Freud and the problem of consciousness: solution


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 The role of consciousness within the psychical apparatus

  1. Basic and derived consciousness
  • Revisiting the Project and the systems PHI-PSI-OMEGA (ϕ-ψ-ω).
  1. The experience of satisfaction: bound and free energy
  2. The system perception-consciousness (OMEGA/ω)
  3. From the primary to the secondary process
  • Reality-testing: when the criterion of distinction fails
  • Freud’s conception of consciousness on trial
  1. Pre-solution: asking the right questions
  2. Towards the solution: do we really need the OMEGA neurones?
  3. Solution: key elements
  • Reaping the benefits: solving old paradoxes




This is intended to be the first essay on Freud and his metapsychology.

Our purpose is to arrive at a conception, as precise as possible, of the psychical apparatus, its structure and functioning. Indeed, Freud’s conception of the psychical apparatus is the very core of his whole theory, hence its importance. Nevertheless, Freud’s topographical models of the psychical apparatus are not free from problems or paradoxes. In fact, at least one of them pursued him his whole life, namely the problem of consciousness.

Strategically, then, we will start by attacking this problem and, by proposing a solution to it, put ourselves in a better position to hopefully achieve a more consistent view of the psychical apparatus, of Freud’s theory.

Here we share Natsoulas’ thinking of Freud as a great and very significant theorist of consciousness and henceforward the importance of dedicating efforts in order to elucidate this crucial, central aspect of Freud’s theory[1]. Precisely by acknowledging Natsoulas’ importance on the subject, he will be our main interlocutor in this article[2].

Indeed, Natsoulas’ work has been proving of no small value. Not only are his interpretations very insightful but also his series of articles has incited other researchers to write about the subject[3]. By writing this essay, we want to take part in this debate, for we also believe that Freud’s conception of consciousness is something very much alive, not just a matter of historical curiosity.


Our path will follow a different strategy from Natsoulas’, though.

It will consist of two main moves.

(1). Firstly, we will try to contextualise, from the beginning, the problem of consciousness in relation to the role it plays in the Freudian theory, notably to the role it plays within the psychical apparatus[4].

The central issues we need to face are:

According to Freud’s theory:

(a) What is/are the main function(s) of the psychical apparatus? What does it try to avoid, what does it try to accomplish?

(b) What is the function of consciousness in this context? That is: what role does the consciousness play in order for the psychical apparatus to achieve its main purposes?


(c) What is required from consciousness to perform its functions? Or better: what conceptual problems are raised in order for consciousness to perform its functions?


(2). Secondly, we will try to offer a solution to the problem of consciousness. By that, we mean:

(a) We understand that there are some serious inconsistencies in Freud’s conception of consciousness;

(b) Those inconsistencies may be removed once we make a very special adjustment in the theory.

In other words, what we will try to do is to offer some “correction” to Freud’s conception of consciousness so it might get rid of many important problems or paradoxes, many of which Natsoulas drew our attention to.

What we will propose is that a most privileged way to avoid some major difficulties in the theory is — we anticipate — to do away with the system of consciousness, to do away with the special system of neurones OMEGA (ω)[5].

In this sense, we will differ somehow from Natsoulas, who claimed he would “write neither as competitor or reviser” and “not propose to remove the defects so that Freud’s conception might better perform its functions” (Natsoulas, 1992b, p. 174).


Nevertheless, — and this is an important point to be emphasised — we will not offer a solution theoretically unavailable to Freud at the time of his writings.

In fact, we claim both that the solution we propose is entirely compatible with Freud’s own main assumptions and objectives and that Freud had all the means to achieve the same result, in the sense that no concept, no assumption extraneous to Freud’s theorisation is employed in it. In a way, we could even say that Freud was close to it, not much having been needed for him to take this stance after Letter 39’s alterations.

This is no trivial matter.

What we are saying is that, even Freud explicitly did not come up with this solution; even if what we propose is, in some sense, a somehow major alteration in his theory, we nonetheless claim that the resulting “corrected” theory is still entirely Freudian, in the sense that this is a solution that Freud himself would/could have conceived of specially if he had made the key move of abandoning the idea of a specific locus of consciousness.

True, in Freud’s time, that was an idea one could hardly abandon.

But still truer is the fact that Freud, as a scientist, would have gladly abandoned it, had he conceived a way out of the paradoxes his conception of consciousness led him to. What we will try to show here is that there is such a way out and that it was within Freud’s conceptual possibilities.

In this sense, we are not so much far off the spirit of Natsoulas’ approach, in which “a special effort is made to be faithful to Freud’s own conception of consciousness”. In this sense, then, our proposed solution lines up entirely with the spirit of “clarification, explication, and extension of parts of his [Freud’s] conceptions that are undeveloped, summarily stated, or implicit” (Natsoulas, 1992b, p. 171).

In the end, hopefully, what is to be gained is a more consistent view of the psychical apparatus, a more coherent view of Freud’s theory.




Notwithstanding his doubtlessly valuable efforts, Natsoulas somehow failed to contextualise the problem of consciousness, and that may be viewed as a consequence of his strategy or approach.

Indeed, instead of approaching Freud’s conception of consciousness in the broader picture of the psychical apparatus as a whole, Natsoulas gives consciousness prominence and proceeds directly to describe its characteristics and properties.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with this kind of approach. In this particular case, however, Natsoulas’ choices as to which premises are central in Freud’s conception of consciousness lead to insurmountable problems, the very problems that accompanied Freud to the end.

The problematic premise that Natsoulas takes as central is the very idea of a locus of consciousness, which on its turn lends credibility to the first main distinction Natsoulas draws in his series of articles, namely the distinction between basic (or intrinsic) consciousness and derived consciousness[6].

This move will have decisive consequences as to how Natsoulas builds Freud’s conception of consciousness, as to how he explains some difficult passages, raises some problems or dismisses certain interpretations, for example, the hypothesis of consciousness as (merely) an appendage.


That said, it is important to note that, although Natsoulas will be our main interlocutor in this article, our strategy will not be of a direct confrontation. Instead, due to the deep differences in our respective approaches, we will first fully develop our view and only then proceed to show that our approach can, hopefully, solve some important problems Natsoulas (and Freud) remained stuck with.


As we have anticipated, our first move consists in approaching consciousness as ‘secondary’ in relation to the psychical apparatus.

This is an important move in that it emphasises the fact that Freud’s conception of consciousness is born and shaped in the context of the functions and purposes of the psychical apparatus.

This is also an important move in that it provides us with a criterion as to which concepts should be considered more central and “untouchable” and which concepts more “adjustable” or revisable.

The (more) central concepts are those concerning the main purposes of the psychical apparatus, those without which the psychical apparatus cannot perform its functions.

Conversely, the more revisable concepts are those in which adjustments can be made without perturbing the functioning of the psychical apparatus.

More concretely, the point we want to make is the following. Although Natsoulas is obviously well supported in saying that Freud maintained the idea of a seat of consciousness to the very end, we will argue that revoking that position is only seemingly a major alteration in his (Freud’s) views. Provided, naturally, that this adjustment will preserve the theory’s main purposes, but that goes without saying.


So before anything we have to ask, we have to be as clear as possible in defining:

(a). What are the main purposes of the psychical apparatus?

(b). What is needed for it to achieve those purposes?

(c). What is the role of consciousness in this context?




Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, develops a long reflection on the grounds for the existence of a “compulsion to repeat”. His thoughts take him to conceive what he calls “the instinct to return to the inanimate state”. The explanation of such a tendency would be the following: all systems, either organic or inorganic, would have as the most primitive law the elimination of all energy, all quantity that invades them. In an inorganic system, this does not represent any problem. A sort of “reflex action”, following what could be called a “principle of inertia”, can immediately remove any quantity that enters it. Nevertheless, a living organism cannot function according only to this principle. Only obeying to it, the organism can avoid or get rid of the quantities that come from the outside, but this will not be enough as far as the endogenous quantities are concerned. The reflex action cannot remove the stimulus from internal source, so the living organism must find another solution. Indeed, from the internal stimulus, there is no simple, direct escape. The solution, according to Freud, consists in being able to bear certain accumulation of quantity in the system, so it can be later discharged by executing an appropriate action in the external world (the so called ‘specific action’). Hence, for a living organism, it is not possible to eradicate all quantity, reducing it to an absolute zero (case of an inorganic system). The task is now to maintain it in a controlled level, so that, since it exceeds a certain limit, it may be discharged through an action in the exterior world. In the organic, living system, the principle of inertia must give place to the “principle of constancy”: that is, to keep the amount of excitation as low as possible or at least to keep it constant. The return to the inanimate state cannot be made before a certain “diversion” called life.

