Communicative Psychoanalytic Theory of Human Development

Part One: Introduction, Methodology and Theorems

By V. A. Bonac


Communicative Psychoanalytic Theory of Human Development - Part One: Introduction, Methodology and Theorems By V. A. Bonac (Reprinted from IJCPP, 1994, Vol. 9, No.4)  

In this paper, I will present an outline for a communicative theory of human development and introduce the basic methodological concepts for its empirical basis. The course of the emotional development of the growing human has been found to be a function of the inborn capacity for unconscious perceptions of the "mother" by the growing infant from birth on. For the purposes of communicative psychoanalytic investigation I have defined mother as follows:

The noun "mother" represents the totality of the conscious and unconscious interactions of the mothering figure, or figures, with the growing human.

The adjective "unconscious" is used as defined by Robert Langs as the qualifier that specifies the meaning perceived by the Deep Unconscious System of the human mind (see Langs, 1984, 1988). It needs to be emphasized that both definitions, i.e., for "unconscious" and for "mother", have been operationalized by the two authors, respectively, by means of the underlying mental processes they describe as was discovered based on repetitive empirical observations within the context of known conditions determining the interaction. These known conditions are dependent and independent variables of the "frame" defined by Robert Langs as follows:

...a metaphor for the implicit and explicit ground rules of psychotherapy or psychoanalysis. The image implies that the ground rules create a basic hold for the therapeutic interaction, for both the patient and the therapist, and that they create a distinctive set of conditions within the frame that differentiate it, in actuality and functionally, from the conditions outside the frame. The metaphor requires, however, an appreciation for the human qualities of the frame and should not be used to develop an inanimate or overly rigid conception. (Langs, 1978, p.632; Langs 1980, p.526; Langs, 1981, pp.729-730.)

This paper is the first in a series under the conjunct title: The Communicative Psychoanalytic Theory of Human Development. The papers to follow will include discussions of the following topics that I consider not only directly relevant to the issues of human development but intertwined in a complex network of causal relationships:

(1) A theoretical study comparing the findings of my communicative investigation and theoretical propositions of developmental issues with the findings and developmental theories of other psychoanalytic schools;

(2) A discussion of the type and quality of data derived from the observation of pre-verbal and reluctantly verbal children, using communicative methodology for observation;

(3) A discussion of the process of data interpretation using communicative methodology for formulating hypotheses and interpretations of communicative data in pre-verbal children;

(4) A communicative methodology for the psychoanalytic investigation of child/mother interactions;

(5) A communicative theory of the development of unconscious perceptions in humans from birth on;

(6) A hypothesis of a causal relationships between the processes observed in children (age four and older) within the therapeutic interaction and the psychological processes observed in the same children in interactions with people outside of therapy in their daily lives;

(7) The empirically derived aspects of the child/mother "frame";

(8) A hypothesis explaining "repetition compulsion" by relating the type of interactions in infancy and in early childhood to the type of interactions in adults on the basis of the similarity of the "frame"; and

(9) A communicative theory of the development of the bi-personal "frame" from birth on as the foundation for the empirically derived ethics of any relationship with another human or non-human "object".

The Empirical Foundation for the Theory:

The communicative psychoanalytic theory of human development presented in this paper is based on the naturalistic observations of children from birth on as they interacted with their caretakers, mostly their mothers. Any genetic data, derived from the early memory material of adult patients as communicated manifestly in sessions, is considered to be as secondary evidence. Genetic information is thus taken as an indication of the possibility - and therefore the starting point for an empirical investigation - that the effects of all emotionally significant interactions that take place in infancy and early childhood may retain their dynamic force throughout our lives and can be observed in the present as dynamically triggered, unconsciously communicated meaning in such situations that bear emotional similarity to the situations experienced in the distant past, including in the earliest days of our existence. The following Postulate 1 of my theory is, I believe, also a principal proposition that can be readily deduced from the interpretations of the clinical material (Langs, 1976, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981) and from the theories of communicative therapeutic technique (Langs, 1982) of Robert Langs:

Postulate 1: The emotional similarity of an interpersonal situation is the equivalent of the frame similarity of any other interpersonal situation, regardless of the elapsed time. The emotional similarity is operationalized as the same configuration of active specific frame-breaking and frame-securing actions. Observations and Interpretations of Data
The great majority of the observations of infants under the age of 12 months were of breast-feed infants. All observed children were born healthy to healthy mothers. Observations of three of the children were continuous from birth to their adolescence and included monitoring of a total of over 10,000 breast-feeding intervals: one year for one child, two years for another child, and close to three years for the third child.

