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Int J Psychoanal 2006;87:1509–27

Dream interpretation, affect, and the

theory of neuronal group selection:
Freud, Winnicott, Bion, and Modell

536 Pleasant St, Belmont, MA 02478, USA — wshields@3b.com
(Final version accepted 28 February 2006)

The author uses a dream specimen as interpreted during psychoanalysis to illustrate

Modell’s hypothesis that Edelman’s theory of neuronal group selection (TNGS)
may provide a valuable neurobiological model for Freud’s dynamic unconscious,
imaginative processes in the mind, the retranscription of memory in psychoanalysis,
and intersubjective processes in the analytic relationship. He draws parallels
between the interpretation of the dream material with keen attention to affect-laden
meanings in the evolving analytic relationship in the domain of psychoanalysis and
the principles of Edelman’s TNGS in the domain of neurobiology. The author notes
how this correlation may underscore the importance of dream interpretation in
psychoanalysis. He also suggests areas for further investigation in both realms based
on study of their interplay.

Keywords: affect categories, dream interpretation, dream thoughts, holding

environment, imagination, memory retranscription, Nachträglichkeit, neural
substrate, theory of neuronal group selection, unconscious metaphoric cognition

The body is both the initial source and the sustaining source of an autonomous imagination.
(Modell, 2003, p. 69)

Noting links with Nachträglichkeit, Freud’s early theory of memory, Modell (1990,
1993, 2003) has observed and described in detail how the theory of neuronal group
selection (TNGS) of Edelman (1987, 1992, 1998, 2004; Edelman and Tononi,
2000) may provide a major new neurobiological correlate for perception, memory,
and the imaginative meaning-building activity of the mind as explored in psycho-
analysis. In this paper I attempt to explore Modell’s observation by considering
potential parallels between the interpretation of a single dream specimen and the
TNGS. The clinical example from the analysis of Mr. A focuses on processes
during dream interpretation that facilitated the retranscription of Mr. A’s internal-
ized problematic early relationship experiences that were linked with inhibitions
in his subsequent life. I conclude that the TNGS may emphasize the unique value
of dream interpretation in the opportunity for recontextualization of memory and
change in psychoanalysis when there is keen attention to affective meanings in the
evolving analytic relationship.

©2006 Institute of Psychoanalysis


I review the principal features of the TNGS, present and discuss a dream
specimen, and then provide a schematic ‘cross-walk’ to summarize multiple poten-
tial bridges between subjective and intersubjective phenomena as observed in Mr.
A’s analysis and elements of Edelman’s neurobiological theory. Examination of such
bridges may lead to important questions for further inquiry in both neurobiology
and psychoanalysis.
Many reviewers, including Reiser (1984, 1990, 1999), Westen and Gabbard
(2002), Gabbard (2005), and Tyson (2003), have appreciated important recent
convergence with psychoanalysis among the fields of cognitive behavioral science,
neuroscience, and developmental research concerning the infant–mother relation-
ship. Many previous models of the brain have adhered to the presupposition of
isomorphic representation in brain of information in mind. Such linear models
may allow for study of certain types of motor and perceptual phenomena but not
allow for the richly indeterminate and at times unpredictable functions of memory,
phantasy, perception, and most particularly creative imagination (Modell, 2003).
By contrast, based on an overview of multiple empirical studies in neurophysiology,
Edelman (1987, 1989, 1992) emphasizes the value of considering the brain as a
complex, self-reflective, and open system that operates and evolves according to
the biological principle of selective adaptive processes in nature. He notes the brain
includes a vast number of interconnected participant elements in continual adaptive
interaction not only with the outside world but also in recurrent interplay with each
other. He describes over 30 billion neurons in the cerebral cortex alone … with one
million billion synapses in continual reciprocal interaction and recurrent revision
with themselves, with other neurons, neuronal mappings, as well as engaged in
interplay with the outside world (2004, pp. 15–6). Edelman calls this phenomenon
of recurrent millisecond-by-millisecond reciprocal interplay ‘reentry’. He believes
reentry to be the unique feature of the human brain. Because of this phenomenon
involving an enormous number of elements throughout the brain that respond
over and over within milliseconds to their own interactions, the functioning of the
neuronal groups in Edelman’s TNGS is particularly compatible with the brand of
mathematics called dynamical systems theory or non-linear systems theory that
deals with equations that consider the action of components upon themselves in
evolution within any complex system (Galatzer-Levy, 1995, 2004; Moran, 1991).
Since Edelman’s theory may comprehend such a dynamic interplay of innumerable
variables within a single, self-reflective, adaptive and evolving neurophysiologic
structure in its environment, the TNGS may have a unique capacity to portray at
the level of brain the richly variable and often surprising characteristics of human
memory, phantasy, perception, and creative imagination (Changeux, 1997; Changeux
and Connes, 1995; Davis, 2002; Edelman, 1987, 1998, 2004; Edelman and Tononi,
2000; Freeman, 1995, 1999; Modell, 1990, 1993, 2003; Tyson, 2003).
Since Edelman’s theory is a ‘selectionist’ theory and not a ‘design’ or ‘informa-
tion’ theory with a concealed homunculus, it is also able to describe the continual
emergence of unique, one-of-a-kind, interactive individuals over time in the envi-
ronment. It describes evolution of individual human brains, as open systems, that
interact within their entire ecological surroundings from conception until death.

