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Barglow, P. Sadow, L. (1971). Visual Perception: Its Development and Maturation from Birth to Adulthood. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 19:433-450.

(1971). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 19:433-450

Visual Perception: Its Development and Maturation from Birth to Adulthood

Peter Barglow, M.D. and Leo Sadow, M.D.


The preceding material has been organized according to a developmental line frame of reference. In Freud's basic conceptualization of perception we found the origins of three separate but interrelated genetic sequences.

1. Primary Autonomy

Freud (1895) referred to the first percepts as an awareness of physical bodies in motion. Later (1915) he described primitive adaptive activities related to the original reality principle, and still later (1926) established the theoretical basis for the concept of ego autonomy. We considered the initial response of the undifferentiated psychic apparatus to visual stimuli hardly distinguishable from neurophysiology and called it "preperception."

From Spitz's work (1955) we know that the first smiling response is to a face in motion (rather than to masses in motion). Already

there is evidence that the psychic apparatus has become capable of response to more complex and subtle cues. There is evidence suggesting that acoustic perception does not complete its maturation until the ninth year of life (Wepman, 1968). It appears probable that visual maturation, too, extends over a period of many years. Primary perceptual development seems more subject to constitutional variations than do the next two sequences. A minimal integrity of primary perceptual autonomy may be a prerequisite of analyzability. Primary autonomy of vision may be lost through instinctualization, and its genetic maturation compromised by conflict.

2. Self-Object Discrimination

Freud outlined the bridging of the gap between inner and outer reality with his somewhat abstract omega contrivance for transforming external quantity into internal quality capable of stimulating consciousness. Preconscious word configurations, (Freud, 1900), (1915b) and the pleasure-unpleasure series were later psychic elaborations of this conception, which distinguished the inner perception of the real world from the outer real world. From this distinction, analysts' attention was directed to the study of in-out, self-nonself, and self-object discriminations. At the beginning of this developmental thread, a given percept is not distinguished with reference to inner or outer reality. With the gradual development of adequate self-object distinctions the possibility exists of locating the source of a given percept in the inner or outer world, the essence of reality testing. This process is accompanied by the formation of the representational world of the self and of objects (Sandler & Rosenblatt, 1962).

The regressive utilization of the perceptual field in individuals with good ego functions has been well described in the literature on subliminal perception. Such a "regression in the service of the ego" doubtless plays a part in empathic capacity as well as in creative work. For the psychoanalytic therapist, considerations regarding the perceptual field are of central importance. The use of the couch and a relatively cue-free environment facilitate the emergence of data from the inner reality of the patient. Activity by the analyst tends to shift the focus to the outer reality. The

particular combination of activity or nonactivity which will best facilitate the flow of the analytic process in any particular patient is of considerable importance in technique.

3. Energy Changes

Visual functioning at the beginning of life utilizes neutral energy. Visual perception may continue to use neutral energy later, or it may become instinctualized. Visual perception may then subserve sequentially the libidinal and aggressive drives of the oral, anal, and phallic phases. Visual activities brought within the nexus of infantile conflict can become by a "change of function" secondarily autonomous, utilizing neutralized energy. However, there is always the possibility of regression with the consequence of reinstinctualization.

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