A similar reflection can be found in the Project[7], some twenty-five years before, but that time in the context of a neuronal system, material basis of Freud’s first model of the psychical apparatus.

In effect, there it is stated that the primary aim of a neuronal system is that of divesting itself of Q (Freud 1895, p. 296), following the model of the reflex arc and respecting the principle of inertia. Also there it is stated that the neuronal system of a living being cannot function according only to this principle, for the reflex action is not enough to eliminate the constant pressure from the endogenous stimulus. The solution is to bear certain accumulation of Q until it may be appropriately discharged. The neuronal system of a living organism must, hence, function according to the principle of constancy, what amounts to being able to keep Q in the organism within optimal levels until it may eventually be discharged by means of an appropriate (specific) action in the external world.

Here as there, we have the same moral, the same fundamental aim for every living organism, living system: avoid Q, on the one hand; put up with/discharge Q on the other.

This is a key point in that, in one way or another, this “energetic” model of the psychical apparatus will be maintained in all its formulations throughout Freud’s work. Indeed, despite differences in the vocabulary, the aim of the psychical apparatus will always be the same, from the earliest to the latest texts: to handle quantities, to protect the system from an excess of tension. The healthy psychical apparatus is the one that manages to keep an optimal balance of the quantities. The one, conversely, that cannot satisfactorily rid itself of and/or appropriately handle the tensions, falls ill. The symptoms are, properly speaking, badly managed drainages of the accumulated tension in the system.

* * *

Mentioning the Project here is not due to merely historical curiosity. On the contrary, doing a thorough analysis of it is key to our purposes, for it is there, to our understanding, where the construction of the psychical apparatus finds its more concrete if not best-defined version, where Freud’s materialism is more evidenced. As a matter of fact, nowhere else is the psychical apparatus more explicitly described as a physical system, as a physical part of the brain. However, Freud never really quit this materialistic stance, even when he chose a (more) ‘psychological’ vocabulary over a (more) ‘physicalist’ one. The so-called “Freudian dualism” is nothing but a misinterpretation. As Natsoulas well put:


With regard to the relation of the mental to the physical, Freud was a materialist, just as most psychologists nowadays are. In his view, the mind or psychical apparatus was a certain physical system rather than something mental, which stood to the human body in a parallel, epiphenomenal, or interactive relation. The mind-body dualism that some people detect in Freud’s (e.g., 1938a) later work is actually a methodological rather than substantive one. In addition, his dualistic-sounding statements are an admission of ignorance as to how some physical processes can possess those properties that give them “a subjective side (Natsoulas 1984, pp. 196-7).


This point is worth emphasising, for there should be no doubt that in Freud’s view the psychical apparatus is literally (part of) a physical system.

In the specific case of the Project, the psychical apparatus will be conceived as a neuronal apparatus.

* * *

The Project begins with a reference to its two basic concepts: “the neurones are to be taken as the material particles” and Q represents “the conception of neuronal excitation as quantity in a state of flow”, subject to the general laws of motion (Freud, 1895, pp. 295-6).

Freud then conceives the psychical apparatus as the result of the relation between three systems of neurones, assumed as originally identical but functionally differentiated by the relative position that they occupy in the apparatus.

Let us characterize them briefly.

Firstly, there is the system of neurones PHI (ϕ), in charge of the reception of the external stimuli.

Next, there is the system PSI (ψ), which “is out of contact with the external world; it only receives Q, on the one hand from the ϕ neurones themselves, and on the other from the cellular elements in the interior of the body” (Freud, 1895, p. 304).

Finally, there is OMEGA (ω), a special system of neurones able to capture key-information transmitted by PHI (ϕ) (through its ‘period’) and to produce thereby perceptive quality. The system OMEGA (ω) is the so-called perception-consciousness system.

In the Project, the systems are so ordered: PHI – PSI – OMEGA (ϕ-ψ-ω).


The relation between three systems can be briefly so described.

All quantity from external source reaches the psychical apparatus through PHI (ϕ).

That external quantity will then break up into much smaller quotients in such way that the “quantity in ϕ is expressed by complication in ψ” (Freud, 1895, p. 315). In other words: the more intense the quantity from PHI (ϕ), the more ramified will be the paths in PSI (ψ). This way PSI works with much weaker levels of Q.

As for OMEGA, the system perception-consciousness, no quantity from PHI (ϕ) reaches it. Instead, OMEGA (ω) captures its period. The period is described by Freud as a factor of ‘temporal nature’, which is transmitted in all directions without inhibition or resistance through the neurones, “as it were a process of induction”. Through the period, the psychical apparatus can capture essential discriminatory characteristics from the external world. Freud also adds that “The ψ neurones too have their period, of course; but it is without quality or, more correctly, monotonous” (Freud 1895, p. 310). It is then the “varied” (non-monotonous) aspect of the periods from PHI (ϕ) that can be ‘interpreted’ in OMEGA (ω) as qualities.

* * *

Having assumed, though, all neurones as originally identical, how to explain this functional specialization of the three systems?

Freud tries to provide a mechanical, quantitative, explanation for that[8]. In his own words: “Let us therefore attribute the differences not to the neurones but to the quantities with which they have to deal” (Freud, 1895, p. 304).

First of all, the PHI (ϕ) neurones, being subjected to an intense quantity from the outside, do not manage to bar the passage of quantity and remain therefore totally permeable to it (Freud, 1895, 299-300). In other words, they let the quantity pass by completely, being unable, thereby, to generate memory. On the other hand, the intensity of quantity also prevents them from producing quality.

The PSI (ψ) neurones, on their turn, receiving only the endogenous quantities (which are of reduced magnitude) and the already weakened stimuli from PHI (ϕ), are able to offer some resistance[9] to the passage of quantity and so to hold it back, becoming filled up with it. They are more impermeable to the stimuli and hence able to produce memory (Freud, 1895, 300). Not to produce quality, though, once their period, as we saw, is monotonous.

Finally, the OMEGA (ω) neurones, already protected from the excessive quantity by both PHI (ϕ) and PSI (ψ), are only reached by virtually null amounts of quantity, which permits them, according to Freud, to produce quality (Freud, 1895, p. 310).

OMEGA (ω) cannot produce memory, though, once the neurones in charge of perception must always be vacant for fresh and new stimuli. As a matter of fact, one of the main reasons Freud conceived the neurones organised in different systems is his thinking that perception and memory cannot be a function of the same set of neurones.

In effect, memory seems to imply permanent retention of information, permanent alteration of the neurones involved, whereas perception and consciousness seem to require neurones to be always fresh and ready for new impressions. Perception (consciousness) and memory are thought of as being mutually incompatible[10] (Freud, 1895, p. 299-300).




The first human experiences


Following this preliminary model, let us think of the human case.

According to the Freudian conception, human beings are born prematurely both physically and psychically. As a result, on the one hand they exhibit more plasticity and an increased capacity to learn and on the other hand they require a longer period of dependence.

This fact will have decisive consequences on the development of the infant.

Firstly, incapable of surviving by herself, she will need another human being to come to her rescue.

Secondly, lacking instructions as to her own survival, she will have to acquire through experience and especially through other people almost all necessary information to this endeavour.

In other words, precariously prepared for life, the infant has no other possibility than ‘crying’ or ‘screaming’ when disturbed by an internal stimulation connected with the physical necessities. “But (…) no such discharge can produce an unburdening result, since the endogenous stimulus continues to be received and the ψ tension is restored” (Freud, 1895, p. 317). The arrival of other person is then needed to provide for her needs. There is nothing except this external help to cease the endogenous stimulation.

Once removed, such internal tension will give place to an experience of satisfaction (Befriedgungserlebnis), which will be imprinted on the child and will be, so to speak, her first instruction of survival.

Thereafter, this experience will be the basic model for getting satisfaction and indeed will be interpreted by the child as the privileged way of discharge, the one that will be able to effectively free her from the disturbing endogenous quantities.

“Thus, as a result of the experience of satisfaction, a facilitation (Bahnung) comes about between two mnemic images and the nuclear neurones which are cathected in the state of urgency” (Freud, 1895, p. 319), in such a way that, when the state of necessity reoccurs, a psychical impulse will try to re-cathect the mnemic image of the object (milk, breast) with the finality of reproducing the original satisfaction.