When interpreting the observational data of children I took

into consideration the wealth of empirical information compiled by child researchers from various psychoanalytic schools as well as the exciting findings of researchers from the fields of clinical psychology. On some occasions, my interpretations of their data differed from the interpretations offered by the authors. Most of the differences are a direct consequence of my particular focus on the deeply unconscious meaning, as opposed to the manifest and preconscious meaning, of the same material. Such research focus adds new information for inquiry from the same existing pool of data as not only the manifest but also the derivative meaning of the same data is considered.

Communicative Research Methodology

I have attempted to formulate the essentials of an empirically derived communicative theory of human development, based on the data of my naturalistic observations of children that is informed, but not influenced, by historical precursors. The meaning of "naturalistic", as used in this paper, is closer to the meaning given in the fields of Ethics and Philosophy, than to the meanings commonly used in Psychology and Social Science.

I made an effort to ensure that my familiarity with the various developmental theories of psychoanalytic writers would not influence my empirical observations, my interpretations of data, and the resulting theoretical conclusions. My understanding of psychological processes, as they became observable in the course of a childís life as well as during therapeutic sessions with children, and the formulation of my hypotheses, are derived from the wealth of the works of Robert Langs.

My comprehension of the complexities pertaining to the empirical investigation of the experiential aspects of the interactional phenomena, an understanding that is profoundly different from the classically psychoanalytical, was achieved mainly through years of training in self-processing. Self-processing, a clinical technique developed by Robert Langs in the eighties (see, Langs, 1992), is the outcome of the application of communicative psychoanalysis to the efforts at deep self understanding within the interactional context of the student-tutor relationship. This new appreciation of the deeply unconscious experiential aspects of the interactional phenomena was, I believe, the foundation for my new understanding of the otherwise elusive child/mother interactions.

It is the unique understanding of deeply unconscious interactions, as they become intelligible via unconscious verbal communications, that has sprung from the pen and teaching of Robert Langs, that inspired me to look at the growing human being from another perspective. The new body of knowledge about human interactions on the deeply unconscious level that comprises the core of communicative psychoanalysis grew out of decades of naturalistic observations of the therapeutic interaction and resulted in the publication of the series of empirical studies (Langs, 1976, 1976a, 1978, 1980, 1981) as well as in the development of theories of unconscious communication and unconscious perception (Langs, 1976, 1982, 1984, 1984/85, 1988) with the power to predict. Without the background of Langs's empirically derived theories of human interactions, unconscious perception, and unconscious communication my theory of development would not be possible. This communicative theory of child's emotional development is therefore a natural extension of the work of Robert Langs.

A critical and integral part of my work, which is also the part that is, I believe, essentially different from all other methods of psychoanalytical investigations of human development, is the method I used in this endeavor: I applied the rudiments of the communicative psychoanalytic method of investigating the process of human interactions. Although I modified some of its techniques, but did not alter its fundamental principles becasue of the different quality of the available data. The communicative research method of investigating the psychotherapeutic interaction between the psychotherapist - or psychoanalyst - and the patient was first developed in the early seventies, and later perfected into a complex set of inter-related tasks by Robert Langs (see Langs, 1978, 1988, 1988a, 1988b).

The fundamental principles of this research method require the execution of distinct tasks in a strictly defined sequence: (a) naturalistic observation of the process - listening to the manifest and latent meaning of verbalizations of the patient and the therapist/analyst within the context of the on-going realities of the therapeutic process; (b) formulation of communicative interpretations (i.e., hypotheses) based on the totality of conscious and unconscious meanings of the verbally communicated material as they relate to the realities of the therapeutic context; (c) searching for the validation of the original hypotheses in the patientís unconsciously communicated material that immediately followed the interpretation offered by the therapist/analyst; and finally, (d) a synthesis of the deep understanding of the interactions only if the original hypothesis was indeed found to have been subsequently validated as defined by the communicative method.

