The Primary Process: Freud’s Profound Yet Neglected Contribution to the Psychology of Consciousness

by Michael Robbins, MD



The primary process model is part of Freud’s struggle to define and distinguish conscious and unconscious mental activity. He created two embryonic models of unconscious mind. One he derived from studying symptoms of dynamic repression or sequestration of content already capable of symbolic mental representation. The other, the primary process, is his landmark effort to define a mental activity different from reflective representational thought, derived from studying dreaming. He could not clearly separate the repression model, as it is also based on the primary process. He vacillated as to whether the primary process is qualitatively different from representational symbolic thought. His efforts to articulate preconscious mentation suggest an ambiguous gray area between conscious thought and the primary process. Although he concluded that the primary process is unconscious because it is not intrinsically reflective, its manifestations are psychologically conscious and directly evident except in the physiologically unconscious state of dreaming. Similar problems color the efforts of others including Klein, Matte-Blanco, and theorists of attachment and implicit learning to separate conscious and unconscious mind and to articulate a model of mental function different from reflective consciousness. A model of conscious mental activity different from reflective representational consciousness, called primordial consciousness, is proposed to account for a wide spectrum of human phenomena both normal and pathological that share characteristics of immediacy and belief. They include, in addition to dreaming, psychosis, creativity, spirituality, and mental process in non-western cultures.

Link to Online Publication [fulltext can be requested from the library].

Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 38(3):186-197, April 2018.


Michael Robbins was formerly Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, McLean Hospital, and UCSF at Langley-Porter Hospital. He is a member of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and International Psychoanalytic Association. He is author of four books, most recently Consciousness, Language, and Self (2018), and numerous articles, book chapters and reviews. He currently lives and practices in Amherst, Massachusetts.



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