Phenomenological Psychology

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Neurological Correlates for Winnicott’s Theory of the “True Self” and the “False Self”

May 5th, 2009 by David Kronemyer · 3 Comments

There is no evidence that Winnicott was interested in, or even aware of, developments in cognitive neuroscience.  That being so, his theory of the opposition between the “true self” and the “false self” in the developmental life of the child is remarkably consistent with what we now know about neural plasticity.

Brain activity is lateralized in the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere.  Each hemisphere executes different, specialized functions.  Normal right-handed persons use the left hemisphere to undertake cognitive activities such as language (including narration, interpretation) and analysis (rational thought, abstract reasoning, problem-solving).  They use the right hemisphere for feelings, emotions, intuition, and creativity.  (These are of course generalizations).

According to neurophysiologists such as Eric Kandel, the infant’s right hemisphere develops first.  It dominates information processing from birth for up to 36 months thereafter.  It develops “procedural” or “implicit memory” for non-verbal exchanges (as opposed to “explicit” or “declarative” memory, which has semantic or propositional content).  It therefore would be the one most responsive to the kinds of non-verbal cues transmitted between mother and baby, identified by Winnicott. 

Two hypotheses follow.  First, the mother also will deploy right-brain functioning in order to communicate with the baby and maximize the likelihood of successful interactions.  Second, infants who have undergone trauma during the right-brain developmental period are unlikely to remember much of what occurred.  The reason why is they lack sufficient left-brain capacity.  Only with deep analysis and simulation or even reenactment of the actual aversive situation will they be able to articulate their implicit memories and in effect convert them into explicit ones.

If Winnicott is right, then the “true self” and the “false self” must develop in the milieu of the right-brain environment.  They would have to be non-representational, non-semantic and non-propositional.  Winnicott does not contend that during the baby’s critical developmental period the true self and the false self are actual cognitive, self-conscious or reflective mental states.  They are not even unconscious or non-conscious; it would be more accurate to describe them as pre-conscious.  They are precipitates of the emotional interaction between mother and child.  And these kinds of instinctive or intuitive feelings are exactly the domain of the right brain, which makes Winnicott consistent with the actual neurology of the brain processes involved.