Dialogical Konstruction of reality

Rainer Sandweg 2015


Antonio Damasio (1999) responded to the statement that Freud’s model of consciousness and Damasio’s (neurobiological) conceptualization showed striking similarities in the following terms: I think we can say that Freud's insights into the nature of consciousness are compatible with the most developed perspectives of contemporary neuroscience (cited in Solms and Turnbull, 2010, italics mine).

Freud (1895/1950) had not pursued his attempt to put his theory on a scientific basis, probably because the state of neuroscience at that time did not yet constitute a sufficient groundwork. It may be assumed that the progress in neuroscience as presented nowadays – 100 years later – would have been of great interest to him.


The synoptic view of neuroanatomical, neurochemical and neurophysiological findings today confirms the  central assumptions of psychoanalysis. Thus, for example:

• Mental processes take place at different levels of consciousness.

• Most mental processes are unconscious.

• Consciousness serves the orientation of the individual in the world and his understanding with others.

• The recognition of the complexity of human thought and feeling was and is one of the basic assumptions of psychoanalytic theory, at least implicitly.


In the second half of the last century, it became a convention to interpret mental processes according to positivist criteria and only then allow hypotheses to apply if they were nomothetically verifiable. Psychoanalysis was suspected of being unscientific, because its more idiographic path of knowledge did not meet the standards of  scientifically-based research.


The positivist approach to knowledge has limitations in complex systems. The necessary reduction of the research topic in nomothetic validation is unsuitable for the study of complex systems. As early as 1970, Humberto Maturana (1970) introduced into the interpretation of biological phenomena the correlation between observational results and the observer, which until then had only been known in quantum physics.[1]  Knowledge can only reach so far as is permitted by the faculty of knowledge. Freud's words at the 1910 Nuremberg Congress may be understood in this sense:


We have, since a larger number of people practicing psychoanalysis and share their experiences, noted that each psychoanalyst comes only as far as his own complexes and inner resistances allow, and therefore demand that he begin his self-analysis and continuously deepen it, as he makes his experience with patients. Who does not succeed in such a self-analysis, should deny himself the ability to treat patients analytically. (Freud, 1910, 108)


The demand for self-analysis as a precondition of analytical work means using one's own mental processes as a cognitive tool. The idea is clear: a complex object of study, namely, the mind of the analysand, is explored by another complex system, i.e. the mental activity of the analyst.


Complex systems

The study of complex systems requires, in some respects, a different kind of logic from what we are familiar with in the scientific view of the world. Linear logic is not suitable to describe the interactions in complex systems. In the above cited work, Maturana spoke of a circular process that characterizes every living being.[2] An essential feature of complex systems is the interaction of individual parts of the system. Minimal changes or disturbances in the initial conditions can have a major impact on the development of the system.


In complex systems, developments arise that are not explicable by the sum of the properties of the individual components, so-called “emergents.” The behaviour of complex systems depends not only on the current state, but  also  on the prehistory of the system. In complex systems, several states or sequences of states can arise at the same time.


Neurobiological constructivism

Different sensory stimuli are presented to the brain in undifferentiated encoding (reduced code). This means that all sense organs respond to external stimuli with only quantitatively variable sequences of nerve impulses, which are credited in the brain to a sensation and become conscious should the occasion arise. One can say that our sense organs work on the principle of an analogue-digital converter, thus allowing binary cerebral processing.

Both the resulting image of reality and the resulting consciousness  are constructions of the brain. In this context, so-called radical constructivism assumes that the image of reality arises in a closed system only by intrinsic processes and thus has no relation to other individuals. For example, Norbert Elias (1987) has spoken of the prospects of the “we-less ego,” which is unsuited to explain human existence.


The development of constructivist theory in the direction of neurobiological constructivism, however, reflects the fact that only by means of social relations does man become what he is. His phylogenetically pre-formed and ontogenetically acquired brain structures probably developed under the selective pressure of social desirability, which is an important factor in survival.