Selection consists of adaptive value-laden choices that are made sequentially from a
diverse population of alternatives over somatic time. Perception, memory, identity,
and evolving individual intentionality are closely related as the individual adapts
within his or her environment. In parallel with Freud’s early theory of memory,
Nachträglichkeit or ‘re-transcription’ (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1973; Modell, 1990,
p. 18), Edelman’s theory of memory consists of the selective recategorization of
input from earlier experience based on value-laden principles of choice during fresh
perceptual experience. Rather than a closed file of stored information, memory
consists of a structure that may potentially evolve while also maintaining a sense
of its own coherence as autobiography through evolutionary processes of neuronal
group selection within the brain.
Our clinical experience as analysts has led us to knowledge of an unconscious
metaphoric cognitive process that influences all activities of mind, both conscious
and unconscious. Edelman concludes that selection and not logic underlies pattern
recognition as the most basic function of the human mind. He maintains the brain
is not like a computer carrying out sequences of logical operations. Instead, he
states, while the mind may engage in useful logical operations from time to time,
the fundamental operation of mind is pattern recognition, selectionism, or thinking
in metaphorical terms (Edelman and Tononi, 2000, pp. 213–4).
To account for consciousness, Edelman has proposed his hypothesis of ‘the
dynamic core’, a functional cluster of interactive neuronal connections in the
thalamo-cortical system that fire in multiple, millisecond-by-millisecond reentrant
interactions. He proposes this dynamic core ‘entails consciousness’. Consciousness
and the activity of the dynamic core of the brain are coincident. In other words,
though the dynamic core and consciousness may exist in separate domains of our
knowable experience, in his view it is impossible to have one without the other.
While Edelman has not yet proposed a specific neurophysiologic structure to
account for the activity and influence of the unconscious metaphoric cognitive
process of the mind, the dynamic unconscious of Freud, I believe such a structure
to be quite consistent with his theory. In fact, Edelman does refer to the impact of
neuronal correlates for ‘non-conscious’ mental activity in a general sense and even
for ‘dissociative’ processes as might be observed in hysteria (2004, p. 143).
For the purpose of this paper, to explore the application of the TNGS to the
interpretation of dreams, I propose we imagine just such a hypothetical neuronal
structure to correlate with the dynamic unconscious as it is known through psycho-
analysis. Modell notes the neurobiologist Changeux (1997), ‘who also is committed
to a neuronal selectionist theory’ (Modell, 2003, pp. 34–5), has suggested a neural
substrate for the imaginative activity of mind consisting of spontaneously oscilla-
tory neurons in the prefrontal cortex capable of recombining with themselves to
enable exploration of diverse options as well as selection of new combinations.
Since we may believe the activity of the unconscious metaphoric cognitive process
to be continuous during life and to be broadly linked with systems of perception,
memory, symbolization, cognition, and their imaginative interplay, I suggest for the
purposes of this paper that we consider the correlate for the dynamic unconscious
to be ‘a global network’ of millisecond-by-millisecond recurrent and reentrant

neuronal interaction to describe the diffuse nature of its potential connectivity. Since
we assume this network must underlie all other processes, we may call it ‘primary’.
Since it must exist in interplay and selective dialogue with other systems, we may
refer to it as ‘dynamic’. Since it entails both an overview function whose essence
is to recognize similarity in the midst of difference in all subsystems as well as
unity within the entirety of the system as a whole, it may well involve prefrontal,
cortico-cortical connections. However, since it must also link closely with the func-
tions of memory and emotion, I suggest the importance of limbic connections in its
moment-to-moment spontaneous activity. Therefore, in my discussion of Mr. A’s
dream and its interpretation, I refer to a ‘primary, global, cortico-limbic, dynamic
network’ as the neuronal correlate for Mr. A’s dynamic unconscious (dynamic
network/unconscious). We may imagine this system to have intermittent contact
and influence over the activity of the thalamo-cortical dynamic core, as described by
Edelman, the neuronal correlate for Mr. A’s experience of consciousness (dynamic
Modell (1990, 2003) observes three major factors as he makes the link between
psychoanalysis and Edelman’s TNGS: first, the importance of affect as the critical
signal in the clinical experience of retranscription of memory in psychoanalysis
and of ‘affect categories’ to represent value-laden selection signals for neuronal
memory groupings in the TNGS; second, the significance of the psychoanalytic
situation as a stimulus for the symbolic reactualization of affective meanings from
relationships during early development and for imagination in the recontextual-
ization of experience; third, the potential power of the unconscious metaphoric
cognitive process throughout development … a capacity that may become blocked
as a result of emotional trauma, as in the case of Mr. A, but reawakened to enable
the retranscription of memory during psychoanalysis and selective recategoriza-
tion of neuronal groups.

Dream specimen
I have chosen a dream reported in analysis as only a single image to emphasize the
potential evocative and transformative power of even one manifest dream image
when there is attention to the affective significance of the dream in the evolving
analytic relationship during the exploration of associations to the dream material.
Mr. A, a middle-aged businessman with a timid manner, sought analysis because of
limited success in business ventures. For the first 2 years of his analysis, Mr. A
spoke about his life with quiet detachment. Furthermore, despite his continuing narra-
tions, Mr. A disregarded my presence once he had begun on the couch. He brought
dream material but with little depth of feeling or thematic continuity. I commented
how he seemed to keep his feelings at a distance from both of us, particularly after
weekends. At first he seemed startled on hearing such observations from me. Then,
as he was leaving a session, he noted I was leaning forward in my chair holding my
head in my hands as I listened to him and thought about the session. The subsequent
day he spoke of his amazement to observe that I was so intent on what he had
been saying to me during the previous session. He had anticipated something very

