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The function of attention

The notion of attention is an old psychoanalytic concept that deserves to be reinstated. It is somewhat surprising that it is so rarely referred to in the psychoanalytic literature. It seems to me that there are two reasons for this: the first is that the concept of attention is largely utilised outside of the realms of metapsychology and psychoanalysts are, quite rightly, wary of utilising concepts that have been defined in areas other than their own; the second reason is that attention is traditionally seen as being linked to consciousness, and that conscious mental activity is not the principal domain of psychoanalytic investigation. I shall, however, shortly propose introducing the concept of unconscious attention.

In the Project for a Scientific Psychology, Freud (1895) defined attention as a hypercathexis of the indications of quality. The indications of quality are perceived by the ю neurones, but the energy that allows them to be hypercathected comes from the у neurones. He attributes to attention the function of expectation: it has the task of monitoring the indications of quality which come from perception in order to anticipate the cathexes of wishes. Using this model, Freud draws a distinction between what he calls ordinary thought and observing thought. Ordinary thought is directed towards finding the satisfying object. Observing thought relies upon the function of attention, only now this is directed towards the internal world rather than towards the external world and the perceptions. Observing thought corresponds to the state of the investigator who has made a perception and asks himself, "What does this mean? What does this lead to?" Later, Freud extends the function of attention to mnemic cathexes which are linked by association to perceptual cathexes. In addition to having a function that is directed externally, attention also has a function that is directed internally, to the intrapsychic world. This consists of a function that is concerned with the exploration of this internal world and of a search for significance: "What does this mean?" At no point in his later writings does Freud ever go quite so far in developing his theory of attention.

In the Traumdeutung (1899-1900), Freud attributes to attention the function of allowing communication between the Preconscious and Consciousness:

We will describe the last of the systems at the motor end as "the preconscious", to indicate that the excitatory processes occurring in it can enter consciousness without further impediment provided that certain other conditions are fulfilled: for instance, that they reach a certain degree of intensity, that the function which can only be described as "attention” is distributed in a particular way, and so on. (Freud, 1900, p. 341)

Only one aspect of the function of attention now remains, that of reinforcement of psychic phenomena. Here Freud accords to attention the specific task of enabling the passage of psychic contents from the Preconscious to consciousness. This is, however, inconsistent with the notion of unconscious attention and this no doubt led him subsequently to abandon the theory of attention which he had developed in the Project, as the editor of the French edition of the work has highlighted.

It is in the Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning that Freud comes back to his most detailed exploration of the concept of attention:

A special function was instituted which had periodically to search the external world, in order that its data might be familiar already if an urgent internal need should arise—the function of attention. Its activity meets the sense-impressions half way, instead of awaiting their appearance. At the same time, probably, a system of notation was introduced, whose task it was to lay down the results of this periodical activity of consciousness—a part of what we call memory.

(1911, p. 220)

Freud is here in retreat from his theory of attention as developed in the Project. He leaves it little scope for the exploration of the intrapsychic world. Note, however, that he insists upon one essential point: the active aspect of the function of attention which "meets the sense-impressions halfway, instead of awaiting their appearance."

Another aspect which is encountered in Freud's work is that of free-floating attention, a term he uses to describe the mental attitude of the psychoanalyst during a session. It seems to me that there is a certain ambiguity about this concept or at least about the interpretation that is sometimes made of it. Freud says two things about it. The first is that it would be too exhausting for the analyst to have to concentrate his attention for hours on end. The second is, that in order to gather material, it is important not to be selective in advance; hence the rather paradoxical concept of free-floating attention. In fact, Freud particularly emphasises the second aspect, that of not making selections from the available material. The saving in terms of exhaustion is merely a useful consequence of the requirement for non-selection. He specifies the need for a kind of attention that is free from the analyst's wishes, a sort of spontaneous attention. Free-floating attention allows the analyst to be in more direct contact with the patient's instinctual life, to clear the way to some degree to the evidence of aspects of instinctual life which manifest themselves in the patient's discourse.

Bion (1970) has extended the function of attention beyond that of sensory reality to apply it to psychic reality, which is not reducible solely to that which may be perceived by the senses. In his book, Attention and Interpretation, he describes attention as the matrix in which the elements of the psyche may come together and combine into a coherent whole. Thus, attention, in Bion's terms, has a dynamic significance. In addition, he describes an interpersonal function of attention. It is the attention that the mother gives to her infant which allows her to receive the communications that are directed to her, and, most particularly, the unconscious communications, the projections, which she has the task of transforming, through her capacity for reverie, into elements capable of being thought about.