Elisabeth Stachura (2011) identifies three basic assumptions of neurobiological constructivism for the discussion of the dialogic construction of reality:


1. The brain and not the conscious self is the designer of our reality.

2. The brain creates a virtual actor, namely the self, to produce the complexity of the world of experience.

3. Man is a social being, due to his biological dispositions, for whom society is a natural habitat.


Sensory afferences used in the construction of reality are selective and incomplete. They are selected by appropriate brain structures. This unconscious process is necessary to navigate the complexity of all possible physical environmental signals and to ensure a rapid and continuous adaptation. For economic reasons, we  unconsciously make a selection from the infinite wealth of environmental signals and process them in a largely prescribed manner into an image of reality – limited but manageable. This savings program is clearly a requirement for survival. Our minds are not suited to receiving an overabundance of information. The fact that not all existing signals are processed hints at the fact that there can be no objective depiction of reality.


The fact that most individuals constitute in most cases a similar image of reality is due to the fact that the phylogenetically preformed anatomical structures are the same and have been developed under the evolutionary influence of social acceptability. The construction of current reality is effected with recourse to already lived through and engram-stored experience. This, in turn, is strongly influenced by the cultural values of the surrounding society. Gerald Edelmann (1990) speaks in this context of the “remembered present.” The remembered present is in turn heavily influenced by the normative conventions of the surrounding society. In neurobiological constructivism, memory is called the most important sensory organ (Roth, 1997).


This – only very cursorily depicted – epistemology might give an idea of why there is on the one hand a wide field of undisputed identical constructions of reality, as in physical life experience, and, on the other, very different versions, as in the field of interpersonal relations. Reality is a construction of our brain; more provocatively still, it is a calculated outcome of neurological processes. This concept is often referred to as the fourth major insult to humanity, following the previous three that Freud (1917) had described in his 18th lecture. [3]


We cannot know the underlying reality that Immanuel Kant called the “thing in itself”; we can only derive an idea of it and describe our own individual world. If two people exchange information about reality, they are thus comparing their own images of reality. This is done in a state of consciousness. On the subject of consciousness,  Friedrich Nietzsche had already expressed, in a surprisingly far-sighted and modern fashion, that “consciousness is really just a network connection between man and man” in which the language works as a “communicative  sign” (Nietzsche, 1954, 219-222).


Reflections on the social nature of man led to a neurobiological interpretative approach that makes a common construction of reality feasible in the first place. Relatedness to others is as important to the development of consciousness as the anatomical and physiological properties of the brain. Positive social feedback is not a pleasant bonus in this domain, but a biological necessity and thus an important evolutionary factor. This means that the ability to share the construction of reality is advantageous in the struggle for survival. The same applies to the ability to share it and to take in the perspective of others.



The psychoanalytic situation

The ingenious epistemological design of Freud, in gaining insight into a complex system by the action of a

second complex system, made it possible to escape from the devitalizing violence of reduction, as Nietzsche called it. In psychoanalysis, two people meet and share their images of reality; that is to say, they enter into a  dialogical construction of reality. This encounter is determined by unconscious as well as conscious expressions and perceptions. Language dominates the conscious level of understanding. But consciousness is not only the mode in which human communication is possible; it is also the mental state in which changes are planned and carried out. All unconscious content requires verbalization to change it. [4] The psychoanalytic dialogue has rules. It is the analyst’s responsibility to be neutral and not to influence the dialogue with his own values and needs. Under this requirement of neutrality and abstinence, the world of the analysand becomes the subject of dialogue. The analyst puts himself at the service of the cognition of the analysand. He does this with his mind, his feelings and his associations. The question concerning those parts of himself with which he takes part in the dialogue has been widely discussed and has led to very different methodological approaches. Early in the development of psychoanalytic theory it was clear that the analytical process does not only require the cognitive performance of the analyst. I recall in this context the concept of the analyst’s free-floating attention,[5]  and  also Theodor Reik’s (1948) concept of listening with the third ear.”


