Lack of Differentiation

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The question of lack of differentiation is raised mainly from a topographical viewpoint, as well as that of the founding of the psyche in infants. Interest in this topic has recently been renewed with the emergence of what is known as developmental psychoanalysis (Daniel N. Stern) and infant psychiatry. In general, the ontogenesis of the mental apparatus is intrinsically based on a model of two processes of differentiation: extrapsychic (or interindividual) differentiation and intrapsychic (or intrasubjective) differentiation. Extrapsychic differentiation gradually produces a demarcation between the "me" and the "not me." Intrapsychic differentiation, meanwhile, leads to the functional organization of the different intrapsychic agencies (such as the id, the ego, and the superego). Obviously, these two processes take place in tandem and cannot be separated, except from a simple theoretical or pedagogical perspective, if only because discovery of the object is necessary to enable the subject to position him- or herself as a subject, and vice versa.

Lack of extrapsychic differentiation paves the way for psychotic (for example, autistic, symbiotic, or schizophrenic) modes of functioning in which there is a profound lack of distinction between inside and outside. It is also at the core of very archaic psychopathologies and, notably, of early childhood autism.

Thinking about lack of differentiation, based mainly on retrospective material that comes out in the treatment of children or adults (which provides access, within the dynamics of transference and countertransference, to an entire series of lived experiences and extremely early psychic mechanisms), was framed somewhat differently in the 1990s, owing to considerable developments as a result of studies of the dyad, the triad, and the entire range of early interactions between the baby and its environment.

Both Frances Tustin, with her theory of a "normal autistic phase" in development (which she herself later refuted), and Margaret Mahler, by describing an autistic phase prior to the later symbiotic phase within the "process of separation-individuation," in their own respective ways created models with an initial period characterized by a lack of psychic differentiation.

Furthermore, several psychoanalytic authors have produced classic studies that have emphasized the very intense regime of reciprocal projections that initially exists between mother and baby (for example, Donald W. Winnicott's "primary maternal preoccupation," Wilfred R. Bion's "capacity for maternal reverie" and "alpha function," André Green's theory of detour via the other, etc.). Finally, other investigators have stressed the topographical unit that, from a somewhat phenomenological point of view, initially comprises the psyches of the baby and its parents together as a whole (Manuel Pérez Sánchez and Nuria Abello's "primal unit," Hanna Segal's "triangular space" and "third domain," etc.). This unit serves as a matrix for the infant's future symbolization.

The real question that has since arisen is whether an early phase of nondifferentiation really does exist. Perhaps, on the contrary, the babyequipped with the many competencies now acknowledged in infantspossesses (extra- and intra-) psychic differentiation to a substantial degree to begin with. Stern, for example, cites the baby's early competencies in perception, memorization, and mental representation as evidence that there is no early, preparatory state in which differentiation is lacking.Élisabeth Pivaz's experimental model of the "triadic game" developed in Lausanne supports the same type of hypotheses.

In light of modern research in the very earliest stages of development, what is ultimately at issue is whether or not we are justified in hypothesizing an early dyadic or triadic topography and in specifying the modalities of the still enigmatic passage from the realm of the interpersonal to that of the intrapsychic.

Bernard Golse

See also: Encounter; Feminism and psychoanalysis; Individual; Infant observation; Infant observation (direct); Infant observation (therapeutic); Isakower phenomenon; Projection and "participation mystique"; Symbiosis/symbiotic relation.


Mahler, Margaret, Pine, Fred, and Bergman, Anni. (1975). The psychological birth of the human infant. New York: Basic Books.

Pérez Sánchez, Manuel, and Abello, Nuria. (1981). Unité originaire: Narcissisme et homosexualité dans les ébauches de l'oedipe. Revue française de psychanalyse, 45 (4), 777-786.

Segal, Hanna. (1999). Le complexe d'Oedipe aujourd'hui. Journal de la psychanalyse de l'enfant, 24, 155-161.

Stern, Daniel N. (1995). The motherhood constellation: A unified view of parent-infant psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

Tustin, Frances. (1972). Autism and childhood psychosis. London: Hogarth.