different … as if I would have been like some remote figure from his early life. As
time passed, Mr. A began to realize the extent to which he had buried his feelings
not only from others but also from himself. As he became more familiar with a focus
on his inner experience, he reported the discovery of an inner sense of dread and
lost-ness about his life that he often sought to keep at bay by detachment as if he had
no access to landmarks that felt hopeful or real. He spoke of how his own dreams
seemed to him like a liberal education, ‘a pleasant luxury but of no value in the real
world of money and hard science’.
Then, after many months, Mr. A came dramatically into a session to announce
a dream that had frightened him, even though he felt bewilderment and deep shame
concerning its content. He had learned the importance of feelings in our work and
therefore had decided to bring the dream, though he felt very uneasy about the
consequences. As he first reported the dream, it consisted of only one image, a
bright-red scorpion suspended before Mr. A in the midst of darkness. There was
nothing else in the manifest content, except the scorpion before him. He reported for
a moment he was afraid the scorpion was threatening him. But Mr. A had realized
with a deep sense of conviction the image was instead a reflection of himself in a
new and important way. Mr. A spoke of his belief the scorpion with a poisonous tail
represented total lack of human compassion. Yet he now reported a strange kinship
with this scorpion, the feeling that this image mirrored a quality within himself. It
was a quality he had never fully dared to allow himself to acknowledge … his own
capacity to disregard the humanity of others, an utterly destructive inclination within
himself. He said cautiously, had he not been in analysis, he would have disregarded
this dream with shame or fear and forgotten it.
As Mr. A spoke, I appreciated his fear and shame and yet also felt a growing
interest in his every word. Now there was something vivid emerging in the room
between us not only about Mr. A’s dream but also about Mr. A and myself. Mr. A
began to wonder what such a dream might mean concerning what he considered
the shameful, hateful, poisonous and inhuman qualities within himself. He spoke
of how he could not brush this dream off as ‘only a dream’. It felt strangely ‘real’
though still a dream. Now, he was fearful that I might see him as a deeply troubled
man. He wondered if I might decide ‘to throw him out of the analysis’. I offered in
response that ‘it wasn’t how troubling the dream might seem but could we find a
way to explore it further?’
Mr. A began to report a series of links with evident growing interest and curi-
osity. He mentioned first a trip to San Antonio the previous winter for a business
meeting. He had visited a historic mission church in the company of a much older
female business colleague who had been a favorite mentor during his years at
business school. While exploring the church together, they had overheard a stern
Spanish priest give a sermon concerning a scorpion to a small gathering of Mexican-
American parishioners. In a distinctive voice that had carried far through the nave
of the mission, first in Spanish and then in English, the priest had admonished,
‘God placed the scorpion on this earth for a reason!’ Mr. A recalled the uncanny
and disquieting resonance of the moment yet found himself delighted to find this
particular link in his memory with a beloved mentor. Now, as he spoke further of the

dream, he described feeling less alone but also like a very young child responding
to the stern voice of the priest and haunted by the image of the scorpion with its
intimation of danger and stark, relentless destructiveness without forgiveness.
I continued to listen quietly. Now Mr. A began to speak with heightened energy.
He had thought of a further link … the story of the frog and the scorpion told by a
character from a movie he had seen recently, The crying game. In this movie Mr. A
recalled startling scenes of brutal violence. He reported the movie included scenes
of men who cross-dressed as women with an undercurrent of intense yearning for
love. ‘Why do you sting me as I carry you across the river on my back if you know
we both will drown?’ asked the frog of the scorpion. ‘Because it’s my nature,’ said
the scorpion. Mr. A began to wonder still more in the analytic hour how the scorpion
might represent his own nature, his own inclination to inflict a poisonous sting.
Horrified, Mr. A spoke over and over how the devastating destructiveness of the
scorpion could be in him. He had a force within himself that might seek to destroy
the very person who might carry him to a new place. In a flash he began to connect
with feelings about me as his analyst. He spoke of my large house and my profes-
sional accomplishments, and began to acknowledge his longstanding envy of my
achievements. He began to speak over and over of how he felt both intimidated and
hatefully envious of me. At times he believed he hated me for what he perceived
as my power. As he spoke, I felt relief as if after a long drought. Though Mr. A was
evidently full of desperation, he also seemed more alive than ever before and he
seemed to recognize that change in himself as well.
Later, I reflected about the innumerable potential themes within Mr. A’s associa-
tions including quite simply his awe and terror as he began to recognize the power
of his own unconscious emotional life in the midst of our relationship. I wondered
about Mr. A’s declaration of his fond involvement with an older woman and his fear
of stern judgment should he act in accord with his own nature or desire in relation to
her. Did the scorpion represent Mr. A’s inner perception of the meaning of his own
phallic potential for pleasure, aggression, and/or creativity? There were also hints of
bisexual erotic and violent impulses as well as a taste for self-destructive masochism.
Mr. A might be both the scorpion and the frog … both he who poisons and he who
asks to be stung. Perhaps the scorpion and the frog were echoes of an earlier object
tie. At this moment, however, we were greeted by the surface of Mr. A’s discovery
of intense destructive impulses in himself and associated feelings of envy and hatred
for me. We now had access to long-operative and previously inhibiting covert phan-
tasies in Mr. A. In his earlier life, such passions were not allowable and were either
buried, or led through the operation of covertly influential phantasy to destructive
and/or self-destructive outcomes. I chose silent listening in response to allow Mr. A
to proceed with his discoveries rather than to intrude with my own hypotheses before
he led both of us further along the path.

A ‘primal’ memory beneath the dream

Over many ensuing months of analysis, Mr. A returned often to link the story of
the scorpion and the frog from his dream with recollections of similar relation-
ship patterns in his early life, in ongoing outside relationships, and still further with

regard to his internal affective experience of his relationship with me in the analytic
hours. His associations proceeded layer by layer and often started with the image
of the scorpion from the dream. Mr. A recalled what he called ‘a poisonous’ pattern
of erotic seduction and overwhelming stimulation by his mother in his early child-
hood in the midst of her periods of depression as well as the non-availability of his
alcoholic father. He recalled his own paralyzing frustration, rage and withdrawal in
response. Continuing to reflect on the metaphor of the scorpion and the frog, Mr. A
wondered how he might have repetitively reactualized such a pattern in his later life
either by withholding emotional engagement or by inviting overstimulating interac-
tion with idealized others that eventually led to humiliation, rejection, or abusive
interactions. He wondered how his pattern of withholding affective engagement
with me in his analytic hours might have contained both defensive and expressive
elements … including his envious, hateful wish to sting me or to provoke punitive
treatment or rejection in return as a means of managing intolerable anxiety about
yearnings for contact and connection.
Then finally, Mr. A became more and more curious about the image of the bright-
red scorpion itself. He recalled his own possessive love and attachment to his mother
from his earliest childhood years. Steadily he began to link the image of the scorpion
with a memory from early childhood in which he surprised his parents while they
were curled together under their blankets in their bedroom. Suddenly, though naked,
his father leaped out from under the covers and stood before him. For a vivid instant,
Mr. A witnessed his father’s penis. Awestruck and terrified, Mr. A immediately fled
the room. As we explored this association, Mr. A recognized he had interrupted
his parents during a sexual act. He wondered if the vivid image of the bright-red
scorpion with its dangerous extended tail in his dream represented a transformation
brought to the present of his then fearful impression of his father’s penis during the
terrifying instant when he fled his parents’ bedroom. The body of the scorpion repre-
sented scrotum and testicles. Its threatening tail stood for his childhood vision of his
father’s penis which he had perceived as enormous, deadly, and awesome in power.
After I acknowledged the deadly nature of the interaction between the scorpion and
the frog in his associations, Mr. A recalled yet another memory dating from an early
childhood trip with both parents. During this trip, while clinging possessively to
his mother’s hand, Mr. A had seen the charred remains of a nearby house, evidently
destroyed by fire, including what appeared to be a single brass bed still standing in
the midst of the remains. He recalled his desperate fear that he had seen a dead body
lying on this bed. I asked about the body. He was convinced it was a vision of his
father’s body … as if he had imagined his father had fallen asleep while smoking in
bed and had died after burning the house down around him. We considered together
Mr. A’s wish beneath this fear.
Progressively Mr. A was able to return to these themes and make links with his
outside life as well as making comparisons and contrasts concerning his current expe-
rience with me in the room. In particular, Mr. A linked ambition, the activity of mind
and the activity of penises. He again began enviously to compare his mind and accom-
plishments with mine. I reminded him that a mind was not a penis. He then noted with
some relief that we both had minds which, though different, were both good minds;

