is indispensable, the only recourse from a reality too overwhelming to process without distress. Aggression is distress, a disorganized rejection of discomfort and want.

And the response posited by object relations theory as universal and unconscious is a plausible one. Identifying with an external object on the basis of emotional valence is a pervasive self-soothing technique in everyday life. We identify with role models, prized possessions, family and friends. When we make enemies, we allow ourselves to assume the very worst about them.

Any number of cognitive biases can be explained by projective identification. And these natural foibles are clearly related to aggression. Identification with what is familiar, seeing confirmation of one’s preconceptions in everything and personalizing arguments are all commonplace logical fallacies that can be mobilized as motivational rhetoric to whip up the emotions of a crowd. They naturalize black-and-white thinking and normalize aggression, agreeing with preverbal instincts that override logical compunctions.  When logical fallacies tap into our instinct to identify with one group and vilify another, paranoid enthusiasm for hate crimes results.

But paranoia is only a phase in object relations theory. The rhythms of the attention economy are absolute in the world of an infant; a distracted parent is no parent at all, but distractions are inevitable. Psychological maturity begins when this sort of lapse is forgiven. Only by learning to integrate partial objects into a complex whole – recognizing the same person in both the inattentive parent and the idealized one – does a child move beyond paranoia and into the realm of repressed resentments and remorse for laying blame on a good-enough care-giver. With this remorse, now an integral part of the mature experience of love, comes active concern for others, as well as a sense of restraint.

If the family is a microcosm of a hegemonic social unit, it has two hierarchies in its internal structure: a hierarchy of fears and a hierarchy of needs. The needs of the most helpless family member are paramount, met by the others without any thought for themselves, and yet the breadwinner imposes a tacit threat on the household and all its dependents, being free to turn them out or walk away. Care-giving is routine in family life, but it is asymmetrical and contingent.

The fears of infancy are never fully resolved, and infantile psychological instincts persist into adulthood, so that the parent projects as well.


I see infantile projection as akin to synesthesia. According to some scientists, all infants experience synesthesia – synaptic pruning causes the intermingling of sensory perceptions to fade out in all but a few individuals, whose brains retain higher levels of connectivity into adulthood. For affect and identity to be blurred seems like a similar processing problem to me.

Projection begins before the infant has learned to differentiate between self and other, and persists only as an unconscious instinct after sensory integration has been achieved.

It seems logical that sensory integration and aggression are related. Pain disrupts sensory integration and acts as a provocation to aggression. Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain details how unraveling pain is to consciousness, and how omnipotent fantasy taps into this devastating effect in the mind of an aggressor.

But some acts of aggression are rational and subject to restraint, not a disorganized reflex to shake off a threat. Earlier, I mapped aggression and seduction together on a matrix of responses to boredom. Here, I’m plotting aggression and care-taking activities on a matrix of responses to need. On one end are rational behaviors, and on the other are infantile responses. Critically, a parent’s interest in attending to a child’s needs is an irrational instinct in its own right.


You have to click on the image to see it clearly. I’ve mapped hierarchical and commercial behaviors on the right-hand side as relatively rational expressions of aggression and love. Both the enforcement of hierarchy and engagement in commerce require sensory integration, maturity and restraint. One operates on a hierarchy of fears, the other on a hierarchy of needs. The difference is subjective, a matter of interpretation. I may have to continue on to Freud to discover a more distinctive point of departure between the neurodevelopment of egalitarian and hierarchical values, respectively.

But one is perhaps more mature than the other. Aggression itself is something we motivate ourselves to accomplish by mobilizing projective identification, and to issue a threatening command is to enlist black-and-white thinking. “Be good to me and I will be good to you; be bad and I will be bad to you” is more primitive than negotiating an exchange by saying “do something specific for me and I will do something specific for you.” The latter is more integrated, and acknowledges that there is only partial reciprocity at stake, whereas the former offers totalizing idealization of the relationship. So perhaps hierarchical conservatives have less fully resolved their infantile anxieties than egalitarian liberals. Anyhow, it’s a start.

I also want to build on my last blog entry in developing a theory of aggression, so I would add an eighth dimension to the emotion components chart – self-soothing techniques, related to the arousal level. These could include projective identification instincts or even conscious efforts to regain one’s composure. They may have important explanatory power in exploring how one emotion gives way to another. I learned in cognitive behavioral therapy that we choose our own emotions in life, and that it is important to choose them consciously. Infantile self-soothing techniques may represent a strong unconscious tendency in emotion selection and transition. This is something I plan to explore in script analysis.

Mapping emotion in intersubjective space

November 15, 2014

People watching at work has gotten me thinking more theoretically about the structure of an emotional response in intersubjective space. I’ve noticed how embedded emotions are in social context, and how intrinsic posturing is to emotional life. We posture when we want to demonstrate relative status, whether dominant or submissive, hierarchical or egalitarian. We posture constantly, and all our emotions are inflected by the subtext through which we broadcast socioeconomic status.

