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Rubinfine, D.L. (1961). Perception, Reality Testing, and Symbolism. Psychoanal. St. Child, 16:73-89.

(1961). Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 16:73-89

Perception, Reality Testing, and Symbolism

David L. Rubinfine, M.D.


I have attempted, in groping toward a structural theory of true symbol formation, to utilize the well-known clinical observation that there is a kind of continuum of varieties of thought ranging from the strictly ordered thought processes characteristic of problem solving, through daydreams, reveries, hypnagogic states, and dreams. I have assumed that these varieties of thought appear in a corresponding continuum of ego states of an increasingly regressed character, and that, in particular, the regression affects the perceptual function of the ego and the state of consciousness. As there is a regression in the ego state, and in consciousness, there is necessarily a decreasing capacity for active or voluntary attention and a diminution of the boundaries between self and nonself or inner and outer. In this latter state which can be experimentally reproduced by conditions favoring restriction of sensory input, imagery tends to replace perception. In this imagery, drive expresses itself more and more directly, accompanied by a decrease in capacity for secondary-process thinking. The additional operation of defense in this arena and on such raw material produces symbolic forms which are sensorial, and ego alien. These forms take shape from registrations "outside of waking awareness" both of external stimuli and bodily sensations which tend to appear in consciousness as images. This is in contrast to thoughts which appear in consciousness as derivatives or displacement substitutes

of drives and which assume a rationalized, verbal trace form and serve as tools for conceptual thinking en route to the discovery of the need-satisfying object in reality. The latter are characteristically abstract, that is, nonsensorial and not affect-laden. Another significant distinction, it seems to me, is that the symbolic form appears to come unbidden and is not understood, that is, it is experienced passively by the ego, while the more rationalized thought forms seem voluntary, understood, and actively evoked by the ego.

In conclusion, where we deal with so-called universal symbols, we are obliged to assume that these are the by-products of regression in self-awareness, body image, and ego feeling—hence, altered states of consciousness, relatively independent of personal significance. They occur, obviously, in individuals with extreme differences and varieties of character structure, defense, and major conflict, and on the pathological side, widely differing neurotic, borderline, and psychotic disease entities.

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