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Affect and Emotion

Graham Music

Emotions and 'affects' have a central place in psychoanalysis. Some people manage by denying their emotions, some cannot control their emotions, and others seem unable to feel much at all. This book explains the idea of unconscious feelings, and how emotions and thought processes are closely linked. Psychoanalysis aims to enable us to tolerate a broader range of emotional experience, both positive and negative, and consequently to enhance our capacity to accept ourselves and relate to others.

Early experience and emotional states

....do you know who made you? "Nobody knows as I know on" said the child with a short laugh ..."I 'spect I growed". (Harriet Beecher Stowe Uncle Tom's Cabin)

It has become a truism to say that our emotional selves are influenced by our early lives. In recent decades huge bodies of research have emerged in related fields - such as developmental psychology, neuroscience, attachment theory, psychoanalytic observation of infants, amongst many others - which stress the impact of early experiences on development, including emotional development. Sylvia Plath in a poem to her daughter described her as "A clean slate with your own face on." Genetic endowment is important, and its role relative to that of nurture is controversial, but nonetheless few now doubt the importance of early experiences.

Humans are born with distinct and genetically determined predispositions, but how these become patterns of experiencing the world for a particular individual is more complicated. Many studies have illustrated that even within the womb learning is taking place, and infants have been shown to remember not just particular voices, such as of their parents, but also to exhibit clear preferences after birth for specific stories or pieces of music that they had heard in the womb. While it is true that many emotional capacities are already formed in the early months, the infant is still barely a person, and depends almost entirely on its mother or primary caretaker for its physical and emotional needs. The infant is born with a brain and nervous system that can regulate important physiological functions such as body temperature and heart beat. However the capacity to regulate emotional states is a later development. Before this ability develops the infant needs an external regulator of its emotions, normally the mother or other caretaker.

The infant in distress needs not only soothing but also to know that its feelings are understood and that someone is making sense of their experience for them. An 8 month old baby Robert started wailing when for the first time he heard the loud sound of the spin dryer going at full throttle. His mother at first was anxious and worried, wondering what had caused the upset, and had to grapple with her own response to her infant's distress. Soon she realized what had happened, picked him up and began to carry him around, soothingly letting him know that he was all right. She then went back to the machine, turning it off and on again several times while talking about what was going on. The words may have made little sense, but the emotional meaning was transmitted through the tone and rhythm and basic prosody of her speech. In no time Robert had recovered, and the object of terror had become an object of interest, one which he soon wanted to turn on and off by himself.

In this brief interaction the mother functioned as a kind of emotional "shield" for Robert, helping him to manage his own feelings and interpreting the world for him. Many psychotherapists use the model of mother-infant interactions to aid them in their practice, partly because what people need help with emotionally often has parallels with these very early processes. The psychotherapist has to make sense of feelings in their patients, and often also needs first to explore their own feelings and what a patient might stir up in them. Infants similarly need another person to modulate their experience of the world.

Reference
Beebe, B et al (1997) 'Mother-infant interaction structures' in Psychoanalytic Dialogues Vol 7, no. 2
Plath, Sylvia (1960) 'You're' in Collected Poems edited by Ted Hughes London: Faber and Faber

Graham Music works as a child and adolescent psychotherapist in the NHS in East London. He also manages an adolescent counselling service, and works as an adult psychotherapist in private practice. This extract is from his book Affect and Emotion, part of the Ideas In Psychoanalysis series, published by Icon Books.

Ideas In Psychoanalysis
edited by Ivan Ward Icon Books £3.99

Now available from the museum shop



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