In other words, upon the re-emergence of the state of urgency, the quantity will flow through the facilitated path and re-cathect those PSI (ψ) neurones[11] (those mnemic images) involved in the previous experience of satisfaction.

However, this time, not counting on the presence of the real object, what follows is a hallucination, with the subsequent disappointment, since the tension remains at the source.

As Freud states:


I do not doubt that in the first instance this wishful activation will produce the same thing as a perception — namely a hallucination. If reflex action is thereupon introduced, disappointment cannot fail to occur (Freud, 1895, p. 319).


This ‘direct’ path toward satisfaction — involving the so-called ‘primary process’[12] — proves therefore insufficient, inadequate. Without the external object, the tension, the urgency is not removed.

The first human wish is then, in a way, closely associated with the hallucinatory process. What the wishful activity aimed was to obtain ‘perceptive identity’, i.e., to reproduce the perception connected to the removal of the state of urgency.

Having proved inefficacious the hallucinatory satisfaction, however, the child will have to achieve her second vital instruction: she will have to learn to distinguish between the real object and the hallucinated one, to distinguish between perception and memory.




The system OMEGA (ω)

Or, it is mainly in this context that the system OMEGA (ω), the system perception-consciousness, enters the big picture, finds its key-mission of helping the psychical apparatus to obtain such criterion of distinction between perception and memory, helping the psychical apparatus to perform what Freud called ‘reality-testing’.


Let’s recall the interaction between three systems.

The quantity coming from the external world (Q) first attains PHI (ϕ), before reduced magnitudes reach PSI (ψ), where they can be retained and registered.

On the other hand, when PHI (ϕ) is stimulated, OMEGA (ω) appropriates the period of the excitation and then the phenomenon of the perception-consciousness takes place, with quality being produced.

Let’s now add that, when OMEGA (ω) generates quality, a small discharge is produced and information of it reaches PSI (ψ). This information, on its turn, this indication that quality has been generated in OMEGA will serve for PSI as indications that there has been perception of a real object (and not just remembrance). In other words, those indications of quality may also function as ‘indications of reality’, indications that there has happened true interaction with the external world.

From this, the psychical apparatus may build a criterion upon which it may distinguish the real, external object from the hallucinated, remembered, internal one.

From this, the psychical apparatus may build a criterion upon which it may prevent the hallucinatory satisfaction from happening, hence inhibiting the primary processes and opening room for the secondary processes to assume their prominence in controlling the psychical processes (Freud, 1895, p. 323 ff.)[13].

* * *

There are three key elements that must be emphasised.

(1) The psychical apparatus has learnt that the way of elimination (discharge) created by the primary experience of satisfaction is the privileged way to follow in the future (situations of urgency) attempts of satisfaction.

(2) The psychical apparatus has learnt that it must wait until PSI (ψ) receives the indications of quality from OMEGA (ω) before authorising the process of discharge, or face the consequences of not removing the internal source of tension, with the ensuing disappointment.

(3). The psychical apparatus has learnt, therefore, that in order for this privileged way of elimination to be followed with security, i.e., in order for the result of this path to be effectively the satisfaction (significant or lasting elimination of Q), it is necessary that the subject have a criterion of distinction between memory and perception.

In a word, to carry out its mission of maintaining the quantity in optimal levels (being able to discharge it appropriately), the psychical apparatus must avoid the hallucinatory satisfaction and therefore acquire a criterion to distinguish the real/perceived object from the remembered/hallucinated one.


Binding (Bindung) and psychism


The human psychical apparatus must then be examined under two aspects: as a living organism, he must be able to put up with, to accumulate energy, quantity; as a ‘premature’ organism, he must learn how to obtain satisfaction.

The first demand will be met by the operation of ‘binding’ of quantities; the second one will involve a tendency to repeat the primary experience of satisfaction, which will be henceforth the privileged model of all future satisfaction: those are the two critical lessons of the human being.

The operation of binding has as an underlying notion the distinction between the free and bound conditions of quantity, a distinction that appears in Freud’s work as early as 1894/1895 (Draft G), assumes more importance in the Project (1895), but remains valid throughout his work[14].

This insistence and permanence give us at the same time the stimulus and the legitimacy to undertake a work of conceptual clarification to the point of transforming it in one of the key notions of our work.

As we have seen, the psychical apparatus, forced by an accumulation of Q, must take steps for its discharge. Not being able to fully rid itself from the tension via reflex action, it must capture and transform this energy that invades it. Such capture or transformation is essentially done by the mechanisms of binding (Bindung) and cathexis (Besetzung).

Once captured, however, the excitement is not driven simply towards the discharge. It is somehow transformed. It passes from somatic energy to psychical energy. The difference between the two types of energy is somehow coextensive to the difference between Q in the ‘free and the bound states. We can say that the psychism is inaugurated by the binding of Q[15].

What happens then?

According to Freud, to bind the energy is to make it pass from a freely mobile state to a state where the energy is retained, contained. This means that what consisted in a state of pure dispersion of the excitements becomes part of a net, of a group of cathected (filled up with Q) neurones.

In other words, the binding of Q is equivalent to the neurones’ being capable of holding to their cathexes. By so binding the quantities, the psychical apparatus gets to reduce the overall internal quantity of motion, reducing therefore the internal pressure. The binding consists properly in a restriction to the free process of drainage of the excitements.

* * *

Now connecting this to the primary experience of satisfaction, we can tell the following story.

We have the free, somatic, endogenous Qh making increasing pressure on PSI (ψ), creating what we called state of urgency.

With the experience of satisfaction, special paths, facilitations are created between the mnemic images activated during the process and the nuclear neurones.

Once the state is reactivated, the Qh will preferably follow those paths, those facilitations.

With time, however, the psychical apparatus learns that it must avoid the hallucinatory satisfaction and, in order to do so, it must refrain from authorising a straight discharge and wait for the indications of quality to arrive.

Or, the way to achieve that is to bind the freely mobile quantity. By so proceeding, the psychical apparatus gets to reduce the internal pressure (since the overall internal quantity of motion is reduced) so it can wait for the indications of quality (of reality) to arrive.

The era of the secondary processes may start.




From the primary process to the secondary process


The concept of binding is also closely connected to that of the ego, the part of the psychical apparatus that has a key role in the inhibition of the primary process and consequent passage to the secondary process. In fact, we saw that the child had to learn to distinguish between memory and perception so she can know when the motor discharge can be authorised and the expected satisfaction can be attained.

However, it is not enough to have the means of distinguishing between perception and memory in order for the psychical apparatus to avoid the primary process. Actually, in order for the indications of quality supplied by OMEGA (ω) to really be of some utility, it is necessary that the primary process had already been inhibited. Otherwise, before the indications of discharge in OMEGA could arrive, the primary process would have already taken place, with the consequent hallucination. It is here that the ego plays its central role.


Binding and ego


In his Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning, Freud is succinct nonetheless precise when he describes the implications of the abandon of the hallucinatory satisfaction. He says that after the disappointment that follows it, due to the absence of the real object and expected satisfaction, “the psychical apparatus had to decide to form a conception of the real circumstances in the external world and to endeavour to make a real alteration in them” (Freud 1911, p. 219).

Two consequences follow, then, from this disappointment:

(a). It is necessary to support a surplus of tension until the specific action can take place.

(b). It is necessary to learn to distinguish reality from hallucination, perception from memory.

This distinction, according to Freud, can be made with the help of consciousness and the indications of quality sent whenever a perception occurs.

It is this producing of quality that is used for the ego as an index of the presence of an external object, therefore an index of reality. Since then the psychical apparatus can distinguish between what is external (the perceptions and the underlying reality) and what it is internal (the representations, the mnemic aspects).


Let’s examine that more thoroughly.

Endogenous quantities from the body make pressure on the psychical apparatus, which handles the situation by capturing them through the mechanisms of binding and cathecting.

It happens that this contention, carried out via contact-barriers, will have as an important consequence the forming of a group of neurones that is constantly cathected. It will be this set, this first organisation in PSI (ψ), that Freud will call the ego.

The ego is, in a first moment, only an effect, somehow passive, of the process of binding. Only later will the ego assume an active role.