I like the emotional maps at Hyperbole and a Half for “being a menace” and “this is why I’ll never be an adult” for getting past the formal content of emotional life and into the reptile brain of self-aggrandizing ego mania churning beneath the surface. So silly, but absolutely true to life.

I’ve tried to hint at how the “psychopathology of everyday life” accounts for innocuous modes of compartmentalizing in ways that are shockingly similar to traumatic repression in rigidity and potential for causing consequential confusion. The routine ambit of everyday life in and out of cognitive cubicle spaces of situational vocabularies can limit personally significant conversations as brutally as a meager command of phrasebook English, in its own peculiar way.


This ad hoc compartmentalizing artificially shoehorns our conversational and productive lives into topical received wisdom recitatives that barely apply to our own situation at all in most instances, our own lives being more multidimensional than poorly-operationalized interdisciplinarity allows. The simple explanation for wanting a “theory of everything” is wanting to erode these psychosocial barriers, so that interdisciplinarity comes naturally as needed, and our intuitions are more trustworthy (with fewer paradigm-scale caveats).

Emotions are simultaneously impacted by various compartments of intersubjective experience, and can be unpredictable when the emotion seeming to be provoked by one compartment of our lives manifests in a different one.

On my walk to work I thought of seven different dimensions within discrete emotions. There’s no special reason for stopping at seven of them, it’s just as many as I could possibly think of in a one hour walk. Some of these are peripheral to the content of an emotional response, but all of them add context to the unconscious decisions we make about how to feel when something happens to us.

1. Arousal level – Composure level and intensity of feeling

2. Valence – Pleased or displeased

3. Values – The highly personal intellectual content of the evaluative response

4. Attitude – Specific expectations and assumptions about interpersonal space

5. Posture – Dominant or submissive and more or less egalitarian

6. Privacy level – Degree to which feelings are either broadcast or suppressed

7. Certainty – Level of confidence in the information giving rise to these feelings

Arousal level and emotional valence can be mapped together like a point or vector on a matrix. A celebratory mood is both highly aroused and pleased, a melancholy mood the opposite. Depression is related to anger in that both are negative in valence, and a change in arousal level can lead to a transition from one to the other.


Attitude and posture are more peripheral issues, but so many of our emotions are about someone rather than something, or about both, that I decided they belong on the list. Certainty level and privacy are information theory details, but emotions are tells in information handling games and it feels different to suppress an emotion than to express it freely, so I think the emotion itself is affected by these contingencies.

I can imagine doing a script analysis of Hamlet in which each of these dimensions could be described for each beat of the play, so I think it’s a pretty sound model of the internal structure of an emotion. But I haven’t played with it very much yet, I’m just treating it as food for thought. It helps me operationalize the problem compartmentalizing poses to reflective self-analysis.

Crescendo series

September 29, 2014

At times this blog functions as an echo chamber for cognitive distortions winding through a maze of quotations that are only interrelated in the most abstract sense, metaphors for introverted moods coasting on a melodramatic soundtrack for self-talk. I get wrapped up in an emotional state disguised as an observational essay, and what comes out is an awkward fusion of prose poetry and verbal collage.

I love the way digital libraries give us aesthetic control of a virtual environment, enriched by rhythms that can co-opt background noise and blur its relationship with the imagination, non-uttered but verbal and complex, interpretive, evaluative and improvised.

The production value a digital library represents vastly extends the personal agency and voice of a consumer whose moods and tastes are validated by the market. There are few pleasures that can compare with turning up the volume on a favorite song.

And I love using quotes, exploiting a deep stack of library notes taken over the 2012-2013 school year. I love the challenge synthesizing and interpreting that wealth of intellectual production represents.

Where I feel like I’ve fallen short of synthesizing or interpreting the quotes and fan art I’ve used, I’m facing complex reintegrative challenges related to psychosocial compartmentalizing. I suppose false starts like this work the way “venting” does, partially processing and expressing feelings that are still fairly incoherent but which couldn’t wait for clearer prose to come to mind.

Sometimes the impatience to hit “publish” feels as simple-minded as the inclination to push “play” on a video or music track. There are similarities between “internet addiction” and gambling as an addictive behavior that are worth noting here. Much of the trick to making a slot machine successful (addictive) involves imposing uncertainty about what will happen if you push “play” again, so that the player can’t tell whether they have a winning hand unless there are bells and whistles.


Allowing your imagination to play with the puzzle of how to win reinforces an illusory sense of self-efficacy even when the frequent small payouts (each announced with bright lights and fanfare) fail to add up to what you put into the machine. The internet is packed with bells and whistles and puzzles too, anarchic but limitless in its apparent potential.

