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Freud employed the term "hypercathexis" to designate an additional charge of instinctual energy cathecting any already cathected psychical element. The word's primary application was in the description of the economy of consciousness, but it also served in connection with the regulation of the flow of psychic energy and the constitution of the preconscious realm.

The term was first used by Freud in the "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c [1895]), where it referred to a mobile cathexis of the ego specific to consciousness, necessary to the mechanism of attention, and consisting in a supplementary cathexis of neurones already cathected by perception. In Freud's account consciousness affected indications of quality. It arose from the excitation, during perception, of particular neurones belonging to the system W. Attention first addressed the indications of quality transmitted by these already cathected neurones, and then, via a facilitated pathway, focused on the perceptions themselves, which were thus hypercathected. "By this means [the ego] is led to cathect precisely the right perceptions or their environment" (p. 362). The ego was hence able to distinguish cathexes of real perceptions from cathexes of wishes, and the reality principle could be established.

According to Freud, the regulation of cathexes within the psychical apparatus remained unconscious, and was effected automatically in accordance with the pleasure/unpleasure principle. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), he pointed out that this initial mechanism was fine-tuned by virtue of a cathexis of attention, described as a "hypercathexis set up . . . by the regulating influence of the sense organ of the Cs. " (p. 617), which at times could even work counter to the primary mechanism by cathecting elements that were a source of unpleasure and that would otherwise succumb to repression.

In "The Unconscious" (1915e), Freud attributed the emergence of the preconscious to a hypercathexis of word-presentations by thing-presentations: "It is these hypercathexes, we may suppose, that bring about a higher psychical organization and make it possible for the primary process to be succeeded by the secondary process which is dominant in the Pcs. . . . A presentation which is not put into words, or a psychical act which is not hypercathected, remains thereafter in the Ucs. in a state of repression" (p. 202).

In considering the question of traumas, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g), Freud described the anti-traumatic regulatory function of hypercathectic energy, in the operation of the protective shield against stimuli, as the last line of defense in the attempt to bind the sum of excitation: "In the case of quite a number of traumas, the difference between systems that are unprepared and systems that are well prepared through being hypercathected may be a decisive factor in determining the outcome" (pp. 31-32).

Richard Uhl

See also: Actual; Attention; Castration complex; Cathexis; Conscious processes; Consciousness; Disavowal; Facilitation; Idealization; Narcissistic defenses; Protective shield; Unconscious, the; Word-presentation.


Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5.

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

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

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