Value and Cathexis

When James spoke of consciousness increasing its efficiency by loading its dice, had he been alive today he might have described its loading its dice as an expression of value, as probabilistic expectancies. Many in the neuroscience community have adopted the term value, familiar to moral philosophers, to denote the salience implicit in emotion and feeling. I am not sure who was the first to introduce this term into neuroscience, but the concept of value is central to Edelman's theory of neuronal selection. As with James' term loaded dice, value implies a bias derived ultimately from the constraints of evolution and resulting in a probabilistic expectancy. In Edelman's theory, the homeostatic requirements of the individual exert a bias on memory and perception. Value is a necessary component of the selection process that occurs within reentry. (Reentry is a term introduced by Edelman [1987, 1989, 1992] referring to the brain's coordinated signaling between redundant, anatomically separated structures that map value-laden categories.) The term value therefore condenses aspects of memory, emotions, and motivation. In this sense, it crosses any imagined border or divide between body and mind.

A very similar border-crossing idea of selection is implicit in the Freudian term cathexis. As with value, the term cathexis is also a metaphor implying a certain quantity. For Freud, the quantity was that of a presumed psychic energy that could be attached to a thought, a part of the body, or an object in the world. Cathexis crosses the body/mind boundary, as it unites both memory and embodied desire. When an object is cathected, there is no distinction between mind and body. The term cathexis is a neologism invented by Freud's translator James Strachey to render Freud's term

Besetzung, but we are informed that Freud was unhappy with Strachey's neologism because of his dislike of technical terms (Laplanche and Pontalis 1973). Besetzung is a German colloquial expression that implies taking something over and using it in a certain way. It often calls to mind a military image of capturing and holding some place, which is then said to be besetzt, a metaphor that implies force and quantity (Ornston 1985). This term first appeared in "The project for a scientific psychology" (1985). Freud used it to denote elements that were "filled up" with psychic energy; in this context, cathexis was thought of as similar to an electrical charge that can be applied, in parallel fashion, to neurons, affects, or ideas. In "The project for a scientific psychology," Freud identified a neural system that combined both motive and memory. In this preanalytic publication, Freud explained motivation not as a drive but as an aspect of memory. The theoretical importance of Freud's combining motive and memory was recognized by the neurobiologist Karl Pribram (Pribram and Gill 1976), as well as the cognitive scientists Don Tucker and Phan Luu (1998), who note that if memory is linked to motivation, cathexis has an adaptive implication, as does the concept of intentionality, where motive and memory are combined. "The project for a scientific psychology" was written decades before Freud developed what would become his theory of instincts. Had he continued to combine memory with motivation, his theory of instincts would have assumed a form that is more consonant with contemporary neuroscience.

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