The communicative research method, as developed by Langs, relies totally on the verbally communicated material: not only is the verbal material the only data that can be interpreted unequivocally by trained observers, verbal material is also the data that is invariably produced by patients of all ages, from the time they can speak, if they are given the opportunity to express themselves in any way they can (free association) in a secure context of their therapy.

Communicative Methodology for the Study of Interactions with Pre-Verbal Infants: Basic Elements and Axiom 1

Although the principles of the investigative method I used with pre-verbal infants, were the same as those that form the essential methodological tasks developed by Langs, the specific ways of achieving these tasks needed to be adapted to the specific, non-verbally communicated material. This is obviously different in an infant as well as in the mother communicating with an infant, but not different in verbally reported experiences by the mother, for example, comments by the mother while observing a breast-feeding interval. "Verbal" is taken to mean "pertaining to words", while "non-verbal" communication was found to include a great variety of communicative modes, including voice-sounds in their full complexity of nuances. The main modifications to the communicative research methodology of interactions, developed with, and intended for, verbal people, were made in the type of the data considered communicatively interpretable as well as communicatively essential to the understanding of the child/mother interaction.

The basic principles of the communicative method were therefore applied not only to the verbalizations that comprised unambiguous sentences representing thoughts, but also to other modes of human conscious and unconscious expression. Thus, crying, smiling, and the various expressions of the face and body, etc., were included in the data for analysis. Although a point can easily be made that such non-verbal data cannot be unequivocally interpreted in their total complexity and with all the nuances of meaning, a point fully acknowledged by the author, it is also true that certain non-verbal communications and expressions are unambiguous enough that meaningful conclusions can be made with much certitude and little margin of error. For example, it is true that a sudden cry from an infant can be as much the result of a sudden somatic pain (originating in the infant, such as colic pain) as it can represent the infantís negative response to the motherís input that immediately preceded the cry. However, it is also true that a sudden cry cannot represent the infantís positive, that is pleasurable, response to the motherís action. If this characterization is nevertheless considered open for methodological debate, then my above appraisal of the understanding of the infantís reaction must be taken as an explicit assumption of my study and as Axiom 1 of my theory of development.

Communicative Theory of Emotional Development:

Central to the theory of emotional development presented here is the discovery, based on empirical studies, by Robert Langs that humans, in situations of danger, verbally communicate veridical perceptions of interactions with others outside of their consciousness and in such a way that an unambiguous decoding of these communications is possible when the specific triggering event, which creates the danger situation, is known. Such unconscious communications of veridical perceptions are observable in the psychotherapy session as verbal derivative communications in adults (Langs, 1976, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981) and in children (R. Langs, 1990, personal communication) when the specific current conditions of therapy (the context) are known. The finding of the capacity for unconscious perception, and of unambiguous verbal communication of these perceptions, was extensively confirmed in my study of the therapeutic process with children aged four to twelve (Bonac, 1991). Unconscious communications of children have been found to reflect the unconscious information processing of a sensitive, responsive, and wise Deep Unconscious System of the Mind (see, Langs, 1988). These findings form the basis of communicative psychoanalysis with adults and children.

My thinking was also greatly influenced by the writings of Harold Searles (1965, 1975, 1986) who was among the first to observe that his patients could perceive him unconsciously. Although Searles did not develop a comprehensive theory of human development, his discerning eye and unerring honesty about the interactive aspects of the therapeutic process greatly contributed to my learning about the genetical aspects of current interactions.

 The goal of organizing my observations of children was to develop a theory of human development that would consider the new discoveries of unconscious perception and communication and a theory that would explain, in an empirically testable and predictable manner, the healthy and the pathological interactions of children with their caretakers.

