Have you ever asked yourself how baby ducklings know to follow the first larger figure they encounter after hatching? The famous researcher Conrad Lorenz referred to this phenomenon as ‘imprinting.’ Have you ever asked yourself how so many species know how mating works without searching on Google and Wikipedia? Or, how do human babies know to “root” for the nipple, and how to then suck?
I would suggest that the answer to all of these questions lies in our genetic inheritance, hardly a controversial idea. But it does bother some when they read that Klein assumed that the phantasies of small children could somehow incorporate a representation of the body parts of mom or dad, and their conjunction in intercourse, when such parts or activities have not yet been witnessed or experienced.
The Concept of Preconceptions:
Klein’s analysand, Wilfred Bion, proposed a sequence of mental activities germane to this discussion. He seems to have been directed toward these ideas by reading Freud’s writings about ‘instincts.’
Bion proposed a series of mental events that begin after a specific experience, particularly if that experience is within a narrow range of possibilities. His idea was that the infant seems to have (1) a genetically based natural and instinctive “expectation,” which, when mated with an (2) appropriate experience, leads to the triggering of specific behaviors.
Let’s take breast feeding as an example. Bion would say that the infant has a genetically based “preconception” of a “nipple/breast” like structure. When that “preconception” is combined with an experience that approximates it, the infant can be said to have an experience that forms a “conception” of a breast.
Further experience can gradually allow the infant to grow that “conception” of a breast into an abstract “concept” of “breastiness” (as Stephen Colbert would say). The infant has now created a prototype of a “feeding function.” He would develop the same “concept” if it was experienced with a baby bottle with a rubber nipple attached instead of a breast.
Preconceptions and Unconscious Phantasies:
The crucial point in all of this is to expand the range of “unconscious phantasies” that a therapist is willing to consider as operable in the unconscious inner world of a person at any age. Having models for thinking about such things will make it less jarring when a three year old girl suddenly stands up in a tub during her bath and shrieks, “Daddy – I lost my penis!”
Nor will one be phased when a four year old puts his hand on his father’s appendectomy scar, as his shirtless father watches Sunday morning football on the couch, and declares with the conviction of a priest at an exorcism, “Dad, I am going to fix this because I am full of good penises!”
Likewise, it will no longer be a surprise when a three year old girl who was breast fed for more than a year points to the mother’s nipple as the mother is dressing and says to her, “That’s the thing you bit me with!”
[Note: A later section in Module One on “Unconscious Phantasy, the Cerebral Cortex, and the Frontal Lobes” will expand on how these “part object images” / “preconceptions” become linked to unconscious phantasies.]
Klein’s Development of Ideas about “Primitive” States of Mind:
For psychoanalysts, the “missing link” to explaining how small children can intuit the existence of things that they have not yet directly experienced is the concept of “preconceptions.” It is not easy to grasp, and I would encourage all developing mental health professionals to try to understand it as a theoretical concept. Then one can await personal experience that leads to a conviction about it, as work with small children or raising one’s own family will almost certainly do.
That is exactly how many of Klein’s discoveries, ideas, and models were created. They came from the experiences she had as a mother of three children and then conducting child therapy with fairly disturbed small children.
These experiences led her to see how “concretely” the inner lives of small children were preoccupied with mother’s and father’s bodies, at a “part object” level. This is openly evident during childhood but often only directly visible in dream life after childhood.
These “part object” preoccupations in adults, that once upon a time originated in “preconceptions,” can still be inferred by the often excessive focus on physical attributes, such as the size of breasts or penises and the preoccupation with clothing, jewelry, and appearance in general.
In order to study the primitive states of mind in which Klein remained immersed for her entire career, one has to become comfortable with the very concrete “part object” states of mind that underlay her concepts. Primitive object relations, projective processes, the establishment of a stable personality structure in mental health and illness, all require an understanding of models that are beyond the scope of ordinary “common sense.”
Bion’s model of the mother-infant relationship immediately after birth greatly adds to one’s understanding of these early states of mind. [See Module Two for Bion’s Mother Infant Model for Creating a Mental Apparatus.] But they all require a foundational model of “preconceptions” combined with experience to grow into a “conception,” which can be grown into an abstract “concept” with ongoing experience.
Reading Klein takes one into a new universe of ways to think about early development. It has a significant learning curve that requires perseverance. I think it is best done with an open mind, particularly with regard to models about infancy, where genetics and brain development meet early experience. The idea of a “preconception” stands at the center of the intersection of these three areas.