A Territory Bigger Than Any Map: Reality Tunnels, Perinatal Matrices and Psychoanalysis

Medea, Alphonse Mucha
Medea, Alphonse Mucha

Medea, Alphonse Mucha

Pychoanalysis privileges the intrapersonal (and even the transpersonal) at the expense of the interpersonal. D.W. Winnicott wrote that “There is no society except as a structure brought about…by individuals”, a philosophy later mirrored by Margaret Thatcher in her infamous proclamation, “…there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”

In object relations, there is no material connection between human psyches – only a kind of modelling, continually confirmed or conflicted by reality. Recent research suggests a deeper interrelation, demonstrating inter-brain sychronisation during social interaction.

The significance of the developmental triad in the work of Klein and Winnicott, excludes not only the innate developmental factors we now know to be significant in the formation of personality – genes, epigenetic heritable changes in protein synthesis, intrauterine environment, exposure to cognitive stimulation in early life etc) but also the social factors examined by social psychologists like Albert Bandura: Those aspects of personal development that rely not only on the context of the immediate family, but wider community, society, culture, subculture, religion etc.

Daniel Costigan once said ‘demand characteristics collapse the wave function of personality’. The developmental theory adhered to (whether it be Winnicott’s emphasis on the literal transitional object as a totemic referent for the development of individuation, or Klien and Bion’s emphasis on the breast as container for emotional and symbolic development), delimits the expression and formation of the client in therapy (and the therapist in training).

Robert Anton Wilson called such perspectives ‘reality tunnels’, specific matrices of belief and salience which attend to some stimuli at the exclusion of others. All perspectives or models are reality tunnels, necessitating a delimited collection of information in order to avoid the ‘map as big as the territory’ described in Borge’s beautiful story ‘On Exactitude in Science’.

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, Translated by Andrew Hurley Copyright Penguin 1999

It seems almost certain that Borge’s story was influenced by the writings of Alfred Korzybski, who famously remarked, “The map is not the territory”. Korzybski, whose work prefigured that of post-structuralists like Foucault, Lacan and Jean Baudrillard, was the founder of General Semantics. General semantics attempted to develop methodologies for making explicit the ways in which language and discourse shapes how we think. Korzybski influenced Robert Anton Wilson, and the beat iconoclast William S. Burroughs studied his theories. Korbinski’s goal of abstracting consciousness to remove the power of reactive thought / emotion is embodied in contemporary cognitive and behavioural therapies. For example in the diffusion techniques that are a central part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Ironically, as with so many techniques of liberation, Korzybski’s work has been subverted to obtain goals diametrically opposed to those of it’s creator.

Psychoanalysic theories of personality which account for later / higher emotional development that provided for in the oscillating dynamics of paranoid schizoid / depressive positions as outlined by Klein, have an inevitable appeal. One such model was cooked up by the transpersonal psychoanalyst Stanislav Grof, who in attempting to build a non-ethnocentric, cogno-centric psychology, situated both a diathesis for psychological distress and a foundation for higher states of awareness / unity in birth trauma and interuterine distress. Expanding on Otto Rank‘s ideas, Grof termed these experiences perinatal matricies. While his model is certainly speculative and pseudoscientific – such labels are equally applicable to both transitional phenomena and ‘the breast’ in object relations. Grof’s insight into pre-birth trauma and its impact on functioning comes from analysis of the shamanistic, meditative and psychedelic experience. His perinatal matricies 1 – 4, represent these experiences as related to the ‘consecutive stages of biological birth’ as follows (articulated in his book ‘The Transpersonal Visions).

1: Gestation – related to experiences of physical connection with the mother (which serve as prototypic attachment), ‘oceanic’ and ‘cosmic identifications’, in other words a continuity with the universe (as might be experienced at higher levels of Daoist or Hindu meditative practice); chemical disruption of this stage of development, is experienced as a threat to life. Severe disruption of this first stage of development is in Gofman’s system associated with deep emotional identifications of the hellish or heavenily.

2 – The contraction of the uterus – associated with the pain and electrochemical stimulation of the birthing – results in inevitable trauma. Traumatic contractions result in trauma that will manifest later as aggressive, submissive and helpless patterns of relating. This is linked with later depression and inferiority as well as compulsive and addictive behaviour and even psychosis (if deepened with later childhood trauma). They are also associated with clean / unclean splitting and fixations, e.g.: OCD.

3 – The birth canal – pressures and electrical discharges – resulting in foetal anxiety, pain and potential suffocation trauma – if unmitigated by strong parental or substitutive containment experiences, this can result in neuroticism and persecutory religiosity.  This is related to sadistic, masochistic and aggressive sexual and scatological ‘deviations’ and positions.

4 – Early natal (Death / rebirth) – new stimuli both comforting and distressing – excessive imposition of environment can result in later feelings of failure. The end of one existence (an aquatic, comforting and constricted one), is replaced with another (with more intense sensory experiences and individuation). Adequate early natal comfort emphasises feelings of connection to nature and aliveness and divine redemption. Painful early natal experiences (rooted in illness, cutting of the chord or circumcision for example) can result in later somatic problems (e.g.: autoimmune disorders).

These matricies imply a treatment model which addresses primitive traumatic experiences and allows for ‘non-ordinary’ states of consciousness (e.g.: experiences of the transpersonal and transcendental, communicative psychosis etc). They also provide a more coherent explanation of what Freud described as thanatos, a severely maladaptive drive toward destruction or death.

Grof also outlined a matrix of transpersonal experience of transcendence of self (collective and extra-collective consciousness and identification), of time, and the experience of the mythological realm. This later experience relates to Hindu and Daoist ideas of collective divinity (atma-brahmin).

Grofs model is certainly outre, but it demonstrates how arbitrarily fixated psychoanalysis has always been on the period of early infancy and its supposed phenomenological content. Real development occurs on a continuum from conception to death, and there is no reason to assume unconscious processes begin at birth, and solidify in latency. The problem of course is, as with all ‘depth psychology’, no theory can hold a greater claim to hermeneutic validity than any other. The very best we can hope for, as practitioners or supplicants of psychotherapy, is to find a model that describes and enables us.


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