Conscious Processes

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Conscious processes comprise all phenomena, organized in time, linked to the individual's intuitive and immediate knowledge of his own mental life.

If, as Freud stressed, "in the Y-systems memory and the quality that characterizes consciousness are mutually exclusive" (1900a, p. 540), consciousness is thus indissolubly linked to perception and to the qualitative changes brought about by the Pcs.-Cs. system, on the one hand with respect to the outside world, by means of the sense organs, and on the other with respect to the most superficial as to the deepest layers of the psyche. This system responds to the perception of pleasure and unpleasure, releases of which thus "automatically regulate"at all levels, including the conscious one"the course of cathectic processes" (p. 574). "But it is quite possible that consciousness of these [perceived] qualities may introduce in addition a second and more discriminating regulation, which is even able to oppose the former one, and which perfects the efficiency of the apparatus by enabling it, in contradiction to its original plan, to cathect and work over even what is associated with the release of unpleasure" (p. 616). "Thought-processes are in themselves without quality, except for the pleasurable and unpleasurable excitations which accompany them, and which, in view of their possible disturbing effect upon thinking, must be kept within bounds. In order that thought-processes may acquire quality, they are associated in human beings with verbal memories, whose residues of quality are sufficient to draw the attention of consciousness to them and to endow the process of thinking with a new cathexis from consciousness" (p. 617).

By virtue of the qualities thus acquired by the Pcs. system, now governed by secondary processes, "consciousness, which had hitherto been a sense organ for perceptions alone, also became a sense organ for a portion of our thought-processes" (p. 574), whereas feelings for their part pass directly from the unconscious into consciousness. Hence it is thanks to the mediation of word-presentations that "internal thought-processes are made into perceptions," which is to say that they "are actually perceivedas if they came from withoutand are consequently held to be true" (1923b, p. 23).

Such a hypercathexis of thought, which enables it to pass into consciousness, should be seen as analogous to what occurs at the level of the perception of the outside world thanks to the part played by attention, which Freud is just as insistent upon, and which is reinforced by the function of the Cs. system's protective shield against stimuli (1920g, p. 28). Whereas the sense organs process only a minimal proportion of external stimuli, "cathectic innervations are sent out and withdrawn in rapid periodic impulses from within into the completely pervious system Pcpt.-Cs. ...It is as though the unconscious stretches out feelers, through the medium of the system Pcpt.-Cs., towards the external world and hastily withdraws them as soon as they have sampled the excitations coming from it"a process that in Freud's view "lies at the bottom of the origin of the concept of time" (1925a, p. 231).

A subtle dialectic may be observed here between the pleasure principle and the reality principle, a dialectic that facilitates the gradual institution and development of the functions of consciousnessattention, judgment, memory, and thoughtin parallel with the shift from free energy to bound energy.

Over and above spontaneous conscious processes, it behooves psychoanalysis to offer an account of the processes involved in the passage into the conscious that occurs during treatment, among them displacement; the mastery of excitation; the transference of the analysand's internal objects onto the analyst (for later return to the former); the transformation of unconscious traces into ideational representations; and working-through, meaning the transition from the spontaneous work of the psyche to an uninterrupted working-out activity, during the treatment, within and by means of the Pcpt.-Cs. system. Upon all of this is predicated the possibility of the past being effectively transformed into memory, and repetition into meaning; it is worth noting, however, that today the main concern would seem to be less the acknowledgment of transferred content than the work of transformation itself.

Raymond Cahn

See also: Consciousness; Introspection; Preconscious, the; Process; Signifier/signified.


Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE,4

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

. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.

. (1925a [1924]). A note upon the "Mystic Writing-Pad." SE, 19: 225-232.