each might find application in its own useful way in the world. In short, we were able
to study such ideas, feelings and experiences together as a reflective, imaginative, and
even enjoyable enterprise of mutual inquiry. Mr. A’s dream had become a landmark,
an exciting stimulus, and a useful reference for our continuing investigations as we
proceeded further with new feelings of aliveness and vitality in our work.

Discussion of dream specimen in relation to the TNGS

Overall, we may speculate that Mr. A’s dream of the scorpion, like the famous wolf
dream of Freud’s patient (1918), represented a metaphor for an overwhelming child-
hood emotional experience in fact and phantasy of profound and lasting impact.
Both dreams may have described an effort to condense into a vivid image an over-
stimulating, conflict-ridden, primal drama with parental figures from early childhood
that had been impossible to integrate or digest. In each case the dream offered the
opportunity for Nachträglichkeit or retranscription of memory when explored in the
analytic setting … with liberation of the creative potential of the individual’s uncon-
scious metaphoric cognitive process or freeing of libido. Modell suggests Freud’s
old theory of libido may ‘be reinterpreted not as a reflection of instinct but as an
unconscious metaphoric process’ firmly rooted in sensations arising from the body
(2003, p. 70). Mr. A’s dream offered the chance to revisit and reinterpret the symbolic
reactualization of affective meaning immediately within the analytic relationship.
This process may have heralded the beginning of major new evolutionary growth in
Mr. A’s capacity for subsequent emotional engagement throughout his life.
At the level of brain once again, new patterns of neuronal memory groupings
may have become possible following resumption of reentrant signaling. To enable
conscious recognition of the dream we may hypothesize the neural correlate for
Mr. A’s unconscious metaphoric cognitive process … his ‘primary, global, dynamic,
cortico-limbic network’ … became connected with his neuronal correlate for
consciousness, his ‘thalamo-cortical dynamic core’.

Contact with inner wellspring of imagination

Mr. A’s dream led him to conscious contact with his covert yet profoundly influential
world of unconscious phantasy (Issacs, 1948; Spillius, 2001). It brought to life for
him the power of his own unconscious imagination throughout all his experiences.
Mr. A came to discover through the recognition of the meaning-building capacity
of his mind, as illustrated by his dream and related associations, that he was not
merely a passive victim of environmental deprivations and impingements, but rather
an agent, a designer who relentlessly and inevitably created imagery and phantasy
with dramatic implications for subsequent affect-laden experience. Through his
recognition of the power of the scorpion dream, Mr. A discovered ownership and
responsibility for his own phantasy or personal metaphorical and autobiographical
interpretations (Arlow, 1979) that profoundly though unconsciously might influence
future affective experience, memory, perception, and ultimately behavior. At the
level of brain, we may imagine progressive reopening of interplay and interconnec-
tion among his primary, global, dynamic network (dynamic unconscious), his global

mappings in memory, and his dynamic thalamo-cortical core (conscious thought).

Through this process, we may imagine continuing retranscription during further
associations and interpretation of his dream in the analytic hours that followed.

New synthesis out of diversity

The liberation of Mr. A’s associations in response to the imagery of his manifest
dream provided him with multiple potential linkages in memory and subjective
experience. As a result of this capacity to point to new connections, the wisdom of
such a dream often appears mysteriously powerful to the conscious and logical mind
as it did for Mr. A.
Among many examples in The interpretation of dreams (1900), Freud’s well-
known dream of the Botanical Monograph, demonstrated the rich tapestry of vivid
latent material possible in associations to a single, manifest dream metaphor. Freud’s
dream illustrated ‘the dream as unconscious metaphoric process’ and ‘the dream
wish as intended action’ (Modell, 2003, p. 62). In accord with a selectionist theory,
the opportunity for choice from a population of rich variety offers the greatest
potential for flexibility, enrichment, and adaptive evolution in a new synthesis.
Simultaneously, in Mr. A’s brain with the emergence of the dream, we may specu-
late there was expanded range of access to neuronal groupings, reentry, and fresh
pathways for potential resynthesis and global remapping.

Interpretation within the evolving affect-laden intersubjectivity

Close attention to the affective significance of Mr. A’s dream and its interpreta-
tion within the evolving relationship of the analytic dyad (Weiss, 2002) provided a
unique opportunity for both participants to study their own interpersonal process of
collaboration at many levels. Without such immediate affective, value-laden experi-
ence in which old, fixed relationship patterns are reactualized and then explored in a
new context that includes the rich potential for revision offered by dream imagery …
there may not be sufficient impact, depth, or potential signaling influence to enable
significant retranscription and neuronal recategorization of memory.
Residues of early experiences of childhood and associated patterns of behav-
ioral response in relationships remained largely unconscious for Mr. A prior to his
analysis and stored in his embodied, unconscious autobiographical memory as
‘wordless affective metaphors’ (Modell, 2003, p. 45), the unthought known (Bollas,
1987), or implicit relational knowledge [Process of Change Study Group (PCSG),
1998]. These became revived in his relationship with his analyst and then available
for potential retranscription in memory or recategorization in patterns of neuronal
groupings. As noted, early repetitive trauma in Mr. A’s childhood led to inhibitions
in his capacity for emotional engagement and surfaced in his attitude of relative
detachment during the early phases of his analysis (Modell, 1984; Zetzel, 1970).
While Mr. A was capable of many forms of relatedness with others, he had denied
himself deepening affective experiences and thereby limited his capacity for progres-
sive engagement and satisfaction. At the level of brain and the TNGS, his capacity
for the recategorization of neuronal groupings of memory in response to certain