In the analytic dialogue two realities come together: that of the analysand and that of the analyst. The object of analysis is the construction of the reality of the analysand, in which both enter a common space of association. The accompanying ideas of the analyst – his feelings, perceptions and understanding of reality – are partially different from the experience of the patient. From such deviations or even contradictions result possibilities of revealing, or deconstructing, the patient’s unconscious ways of constructing reality. Psychoanalytic interpretation can thus be described in the constructivist sense as deconstruction.


The asymmetry of the psychoanalytic dialogue calls for neutrality on the part of the analyst. A total absence of value judgment will be impossible. Under neurophysiological aspects we evaluate constantly, more unconsciously than consciously. A neutral attitude of the analyst can therefore only mean that he realizes when,  how, and possibly even why he evaluates.

The situation is similar with abstinence. To abstain, the state of being abstinent, means not including one’s own needs, whatever their nature may be, in the dialogue. This, too, is an attitude that one can strive for as an ideal state, but will never really achieve. To really keep out of it requires understanding the process in its entirety. This, in turn, is indeed the goal of the dialogue.


Free association

There is much evidence that the associations – similarly to the selection of the utilized afferent signals – have both a phylogenetic and an ontogenetic history, to which both analysand and analyst are subject. The analytic dialogue is supported by dream reports and the possibly uncensored notified ideas. The analyst listens with “free-floating attention.” He immerses himself in the world of the patient and creates an image of what his patient thinks and feels. The association as a nexus of mostly unconscious thoughts, feelings, instinctual wishes, fantasies, and memories will be regarded as “free” if it is not controlled by social desirability. Even after a century of psychoanalytic practice, Freud’s suggestions are still realistic and current, as when he advises his patients:


While you otherwise rightly try to hold the thread of the coherence, you should proceed differently here. You will notice that you get different thoughts throughout your narrative that you would like to reject with certain critical objections. You will be tempted to say to yourself: this or that does not belong here, or it is quite unimportant, or it is unreasonable, it is therefore not necessary to say it. Never give into this criticism and say it anyway, precisely because you have a serious aversion to it. (Freud, 1913, translation by the author)


From a constructivist point of view, one should add that something similar is true for the analyst, only he mostly does not express what he feels in him but uses it as a basis of his understanding. In this way, two images of the world of the analysand arise that only partially coincide. For analytical cognition it is interesting if the image of the analyst differs from that of the patient. We assume that the analyst with his own experience and theoretical background has an epistemological advantage. He should be able to trace at key points the unconscious paths of construction, i.e. to deconstruct or – to put it in psychoanalytic terminology – to interpret. This may establish in the patient another reality, one that is better adapted to the prevailing conditions.

Transference and countertransference

Patient and analyst enter into a relationship that is indeed pre-formed by rules, but that allows the flexibility to design highly individual pictures of the other person and to interpret actions. The presence of the therapeutic situation itself is displayed differently in the analysand and analyst in their respective possibilities of knowledge and cognition. In psychoanalysis, this is called “transference” and “countertransference.” These two terms suggest that countertransference follows transference, or even that the second is caused by the first. From a  constructivist point of view, however, transference and countertransference are happening  all the time and under all conditions with a mutual impact on each other; as  part of the “remembered present,” they are thus  everyday phenomena.


In the analytic situation, which is, by its rules, a special form of encounter, the otherwise largely unconscious transference phenomena are objects of consideration. The stipulations of abstinence and neutrality can be respected only insofar as the conscious portions of the analyst’s experience are concerned. The recognition of countertransference is therefore an integral part of the analytical work. This reciprocity makes it necessary to leave the path of linear sequences and to consider correlations under circular aspects. Observational results are dependent on the state of the observer; they are, so to speak, subject to an “uncertainty principle” that we know from quantum mechanics.


