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Miller, S.C. (1962). Ego-Autonomy in Sensory Deprivation, Isolation, and Stress. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 43:1-20.

(1962). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 43:1-20

Ego-Autonomy in Sensory Deprivation, Isolation, and Stress

Stuart C. Miller


The countless problems that the environment can pose for the human being call forth almost countless attempts at adaptation. Many of these attempts have been categorized and labelled, and we know them as personality traits, symptoms, usual and unusual capacities, etc. I shall consider here only a few kinds of environmental challenges, specifically social isolation and diminution of variety in sensory input, with a secondary emphasis on other forms of stress. I shall relate these environmental conditions to the varieties of response they elicit, examine attempted adaptations to them for any regressive move these adaptations may imply and for any alteration they involve in the autonomy of the ego; and finally, using these environmental conditions and the adaptations to them as examples, re-examine the concept of ego-autonomy in relation to external reality, suggesting extensions and revisions of parts of that concept.

The material to be considered consists of (a) several experiments in 'sensory deprivation', (b) numerous accounts of experiences of isolation and stress endured by explorers, sailors, castaways, and prisoners, (c) a variety of clinical observations from several fields of medicine, and (d) psycho-analytic theory concerning the autonomy of the ego.

Rapaport's definition of ego-autonomy will provide a point of orientation toward the material that follows. He wrote (147): '… while man's behavior is determined by drive forces which originate in him, it is not totally at their mercy since it has a certain independence from them.

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