In other words, originally the ego consists in nothing but this grouping of cathected neurones of PSI (ψ) nucleus (the part of PSI directed to the reception of the endogenous quantities), which tries to unload the Qή by ways that conduce only to an internal change (ultimately leading to the hallucinatory satisfaction). Such internal changes, however, not having any proper effect on the external world, do not provide the relief of the tension.

This first moment corresponds to the register of the primary processes.

* * *

In a second moment, however, the ego becomes a more efficient organisation, capable of differentiating — resorting to the indications of quality sent by OMEGA — the mnemic images from the perceptive images. In possession of this criterion of distinction, the ego can now use its cathexis to direct the psychical attention to the external world, without which the indications of reality could not be put to a good purpose. It is not until this moment that the primary process can be effectively inhibited. Through the mechanism of attention, hence, the ego can increase its extension by also encompassing now the PSI (ψ) pallium (the part of PSI which communicates with PHI/ϕ). This way the ego manages to perform a sort of regulatory function of the PSI system, enabling the psychical apparatus the passage to the secondary processes.




When the criterion of distinction fails


Up to now, we have dealt with the psychical apparatus and its standard functioning, so to speak. Nevertheless, there are situations when the criterion of distinction fails, even in a so-called normal individual.


In a normal individual, indeed, there are at least two circumstances in which the criterion of distinction fails: (1) one is due to an excessive cathexis of the wished-for object; (2) the other one happens in the dreaming process.


In the first case, as Freud puts it:

If the wished-for object is abundantly cathected, so that it is activated in a hallucinatory manner, the same indication of discharge or of reality follows too as in the case of external perception. In this instance the criterion fails (Freud, 1895, p. 325).

But being that the case, if we want some reassurance in using the criterion of distinction, there must be some inhibition of the wishful cathexis so it does not reach such high levels of intensity and no indication of quality is produced. This inhibition will be performed by the (cathected) ego. The reality-testing is hence one of its main functions (Freud, 1895, pp. 325-7).



The second case, and a privileged phenomenon to examine, is the dream. In effect, the dream is a psychical phenomenon that not only bears some similarity to the pathological states, but also simulates, in certain way, the primitive way of functioning of the psychical apparatus.

What happens is that, when the individual sleeps, the ego “withdraws an enormous number of its cathexes, which, however, are restored on awakening, immediately and without trouble”. Such “lowering of the endogenous load in the ψ nucleus (…) makes the secondary function superfluous” and is a precondition of sleep (Freud, 1895, p. 336).

Or, it happens that, being the ego unloaded (of its cathexes), it does not (cannot) perform properly the inhibition of the primary process and so nothing prevents the dreaming representations from having a hallucinatory character, i.e., nothing prevents them from being over-cathected, consequently awakening consciousness (with perception-like quality) and meeting with belief (Freud, 1895, p. 339).


That being so, both cases importantly show us that:

(a). It is the ego that provides the support for the distinction between the real (= perceived) object and the absent, remembered or excessively cathected (= hallucinated) object.

(b). This (criterion of) distinction is a little bit precarious, for it suffices that the ego have its cathexes reduced for the reality-testing to have its credibility seriously menaced.




Freud’s conception of consciousness on trial


The explanation is convincing and seems to work, but there are some important problems that need to be confronted, specially those concerning the intricate relation between the neuronal systems, particularly those involving OMEGA (ω) and its providing a way for the ego to perform the decisive reality-testing.

The first conceptual problems we need to address concern the different properties Freud assigned to the different neuronal systems[16].


In that case, the following questions must find an appropriate answer.

(i). In describing the neuronal systems, Freud said that PHI (ϕ) is unable to produce memory because it receives too much quantity, staying permeable all along. That being so, however, why does OMEGA (ω) fail to generate memory if OMEGA is only reached by the feeblest possible quantities?

(ii). Secondly, it is not clear why PSI (ψ) neurones cannot produce quality. Freud tells us that their periods are monotonous, but we should not forget that the ‘rich’, ‘non-monotonous’ periods from PHI (ϕ) pass (uninhibitedly) through PSI (ψ) before reaching OMEGA. Why then is not PSI (ψ) itself able to produce quality from those periods? What prevents PSI (ψ) from doing so if the quantity that reaches it is already reasonably weakened?

And more directly related to the two circumstances in which the criterion of distinction fails:

(iii). If PSI (ψ) cannot produce quality by itself; if OMEGA (ω) is said to generate quality by appropriating the special periods from PHI (ϕ), and PHI is not active during sleep, how to explain the production of quality in dreams?

Or else:

(iv). If quality has its producing associated with the periods coming from PHI (ϕ), how to explain the fact that merely over-cathecting mnemic images in PSI (ψ) could produce “the same indication of discharge or of reality […] as in the case of external perception” (Freud, 1895, p. 325)?

In a word, how to explain the producing of quality when PHI (ϕ) is not playing any role whatsoever? Is quality, after all, a function of OMEGA (ω) appropriating the special periods from PHI (ϕ) or, else, a function of the intensity of the cathexes in PSI (ψ)?


Letter 39


Aware of the existence of some problems in the Project, shortly after his finishing it Freud wrote to Fliess and told him he had had “an idea which would result in a complete recasting of all my ϕψω theories” (Freud, 1896, p. 388). Indeed, we find there valuable clues as to solve the problems generated by the singularities of OMEGA (ω), of the perception-consciousness system.


Here is some key information brought up by the Letter 39:

Freud starts by referring to the existence of

“two kinds of nerve-endings. The free ones receive only quantity and conduct it to ψ by summation”; The nerve-paths, however, “which start from end-organs do not conduct quantity but the qualitative characteristic peculiar to them; they add nothing to the amount in the ψ neurones, but merely put these neurones into a state of excitation” (388).

Here we have already remarkable changes.

(a). The psychical apparatus has now only a single source of quantity: the body itself. All Q is Qή.

(b). PHI (ϕ) does not transfer any quantities to the other systems. All quantity that reaches it can be eliminated via reflex action. It does continue to transfer nonetheless its qualitative characteristics or periods. It is those qualitative characteristics that enable OMEGA (ω) to generate consciousness. PSI (ψ) remains unable to generate consciousness, though, for its period is monotonous.

(c). Moreover, not being a source of quantity, PHI (ϕ) can now be next to OMEGA (ω).

In effect, Freud “insert[s] these ω neurones between the ϕ neurones and the ψ neurones, so that ϕ transfers its quality to ω, and ω now transfers neither quality nor quantity to ψ but merely excites ψ” (Freud, 1895, p. 388).

It is actually upon those indications that the distribution of Q in the PSI (ψ) neurones will mostly depend (Freud, 1895, p. 389).


(d) The interaction between OMEGA (ω) and PHI (ϕ) consequently changes regarding the indications of quality. There is no longer any discharge in OMEGA and therefore no indications of it in PSI (ψ). What OMEGA does now is simply to excite certain PSI (ψ) neurones, i.e., OMEGA (ω) “indicates the pathways to be taken by the free ψ energy” (Freud, 1896, p. 388).

In other words, it directs the freely mobile energy existing in PSI (ψ) (the psychic attention) to the occurrence of perception.

Herein lies the primary function of OMEGA (ω), in a sense: to attract the psychic attention to the transmission of the qualitative information (the periods) from PHI (ϕ). In a word: to attract/direct the psychic attention to the events of the external world.




Now let us see how (if) this ‘recasting’ could help us solve the problems (1) to (4).


(i). Why is OMEGA not able to generate memory if only (close to) null quantities reach it?

Actually, the Letter 39 does not help much here, but we could try something along the following lines: if, on the one hand, too much quantity prevents the contact-barriers from retaining any information (although we do not need to worry about this anymore since PHI (ϕ) does not bring any quantity to the psychical apparatus), on the other hand too little quantity may not be enough to leave any traces either.

But now how to explain the fact that only little (if any) quantity reaches OMEGA (ω)?

That is: how to explain mechanically/quantitatively the functional differentiation between PSI (ψ) and OMEGA (ω) neurones? What differentiates the former from the latter?


(ii). Why PSI (ψ) itself does not produce quality from PHI (ϕ) periods?

With the topographical changes, the privilege of OMEGA thus generating quality is explained: it is OMEGA (ω) that is close to PHI (ϕ), hence getting firsthand its qualitative periods.

PSI (ψ), on the other hand, having direct access only to its monotonous periods, would remain unable to produce quality from them.


(iii). How to explain quality (consciousness) in dreams if PHI (ϕ) is not active during sleep?