Focussing psychoanalytical work on the “here and now” of the therapeutic relationship as it is now well practiced receives support from the constructivist perspective. Just as the construction of reality generally takes place at all levels of consciousness, transferred phenomena can be expected at different levels of consciousness. The everyday relationship expectation of the analysand also manifests itself in the relationship with the analyst. Similarly, the life experience of the analyst affects the perception of the analysand. The analyst has or should have a knowledge advantage, which enables him to recognize transference phenomena in both participants in  the dialogue. The resulting interpretations (or deconstructions) can resolve transference phenomena and thus maintain the progress of the analytic process. Sandor Ferenzci (1932) [ST1] spoke of the mutuality of psychoanalytic explorations and exchanged roles in his courageous – though for many questionable – therapeutic experiments with patients. Through these experiments, it quickly became clear that a setting featuring the switching roles of analyst and analysand is for many reasons not possible. However, Ferenczi did not have time to draw the practical conclusions for psychoanalytic treatment because he died shortly after the publication of his clinical diary. The constructivist view of transference and countertransference suggests putting the reciprocity or circularity of the dialogical construction of reality to the centre of focus. A similar reflection upon the analytic process is found in Stolorow (2013).[6] This leads to the view that the analytical process, in other words, is highly individual and unique, whose results are approximations and remain dependent on interpretation.


Dialogical cognition


The construction of reality implies cognition of reality. Both partners in the analytic dialogue acknowledge dialogically obtained cognition. It is possible in the first place through the conscious exchange of ideas. Language as an activity of consciousness is essential for any differentiated exchange. Consciousness can be defined as the knowledge of one’s own existence as involving a necessary interaction with the world in order  to find one’s way in it. Thus a statement about the function of consciousness is made, but not about its creation. Following the ideas of Damasio (2000), consciousness is initially characterized by emotions, which  are formed on the basis of reactions of the body and its organs to environmental influences. [7]


The organization of action plans in response to changing environmental conditions is carried out on different neural levels. The totality of these responses to the world, pre-formed by subcortical centres (the mapping of the corresponding brain structures, so to speak), is referred to as core consciousness. Based on this core consciousness an expanded consciousness arises that creates a sense of consistency and constancy. It is the cortical structures – their ability to differentiate perception, manage memory storage, and create logical connections and prospective fantasies – that generate this extended awareness, enabling us to produce speech and dialogue.


If two people enter into a dialogue, they can thus do so not only with the voice-generating awareness, but also with the entirety of their experience, with conscious, pre-conscious and unconscious portions. The non-verbal portions of the dialogue (facial expressions, posture, tone of voice, smell, etc.) are largely generated and processed by subcortical structures.


The dialogical construction of reality in psychoanalysis

The psychoanalytic dialogue is asymmetric; it is focused on the reality of the analysand. The analyst takes part in the latter  with his whole existence, but he follows conventions to ensure that his own existence remains in the background. Enabled by his self-analysis, he is striving to recognize unconscious design patterns, to deconstruct them by his interpretations, and thus to pave the way for other images of reality (as far as the object representations are concerned, for example).  His ability to do so depends on how far he is capable of  minimizing his own impact on the dialogue. He is assisted by psychoanalytic theories in which the clinical experiences of many others who have published their understanding of unconscious processes are reflected. Psychoanalytic theories are descriptions of design patterns of reality. [ST2] Which theoretical concepts the analyst is guided by is certainly not insignificant for a given psychoanalytic dialogue and the knowledge gained from it.


Dialogical knowledge is thus only “right” if both participants of the dialogue are authentic – the analysand by expressing himself as candidly as possible; the analyst by carefully recording his feelings, associations and interventions and understanding them as an expression of his whole personality which affects the analytical cognitive process significantly. Although he usually does not comment on it, he still participates with all his experience in the circular process of common dialogue. His interest and his attention, his faculty of judgment and his focus, influence as well on both conscious and unconscious levels the paths toward a common construction of reality.



Large parts of our conscious awareness have an unconscious basis. The anatomical structure of the brain and the functional assignment to individual brain structures determine the paths to such awareness, but only the ontogenetic or experience-related portions of consciousness creates the individual worldview.


