Psychic Energy

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The hypothesis of a psychic energy constitutes a fundamental postulate of psychoanalytical theory. It is omnipresent, from the theory of sexuality to that of the dream, of anxiety, of drives, and of affects. Of the three great metapsychological points of view, the economic one is directly founded on it, but the dynamic and topographical points of view imply it also. Any psychic movement can, in the last analysis, be linked to a phenomenon of energy. Nevertheless, this economical point of view, this "energy metaphor," has often been criticized, put into question, and even abandoned by some.

The notion of psychic energy has its source in the works of neurophysiologists at the end of the 19th century, Sigmund Exner in particular, or in the psychophysics of Gustav Fechner, and it is present in the psychiatry of that epoch. In psychoanalytical writings, it surfaced first under the pen of Josef Breuer in Studies on Hysteria (1895d). He described this energy as a "nervous tension," or "Intracerebral Tonic Excitations" (p. 192), contained in the reservoir of the nervous fibers. This "quiescent" energy can be put into movement and become active.

Sigmund Freud, starting with Studies on Hysteria, introduced the idea of a tendency "to maintain cerebral excitation at a constant level," a principle of constancy that will become a principle behind the balance of pleasure and unpleasure. He first developed the notion of psychic energy in the "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c [1895]) in a neuronal version; in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), the neurophysiological model disappeared and psychic energy was inserted into a theory of thought. The energy could be "free," in the case of "primary processes," or "bound," as in "secondary processes." In the latter, the binding or connecting of psychic energy is related to the linking of representations and to the "taming" of the tendency for "discharge." "Thought must concern itself with the connecting paths between ideas, without being led astray by the intensities of these ideas" (p. 602). The quantities of energy conveyed by these two kinds of thought are different; secondary processes of thought only convey much weaker quantities of energy, while a surfeit of non-bound energy can occur, to weaken these thought processes.

For Freud, with the theory of drives, the equating of psychic energy and the libido was reinforced; the libido constituted, therefore, the essence of psychic energy. However, he always remained reticent about Carl Gustav Jung's proposition of conflating psychic energy totally with the libido, and he held onto the idea of a psychic energy distinct from the libido, attached to ego drives and self-preservation, all the while continuing to wonder about its provenance, and admitting that this could be a desexualized energy. In The Ego and the Id, he constructed the hypothesis of a "displaceable energy, which, neutral in itself, can be added to a qualitatively differentiated erotic or destructive impulse, and augment its total cathexis. . . . It seems a plausible view that this displaceable and neutral energy . . . proceeds from the narcissistic store of libidothat it is desexualized Eros" (1923b, p. 41).

Most post-Freudian authors recognize no other psychic energy than the libido, except for the school whose source is Ego Psychology, which developed the Freudian idea of a displaceable, neutral energy; for them, this was a "neutralized" energy, participating in the functioning of an ego that had been "liberated from conflicts." With Melanie Klein, the evolution of the stages of the libido was prominent at the beginning of her work; later, the importance accorded to unconscious fantasy and the object relation would force her, in fact, to abandon the economic point of view altogether. On the contrary, the notion of psychic energy and the economic point of view would be very important to the perspective opened up by Pierre Marty and the work of the psychosomaticists of the School of Paris. The notion of the libido and that of psychic energy will be rejected by Jacques Lacan, who replaced the drives with "desire" and spoke ironically of the theory of the libido as an "astral myth"; he allowed absolutely no room for the economic point of view.

Paul Denis

See also: Binding/unbinding of the instincts; Cathectic energy; Cathexis; Decathexis; Defense mechanisms; Drive/instinct; Economic point of view; Ego; Ego-libido/object-libido; Facilitation; Free energy/bound energy; Fusion/defusion of instincts; Hypercathexis; Libido; Narcissism; Pleasure/unpleasure principle; Primary process/secondary process; Principle of consistency; Process; Return of the repressed; Sum of excitation; Work (as a psychoanalytical notion)


Applegarth, Adrienne. (1971). Comments on aspects of the theory of psychic energy. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 19, 379-416.

Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. Part I, SE, 4: 1-338; Part II, SE, 5: 339-625.

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

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

Freud, Sigmund, and Josef Breuer (1895d). Studies in hysteria. SE,2.