affective signals or cues had become severely blocked. In this way vitality and depth
had not only left his life with others but also had left the drama of his dreams. Just
as the play of a child may become stereotypic in circumstances in which the child is
overwhelmed, the world of the dream and related associations may become severely
limited in reaction to trauma. At the neuronal level there may have been significant
dissociation in place of interconnection, recurrent reentry, recategorization, and
growth in capacity for engagement in depth in novel experience.
Yet when a good-enough holding environment (Modell, 1976; Winnicott, 1965b)
had been established to allow Mr. A a sufficient sense of emotional safety, Mr. A
once again found himself in contact with affective meanings and imaginative energy
from innermost depths of himself. He became free to receive in consciousness the
unexpected, dramatic, and spontaneous imagery of his dream of the scorpion. He
was able to report it in an analytic hour and relate it to his experience with his analyst.
At the neuronal level a new pattern of evolution of reentrant neuronal groupings
and mappings may have emerged for Mr. A as a correlate in the brain for his novel
emotional experience in his analysis.
Damasio (1994, 1999, 2003) and others (LeDoux, 1996; Panksepp, 1998; Solms
and Nersessian, 1999) have recently added to knowledge of the neurobiology of
affect. To emphasize the importance of affect in the link between Edelman’s TNGS
and psychoanalysis, Modell (1990) has suggested the term ‘affect categories’ to refer
to a mode of cognition by which painful affect is brought forth during analysis as
transference to evoke a specific countertransference response and to seek a ‘percep-
tual fit’ in the analytic relationship. ‘The evocation of counter-transference affects
can also be viewed as a form of affect training in that the affective responses of the
therapist are enlisted both to confirm and to disconfirm affect categories’ (Modell,
1990, p. 61). Modell notes that this involuntary pattern of unconscious communica-
tion of affective meanings, often referred to as projective identification, may relate to
the recent discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ in neurobiology, with correlates in patterns
of neuronal groupings. He observes ‘the feelings that are communicated uncon-
sciously are saturated with highly specified meaning’ (2003, p. 165). Furthermore,
this process of non-verbal communication may characterize the silent transmission
of the subjective attitudes of both participants including emotional states that emerge
in the midst of unspoken reveries as described by Ogden (1997).
The holding by the analyst that Modell describes involves the communication of
a sense of safety to the analysand that might lead to a deep relaxation at the level of
the body, its organs, and its innermost functions as when a child is held in the arms
of a mother. Modell (1976) quotes Winnicott:
…the analyst is holding the patient, and this often takes the form of conveying in words at
the appropriate moment something that shows that the analyst knows and understands the
deepest anxiety that is being experienced, or that is waiting to be experienced. (Winnicott,
1965b, p. 240)

We may link Mr. A’s subjective sense of deep relaxation with patterns of neuronal
signaling to include impact on all levels of his central nervous system and all aspects
of somatic functioning.

Through the shared interpretation of the dream, Mr. A felt deep contact with his
analyst. He was unaccustomed to this degree of emotional interplay and trust. Over
time, after a period of depression, Mr. A recalled the helplessness and misery in his
early life when he was not able to make reliable emotional contact with either parent
that felt alive and real. This crucial recollection was also linked to earlier more
specific visual memories describing overwhelming childhood desires, phantasies,
conflicts, and fears. The emergence of the dream enabled the analytic dyad to review
and reinterpret this material in the new emotional context of the analytic relation-
ship. The dream led the analytic pair to engage in a rich ‘squiggle game’ of fresh,
innovative, associative interplay that was novel for Mr. A ‘in which the inner world
of both patient and analyst … participated’ (Modell, 1985, p. 129; Ogden, 1986,
1994; Winnicott, 1953, 1971). We may imagine at this moment the opportunity for
rich communication occurred at the level of intersubjective meaning and simultane-
ously at the level of brain in neuronal processes of reentry, groupings and mappings
for both participants. Again, the moment of the dream led to a unique emotional
intimacy for Mr. A with his analyst … to enable retranscription of memory and the
evolution of a new form for intimate relationship in his future life.
To explore further how the TNGS may provide correlates for the many subtle
intersubjective exchanges and developments observed during the interpretation of
the scorpion dream in Mr. A’s analysis, we may consider Ogden’s (2004b) differ-
entiation between Winnicott’s ‘holding’ and Bion’s ‘container and the contained’.
While ‘holding’ may relate to ‘the patient’s need to be known (held), in all his
bits and pieces by one person’ (Winnicott, 1945), Ogden notes Bion’s concept of
the ‘container’ refers to ‘the capacity for the unconscious psychological work of
dreaming, operating in concert with the capacity for preconscious dreamlike thinking
(reverie), and the capacity for more fully conscious secondary-process thinking’
(Bion, 1962, pp. 115–6; Ogden, 2004b, p. 1356). While ‘holding’ may involve the
establishment of emotional contact that feels alive and real, yet safe, ‘containment’
may refer to the development of the capacity for reflective wonderment or imagi-
native thought in place of reflex reactivity to sensory and/or emotional stimuli. In
describing containment, Ogden portrays the analyst’s ‘capacity to sustain over long
periods of time a psychological state of receptivity to the patient’s undreamt and
interrupted dreams as they are lived out in the transference–countertransference’
(2004a, p. 862). This receptivity may include both silent reverie (Ogden, 1997),
and also verbal communication of ‘something … that is true to the conscious and
unconscious emotional experience that is occurring in the analytic relationship at a
given moment’ (Ogden, 2004a, p. 858). As noted above, intersubjective communi-
cation of verbal and non-verbal affective meanings may be correlated with impor-
tant reciprocal changes at the level of mirroring neurons and neuronal groupings
in the brain of each participant. During the interpretation of his dream, Mr. A
revealed a major shift in his defensive attitude of detachment with greater freedom
to make affect-laden associative linkages than ever before, an evolutionary change
in his capacity for imaginative thought. At the level of brain of both participants,
we may imagine a reciprocal communication with value-laden impact on neuronal
groupings to open and/or reopen processes of recurrent reentry in Mr. A’s brain.