Even before the Letter 39, Freud had already proposed an explanation to it.

As a matter of fact, in the Project (and later in the Interpretation of Dreams), Freud resorts to the idea that a sort of ‘retrogressive motion’ from PSI (ψ) to PHI (ϕ) would happen in dreams. That regression could happen in dreams because the ‘normal’ current from PHI (ϕ) to PSI (ψ) (which occurs during waking time) would have ceased. In the absence of this current, as well as of a cathected ego, the flow of Q could retrogressively reach PHI (ϕ) simulating a perception. With the changes, the hallucination is “no longer a backward movement of excitation to ϕ, but only to ω” (Freud, 1896, p. 389).

This can be viewed as a conceptual improvement, since PSI (ψ) is no longer interposed between PHI (ϕ) and OMEGA (ω), the two factors concerning the production of quality. Indeed, in the previous version one could be asked the difficult if not embarrassing question: after retrogressing and reaching PHI (ϕ), then what? Qualitative periods would maybe be sent back to OMEGA (ω) before quality could be produced? This is no longer necessary and the “backflow explanation” could actually be used to answer our next question:


(iv). How to explain the generation of quality by ‘merely’ over-cathecting mnemic images?

We could indeed profit from the above explanation and suppose that an excess of Q backflows to OMEGA thus finding the requisites to simulate a perception.

* * *

Nevertheless, as matters stand, there are still some unsettling questions to be asked.

Firstly: should a simple regression to OMEGA (ω) generate perception-like quality even in the absence of the periods from PHI (ϕ)? This seems an important question to ask because, as far as the theory goes, OMEGA should only produce quality by appropriating the special qualitative periods from PHI (ϕ).

As Freud clearly stated:

“The ω neurones are those ψ neurones which are capable of only very little quantitative cathexis. The coincidence between these minimal quantities and the quality faithfully transferred to them from the end-organ is once more the necessary condition for the generating of consciousness” (Freud, 1895, p. 388; our italics).

Or, with the backflow of Q to OMEGA, only half of the requisites are satisfied.

Actually, for a ‘simple’ regression to OMEGA to be enough to generate quality, we would have to assume that OMEGA (ω) had in itself the property of generating quality in spite of not receiving periods from PHI (ϕ).

But how could that be possible?

Indeed, OMEGA does not have any long-lasting ‘memory’ of any periods whatsoever, so how to explain that by merely being cathected (receiving a backflow of Q from PSI/ψ) it would/could produce perception-like quality?

Can OMEGA, after all, produce quality only as a response to being (hyper)cathected?

Or, else, should we speculate about the possibility of PSI generating quality by itself upon certain special conditions being satisfied?


Let us, for the sake of the argument, say we accept the hypothesis of regression as valid or, at least, good enough. Anyway, another issue has to be dealt with and associated with the precedent.

Let us once again examine the dreams and the changes they impose on the psychical apparatus.

In the dreaming process, we have seen, quality is produced, consciousness is awakened and the ego believes that it is before true reality.

In other words, while dreaming, the ego attaches belief as much to the ‘waking reality’ as to the ‘dreaming reality’.

Or, if the ego experiences both as ‘realities’, what sanctions the decision that in one case it should (could) act via motor action and not in the other case?

The answer seems straightforward.

When the ego withdraws its cathexes, it also removes the access to motility. That way, there would be no harm for the psychical apparatus in permitting the primary processes. As a preventive measure, then, the ego blocks the motility during sleep.

However, this reasoning is not quite satisfactory.

Why not?

Or, in order to justify why it is important to remove the access to motility during sleep, it is necessary that we had already previously learnt that the dream is actually a hallucination, and not an actual perception.

Yes, for the criterion of distinction rested, up to now, upon (the use of) the indications of quality provided by OMEGA (ω) to PSI (ψ), and it just happens that in dreams those indications are so provided. The criterion, therefore, cannot work properly.

But that being so, how the ego knows, safely, that we are dreaming so it can safely block the access to motility?

The answer, we realise, can no longer be given just in terms of the indications of quality provided by OMEGA (ω). The criterion of distinction seems to be a little bit more precarious than we had expected.

* * *

Interestingly enough, the same issue could be raised also in the case of the psychosis.

As a matter of fact, the psychotic is someone to whom the reality-testing does not produce the desired effects. In effect, the psychotic is often unable to satisfactorily inhibit the primary processes and may hallucinate even during waking time.

Nevertheless, even if she cannot rely on a good functioning of her criterion of distinction during waking time, her psychical apparatus still can satisfactorily manage to know that she is sleeping, that she is dreaming.

Yes, for even though she is often unable to inhibit the primary processes in waking time, she still manages to block motility while sleeping/dreaming.

The question is then the same: how the ‘psychotic’ ego knows it is dreaming? How does it distinguish between the daytime hallucination and the dreaming one?

Our only certainty is that the ‘psychotic’ ego knows it for it does manage to block motility whenever asleep.

What we are really looking for here is a really effective criterion of distinction, one the ego can truly rely on, one that fits well in Freud’s neuronal conception of the psychical apparatus.




Criterion of distinction & the system PHI (ϕ)


We remain with the following problems to solve.

— How to explain (mechanically) the differentiation between OMEGA and PSI (ψ) neurones?

— How to explain the production of quality without the periods from PHI (ϕ), i.e., merely on account of there being an extra cathexis in OMEGA?

— How to explain the motor paralysis whilst dreaming if the ego does not have any workable criterion to rely on (if the ego cannot merely count on the indications of quality) [17]?


In a way, rephrasing the last question could give us a precious hint as to its answer.

In effect, if we had asked what was the difference — in terms of involvement of the neuronal systems — between the waking state and the dreaming one, we would have promptly answered that it was the closure of the sense organs and the consequent interruption of the stimuli (or data) from PHI (ϕ).

The crucial difference is then the absence of the PHI (ϕ) system in the dreaming psychical processes, and not exactly the production of quality or the awakening of consciousness.

This point needs some emphasising.

It is true that whenever there is perception, there is also consciousness and the production of quality. But the converse is not true, since there is consciousness and quality during the dreams, when there is no perception happening.

When we sleep, PHI (ϕ) also sleeps.

Or, a conclusion that seems to impose itself is that what does allow the ego to distinguish waking (true perceptive) quality from the dreaming one is the presence of communication between the sense organs (source of external stimuli) and the psychical apparatus, between PHI (ϕ) and OMEGA (ω).

The ego, hence, will block the access to motility whenever the communication between PHI (ϕ) and OMEGA (ω) is interrupted. And that goes for both the neurotic and the psychotic.

Or, it just happens that this could also be a workable basis for the criterion of distinction as a whole.

In fact, after these reflections we realise that what could truly provide a trustable criterion of distinction between perception and memory, between the external and the internal world, is rather the presence/absence of communication along the axis PHI-OMEGA (ϕ-ω) than (just) the indications of quality provided by OMEGA (since OMEGA also happens to provide them in a number of occasions apart from perception).


In effect, the criterion could roughly work like this:

No periods from PHI (ϕ) à red light à sleep à motor paralysis.

Periods from PHI (ϕ) àyellow light à perception is happening à ego orientates psychical energy towards the qualitative information coming from that direction allowing therefore cathexes to reach the ‘quality-threshold’; otherwise, the ego keeps the cathexes low.

Finally, if the quality (from PHI/ϕ) is a match for the wished-for object, the ego gives the discharge by the specific action a green light.


Towards the solution: do we really need the OMEGA (ω) neurones?


Whether we are concerned about the ego’s capacity of blocking motility during sleep or not, the previous reasoning proves interesting in more than one way.

But, first and foremost, we clearly see that the indications of quality from OMEGA cannot be said anymore the main factor as far as the criterion of distinction is concerned. It is rather PHI (ϕ) the key system in this respect.

Indeed, as we have seen, quality is promiscuously produced and if the ego does not know, beforehand, which ‘kind’ of quality is being produced, it cannot possibly know when to inhibit the primary process and/or the motor discharge.


Or, up to now, OMEGA — the system perception-consciousness — had the following crucial roles in the psychical apparatus.

(1). Generating quality and hence consciousness.

(2). Providing a criterion (the indications of quality) after which the psychical apparatus (PSI/ψ) could distinguish between memory and perception so it would not engage into hallucinatory satisfaction.

What we realise after the preceding reflection is that OMEGA is not (essentially) needed for (2) anymore, since it is not the mere producing of quality that the ego relies upon but quality plus PHI (ϕ).

