Reciprocal Paths of Influence (Libidinal Coexcitation)

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The expression reciprocal paths of influence refers to routes that lead from a nonsexual function to a sexual function, but that can be traversed in both directions.

In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d) Sigmund Freud added to the somatic sources of sexual excitation (erotogenic zones) other sources that are unlimited in number, since they involve any internal process that has surpassed a certain quantitative threshold.

Two aspects of this notion of reciprocal paths of influence must be distinguished.

  • First, the anaclitic relationship of the sexual function to a given physiological function sexualizes the latter (Laplanche, 1976). Thus the lips or the tongue intervene in the act of taking nourishment, but also in the pleasure that is taken in this act (or repudiated, as in anorexia), and that which can be found outside of the vital function. This aspect makes it possible to understand the alteration of physiological functions (somatization) that in and of themselves do not have a sexual character, but have taken it on secondarily and can thus undergo the process of repression.
  • Second, a nonsexual activity such as intellectual effort, for example, can, if a sufficient amount of concentration accompanies it, create a related sexual excitation. This case does not, therefore, involve an anaclitic dependence on a bodily function, but rather an indirect source of sexual excitation that is in fact linked to the degree of cathexis at stake. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud concluded that "it may well be that nothing of considerable importance can occur in the organism without contributing some component to the excitation of the sexual instinct" (pp. 204-205).

This hypothesis is extremely important because it makes it possible simultaneously to account for sublimation (attraction of the sexual toward the nonsexual) and symptom formation (attraction of the nonsexual toward the sexual). In fact, it considerably broadens the notion of sexuality to encompass the notion of "pleasure in thinking," a very different perspective from the one that equates thinking with labor.

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Erotogenic masochism; Fusion/defusion of instincts; Intellectualization; Masochism; Pleasure in thinking; Thought.


Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of Sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

Laplanche, Jean. (1976). Life and death in psychoanalysis. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Mijolla-Mellor, Sophie de. (1992). Le Plaisir de pensée. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.