I consider that the following propositions, related to the older child and adult, are directly implied in the clinical and theoretical works and teachings of Robert Langs - these same propositions were also confirmed by my own observations:

(1) Principal Theorem 1: The capacity to unconsciously perceive interactions with others in a veridical manner is an inborn capacity of the human mind;

 (2) Theorem 2: Unconscious perceptions of interactions with others are basic determinants of emotional development, healthy or pathological, at any level of human development.

(3) Lemma 1 of Theorem 2: The growth in the content, that is the growth in the amount and in the complexity, of the unconsciously perceived and processed information is not a function of, and is therefore independent of, the level of impairment in the mental health and cognitive capacities of the growing human.

(4) Corollary 1 to Theorem 2: : The content of the unconscious veridical perceptions, and of the unconscious processing of these perceptions, greatly influences the cognitive, emotional, and somatic states of the growing infant starting from the beginning of life.

(5) Corollary 2 to Theorem 2: The reality of the unconscious intent of an action, by others or by self, is a major influence on human emotional development.

(6) Theorem 3: The influences of the unconscious veridical perceptions, and of the unconscious processing of these perceptions, on cognitive, emotional, and somatic states of the growing human, are potentially reversible through therapeutic efforts of communicative psychoanalysis.

 (7) Theorem 4: The content of the unconscious veridical perceptions, and the unconscious processing of these perceptions, are independent of the mental or emotional impairment of the growing human.

The starting point for my own thinking about the development of personality ware the following propositions that reflected my observations of the growing infant (Please note that the numbering of propositions is sequential, regardless of authorship, for reasons of clarity and wholeness of theory formation):


(8) Principal Theorem 5: The capacity to influence others via various modes of communicating with others, including conscious and unconscious sending and receiving of messages, is an inborn capacity for learning of communicative skills which originates in the powerful survival needs of the growing human.

(9) Theorem 6: The capacity to unconsciously process the perceived interactions with others in a manner that reflects the survival needs of the growing human is an inborn capacity of the human mind;

(10) Lemma 1 of Theorem 6: The mode of transmitting information to others of unconscious perceptions of interactions with others, and the mode of transmitting information of the consciously experienced emotional and somatic states, are predominantly by way of the transmitting of sound, starting at the beginning of life.

(11) Theorem 7: The inborn capacity for unconscious veridical perception is directly related to the powerful inborn survival mechanisms, both, somatic and psychological.

    (12) Lemma 1 of Theorem 7: The informational content, that is, the amount and complexity of the information pertaining to the unconscious veridical perceptions is a function of the developmental stage of the child's perceptual organs: (1) it is less than the available outside information; (2) it is limited by the perceptual capacities, and (3) it is reduced to the levels of the complexity of information that the healthy child is developmentally capable to process.
  1. Lemma 2 of Theorem 7: The growth in the content, that is, the growth in the amount and in the complexity, of the unconsciously perceived and processed information is a function of the somatic growth in the childís sensory-motor apparatus.
 (14) Theorem 8: The content of the unconscious veridical perceptions, and of the unconscious processing of these perceptions, is limited by the content of the available information, and is a function of the inborn survival needs of the growing human.

(15) Theorem 9: The meaning of the unconscious perception of any specific action that changes the frame of the bi-personal field is equivalent to the ethical evaluation of that frame-changing action.

(16) Corollary 1 to Theorem 9: Ethical evaluation of any one specific action is then empirically defined within the bi-personal field by the data derived from the unconscious perception of that one specific frame-changing interaction.(Note: This Corollary, although independently observed by author, can be readily deduced from the clinical works and teachings of Robert Langs)

(17) Corollary 2 to Theorem 9: The ethical criteria that are an integral part of any inter-personal relationship, and that define that relationship, termed the bi-personal "frame", are then empirically determinable from the naturalistic observation of a minimum set of frame-changing interactions from the beginning of life.

(18) Principal Theorem 11: A communicative psychoanalytic theory of the development of the bi-personal "frame" from birth on is built on a set of theorems which form the foundation for the "empirical ethics" of any human relationship.

