Song-and-dance and the internal world

Projective identification

In 1946, the British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein described a phenomenon she had observed in her work with small children, consisting of unconscious fantasies of expelling parts of their minds into other people, and of incorporating parts of other people’s minds into their own. This “balance of projection and introjection” (or “projective identification”, as she later called it) is a mental function that would produce precisely the kind of non-discreteness of minds and automatic, preverbal mental synchronization that Condon, Tronick and Tre-varthen have hypothesized on the basis of their observations of infant behaviour.

In 1962, one of Klein’s students, Wilfred Bion, refined this idea when he proposed the existence of what he called “realistic projective identification”. Using the theoretical language of infant and mother to stand for patient and analyst, he wrote:

Ordinarily the personality of the infant, like other elements in the environment, is managed by the mother. If the mother and child are adjusted to each other, projective identification plays a major role in the management; the infant is able through the operation of a rudimentary reality sense to behave in such a way that projective identification, usually an omnipotent phantasy, is a realistic phenomenon. This, I am inclined to believe, is its normal condition ... As a realistic activity it shows itself as behaviour reasonably calculated to arouse in the mother feelings of which the infant wishes to be rid.

(Bion, 1967, p. 308)

In an Afterword to their comprehensive review of projective identification, Spil-lius and O’Shaughnessey suggested expanding the scope of the term projective identification beyond infancy and psychoanalysis:

In our view, the concept of projective identification is not particular to the clinical situation but a universal of human communication, one that Freud was questing for. In 1915 in his paper “The Unconscious”, he writes: “It is a very remarkable thing that the Ucs. [unconscious] of one human being can react upon that of another, without passing through the Cs. [conscious]. This deserves closer investigation” (Freud, 1915, p. 194). And later, in 1933, he again describes this process. “There is, for example, the phenomenon of thought-transference ... It claims that mental processes in one person—ideas, emotional states, conative impulses—can be transferred to another person through empty space without employing the familiar methods of communication by means of words and signs” (Freud, 1933, p. 39).

We think that the concept of projective identification gives a name to, and a clarification of, the dynamics of direct communication and the phenomena of transference and countertransference that are universal among humankind.

(Spillius and O’Shaughnessey, 2012)

Bion’s observation about the human capacity to evoke emotional states in another person without either party being aware of the evocation points to the operation of something very much like the unconscious, non-lexical communication discussed in the previous chapter. The concept of projective identification gives us a psychoanalytic model of the dynamics of primitive song-and-dance. Music is not just the food of love, but, together with dance, the stuff of deep emotional communication, generating emotions that are themselves so deep that they are difficult to distinguish from bodily sensations.

The early development of the mind

Infants dance to the music of human speech. This implies that from birth onward they are receptive to the music of human speech (but not to randomly assembled speech sounds) and are capable of expressing its rhythms through bodily movement (a response absent if the stimulus is rhythmic mechanical sound). Song-and-dance is innate, requires some interaction or activity with someone outside the self, and seems to be necessary for the maintenance of the infant’s psychological integrity, just as physical sustenance is necessary to the infant’s physical survival.

Bion assumed that we are born herd animals and that in the most primitive levels of our mentality we are overwhelmingly concerned with membership in our group (Meltzer, 1978, Part III, p. 9). That membership is a function of what he called the “proto-mental” part of the personality, a level of the mind in which physical events (sensations) are not differentiated from psychological events (emotions) (Bion, 1961). Arising at the same time as the infant’s recruitment into the external human community is the establishment within the infant of an internal world that is partly a reflection of the external human community.

The relationship between this internal world and the external community is complex: it is an internal version of the external community with which it interacts via song-and-dance. The infant’s internal object world is both a product of its interaction with the external human world and a requirement for this interaction. A live internal object world is the infant’s ticket of admission to the mental and emotional community of other minds, a community that is formed by the connection of one internal world to another. The medium of this connection is one’s musical recruitment of other minds into one’s own and one’s musical absorption by and into other minds. From the infant’s point of view, the external community of minds expresses and mirrors the internal world of emotional psychic reality, and the internal world incorporates other minds as they are made available through song-and-dance. There is room in our minds for other minds. Taking into account the emotional and feeling level on which these events transpire, it would perhaps be better to say that there is room in our hearts for other hearts.

Melanie Klein’s theories of projective identification and of the internal world describe mental operations that support these mind-to-mind connections. These operations take place in the register of concrete unconscious fantasies. Musical (song-and-dance) communication is not symbolic. Though it may subsequently be symbolized, it does not itself refer to anything other than itself: it simply evokes concrete experiences and is the natural mode of communication between one unconscious mind and another.

Song-and-dance communication is one source contributing to the formation of Klein’s internal world. The other is sensations and urges generated by somatic processes—i.e., instincts. The internal world is experienced first as activity within the body, an experience that persists throughout life in the deeper levels of the unconscious. In Klein’s view, the internal world is inhabited by what she called “internal objects”, a term that,

exactly expresses what the child’s unconscious, and for that matter the adult’s in deep layers, feels about it. In these layers it is not felt to be part of the mind in the sense, as we have learnt to understand it, of the super-ego being the parents’ voices inside one’s mind. This is the concept we find in the higher strata of the unconscious. In the deeper layers, however, it is felt to be a physical being, or rather a multitude of beings, which with all their activities, friendly and hostile, lodge inside one’s body, particularly inside the abdomen, a conception to which physiological processes and sensations of all kinds, in the past and in the present, have contributed."

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