Binding/Unbinding of the Instincts

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Binding is the mechanism whereby the free-flowing energy of the primary processes becomes attached to ideas, thus giving instinct a representative within the psychic agencies. In this way, instinctual excitation seeking an object is gradually tamed by the ego, and ideas are linked to one another and then maintained in a relatively stable state. This mode of functioning, characteristic of the secondary processes, enables the work of thinking to take place. Unbinding, on the other hand, is the abrupt retransformation of bound energy into free energy seeking discharge. Binding and unbinding are thus two essential economic aspects of the work of the psyche.

Freud first used the notion of binding in October 1895, in "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c), proposing "the hypothesis of what is, as it were, a bound state in the neurone, which, though there is a high cathexis, permits only a small current," and asserting that "the ego itself is a mass like this of neurones which hold fast to their cathexisare, that is, in a bound state" (p. 368). At this time, on his way to discovering the unconscious, Freud was seeking to understand the surging up of elements that did not belong to the ego's thought processes: "If a passage of thought comes up against a still untamed mnemic image of this kind, then its indications of quality, often of a sensory kind, are generated, with a feeling of unpleasure and an inclination to discharge, the combination of which characterizes a particular affect, and the passage of thought is interrupted.. . . What is it, then, that happens to memories capable of affect till they are tamed ? . . . Particularly large and repeated binding from the ego is required before this facilitation to unpleasure can be counterbalanced" (pp. 380-381).

At the dawn of psychoanalysis, Freud was seeking to explain how the energy of the primary process could be held in check and yet at the same time continue to procure pleasure and be used in the construction of the ego. In "Project for a Scientific Psychology," the notion of binding was given its full place, since it helps establish a level of relative constancy in the ego. By contrast, instinctual excitation, when it is too strong, threatens the ego with unbinding.

Freud made a brief comment in "Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning" (1911b): "Thinking was endowed with characteristics which made it possible for the mental apparatus to tolerate an increase of stimulus while the process of discharge was postponed. It is essentially an experimental kind of acting, accompanied by displacement of relatively small quantities of cathexis together with less expenditure (discharge) of them" (p. 221). Later in "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" (1915c), Freud emphasized, "A particularly close attachment of the instinct to its object is distinguished by the term 'fixation' " (p. 123). In "The Unconscious" (1915e) he emphasized the opposition between "two different states of cathectic energy in mental life: one in which the energy is tonically 'bound' and the other in which it is freely mobile and presses towards discharge" (p. 188).

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g), in revamping his earlier instinctual dualism, Freud took traumatic neurosis as one of several bases for the new opposition between the life and death instincts. In this context, "it would be the task of the higher strata of the mental apparatus to bind the instinctual excitation reaching the primary process. A failure to effect this binding would provoke a disturbance analogous to a traumatic neurosis; and only after the binding has been accomplished would it be possible for the dominance of the pleasure principle (and of its modification, the reality principle) to proceed unhindered" (pp. 34-35).

In his paper "Negation" (1925h), Freud added a new element: "The general wish to negate, the negativism which is displayed by some psychotics, is probably to be regarded as a sign of a defusion of instincts that has taken place through a withdrawal of libidinal components" (p. 239).

Finally, in An Outline of Psycho-Analysis (1940a [1938]), Freud condensed his ideas by making binding and unbinding the two essential features of his theory of the instincts: "[We] have decided to assume the existence of only two basic instincts, Eros and the destructive instinct.... The aim of the first of these basic instincts is to establish ever greater unities and to preserve them thusin short, to bind together; the aim of the second is, on the contrary, to undo connections and so to destroy things" (p. 148).

Although the fundamental idea of binding and unbinding underwent gradual clarification as Freud's research advanced, it gained a new coherence with his last theory of the instincts. In particular, it now shed light on fixation as a reponse to excess binding after an unbinding that flooded the psychic apparatus. One problem remained unsolved, however, namely the differences, in economic terms, between unbinding and failure of binding. Unbinding resulted from an active process that Freud plainly related to Thanatos (the death instinct), whereas the failure of binding seemed to be more passive, perhaps a result of a limit on available libidinal energy.

Lastly, free association seems to be based on more or less effective instances of the binding and unbinding of ideas among themselves and of ideas and effects. Such binding and unbinding in turn determine the nature of the transference.

Pierre Delion

See also: Fusion/defusion.


Freud, Sigmund. (1911b). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. SE, 12: 213-226.

. (1915c). Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE, 14: 109-140.

. (1915e). The unconscious. SE, 14: 159-204.

. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE,18:1-64.

. (1925h). Negation. SE, 19: 235-239.

. (1940a [1938]). An outline of psycho-analyses. SE, 23: 144-207.

. (1950c [1895]). Project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1: 281-387.