The Development of the Phenomenal and the Internal World
A topic of connection between Gestalt theory and psychoanalysis

Bruno WALDVOGEL
Psychoanalyst, Author of "Psychoanalyse und Gestaltpsychologie" (Stuttgart 1992)
Psychiatric Hospital, University of Munich (Germany)

Abstract of the lecture at the 10th Scientific Convention of the
Society for Gestalt Theory and its Applications (GTA)
Vienna/Austria, March 1997


No place could be better suited than Vienna for reflecting on connections between psychoanalysis and Gestalt theory. Vienna is the spiritual birthplace of both schools of thought. Moreover, Vienna was the site of a personal exchange of ideas between the founders of these schools of thought, Sigmund FREUD and Christian von EHRENFELS. Certainly their exchange of views at the time focussed exclusively on the engagement of Christian von EHRENFELS in the field of sexual reforms and did not include his theoretical Gestalt studies of which FREUD was not aware. Had FREUD been aware of these ideas of von EHRENFELS, he would have, in all likelyhood, been struck by the correspondance between some of his own ideas and the principles of Gestalt theory. For example, there is a distinct relationship between FREUDs concept of over-determination of psychic processes and the Gestalt principle of over-summativity.

In his essay "Die Gestalttheorie", published in 1934, psychologist and psychoanalyst Siegfried BERNFELD finally elaborated the numerous correspondancies between FREUDs writings and principles of Gestalt theory. He arrived at the hypothesis that Gestalt psychology's findings on the psychology of perception could complement and corroborate psychoanalytic assumptions about infantile development. He attributed to the infant complex and differentiated abilities of perception. During the last thirty years of baby research it has been possible to corroborate these assumptions empirically.

From the first days of life, infants actively perceive their environment and can, in part at least, integrate these very complicated perceptual attainments into holistic representations. They especially have the ability to take the stimuli from various sense modalities and integrate them into a unified perception. This intermodal coordination is analogous to the transposability principle in Gestalt theory. Further principles of Gestalt are apparent already in infants: for example, the principal of proximity, the principle of similarity and the principle of good Gestalt. Furthermore, small children are capable of rather precise time and intensity perceptions. This makes it possible for them to represent courses of intensity (Intensitätsverläufe) and developmental Gestalten (Verlaufsgestalten).

The perception of courses of intensity and developmental Gestalten opens up certain experiential qualities which have been designated vitality affects by the developmental psychologist Daniel STERN. Of interest are dynamic developmental qualities such as quick, sudden, flowing, fluctuating, and crescendo-decrescendo. These dynamic qualities have been described by METZGER as character properties (Wesenseigenschaften); in his opinion, they are dominant in the experiential world of the infant. These temporal feeling forms make the earliest representations of interactive affective experience possible. Such representation of interactive experience produce the precursor for subsequent relationship representations (Beziehungsrepräsentationen), and, accordingly, take their place at the earliest stages of the development of the inner world. In psychoanalysis the inner world is understood to mean the network of relational representations, which come from internalized experiences of relationships and have the status of schemes in the sense of un-experiental psychic organizational structures.

The earliest proto-representations of concrete interaction experiences are then successively integrated into generalized interaction representations. This integration takes place in the memory and is, once again, enabled by the ability of amodal Gestalt representation.
This ability provides even infants with the possibility of an affective, intersubjective exchange. For example, as a mother perceives the expressive behaviour of the baby and answers with the same emotive pattern in a different modality, the infant is able to recognize that his or her subjective experience is shared by the mother. Daniel STERN designates this preverbal inter-subjective exchange "affect attunement", others speak of "matching".

In the process of affect attunement expressive behaviour functions as a sign of the emotive state. Thereby the phenomenal world is transformed into a sign world of the developing inner world. This semiotic developmental process creates an intensive knit of the inner world and the phenomenal world. The construction of the phenomenal world is now subject to the provision that it is compatible with an emotional balance of the inner world. In the case that the phenomenal world contains indications of very painful or threatening interaction representations, the corresponding perceived contents will be blocked out or reconstructed.
This has been systematically described under the psychoanalitical concept of defense. Furthermore, the inner world actively begins to enact productions in the phenomenal world, for example, in dreams and fantasies. Dreams and fantasies serve the function of experientially acting out unconscious problem-solving-processes of the inner world, and in this way testing and examining them.

In conclusion, it has been established that gestaltic, global and intermodal perception is an essential organizer of the self and environmental experiences of an infant. Perception structures not only the phenomenal worl of the nfant, but also establishes the structure of the inner world. Thereby, the inner world emerges out of the phenomenal world and already begins in the process of its composition to react upon the phenomenal world.


This is a provisional abstract of the lecture. The final and complete version has been published in German in GTA's journal GESTALT THEORY:
Bruno Waldvogel: Die Entwicklung von phänomenaler Welt und innerer Welt. Gestalt Theory, 19 (2/1997), pp 67-79.

Back to conference program in English.
Zum Tagungsprogramm in Deutsch.


Click here for a list of on-line abstracts of lectures at the Scientific Conventions of the GTA since 1997

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