Resisting being sucked in has something to do with reading “ambiguity” as ambiguity, rather than delving for hypothesis confirmation in all directions at once; awareness of the cognitive biases comes into play.

Bridge players are probably more attuned to this than bingo players. But ambiguity is prominent in bridge bidding too; no matter how much you know about body language, it would be hard to read someone whose affective center of attention was elsewhere, and distractions are everywhere in social life. Attributing your partner’s “tells” to the game at hand could often be a mistake. For me much of the trouble with reading social cues is the importance of not reading too much between the lines.

I’m trying to pay more attention to the role of sentence length and syntax in expressed ambiguity as a way of learning to express myself in ways that don’t reinforce an overly objective-assertive attitude towards passing observations that are inflected by emotions and proximate, situational attitudes. I want to reduce my habitual use of sweeping statements both to make the blog more concrete and engaging, and to improve its positive role for self-signaling in emotional life.


I also want to become more self-aware when it comes to my affinity for action-adventure movies and soundtracks with big crescendos. One of my playlists is called “crescendo series” and another one is called “melodrama”, but fully half of my playlists could fit under either of those titles.

I like the adrenaline rush of getting wound up in an argument and indulging heavily in cognitive biases to advance confident, far-reaching conclusions, but when the rush is over what’s left is a dubious thesis so difficult to follow that it’s a non-starter, conversation wise. When I listen to a playlist full of melodramatic pop songs and big crescendos, I often pace rapidly to better follow the emotional arc of the music internally, and a lot of my writing lately has had that same “aimless but agitated” path of movement, recursive without being reflective.

I like what Eckhart Tolle says about this sort of idle restlessness:

“The mind exists in a state of ‘not enough’ and so is always greedy for more. When you are identified with mind, you get bored and restless very easily. .. observe what it feels like to be bored and restless. As you bring awareness to the feeling, there is suddenly some space and stillness around it, as it were. A little at first, but as the sense of inner space grows, the feeling of boredom will begin to diminish in intensity and significance. .. You discover that a ‘bored person’ is not who you are. Boredom is simply a conditioned energy movement within you. Neither are you an angry, sad, or fearful person. Boredom, anger, sadness, or fear are not ‘yours,’ not personal. They are conditions of the human mind. They come and go.

Nothing that comes and goes is you.

‘I am bored.’ Who knows this?

‘I am angry, sad, afraid.’ Who knows this?

You are the knowing, not the condition that is known.”

- Stillness Speaks

I also like the tips on mindfulness in Living Independently on the Autism Spectrum (I’m just on the first chapter now). PTSD has greatly exacerbated sensory issues that weren’t as prominent for me before last fall, and where I work filtering out background noise is a constant challenge. I’m hoping meditation will help me relinquish some of the “addiction to stress” I wrote about earlier, so that I don’t associate stress with escapism and dissociative states of mind and instead feel competent responding to stressful life events with composure.

Drama and socializing

September 28, 2014

Blogging is an important outlet for me, because I don’t often start conversations off-line. I was raised to wait to speak until spoken to, and to keep my answers short and to the point. I now see that upbringing as part of an abusive past, but the habits stick with me. Keeping up in conversation is also difficult for me, possibly because of autistic traits, though it’s hard to parse that out from the way I was raised.

I’m starting to develop an analytical grasp of dramatic rhythm and conversational skill, but only as an outsider looking in. My new job at a restaurant gives me a wealth of “people watching” opportunities to learn from, but when it comes to making conversation with coworkers I rely on a few considerate colleagues who reach out to me more often than the rest and aren’t bothered by awkward silences or blank stares in response to what seem to me to be inane conversation starters. They’re always the ones to initiate conversation, but they don’t seem to mind.

Lately my personal preoccupation with PTSD and other aspects of trauma has led me to feel a little jilted by the way people who don’t have PTSD seem to minimize my experiences in conversation, saying normalizing things about what happened instead of recognizing the gravity of the situation or the intensity of my fears and disorientation. But I’ve come up with a hypothesis for explaining some of those seemingly unfeeling reactions away.

Petty trauma is social drama, and conversation can’t continue without it. Finding dramatic rhythm in conversation involves storytelling, plot conventions, a climax and an anticlimax, and lots of repetitions and role reversals. Everyone gets a routine turn at airing a grievance, something exciting to talk about, an event. Alleging that your grievance dwarfs anyone else’s problem of the day is bad form.

Just getting through the day is supposed to be an adventure for everyone, and egalitarianism is strict in this regard. To be congratulated on your adventure narrative you have to have already slain your dragon and you have to show your scars with pride, not with self-pity. This is part of fitting in – you have to be prepared to minimize your own hardships and to carry on as if it were a normal day, if you want to be respected.