 The Inborn Capacity for Unconscious Perception

One of the most important findings one can draw from the clinical studies by researchers in the field of communicative psychoanalysis is the observable fact that patients who are permitted to talk freely in the session will communicate unconscious perceptions of the therapist's actions regardless of their age (the earliest age of a documented case of a child in communicative treatment, that was completely validated, was four; see Bonac, 1991), regardless of the degree of impairment of their mental health, and regardless of their cognitive abilities . Mentally retarded children communicate unconsciously the same type of meaning as mentally normal (Langs, 1991, personal communication). There are clear differences in the style of communicating that affects the quantity and clarity of data. These differences are very similar to the categories of communicative types in adults as described by Langs (e.g., 1977, 1982). Mendelsohn (1985) wrote on the structural foundations of unconscious perception in the earliest phases of development. An original contribution by Kumin (1993) compared the communicative types of adults, as developed by Langs, with the findings of the infant development research by Ainsworth, Gaddini, Weil, and Greenspan as they relate to the disturbances in "pre-object relatedness".

Psychoanalytical theorists of human development have described the "mother" that matters to the child in many ways, yet the views of all of them were, I think, expressed in terms that were basically phenomenological and intrapsychic: What mattered in the psychology of the child was the manner in which the child experienced the mother, what the childís mind "did with" the introjections of, and identifications with, the mothering figure. The most prominent influence on the emotional development was attributed to the role of the phantasy (e.g., Klein, 1932, 1946) created within the childís mind. This potent intrapsychic element was considered to be related to the reality of the environment, yet it poorly resembled the reality of the "motherís" actions and emotions. Rather, the phantasy was regarded a reaction to, and an intrapsychic elaboration of, the "mother".

It seems to me that such views may take into account the reality of the specific vulnerabilities of a child as well as the reality of some aspect of the action by the mother. What they do not reflect, that I have found to be the dominant force affecting the emotional functioning of any human being, regardless of age, is the reality of the unconscious intent and of the unconscious aspects of any human action. A similar view was occasionally recognized, but most often implied, by psychoanalytic writers of different schools of thought. The impact on the child of a reality action by the mother was acknowledged in their observations of the mother/child interactions, or else was recognized as their understanding of the genetic material from adult patients in therapy. Nevertheless, these views were not made an essential part of the psychoanalytic theories of development.

I would like to present another, communicative view which acknowledges: (a) the reality of the unconscious aspect of the intent - or function - of an action; (b) the reality of the unconscious aspect of an action; and (c) the capacity of the human of any age to veridically unconsciously perceive both, the unconsciously intended and effected actions by the mother within the scope of the reality that can be perceived with the currently available capacities of the sensory/motor apparatus.

For example: A child in the kitchen observes that the mother goes out of the kitchen into the dining room and closes the door. A seven year old knows that the mother can be either in the next room or else she could have gone further. A one year old knows that the mother is now in the next room. An infant "knows" that the mother has disappeared. A hungry one-month old "knows" that there is no more "mother".

The childís capacity for conscious and preconscious reality perception of the motherís action is correct, undistorted, within the scope of their sensory and motor capabilities of gathering data about their environment. I believe that this limited undistorted reality then serves as the backdrop for unconscious perceptions of intent and actions and for the unconscious processing of these perceptions.

For example, a one month-old infant cannot walk out of the crib and check whether the mother is in the dining room. The same one-month old infant "knows" that the person picking him or her up this time is not the "mother". She smells foreign, that is, the mother wears a perfume for the first time. We do not expect that the human, after having been acquainted with the world for only one month, knows what "wearing perfume" means, or to know about the infantís own reliance on the smell for orientation to the environment, the smell of motherís milk being one such important "piece" of information. In fact, we observe that the mother wearing a perfume for the first time needs to "convince" her infant that she is indeed his or her mother by handling her infant the way she most often does, thus familiarizing her infant with another aspect of her person by adding another "piece" of information to the childís precarious data base of cognitive and emotional experiencing.

The unconscious perception by the growing human of an action, or of the intent of an action, by others is thus from birth on veridical, not distorted - it is, however, limited by many cognitive and sensory/motor developmental factors.

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(Reprinted from the IJCPP, 1994, Vol. 9, No.4)


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