Or, that opens up room for us to finally ask: what about (1)? Do we really need a special/separate system of neurones to perform (1)? Do we really need to assume that perception and memory cannot be performed by the same set of neurones?

What if, instead, we attacked that assumption altogether, i.e., what if we assumed that quality and consciousness are generated in the system PSI (ψ), by the PSI neurones, challenging therefore the idea of there being contradiction in thinking of one system as responsible for both memory and consciousness?

In a word, what if we assumed that OMEGA (ω) did not exist at all?




Solution: key elements


The time has now come for us to go where Freud did not (though we claim that he surely could have) and assume that PSI (ψ) neurones can after all generate quality and be responsible for both memory and consciousness, leaving the OMEGA neurones nothing else to do but disappear.

Let us assume, then, that PSI (ψ) neurones can generate quality, can appropriate PHI (ϕ) periods.

What happens then in the psychical apparatus?


(1). PHI (ϕ) receives the excitation from the sense organs from which it captures discriminative information about the external world and transfers it to the system PSI (ψ) by means of qualitative periods. No Q from there is passed on to PSI (ψ).

(2). The only quantity PSI (ψ) actually has to deal with comes from the inside the body. All Q inside the psychical apparatus is Qή. After it reaches a certain level, by summation, it makes its way through the PSI (ψ) neurones, where it is held up until it eventually may be discharged.

That is, below a certain level, it is not noticed. Above a certain level it puts the PSI (ψ) system to work, creating thereby a state of urgency. The psychical apparatus then see to its discharge.

(3). PSI (ψ) receives the periods from PHI (ϕ), which are — upon some criteria of relevance —somehow captured/stored, mainly[18] by being linked to events connected with the experience of satisfaction (or pain).

In other words, biologically, the experiences of satisfaction (and pain) will serve as guides, as sorts of ‘criteria of relevance’, upon which the psychical apparatus will notice, store, filter, or use the information provided by the qualitative periods from PHI (ϕ).

(4). Primarily, therefore, all source of information about the external world comes from PHI (ϕ).


(5). A perception will have then two aspects, one qualitative and one quantitative.

The qualitative, discriminative aspect of perception has mainly to do with the information provided by PHI (ϕ) through its periods. When we speak about a perceptual image we mainly refer to the qualitative aspect of the perception.

The quantitative aspect of perception, on its turn, has to do with the Q cathecting the neurones excited by those periods (meaning that a certain level of Q is needed for a perception to happen, below which that information goes by unnoticeably).

(6). Similarly, a memory will have two aspects, one qualitative and one quantitative.

The qualitative, discriminative aspect of the memory has also mainly to do with the information provided by PHI (ϕ) through its periods, as well as with the sensations resulted from the experience of satisfaction (or pain). When we speak about an mnemic image we mainly refer to the qualitative aspect of the memory.

Analogously, the quantitative aspect has to do with the passage of more or less intense levels of Q (as well as its being linked to an experience of discharge), thereby creating the facilitations between the neurones.

As a matter of fact, facilitations will be created whenever an appropriate conjunction of ‘intensity’ and ‘relevance’ occur together.


What about consciousness?

Now we are in position of fully benefiting from our proposed solution.


(7). A memory being revived will be the result of a certain amount of Q flowing through neurones previously facilitated, which thereby will reactivate their qualitative aspects.

Below a certain threshold, this current will activate those qualitative aspects in a mild manner, that is, the psychical apparatus will be able to revive those images as memories, meaning that the psychical apparatus will not mistake those images for perceptions[19].

Above a certain threshold, though, the current will activate those qualitative aspects to their fullest, that is, it will bring about basically the same qualitative aspects a perception is capable of providing.

In that case, the psychical apparatus may actually mistake the revived memory for a perception.


(8). The generation of quality/consciousness will then also be a function of two factors:

(a). The existence of a passing current through the neurones which reaches/exceeds a certain amount/threshold;

(b). The existence of qualitative information being provided by/to the neurones[20].

Or, in a psychical apparatus soon filled up with memories/facilitations, the second condition will always be fulfilled, leaving us with the simple and straightforward rule:

Whenever a current of freely mobile energy cathect the PSI (Ψ) neurones over a certain limit, the phenomenon of consciousness occurs, (full) quality is generated.  


(9). That being, we also gain insight to better characterise how remembering relates to consciousness.

Indeed, Freud often stated that there is no quality in remembering and, on the other hand, that phenomenon of consciousness is the very producing of quality.

Obviously by no means did Freud have the intention of either denying that we do not have memory of any qualitative aspects (such as colours, smell, taste, etc) or denying that we have conscious memories at all.

Nonetheless, this little and maybe relatively unimportant puzzle finds here an easy solution. In effect, now we have the means to clearly differentiate between a regular conscious memory (with qualitative aspects being evoked, but in a mild manner) and a conscious perception (with its qualitative aspects being evoked to the fullest); or between a regular conscious memory and a hallucinated one (with its qualitative aspects being evoked to the fullest, thereby ‘simulating’ a perception).


(10). Both the over-cathected wishful idea and, in a special way, the dreams, could be thought of as fitting in the last category.

As a matter of fact, the first circumstance is one where there is a straightforward excess of energy cathecting certain neurones, the conditions for generations of consciousness with full quality being met.

Normally, a cathected ego can prevent this from happening by inhibiting the cathexes, interfering in their flux, thereby confining them within the proper boundaries.

In the second circumstance, though, there is no cathected ego to (properly) interfere in the flux of the freely mobile energy, and so it (the energy) may flow uninhibitedly in the direction of the best facilitated paths, having therefore no difficulty to reach/exceed the ‘consciousness/quality’ threshold. As Freud says:

“Consciousness is a highly fugitive state. What is conscious is conscious only for a moment” (Freud 1940, p. 159).


(11). The transitoriness of consciousness also finds an easy explanation. Consciousness is essentially an ephemeral/transient/fleeting phenomenon because it is nothing more than the result of that freely mobile energy exciting certain neurones at a due time. Once that ‘surplus’ of energy is not available anymore (due to its being bound or discharged), no more quality is produced, no consciousness is generated.


Or, from that, we need to draw one more consequence, a key one, namely, the fact that consciousness should not be thought of as a ‘true’ system (as are the Pcs and the Ucs; as are the PSI (ψ) system and its subparts, ψ pallium and ψ nucleus[21]), localised in space and having a specific and separate set of neurones dedicated to perform this function.

Instead, consciousness as a system — the special set of neurones OMEGA — must literally disappear, so we only need to deal with consciousness as a function, a function that may be easily and safely performed by the PSI (ψ) neurones.


But now how can the same set of neurones (ψ) be responsible for both memory and consciousness? Are not those incompatible?

Or, the moment we have distinguished between the path (the neurone in its physical aspect) and the passing current of Q, we have by the same token opened up a way of challenging such alleged incompatibility.

The memory, properly speaking, consists in the facilitations or, more precisely, in the difference among the facilitations. Memory has to do with the (physical) creation of facilitations; it properly consists in the difference between those facilitations created between the neurones.

Consciousness, on the other hand, has to do with the passing current of Q through those very facilitations. What this passing current of Q through the facilitations does — as described in items 5-6 — is to excite those cells, those neurones, i.e., to activate those qualitative information brought by PHI (ϕ) periods or previously ‘stored’.

If this passing current is within certain boundaries, a regular remembrance is produced, with mildly intense qualities being generated.

If on the other hand this passing current exceeds a certain amount, reaches a certain threshold, the cells will be activated to their fullest, i.e., full, perceptive-like quality will be produced.

This way, we see, it is not contradictory at all to assume that both memory and consciousness may be performed by the same neurones, for they correspond to completely different aspects of activity of the cells.


And with that we believe to have answered the main objection against our solution.

Indeed, what we deduce from the above explanation is that there is no real incompatibility in assuming that a same set of neurones (neurones PSI/ψ) is responsible for both memory and consciousness.

It is high time we joined Natsoulas in his quest, so can establish a fruitful dialog with him, with his work.




Accepting that reformulation of the psychical apparatus, it is our belief that the main paradoxes surrounding Freud’s conception of consciousness may be solved, and hopefully none added.

At this point, let us try to establish a dialog with Natsoulas and check our mutual agreements and disagreements and, wherever divergences happen, see whether our approach lives up to the expectation and may satisfactorily give answer to the problems he left unsettled.


