The Interpretation of Sensations

In attempting to understand how feelings can be "sublimated" by means of metaphor, I have found it useful to assume that there is an initial "raw" bodily sensation, which, when interpreted, becomes a feeling.4 Let us hypothesize that an unconscious metaphoric process interprets sensations, which we then experience as feelings.51 suggest that raw sensations are interpreted by unconscious processes entailing memory and metaphor, the results of which are then experienced as feelings. This method provides a "raw" sensation with contextual information. This theory assumes that internal sensations are processed in a manner analogous to the perception of external objects.

That perception can be thought of as the interpretation of sensation receives some support in neuroscience from Walter Freeman's (1999b) investigation of olfaction in rabbits. He observed that during the stage of sensation, which consists of the excitation of the receptor cells in the nose, there is no extraction of information or meaning. Perception occurs "behind" the receptor cells; it is there that the olfactory bulb and the brain construct meaning. Freeman sees the "raw" olfactory sensation as information that is fleeting and evanescent. He states, "The entire body of the individual's experience is collapsed within a few milliseconds in its engagement with a sample from the world. The sense data are transcended and expunged so as to minimize clutter" (Freeman, personal communication). After the sensation is interpreted, the sensory surface is wiped clean. Freeman's research confirms an insight of Freud's described in his paper "A note upon the 'mystic writing pad' " (1925), where he speculated that the perceptual surface of consciousness (sensation) needs to be constantly refreshed by deletion, that "unlimited receptive capacity and memory are mutually exclusive."

These observations reinforce the supposition that different cerebral domains operate in accordance with different rules. Employing this supposition, I would propose that the perception of feelings utilizes different neural rules as compared, for example, to visual perception. Visual perception, in contrast to the perception of feelings, is lawful and not subject to interpretation by the individual. The cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman (1998) described how we construct visual worlds from ambiguous images by means of certain specified, impersonal rules. In contrast, the perception of feelings relies on the corporeal imagination, which in turn is determined by the history of the self.

You may question whether it is possible to experience a bodily sensation that is devoid of any context. Is this idea anything more than a thought experiment? Can we experience an erotic sensation before it is interpreted and provided with a memorial context? Whether or not such raw sensations can in fact be introspected, let us at least consider this as a possibility. Mark Solms and Edward Nersessian, in their account of Freud's affect theory (Solms and Nersessian 1999), remind us that Freud conceptualized feelings as the equivalent and counterpart of sensory qualia, such as seeing the color red. We need to be reminded again that consciousness is Janus-faced. Consciousness has an internal perceptual surface that is directed towards the body. Feelings are the sensations, arising from within the body, analogous to the sensations provided by those sensory portals that receive their inputs from the external world.

Perception of a feeling, in contrast to sensation, would consist then of a process in which the sensation is linked to memory and metaphor, providing it with contextual information. Metaphor mediates, categorizes, and thus organizes the perception of bodily sensations.

Metaphor, in addition to the cognitive function of interpreting sensations, may contribute to a simple displacement of feeling. Metaphor transfers meaning between dissimilar domains, which allows for the play of similarity and difference. Anxiety and sexual arousal are experienced as similar and dissimilar forms of excitement, so by means of metaphor someone can experience the eroticization of anxiety. It may be arbitrary whether one describes this as a sublimation. Whether one recognizes a feeling as sublimated may depend on whether feelings are merely conflated or actually transformed. Perhaps the transformation of feeling reflects a more complex interpretation of sensation. In any case, sublimation can be better understood as a complex interpretation of feeling, rather than as a desexualization of instinct, as Freud believed.

The distinction between metaphoric transfer and meta-phoric transformation of feeling can be illustrated if we turn to psychopathology. Psychopathology can be viewed as nature's experiment in which a vital component is subtracted or removed, as in a thought experiment. Not infrequently, when someone is afflicted with schizophrenia, there is a cognitive deficit in which the patient suffers from a loss of the transformative power of metaphor. The British psychoanalyst Hanna Segal gave the following account of a schizophrenic patient in a mental hospital: "He was once asked by his doctor why it was that since his illness he had stopped playing the violin? He replied with some violence: 'Why? do you expect me to masturbate in public?'" (1957). I can recall a similar observation regarding a patient who was severely inhibited in the use of his intellect. Unlike Hanna Segal's patient, he was not in any sense psychotic, yet he believed that the pleasure and excitement that he could obtain from using his mind was forbidden to him as if it were similar to masturbation. In both these examples there was a sensation of pleasurable excitement, in one case from playing a musical instrument, in the other from using one's mind. The sensation of pleasurable excitement became a feeling when it was conflated by means of a metaphoric similar ity. Because of this similarity, pleasure from the use of the body/mind was conflated with the memory of the sensations associated with masturbation. An unconscious meta-phoric process condensed the actions of playing the violin, using one's mind, and stroking one's penis. Sensation was processed by metaphor to produce a feeling that was lacking in complexity, in contrast to a more multifaceted metaphori-zation of feeling.

The failure of sublimation in these examples have been customarily described as evidence of concrete thinking, a loss of a capacity for abstract thought, or an impairment of the symbolic function.6 I would understand this failure of sublimation as a loss of perceptual complexity. As metaphor is defined as the transfer of meaning between different domains, it would be not quite accurate to describe these examples as a failure of the symbolic function or an absence of the use of metaphor. The failure of sublimation in these examples represents a constriction of interpretation that would otherwise transform sensation. This inability to transform raw sensations appears to be the result of a cognitive failure, a constriction of the open web of associations generated by metaphor. In health, metaphor evokes a plurality of meaning, what linguists call polysemy. Metaphor also allows for a play of similarity and difference, resulting in a complex perception of a feeling. The schizophrenic patient who equated his violin with his penis suffered, as do traumatized patients, from a cognitive deficit resulting in the degradation of an unconscious metaphoric process.

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