Why do we keep evidently important experiences out of consciousness, or repress or subjugate them by other defence mechanisms? Why do we construct occasionally or even often a reality that obviously creates harm rather than benefit? Psychoanalytic treatment has in any case shown that conscious awareness of such can have a salutary effect.

The highly complex internal processes that play a role in organizing the defence and the diversity of human experience in general are not sufficiently clarified by neurobiological discourse alone. Reference to the energy balance of the brain or the always necessary maintenance of internal homeostasis is unsatisfactory as an explanatory model. It seems that at this point the limit of neurobiological research has been reached, since it only provides a basic idea about the neural conditions of the cognitive process, but not its diverse applications.


Psychoanalysis as a science

There are strong voices (e.g. Solms and Turnbull, 2010) that claim that psychoanalysis has once more taken its place in the family of the sciences – which also raises the question of whether she had ever lost it. In this context, the following considerations apply:

§  Psychoanalysts have mostly not been involved in a work based on a linear logical positivist research approach (and have received a lot of criticism in consequence).

§  The registration of mental processes and human relationships requires different methods and different ways of thinking. Analysts have early on been occupied with the study of states of consciousness, and thereby engaged in free association to dreams and fantasies, which cannot be dealt with by conventional logic. They have, therefore, often been accused of lacking scientific rigour.

§  With the development of neuroscience, and particularly the exploration of consciousness, it appears that many of the basic assumptions of psychoanalytic theory have a high explanatory value and support the interpretation of neurobiological research.


Neurophysiological theories concerning consciousness seem to compete with psychoanalytic theories. At first glance, one might derive the impression that the latter would fall victim to the epistemological principle known as “Ockham's Razor” or the Parsimony Principle. (To give preference to this theory essentially means to work with the smallest number of hypotheses.) Neurobiological constructivism is based on an impressive wealth of scientific results, the validity of which is not to be doubted.


On closer study of the topic, however, this competition turns out to be invalid. Although neurobiological theories can explain the basic functioning of the brain, they do not explain the result of the work of this highly complex system and certainly not its diverse interactions. This has always been the domain of psychoanalytic and sociological knowledge formation. Psychoanalysis’s credibility has suffered where it had to measure up to the long-standing  exclusively applicable principles of Euclidean mathematics and linearity. 

The conception of the human brain as a complex system exempt from the logic corset of linearity allows one to look at the human mind and its emanations as a miracle that can only be partially understood. One might say that neurobiology is on the way to giving back to psychoanalysis its scientific reputation. In this respect there is no doubt that it makes sense for psychoanalysts to engage with neurobiological findings.


However, such a view has consequences for the inner attitude of the analyst. Using the logical rules demanded by complex systems that demand that psychoanalytic interpretations follow the rules of probability, the results of the analytical process are approximations and remain dependent on interpretation. There is no objectivity and therefore no authority-creating certainties.


Evidence created by dialogue is unique. It is closely linked to the personality of the analysand and the analyst.

What is recognized today as a right or reality might appear slightly differently tomorrow. Only certain recurring patterns of construction of reality, which are relevant to the organization of the personality and the formation of symptoms, remain stable over time. The construction pattern of the patient, however, characterizes each of his relationships. In this respect the minimally structured dialogical situation in psychoanalysis is quite capable of  describing and alleviating  the symptoms of mental illness (Leichsenring  and Rabung, 2008). The subjectivity of psychoanalytic knowledge excludes an ex cathedra attitude of the analyst, especially in training and supervision. [8]


It is possible that the “Dodo bird verdict” reflects the failure of researchers – psychodynamic and non-psychodynamic alike – to adequately assess the range of phenomena that can change in psychotherapy (Schedler, 2010). [ST3]  [9]




Finally, the question has to be answered: what benefits can a comparative study of psychoanalysis and neurobiology  have?