Conversation elevates the trivial to epic proportions on a routine basis, and the price everyone agrees to pay for this glamorization of minor insults is that major struggles are to be trivialized in turn, to maintain the illusion that everything anyone wants to talk about is fair game, to avoid the oppressive self-seriousness of formality and evaluative judgments. This is protective of everyone’s feelings on most days, but extremely demanding for those who are having a run of bad luck.

Compartmentalizing helps ease the strain of equalizing pressures and conformism a little. If you have a health problem, it’s just your doctor’s purview, and talking about it isn’t the same as talking about yourself, there’s sure to be a prescription and if it isn’t perfect that’s one of the ironies of talking about health. Talking about family is another compartment with rules favoring forgiveness and cohesion – it’s bad form to counsel someone against mending fences with family members. Family is supposed to be a bulwark against the vagaries of other social ties, and if you don’t have one to go to there are no substitutes.

But compartmentalizing eases tensions by formalizing social boundaries. Talking about health is different from talking about how you feel, it’s “just” a health problem and you have to be satisfied with the doctor’s solution and leave it at that really. A chronic condition with no cure is still “just” a health problem and you can’t keep talking about it indefinitely, you have to respect the fact that healthy people get bored with illness narratives quickly.

I’m bad at compartmentalizing lately. I’ve become resentful and suspicious about conventional wisdom and informal economics. I’m getting too strident to reason well as a social critic, too emotional. Everything seems related to me, the connections are intrusive and nagging rather than illuminating, and I have a constant feeling of information overload every time I sit down to write.


Part of me wants to become a Marxist and let my personal frustrations be subsumed in an ideological critique of capitalism that has a certain abstract coherence and reasonableness to it. Part of me wants to understand economic theory better than an idealogue would though, part of me is greedy for knowledge despite the information overload. I spend most of my free time with books.

I’m trying to spend more of my free time in conversation. I’ve joined a PTSD support group on the internet and that has helped me resolve the frustration I had with making myself understood when I need to talk about just how dismal I feel. I’ve decided to take up a meditation practice and focus on the concept of friendship when I meditate. And I’m trying to become more self-aware at work, more conscious of how I come across, more willing to do what it takes to fit in.

I want to learn more about dramatic rhythm and conversational form, and in search of a discipline that may begin by “examining listening as an activity” I got a lot out of these passages from a book I read recently about jazz piano playing and “talk” as such:

“Consider the guided hand at the piano .. The finger starts out for a note, then stops, backs off from another note, and then comes back to where it is being told to go.

[.. In time, the fingers needn’t be watched while they work.]

They feel the edges of adjacent keys not as treacherously named places to be avoided but with almost the degree of intimacy with which the fingers feel each other ..

You listen to another person speak in order to say what he is saying as quickly as he says it, repeating his sounds aloud, trying to stay in spatiotemporal touch with his speech, anticipating forthcoming places to second-guess his movements .. Your efforts to repeat involve you in talking when you need to listen still more; it is like trying to follow a dance step with your eyes and feet at the same time.”

I like the analogy between talk and piano playing, because one of my favorite piano pieces is in counterpoint, and it really feels as if your hands are having a conversation with each other to play it.


The author describes how the body ascertains and expresses a natural understanding of math, how we listen, and how we relate to each other as individuals when he describes the uneasy listening style characteristic of modern life:

“You listen to the voice to hear its nervousness.
You listen to identify the language.
You listen to see if you are interested.
You listen to be able to repeat it later.
You listen so as to write a piece of criticism.
You listen to show you are listening.
You listen for your turn to talk.”

- Talk’s Body: A Meditation Between Two Keyboards

The analogy to music works for me because I used to study the piano and the viola, and I especially enjoyed the viola because it gave me more opportunities to perform counterpoint in an ensemble, where the instruments seem to talk to each other.

Lately I use music more as an emotional thermostat, and spend more time than I should on YouTube watching music videos and just zoning out.

“…we have developed a series of emotional thermostats as well, by far the most potent of which is television itself. Instead of really experiencing the highs and lows, pains and joys, that make up a life, many of us use TV just as we use central heating – to flatten our variations, to maintain a constant ‘optimal’ temperature.”

– Bill McKibben, The Age of Missing Information

Some days it seems therapeutic and needful, others just a bad habit. I’d rather be relating to my favorite films with a solid critical distance for analytical appraisal. To have a response to film is important to me. But right now I just don’t have the self-discipline to compose a good film review.

That frustrates me – not having anything to say for myself here on wordpress. This is a fandom blog, and lately I’ve only been using fan references for emphasis, not to explore film subjects in depth. I’m hoping it’s just a phase and that I’ll pull out of it before long.


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