Academic journal article Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies

Four: The Role of Time in the Psychic Mechanism: Freud's "Project" and Its Origins in Brentano

Academic journal article Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies

Four: The Role of Time in the Psychic Mechanism: Freud's "Project" and Its Origins in Brentano

Article excerpt

The "Project for a Scientific Psychology"34 is a daring attempt to create a scientific psychological depiction of the human psyche. The method coursing through its veins is based on mechanistic metaphors and quantitative data and its goal is to construct an atomistic model which could facilitate the formulation of the general laws of action relating the primary elements of the system to human experience and the operations of the mind. I will endeavor to show how the above theoretical model is grounded in an elimination of the temporal constituent, i.e., human temporality. For this purpose, I shall begin by describing the model provided for the psychic mechanism per se.


The Principle of Constancy

Already at the outset of his essay, Freud declares that the goal of his "Project" is to provide the scientific foundation for psychology. That is, to give an account of the existence of psychological phenomena which is founded on anatomy and physiology.

The intention is to furnish a psychology that shall be a natural science: that is, to represent psychical processes as quantitatively determinate states of specifiable material particles, thus making those processes perspicuous and free from contradiction (Freud, 1966, p. 295).

What makes Freud's account so fascinating is the fact that the theoretical model he puts forth in order to explain the mechanisms of the psyche also works the other way, that is, it leaves room for the effect of psychological phenomena on anatomical-physiological processes. But let's not get ahead of ourselves; first, let's observe the manner in which Freud constructs the theoretical model of psychic mechanisms.

At the very root of this account is a material element which Freud refers to as "Neurones". These neurones function as a single, vast, bifurcating network. Between neurones, flows a quantity of energy termed Q. The flow of energy between neurones is not random - it obeys certain laws of motion. The most fundamental principle governing this model and regulating the flow of energy is the 'principle of constancy'. According to this principle, the psychic mechanism aims at stabilizing the amount of energy flowing through the system. The accumulation of energy in the system is tantamount to a state of tension and the mechanism is thereby constantly compelled to regulate and release that energy.35 Unlike the representation of energy in general (Q), the particular amount of energy passing through the neurone network is termed Q'n.

The source of the energy flowing through the body is twofold: it is derived both from stimuli originating in the external world (the five senses) and from internal stimuli such as appetite and instincts. As far as external stimuli are concerned, the principle of constancy operates or is maintained in its simple form. The neurones are filled with energy due to an external stimulus, discharging that energy in order to release the tension they have accumulated. However, when it comes to internal stimuli, the principle of constancy undergoes a certain modification. As internal excitations cannot always be addressed, the process of discharging energy through the activity of the neurones must be suspended. That is, the mechanism must learn to identify, at any given moment, whether or not neurones are to release the tension that has accumulated in the system (even though this stimulus creates internal tension).

Memory and Energy Accumulation

At times of hunger, the internal stimulus (originating in the cells) is expressed as tension. If this need cannot presently be met, the mechanism cannot allow the principle of constancy to operate immediately. Recognizing various states of tension, relating them to the specific source of stimulus and adjusting the extent to which tension is discharged or suspended presuppose two patterns of activity in the psychic mechanism: the first is the capacity for memory, the second, the capacity to endure and sustain a state of tension in order to enable the psychic system to perform the required action in the external world, thus satisfying the internal need. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.