Debating Natsoulas: some topics and answers[22]


The following items may be enlisted as some of the main problems Natsoulas faces, especially in his series of articles “Freud and Consciousness”.


(a). Having consciousness lost its status as a ‘true’ system (there are no OMEGA neurones anymore), the distinction between intrinsic and derived consciousness is no longer needed. Actually, that distinction complicates matters.


(b). About the debate concerning the (non-)existence of unconscious emotions.

Freud is clear about the issue, stating that there are no unconscious emotions or feelings, that affects are never unconscious. He claims that referring to ‘unconscious emotions’ is only a kind of ‘shortcut’, an useful manner of speaking which is not entirely correct (Freud, 1923, pp. 22-3). Rosenthal (1986) and others (Smith, Wollheim) argued otherwise.

With our solution, matters become clearer for there is no ‘essential’ difference between a conscious content and a nonconscious one. For a nonconscious content to become conscious, all it needs to have is a certain amount of Q above a certain threshold.

Obviously, as the ego controls (most of) the distribution of Q in the psychical apparatus, for a nonconscious content to become conscious, it will need to obtain the ego’s ‘approval’.

Strictly speaking, then, emotions are qualitative contents that get enough (freely mobile) cathexis to become conscious.

The so-called ‘unconscious emotions’, on the other hand, would easily be accounted for as being those contents that precisely did not get enough (freely mobile) cathexis to become conscious. Or, alternatively, those contents whose associated energy is in a bound state (as opposed to ‘in a free state’).

Or, that means that we can meaningfully speak of the same mental content as being either conscious or nonconscious, this specific difference being related to the way the psychical apparatus distributes its share of freely mobile energy. Obviously enough, the contents that are meant to be repressed do not (easily) get the necessary amount of Q to become conscious.

In this view, censorship is properly speaking nothing but a way of distributing the cathexis over the contents the ego finds more ‘appropriate’ (that is, more capable of — being a means of — producing a lasting discharge or satisfaction)[23].

To repeat: as consciousness is no longer a true system (with a localised position and special neurones to perform its functions), there is no paradox in assuming that position.


Closely related is the next item.

(c). How does inhibition work? When or why does it fail?

The inhibition is a crucial job performed by the ego. It amounts to coordinating the distribution of the available free quantity in the psychical apparatus.

In other words, without the intervention of the ego, the freely mobile energy flows directly in the direction of the best facilitations (which will almost inevitably end up generating a hallucination, primary process). That is basically what happens in dreams.

With a properly cathected ego, though, the freely mobile Q does not go in the direction of the best facilitations; rather, it is retained and directed (better: diverted) to the stimuli from the external world. That is why Freud speaks of the “unbound or primary processes”, on the one hand, and the “bound or secondary ones” (Freud, 1920, p. 63)[24], on the other.

The inhibition (of the primary process) fails whenever the ego is not properly cathected, as when we are asleep (therefore, dreams) or, in more unusual cases, when the amount of freely mobile Q is such that even a cathected ego cannot control the whole process of distribution.


(d). Consciousness (or OMEGA/ω processes). What difference does it make?

As we saw, there is no need to postulate a special set of neurones (OMEGA/ω) in charge of consciousness, so there are no special “OMEGA processes”.

As for consciousness or conscious processes, the answer is quite simple and straightforward.

The psychical apparatus has as its main function to handle its internal quantities so it can maintain them in an “optimal level”, ideally only retaining the amount of Q necessary for the specific action to take place.

Conscious processes are crucial in that they indicate where the action must take place so we can have a lasting discharge. Actually, that is the main criterion by which something gets conscious at all. In other words, we become conscious of the very things that (at least in principle) may be used to permit a real/lasting experience of satisfaction.

Hence the privilege to the information from the external world (from PHI/ϕ), for the psychical apparatus has since long learnt that the lasting discharge is associated with the occurrence of a perception.

By scrutinising the external world, therefore, by scanning the information provided by PHI (ϕ) (and thereof becoming conscious), the psychical apparatus puts itself in a better position to act at the right moment.

That is why a pre-cathexis is important, why qualities without attention are useless. A lack of attention is, in fact and in practice, a lack of relevance the psychical apparatus is attaching to that event, at that particular moment.

We could apply the same reasoning to the content of dreams and actually provide a more global answer as to its main function.

In effect, whilst dreaming, the psychical apparatus may perform a sort of ‘rehearsal’ or ‘trial test’ before action can take place in the real (waking) world.

By doing this, paths and contents may be (re-)integrated, with the consequent consolidation of learning.

Indeed, without the constraints of the incoming perceptions and the risks of failing, the psychical apparatus can “experiment” more freely (less ‘censorship’) during dreams and try out different possibilities or ways of achieving the same result: satisfaction. That is why the ‘censorship’ is more relaxed during dreams, precisely because the risks of experimenting are very low, if any.

On the other hand, that is also why there is always going to be some ‘censorship’, for not all conceivable possibilities are ‘up for grabs’, meaning that the things the psychical apparatus cannot really conceive as being realisable (at all) in the real (waking) world are not going to become conscious even in dreams.

In still other words, “being or becoming conscious” is a sort of “ready-for-action-flag”: only things that may — even if in principle — get acted upon may become conscious.

‘To become conscious’, then, means to pass some sort of ‘test of relevance’. And what is the ‘criterion of relevance’? As we have seen, no other than the experiences of satisfaction and pain, so we can relieve/avoid tension.


(e) How do thoughts processes become conscious?

Firstly, in order for thoughts to become conscious they have to pass the ‘test of relevance’. Here we could talk about a huge and permanent ‘competition’ among all our thoughts, among all the possible thoughts we may have. The winning ones get conscious, meaning that the psychical apparatus considered them (more)(immediately) relevant for the action the subject may perform in the world. Other relevant thoughts remain nonconscious nevertheless active at the background and may become conscious at any time as long as they manage to gather enough ‘strength’ to win the ‘competition’ against other thoughts.

Secondly, they have to pass the ‘test of consistency’. Here we could talk about the difference between the unconscious, ‘processed in parallel’, multi-modal processes and the conscious ‘serial’, linear processes. In other words, while unconscious representations do not have to be coherent, consistent, compatible with each other, conscious representations do have to exhibit such coherence. Hence, the representations or set of representations that do not comply with this have to be somehow ‘translated’ to fit these terms.

In terms of psychical systems, the Ucs representations have to be translated into Pcs representations.

We translate Ucs (thing-)representations[25] (Sachvorstellungen) into Pcs (object-)representations (Objektvorstellungen) by connecting them with word-representations (Wortvorstellungen)[26].

Taking the risk of oversimplifying, what happens in this process is the following:

The thing-representations (Sachvorstellungen) are unstable in that their unity is very fluid, depending on their elements having occurred simultaneously in the past and/or their elements being causally linked to some experience of satisfaction (or pain).

Occasionally then, different elements of different situations may cluster together, regardless of their mutually contradictory attributes. Operating at the background, in parallel and unconsciously, that does not pose any problem.

On the other hand, being so context-dependent, once the context is changed, so are their connections. As the subject’s experiences accumulate, the multiplication of possible combinations becomes staggering, none of which has a strong enough ‘glue’ to provide a (more) permanent unity for any such Ucs representation.

With the Pcs ‘translation’, however, a whole new thing happens. By now becoming attached to word-representations (Wortvorstellungen), the previously fluid representations can obtain a far more stable unity, a kind unity that, although still context-dependent, is language-dependent (therefore community-dependent), therefore free(r) from the always-mutating idiosyncratic context.

More than that: by means of this conceptual unity, the ‘newly born’ representations automatically pass the test of consistency, getting to rid themselves of mutually contradictory elements and so becoming able to become conscious[27].

Being linked with word-presentations is not yet the same thing as being conscious, but only makes it possible to become so; so it is therefore characteristic of the system Pcs and of the system alone (Freud, 1915, p. 202-3).

With that distinction, we see, we gain more insight into Freud’s theory, for now we have a means to attach different properties to the different kinds of contents (representations) that each of the psychical system (Ucs and Pcs) possesses.


(f). The problem of ‘meaning-transference’.

About Freud’s thesis that consciousness is only of qualities, Natsoulas wrote:

“On the face of it, the latter thesis suggests that we are not conscious of meaningful sounds as meaningful in general and specifically; that is, we are not conscious of their meanings but only of their qualities. This surely cannot be what Freud meant to claim, but his theory may imply it (Natsoulas, 1985, p. 200).

