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Shulman, G. (2010). The damaged object: a ‘strange attractor’ in the dynamical system of the mind. J. Child Psychother., 36(3):259-288.

(2010). Journal of Child Psychotherapy, 36(3):259-288

The damaged object: a ‘strange attractor’ in the dynamical system of the mind

Graham Shulman

This article discusses the impact of the damaged object on the development and functioning of psychic life with particular reference to the sense of reality. The damaged object is of pivotal significance in Klein's and Winnicott's models of psychic development and experience in early infancy. A key dimension of the development and functioning of the sense of reality is the capacity to differentiate internal and external reality. Klein drew attention to the critical role of external reality in disconfirming or ‘disproving’ phantasies and anxieties about damaged objects in internal reality, and Winnicott emphasised the critical importance to psychic health and development of the ‘non-destruction’ of the external object. Problems can arise, however, when external reality has the effect of mirroring or confirming – instead of disconfirming – internal reality concerning the damaged object. The scientific concept of the ‘strange attractor’ from chaos theory is drawn on to characterise the way in which the damaged object can operate as a deterministic influence on psychic life and the relationship to reality in a specific constellation of internal and external realities. In this context, the relevance of chaos theory is considered as a scientific paradigm that is particularly suited to the psychoanalytic description and model of the mind. Some possible links between psychoanalysis, chaos theory and the study of narrative are explored. Detailed clinical material from two cases is discussed to elaborate these themes, and possible research applications are considered.

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