Through the analyst’s manner of receiving and responding to the analysand, the
analyst had participated with the analysand in dreaming, reverie, and dream inter-
pretation to promote the resumption of unconscious as well as conscious psycho-
logical thought where creative dreaming about experience had been interrupted
(Ogden, 2003, 2004a, 2004b). It may be the establishment of this environment,
eventually including elements of both ‘holding’ and ‘containment’ that provides
the necessary emotional conditions for retranscription of memory and reinterpre-
tation of meaning in the domain of mind and the value-laden signal that allows
simultaneous recategorization of neuronal groupings and recontextualization of
maps of memory in the domain of brain. Within the brain of each participant, there
may be a correlate for the intersubjective dialogue in an evolution of patterns of
neuronal groupings that includes interplay between the global dynamic network
(dynamic unconscious), and the dynamic core (consciousness), of each.

Lastly, and most importantly, in Mr. A’s analysis was the inspirational power of
the scorpion dream itself for both Mr. A and his analyst. We may imagine arousal
of a value-laden affect category of neuronal groupings in Mr. A’s brain to stimu-
late nuclei in his mid-brain in turn to excite ‘ascending activating tracts’ reaching
towards multiple cortical and sub-cortical systems … then to provide a subjective
experience of new energy and hope. Mr. A found reconnection with the spontaneous,
intentional gesture of his central, innermost, or true self that felt most real and alive
to him as opposed to an emotionally flat, compliant alternative (Winnicott, 1965a).
At the neuronal level, we may hypothesize reconnection with the central energy
of the primary global dynamic network of his unconscious metaphoric cognitive
resources. Mr. A now felt inspired to study his own elaborate pattern of defensive
avoidances that formerly led to inhibitions during opportunities for spontaneous
affective engagement.
Dreams have long been understood by analysts to transmit through metaphor the
attempt to explore and resolve old problems and impasses (Greenberg et al., 1992).
Since Freud’s original discoveries, the study of the dream has been the continuing
and central inspiration for psychoanalysis. With each new dream that is current and
affectively immediate during analytic work, the analytic pair may visit and revisit
for themselves an emotional experience akin to Freud’s about the impact, continuing
influence, and potential resources of the unconscious. The TNGS may give us a
neurobiological model that emphasizes the potential power and importance of
the dream in the evolution of the self through the retranscription of memory in its
changing ecological environment.
As may be evident from the preceding discussion, there is room in Edelman’s
theory to consider multiple potential parallels in the domain of brain for the subjec-
tive and intersubjective phenomena observed in the analyst’s consulting room. To
orient the reader further a schematic cross-walk is given in Table 1 to review the
basic principles of the TNGS (items #1, 2, and 3) as well as to illustrate the evolving
correlation between Mr. A’s analysis and the TNGS.

Table 1
Mind/Psychoanalysis Brain/TNGS

Mr. A’s conception.

Intra-uterine development of initial neuro-

anatomical structure of Mr. A’s brain as a unique
structure by selection processes from among
innumerable variant potential synaptic circuits.
Creation of millions of repertoires of neuronal
groups (#1).
Mr. A’s birth followed by early development of Post-natal value-laden selection from among huge
capacity for affective meaning in object relations population of diverse alternative potential patterns of
through non-verbal affect-laden interactions with neuronal connection and interconnection (#2), with
parental figures. evolution of dynamic brain structure and function.
Non-verbal communication of affective meanings
between Mr. A and early care-givers … as by mirror
neurons (Modell, 2003) leads to selection from
among alternative neuronal groupings.
Development of capacity for primary consciousness Progressive evolution of neuronal groupings
(awareness of here-and-now experience as a in thalamo-cortical system to form the evolving
function of memory), and higher order (reflective), functional neuronal cluster of the dynamic core of
consciousness. consciousness …
The perception of the present as ‘the remembered Neuronal groupings are evoked as categories of
present’ … an informative scene that connects memory to create the experience of the present to
present reality to the past value-ridden history of be recategorized or not depending on presence
each individual’s conscious mind’ (Edelman and of recurrent ‘reentry’ (#3), and value-laden (affect-
Tononi, 2000, p. 218). laden), signals for recategorization of neuronal
Emotional conflict with affective signal of anxiety Alternative categories of non-compatible neuronal
… during Mr. A’s early life … with variety of options groupings are activated in response to affect-laden
for perception, interpretation of meaning (phantasy environmental signals with affective signal …
formation), and motor response. anxiety.
Autobiographical memory … woven with Through processes of ‘degeneracy’ (Edelman,
unconscious phantasies, desires, fears, defenses, 2004), combined with reentry, certain functions
compromise formations, and other meanings … of given neuronal groupings may change with
evolves as '‘the private self’ with continuity and emergence of new global patterns of neuronal
coherency but also capacity to engage in open connection while others may remain relatively
process of developmental interchange with outside constant throughout life.
environment (Modell, 1993).
Mr. A suffers repetitive emotional trauma … with Repetitive reestablishment of constricted neuronal
ensuing rigid, limiting, stereotypic emotional grouping that does not allow for recategorization
responses and inhibition in capacity for in accord with new perceptual input. Processes of
engagement. Stereotypic scorpion/frog pattern recurrent reentry blocked. Primary global dynamic
of relatedness evolves in place of flexible, open- network (correlate for unconscious metaphoric
minded, exploratory patterns. cognitive process) relatively disconnected from
other systems.
Establishment of defensive attitude of disavowal, Neuronal groupings become relatively rigid and
splitting, projective identification and also affective focal in their responses; they now lack potential to
detachment from active and true innermost core of accept new patterns of reentry and reorganization
the self with frustration of yearnings for connection on basis of fresh input. Such groupings block
and constriction of emotional vitality in interplay with associative pathways between the thalamo-cortical
objects. system of consciousness and the primary global
cortico-cortical limbic system of the dynamic