“Freud considered conscious thoughts meaningful, his theory requires their meaning be transferred to them from unconscious thoughts, which transpire, outside the perception-consciousness system, but the theory does not make this transfer possible” (Natsoulas, 2002, p. 281).

This is a problem that is raised only if we stick to the idea of consciousness as a true system, therefore requiring the unconscious contents to somehow physically enter consciousness so they can “transfer” their meaningfulness. Or, that is impossible, hence the problem.

However, once consciousness is no longer a true system, the problem gets quickly dissolved.

Indeed, as we saw in the section (b), the same content can be either conscious or nonconscious, depending on how it gets cathected. And it gets ‘properly’ cathected depending on how the content in question relates to the ego’s priorities of allocation of energy.

So, the meaning of the content remains attached to its nonconscious origin (either unconscious or preconscious), and the fact of that content becoming conscious does not interfere at all in that respect.

As we can see, this clearly represents no puzzle at all within our approach.


Final words

It is our understanding that this solution to the problem of consciousness might reveal itself as a very powerful tool to guide both the student and the knowledgeable researcher through Freud’s works. Rid of the paradox that consciousness-as-a-system instates, the reader may reassess the proper relations and interconnections between the Ucs and the Pcs, as well as get a renewed perspective on how the energy and drives flow within the psychical apparatus.

Allowing myself to give my own testimony here, I have no hesitation in saying that this new configuration of the psychical apparatus has helped me – and my students – to unlock many doors to a better comprehension of the psychoanalytical theory.

I would also want to take the opportunity to let the reader know that I am open to any comments, suggestions, or criticisms about this article[28]. It is my belief that through a constant dialog with each other we can make better and faster progress. Thank you.






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[1] Naturally, Natsoulas is not alone in his praising of Freud’s conception of consciousness. David Rapaport, for example, wrote: “I would like to point out that whether the theory proposed by Freud is valid or not, the very program it implies… is one of his most significant and most overlooked contributions to psychological theory” (Rapaport, 1960, p. 227:.apud Natsoulas, 1991, p. 70).

[2] A small but important observation: although we intend to define and explain every concept we use here, having read beforehand some of Natsoulas’ articles and, most importantly, Freud’s Project of 1895 is definitely something will help the reader to fully understand and profit from the solution here proposed.

[3] Professor David Livingstone Smith’s book — Freud’s Philosophy of the Unconscious — can be mentioned as one remarkable example.

[4] Indeed, Natsoulas opted differently. “In general, I have not pursued [here]… another large topic pertaining to Freud’s theory of consciousness, namely, what consciousness accomplishes, why it exists at all. I leave this topic for a future article (…) (Natsoulas 1985, p. 209).

[5] Evidently, consciousness as “function” will be preserved.

[6] Understandably, his first two articles are titled after this distinction.

[7] This is certainly not a coincidence. As Strachey noted: “what is particularly remarkable is the closeness with which some of the earlier sections of the present work follow the ‘Project for a Scientific Psychology’” (Editor’s Note to”Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, in Freud 1920, p. 5).

[8] “Let us therefore attribute the differences not to the neurones but to the quantities with which they have to deal” (Freud, 1895, 304).

[9] Freud says that all neurones possess ‘contact-barriers’ (Kontaktschranke), which would be responsible for the retention of Q. The fundamental difference between the two systems would then be that the contact barriers in PHI remain unchanged — that is, they offer no resistance to the passage of Q — whereas in PSI they are altered, and permanently so. Therefore, only PSIis a mnemonic system (cf. Freud 1895, p. 299-300).

[10] An important note: the system of neurones PHI serves for perception, but, properly speaking, it is not the responsible for it. PHI is only responsible for receiving the external stimuli (and transfer their periods). The system which is responsible for perception (and consciousness) is the system OMEGA.

[11] OMEGA pallium neurones.

[12] “Wishful cathexis to the point of hallucination [and] complete generation of unpleasure which involves a complete expenditure of defence are described by us as psychical primary processes” (Freud, 1895, pp. 326-7).

[13] The actual inhibition will be performed by a cathected ego. Cf. infra.

[14] Indeed, the passages where those concepts are mentioned are numerous. Cf., for instance:

Freud, 1915, p. 188: “(…) the existence of two different states of cathectic energy in mental life: one in which the energy is tonically ‘bound’ and the other in which it is freely mobile and presses towards discharge”; Freud, 1920, Beyond, p. 26. “(…) the elements of the system Cs. would carry no bound energy but only energy capable of free discharge”;

Freud, 1920, p. 63: “And there seems to be no doubt whatever that the unbound or primary processes give rise to far more intense feelings in both directions than the bound or secondary ones”; and last but not least:

Freud, 1938, p. 164: “We seem to recognize that nervous or psychical energy occurs in two forms, one freely mobile and another, by comparison, bound ; we speak of cathexes and hypercathexes of psychical material, and even venture to suppose that a hypercathexis brings about a kind of synthesis of different processes—a synthesis in the course of which free energy is transformed into bound energy”; and

Freud, 1938, p. 199: Its [the ego’s] psychological function consists in raising the passage [of events] in the id to a higher dynamic level (perhaps by transforming freely mobile energy into bound energy, such as corresponds to the preconscious state)”.

[15] Only in a next article will we be able to fully develop this idea. It implies distinguishing a territory of the instincts (drives, Triebe) before and after being captured in or transformed by the psychical apparatus. Before, it is the instincts in their purely intensive (somatic) aspect. After, it is the instincts already captured in the network of (psychical) facilitations, having already their destiny influenced by the individual experiences. It includes hence the identification of the instincts (drives, Triebe) with the endogenous Q in its free state, before being bound and/or captured in the network of facilitations. On the other hand, their representatives would henceforth be the circulating Q in the psychical apparatus (affect) and the cathected neurones or mnemic images (representations).

[16] Whose neurones, we should remember, were supposed to be originally identical and whose functional differences should be explained quantitatively or mechanically.

[17] An alternative solution to this is to say that the withdrawal of the ego cathexes entails the motor paralysis. That is, the ego would not have to ‘know’ that or when one is asleep. The motor paralysis would not happen as the result of a ‘decision’ made by the ego, but would merely be a direct causal consequence of the unloading of its cathexes. Nevertheless, this does not alter the moral drawn from what follows.

[18] Mainly but not exclusively. Obviously qualitative information not directed related to the experiences of either satisfaction or pain is also appropriated by the psychical apparatus. Nonetheless it is not inappropriate to say that all information is, in a way or another, scanned having as the primary aim to help the psychical apparatus to rid itself of Q.

[19] A plausible explanation for this is that a current within certain boundaries would activate only some of those qualitative aspects, not all.

[20]“By” in the case of remembering (the cathexis excites the qualitative aspects previously registered); “to” in the case of a perception (fresh periods coming from PHI attracts the freely mobile energy to those qualitative information).

[21] In a next article, we will try to establish the close connection (if not full identity) between PSI pallium and the Pcs, between PSI nucleus and the Ucs.

[22] This whole section will be further developed so it can get a final redaction before sending out the paper.

[23] Naturally, the assessment as to what is appropriate or relevant is a complex matter, having to do with the delicate balance between the different pressures the psychical apparatus faces.

[24] “And there seems to be no doubt whatever that the unbound or primary processes give rise to far more intense feelings in both directions than the bound or secondary ones”.

[25] Although the English canonical translation for the terms Sachvorstellungen, Objektvorstellungen and Wortvorstellungen is, respectively, thing-presentation, object-presentation and word-presentation, we will use here thing-representation, object-representation and word-representation. The case for departing from the mentioned translation will be made in a next article.

[26] “The question ‘How does a thing become conscious?’ would thus be more advantageously stated: ‘How does a thing become preconscious?’ And the answer would be: ‘Through becoming connected with the word-presentations corresponding to it’” (Freud, 1923, p. 20).

[27] Unconscious representations may get conscious, as it happens in dreams. In that case, though, their eventual contradictory elements get ‘condensed’, so it may pass the ‘test of consistency’. That is why, when remembering certain dreams, we say things like: “I was talking to X, but X looked like Y and was dressed like Z”. By describing the dreams like this, what we are actually doing is dismembering the contradictory elements that had to be fused to become conscious. In waking time, naturally, that fusion is not allowed.

[28] My email:

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