Archive for March, 2015

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.