The mobilization of transference in the analytic Repetitive activation of specific affect categories
situation … with intense anxiety and internal in neuronal groupings with constriction of potential
conflict over emerging affective longings, envy, available associative pathways in responses of Mr.
sadism, and aggressive phantasies in midst of A during initial phase of his analysis.
memories and associations to old restrictive object

Through projective identification, non-verbal Through activity of cortical mirror neurons …

communication of affective experience within the a mutual and reciprocal response of affect
intersubjective analytic relationship linked with categories in neuronal groupings evolves between
memory and phantasies (scorpion/frog relationship), analysand and analyst in both the thalamo-cortical
from early life experience. dynamic core (consciousness), and the ‘primary,
global, cortico-cortical limbic, dynamic network’

Verbal interpretations by analyst to communicate Recognition of affect-laden safety signals by Mr. A’s
the nature of his relatedness to the analysand … perceptual system with gradual mobilization and
his effort to understand the anxiety of the analysand revision of affect categories. Beginning of over-ride
and the importance of continued efforts by the of signals that formerly blocked new perceptual
analysand to communicate his internal affect-laden input and inner associative connection. ‘Reentry’
experience. Continuing development of good- leads to relaxation of restrictions that blocked
enough holding environment in the analysis … associative neuronal interplay. These signals of
with associated affect-laden signals of safety for safety allow for gradual reopening of connection
analysand leading to more open communication between primary global dynamic network
with relaxation of old rigid defensive patterns. (unconscious) and thalamo-cortical dynamic core

Non-verbal containment of affective and cognitive Cortical mirror neuronal groupings in both analysand
phantasy material of analysand by analyst. Silent and analyst continue to evolve in reciprocal
receptive reverie of analyst enables acceptance of patterns. Gradual reconnection with innermost but
analysand’s reactualized feelings of painful envy formerly dissociated neuronal groupings within the
and hopelessness without closure of associative analysand, including gradual reconnection with Mr.
pathways creating ambience of safety and allowing A’s ‘primary global dynamic network’ (unconscious).
‘dream thoughts’ or creative imagination to evolve
and eventually reach consciousness.

Dream of the scorpion appears, is remembered, Reestablishment of connection between those tracts
and is reported in the analytic hour. that correlate with primary unconscious metaphoric
process of Mr. A (global dynamic cortico-limbic
network), and his consciousness (the dynamic
thalamo-cortical core), leading to emergence of the
dream along with its potential to facilitate further
recategorization of neuronal groupings.

Interpretation of the manifest dream through the Experience of intense affective signals allows
associative process as the dream is reported and for progressive reopening of important reentry
as the analyst receives the meanings of the dream. processes and further interplay to promote
Mr. A and his analyst address affective meanings recontextualization of neuronal groupings.
of dream concerning their relationship in the here- Reentry processes are enhanced with opening
and-now of the analytic hour. Associations take on of new associative pathways and evolution of
more and more range and affective depth within the new patterns of neuronal groupings to influence
analytic relationship. Inhibiting anxiety of analysand subsequent perceptions, to alter old patterns of
diminishes. intentionality, and to change overt patterns of
motor behavior.

Depressive affect emerges in subjective experience Depressive affect may signal de-stabilization of old,
of analysand … may signal relaxation of projective rigid neuronal patterns to allow deeper levels of
processes, deepening of potential for retranscription reorganization of neuronal groups and open more
of internal meanings, and greater integration of widely potential pathways for response to new input.
inner experience of all kinds.

Analyst and analysand experience a heightened Renewed depth of interconnection among

affective sense of freedom, aliveness, and vitality subsystems for neuronal group selection including
in the analytic sessions signaling an opening most importantly interconnection between dynamic
of potential space and new freedom in the core of consciousness in thalamo-cortical tracts
recontextualization of memory as a result of the and the primary global dynamic network of the
analytic process. Dream represents a depth of unconscious. As a result of the retranscription
connection with rich variety of alternative potential of neuronal patterns and mappings, large-scale
patterns of subjective meaning … leading to reorganization of neuronal connections may again
heightened flexibility in development of compromise occur regularly with impact in all systems throughout
formations and object relationships. the body.

As in the process of Mr. A’s analysis, non-linear dynamic systems theory

describes how open and complex systems that reflect upon themselves may become
sensitive to new input and deviate in relatively unpredictable ways from well-estab-
lished patterns that were stable preceding the change to new ‘evolutionary forms
of organization’ (Galatzer-Levy, 1995, 2004; Moran, 1991). In addition, this theory
suggests the significance of ‘similarity of subsystems’ or ‘scaling’ (Galatzer-Levy,
1995, 2004; Moran, 1991) in such operative systems. For example, Mr. A’s affect-
laden analytic hour might represent a ‘fractal’ for interpretation at many levels or
scales of meaning. Each such ‘scaling’ might contain features of the entirety and
each might represent a subsystem with the potential to influence other subsystems
within a complex evolutionary form. Such is the nature of complex, open, non-linear
mathematical systems. Such may well be the nature of processes among Mr. A’s
neuronal groupings. For example, we might find hints of Mr. A’s early life relation-
ships within the hour as well as forecasts of future evolutionary patterns for Mr. A in
subsequent relationships. We might find patterns that relate to interpersonal relation-
ships that exist in interplay with intrapsychic dilemmas seeking resolution through
compromise formation. The keen analytic ear may hear within this single hour many
levels, conflicts, and opportunities for future exploration. Describing analysis as
just such a process of multiple levels in interplay Loewald states, ‘interactional
processes—those that are intra-psychic and interpsychic ones, and these two in their
interactions … epitomize(d) and highlight(ed) the psychoanalytic process’ (1980,
p. vii). In the domain of Mr. A’s brain we may conceive of innumerable layers of
subsystems in millisecond-by-millisecond recurrent reentry and interaction. All of
these constitute an open, complex system of multiple neuronal sub-groupings in
dynamic interplay.
As noted by Davis (2002), in his study of parallels between the TNGS in
combination with dynamic system theory and psychoanalysis, the recognition of
potential neural correlates for observations in the psychoanalytic consulting room
should lead to new investigation and application in both domains. The TNGS may,
in fact, inspire further inquiry in neurobiology concerning measurable signals of
neurophysiologic activity in the brain that may correlate with particular subjec-
tive or affective states, intersubjective phenomena during affective interpersonal
engagement, and also with various activities of the unconscious mind. In addition,
for psychoanalysis the TNGS underlines the need for continuing inquiry concerning
how to promote a state of receptivity to invite the retranscription of memory. Rather
than proposing a simplistic reductionism, this approach seeks to encourage creative