First of all, it should be noted that the scientific assumptions of psychoanalysis correspond in essential respects to those of neurobiological research. Psychoanalysis and neurobiology do not compete, but complement each other. Neurobiology describes the instrument of consciousness-raising. Psychoanalysis is concerned with the design patterns of reality and hence the activity of this instrument. As shown above, the postulate of the reduction of the research topic as a prerequisite for scientific activity cannot apply.


The construction of reality in the psychoanalytic dialogue is a reciprocal and simultaneous event that is determined by an analysis of transference and countertransference. Even though the psychoanalytic dialogue is defined by clear rules, it is difficult from the above points of view to see the analyst as a subject and the analysand as an object. The analyst puts himself  in service of the consciousness-raising of the patient. He does this with all his knowledge, his own self-awareness and the presence of his whole personality.



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4. Düsseldorf: Auflage Patmos. 


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[1] Thus cognition as a biological function is such that the answer to the question, ‘What is cognition?’ must arise from understanding knowledge and the knower through the latter's capacity to know.” (Maturana, 1970)

[2] NB Needs quotation marks if a direct quote. “Living systems as they exist on earth today are characterized by exergonic metabolism, growth and internal molecular reproduction, all organized in a closed causal circular process that allows for evolutionary change in the way the circularity is maintained, but not for the loss of the circularity itself.”  (Maturana, 1970)




[3] “Through the ages, humanity has endured two great insults to its naive amour-propre from science. The first, when it learned that our earth is not the centre of the universe, but a tiny little part of a world system barely imaginable in its magnitude. This is linked for us to the name of Copernicus, though Alexandrian science had already declared something similar. Then the second, as biological research annihilated the supposed creative prerogative of man, relegating him to a descent from the animal kingdom and the indelibility of his animal nature. This re-evaluation in our day and age under the influence of C. Darwin, Wallace and their predecessors has not taken place without the most vehement reluctance of contemporaries. But the third and most painful  insult to the human craving for grandiosity is being learned from  contemporary  psychological research, which would prove to the ego that it is not even master in its own house, but remains dependent on scanty news of what is going on unconsciously  in its mental life.” (Freud, 1917, 295,  translation by the author)

[4] “We can now also express precisely what repression refuses in the transference neurosis of the rejected idea: The translation into words, which are to remain linked to the object. The idea that is non-condensed into words, or the untranslated psychic act, then remains repressed in the Ucs.” (Freud, 1915, 160, translation by the author)

[5] You keep all conscious influences from his retentiveness at a distance and leave completely his ‘unconscious memories’, or in purely technical terms: you listen and do not care about whether you notice something.” (Freud, 1912, 376, translation by the author)

[6] Our first explicit use of the term “intersubjective” appeared in an article (Stolorow, Atwood, and Ross 1978) that Lewis Aron (1996) and nor do I find this one credited with having introduced the concept of intersubjectivity into American psychoanalytic discourse. This first sentence (‘Our first . . . discourse’) is ungrammatical. Please check it, and rewrite it. There we conceptualized the interplay between transference and countertransference in psychoanalytic treatment as an intersubjective process reflecting the mutual interaction between differently organized subjective worlds of patient and analyst, and we examined the impact on the therapeutic process of unrecognized correspondences and disparte intersubjective conjunctions and disjunctions between the patient´s and analyst´s respective world of experience.

[7] Damasio (2000) speaks in this context of somatic markers that are used to structure the complex world of experience and to limit the possibilities for action in it to  be capable of acting at all. They rescue emotions from the world of irrationality and show their important role in terms of unconscious experience, decision processes and the whole social interaction. Feelings and emotions are therefore not to be regarded as  opposed to rationality, but as one of its bases.


[8] The frequently expressed question in supervisions and casuistic seminars as to whether an intervention is right or wrong can refer only to whether it is useful for the cognitive process or not. The value of psychoanalytic hypotheses is especially evident in the evidence- and change-relevant activity that they can generate in the analysand.

[9]  “Everybody has won, and all must have prices.”