Negative Hallucination

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Negative hallucination is the active erasure of a perception; it produces a gap in reality, or a vague impression of unreality.

The term first appeared in "Psychical (or Mental) Treatment" (Freud, 1890), an article relating to hypnosis. Freud wrote that it was possible to suggest to a hypnotized subject that he or she not see a person or thing that would be present to the subject upon awakening; in such cases the object appears to be "thin air" (p. 297). Freud borrowed this notion from Hippolyte Bernheim, with whom he studied to perfect his hypnotic technique.

Reading Freud's first references to hypnosis and hysteria, or The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), one might be inclined to link negative hallucination to repression involving not thought, but perception. Indeed, early in his work Freud did not theorize the more archaic mechanisms; for lack of these, he spoke in terms of massive forms of repression (rejection of reality, primary repression, etc.). Thus, according to Freud in "Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's 'Gradiva,"' (1907 [1906]), Norbert Hanold, the hero of Wilhelm Jensen's story, having repressed the totality of his love life, suffers from a propensity to negative hallucination that paves the way for hysterical delusions. Freud also evoked a form of hysteria, hysterical terror that is induced by major traumas that erase lived impressions and can produce "gaps in the psyche" as the origin of a psychosis.

Present in outline here is a more specific conception of negative hallucination, later formulated in "A Metapsychological Supplement to the Theory of Dreams" (1916-1917 [1915]); it posits that negative hallucination has a sort of logical anteriority relative to positive hallucination. Freud pursued this idea in 1924 in relation to hallucinatory confusion, speculating that when an unbearable reality cannot be perceived, a delusion appears to close the perceptual breach.

Among Freud's successors, Sándor Ferenczi (1929) was most active in developing the idea that psychosis is constituted in two phases. In his view, the first phase of negative hallucination is a narcissistic protection against the traumatic influx of excitations, while the second phase is the compensatory production of positive hallucinations or delusions. More recent authors (Margaret Mahler, Frances Tustin) have instead focused on the massive forms of negative hallucination of the external world in the severe psychoses.

From 1977 to 1994, André Green reexamined negative hallucination and gave it an important place in theory and clinical practice. In his view, the mother's negative hallucination is a necessary condition for the child's ideational abilities. It is the blank screen (a theme borrowed from Bertram Lewin), the canvas on which representations are registered. In the child's representational process, the mother's negative hallucination is registered as a border, or frame for the process. Green used the example of the famous hallucination of the "Wolf Man"; the hallucination of the severed finger thus forming the connection between this process and the borderline states between neurosis and psychosis. In recent work, Green proposed a mechanism for negative hallucination in response to objections that had been raised about the scope of the concept; negative hallucination occurs when there is a convergence of quantities of excitation coming from the interior and the exterior, between a traumatic trace and an actual perception that reactivates it.

Following Green's lead, other authors have returned to this notion. In "Nouveaux développements sur l'hallucination négative et la représentation" (1992; New developments on negative hallucination and representation), François Duparc examined Freud's references to it, arguing that beyond hysterical repression or the early signs of psychosis, a close connection between negative hallucination and denial can be grasped from many of Freud's texts. For instance, in "Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes" (1925), Freud wrote: "[W]hen a little boy first catches sight of a girl's genital region, he begins by showing irresolution and lack of interest; he sees nothing or disavows what he has seen, he softens it down or looks about for expedients for bringing it into line with his expectations" (p. 252). Denial is posited as a means of attenuating perception, a defense that is less costly, in terms of countercathectic energy, than the urgent, transitory suppression involved in negative hallucination, a more primitive mechanism that attacks the subject's connection with reality. In order to avoid the return of what has been refused, structures that transform reality into denial of realitythe origin of all sorts of pathologies. Duparc thus linked negative hallucination to the lateral cathexis of fetishism, to motor escape in manic defenses and allergies, and to chemical escape in substance abusers. He described different modes of negative hallucination that depend on the primal motor forms used to construct white noise, the screen that makes it possible to negate perception.

FranÇois Duparc

See also: Absence; Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's "Gradiva" ; Wish, hallucinatory satisfaction of a; Representability; Hallucinatory, the; Dead mother complex; Negative, work of; Work (as a psychoanalytical notion).


Duparc, François. (1992). Nouveaux développements sur l'hallucination négative et la représentation. Revue française c de psychanalyse, 56 (1), 101-121.

. (1997). Hallucination négative, formes motrices et comportements autocalmants. In Cliniques Psychosomatiques. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Ferenczi, Sándor. (1929). The unwelcome child and the death instinct. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 10, 125-129.

Green, André. (1977). L'hallucination négative, note pour un addendum pour un traité des hallucinations. L'Évolution Psychiatrique, 62 (2), 645-656.

. (1994). Somatisation. Psychanalyse et science du vivant. Paris: Eschel.