Bion, as we know, views this psychological relationship between baby and mother as the prototype of the relationship between analysand and analyst. The analytic relationship involves this same function of tapping into and receiving all the communications of the patient, both conscious and unconscious, within the psychic crucible of attention where elements which previously were not linked or had been unlinked might become linked. It is at this point that I should like to introduce the concept of unconscious attention which I referred to earlier. In Attention and Interpretation, Bion (1970) recommends that the analyst should be without memory and desire. However, if one reads the text carefully it becomes apparent that while he recommends putting aside all conscious memory, he does distinguish dream-like memory from conscious memory. If, at the beginning of a session, the therapist brings to mind such or such an event from the patient's history and seeks to interpret the material in the light of that recollection, he runs the risk of creating a barrier to the unconscious communications that might be communicated during the session. If, on the other hand, during the course of the session such or such an event comes, unpremeditated, into the analyst's mind whilst he is listening attentively to his patient, arising from a process of association in the analyst's mind, then this constitutes a dream-like memory which is particularly valuable for the analytic work of elaboration and interpretation.

I am therefore suggesting that, beyond conscious attention, there is an unconscious attention, a sort of passive-attentive receptivity that allows the analysand's latent communications to gather and take shape within the analyst's psyche.

In my view, the extension of psychoanalytic work to young children has contributed to a shift in the emphasis. The emphasis on the analysis of ego defences has shifted towards a highlighting of the importance of attention in the therapeutic process. Children are, in fact, extraordinarily eager for adult attention and indeed there are those, whose mental growth is halted by some pathological process, who may take off again solely because of the attention they receive. Infant observation shows us, perhaps better than any other method, the importance of this function of attention for psychic development. The observer must, I believe, bring into play both of the types of attention that I have described, conscious attention and unconscious attention.

Conscious attention corresponds to the concept of observation itself: it involves one's senses being in as alert a state as possible (particularly sight and hearing) in order to gather the maximal amount of data about the behaviour of the infant, his mimicry, his muscular tension and relaxation, his gestures, his vocalisations, his eye movements, and so on; it also involves close observation of the interactions between the baby and his carers, and lending an ear to hear all that they may have to say. However, Esther Bick's method is not reducible to such an exercise in closely sustained conscious attention. Rather, it is the observer's own psyche which is the privileged instrument for collecting data, an instrument that no machine can replace, and it is this which gives the method its specificity and originality. Now, though, rather than an exercise in concentration upon this or that data, what is required is an exercise in putting things in parentheses, or on hold, to allow the maximum degree of mental receptivity, including most particularly a receptivity towards that which, at the time, might appear to be lacking in importance or significance. It is necessary, therefore, for the observer to make the effort to be non-selective just as Freud recommended to those practising analysis when he spoke of free- floating attention. The result of this effort is that the observer will become receptive to implicit communications, which will gather in his mind more or less without his knowledge, in a way very similar to the implicit communications picked up by the psychoanalyst in the analysis, through his counter-transference. Such communications are, of course, absolutely essential to the ability to analyse the situation, to understand the primitive modes of communication occurring between the infant and its care-givers, and, in the event, to being able to help the participants to negotiate developmental crises.

The therapeutic application of Bick's method eloquently illustrates the importance of combining these two forms of attention, despite their more or less contradictory character. I am at times disquieted when I hear the term "Infant Observation" sometimes applied solely to conscious attention or observation. The observation then becomes exaggeratedly "objective", and takes place as if the observer entertained the illusion that he can gather pure facts and from them reconstruct the unconscious of the infant, and even of its parents. This is to forget the fact that, of necessity, we are already succumbing to making interpretations even as we gather data and a fortiori as we seek to ascribe significance to them. I believe that the observer must be like Bion's analyst: without desire (other than being as attentive and receptive as possible)—without memory (other than the dream-like memories which might occur to him during the course of the observation or the seminar group)—without understanding (other than that which might arise when K links are spontaneously generated between the elements that he has gathered). To achieve this I believe he must allow himself to be open to those implicit communications that reach him without his knowledge, and that he gathers not through his conscious attention but through what I have called his unconscious attention.

If Infant Observation constitutes a kind of laboratory for trying out this function of attention and its therapeutic effects, one must not restrict those effects to observation and its applications alone. I have indicated above that I believe it is responsible for the psychoanalysis of children having developed in the direction of a greater receptivity to manifest and latent communications from the child, and, particularly, the latter. The function of attention has taken a central place in the work of the child analyst. I would add that it should occupy an equally large place in any therapeutic endeavour, be it individual, group, family therapy or institutional therapeutic consultation. Clearly it is not possible to offer a child such sustained attention for days on end, and it is therefore necessary to establish carefully defined therapeutic settings, within which both conscious and unconscious attention can he deployed with all the necessary scope and effectiveness. The therapist also requires the benefit of a supervisor or a seminar group which will allow him to process the communications he has received, often without his knowledge, which may otherwise agglomerate within his mental apparatus to the point of threatening him with being overwhelmed and unable to be receptive to further communications.

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