scientific interplay among different ways of obtaining knowledge about ourselves

and our world … the subjective, the intersubjective, and the ‘third person perspec-
tive’ (Modell, 2003, pp. 1–2).
As noted above, in Mr. A’s analysis, the presence of an intersubjective marker of
affective spontaneity, aliveness, and vivid interpersonal contact that feels real within
the analytic frame during the work of dream interpretation may signal enhancement
of freedom in the use of metaphor in the recontextualization of memory. The TNGS
now may reveal this capacity for ‘creative apperception … that makes life worth
living’ (Winnicott, 1971, p. 65), or ‘joy’ (Damasio, 2003, p. 137), to be an adaptive
value rooted in biology. The TNGS may return psychoanalysis to its origins in a
neurophysiology that is suitably complex, that allows for the strange, the surprising,
and the unpredictable as well as the familiar. As with the early Freud, it may lead
to a renewed emphasis on the significance of an embodied unconscious metaphoric
cognitive process, a core human quality of imagination linked with the principles of
biology (Modell, 1990, 1993, 2003). The TNGS may return us once again to a new
consideration of the significance of the dream … from which Freud received the
inspiration of a lifetime and for succeeding centuries.

Translations of summary
Traumdeutung, Affekt und die Theorie der Selektion neuronaler Gruppen: Freud, Winnicott, Bion
und Modell. Der Autor benutzt ein in der Psychoanalyse interpretiertes Traumbeispiel, um Modells These zu
illustrieren, dass Edelmans Theorie der Selektion neuronaler Gruppen (TNGS) als hilfreiches neurobiologisches
Modell für Freuds dynamisches Unbewusstes, für Imaginationsprozesse, für die Rückübersetzung von
Erinnerungen in der Psychoanalyse und für intersubjektive Prozesse in der analytischen Beziehung
dienen könnte. Er zeigt Parallelen auf zwischen der psychoanalytischen Deutung des Traummaterials, die
affektgeladenen Bedeutungen in der sich entwickelnden analytischen Beziehung erhöhte Aufmerksamkeit zollt,
und den Grundsätzen, die Edelmann TNGS im Bereich der Neurobiologie postuliert. Der Verfasser erläutert,
weshalb diese Korrelation möglicherweise die hohe Wichtigkeit der Traumdeutung in der Psychoanalyse
unterstreicht. Er zeigt zudem gemeinsame Forschungsrichtungen beider Bereiche auf.

Interpretación de los sueños, afecto y teoría de la selección neuronal de grupo: Freud, Winnicott, Bion y
Modell. El autor utiliza el ejemplo de un sueño y de su interpretación psicoanalítica, para ilustrar la hipótesis
de Modell de que la teoría de la selección neuronal de grupo (TNGS, sigla en inglés) de Edelman puede aportar
un valioso modelo neurobiológico para el inconsciente dinámico de Freud, para los procesos imaginativos de
la mente, para la re-transcripción de la memoria en psicoanálisis, y para los procesos intersubjetivos en la
relación analítica. El autor establece paralelismos entre la interpretación del material onírico, con especial
atención a los significados afectivos en el desarrollo de la relación analítica en el campo del psicoanálisis, y
los principios de la TNGS de Edelman en el campo de la neurobiología. El autor señala cómo esta correlación
puede corroborar la importancia de la interpretación de los sueños en el psicoanálisis. También sugiere áreas
susceptibles de ser investigadas en ambas disciplinas en base a la interacción entre ambas.

L’interprétation des rêves, l’affect, et la théorie de la sélection neuronale de groupe : Freud, Winnicott,
Bion et Modell. L’auteur utilise l’exemple d’un rêve interprété en psychanalyse pour illustrer l’hypothèse
de Modell, selon laquelle la théorie de la sélection neuronale de groupe (TNGS) de Edelman peut fournir
un modèle neurobiologique crédible de l’inconscient dynamique de Freud, des processus imaginatifs de
l’esprit, de la re-transcription de la mémoire en psychanalyse, et des processus intersubjectifs dans la relation
analytique. L’auteur tire certains parallèles entre l’interprétation du matériel du rêve (avec une attention
particulière aux sens chargés d’affect évoluant au cours de la relation analytique), qui est du domaine de
la psychanalyse, et les principes de la théorie de Edelman, dans le domaine de la neurobiologie. L’auteur
montre comment cette corrélation est susceptible de mettre en évidence l’importance de l’interprétation des
rêves en psychanalyse. Il propose également quelques pistes pour des recherches ultérieures dans ces deux
champs de connaissance, basées sur l’étude de leur interaction.

Interpretazione dei sogni, affetti e teoria della selezione neuronale di gruppo: Freud, Winnicott, Bion
e Modell. L’autore illustra l’ipotesi di Modell a partire da un sogno e dall’interpretazione psicoanalitica
dello stesso. Secondo tale ipotesi, la teoria della selezione neuronale di gruppo di Edelman (TNGS)
può fornire un valido modello neurobiologico per i processi dinamici, inconsci della mente di Freud la
ritrascrizione della memoria in psicoanalisi e i processi intersoggettivi nella relazione analitica. L’autore
traccia paralleli fra il materiale relativo all’interpretazione del sogno, con particolare attenzione ai significati
affettivi nell’evoluzione del rapporto diadico nel contesto psicoanalitico, e i principi della teoria di Edelman
in campo neurobiologico. Rileva come questa correlazione sia in grado di corroborare l’importanza
dell’interpretazione dei sogni in psicoanalisi. Propone inoltre aree di ulteriore investigazione in entrambe le
discipline basate sull’interazione delle stesse.

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