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Secondary process thought is a developmentally advanced form of thinking based on logic and operating in accordance with the reality principle. It is responsible for accruing knowledge and making conscious decisions.
Freud proposed secondary process as resulting from the individual’s efforts to adapt to reality and function as mature adults capable of sublimating desires into socially appropriate actions. The concept of secondary process was not well defined by Freud and subsequent writers, making it more controversial and less supported than primary process thought.
Freudian Secondary Process
Within Freud’s topographic model, secondary process characterizes the preconscious and conscious experiences of the mind. In contrast to the mode of thinking typical in dreams, he associated secondary process with waking thought, attention, judgment, and controlled action. It concerns itself with the actual content of ideas to make logical connections, ignoring the emotional intensity related to them. Whereas primary process thinking dominates in childhood, secondary process dominates adulthood though, when active cognitive control is impaired temporarily (as in sleep) or more pervasively (as in psychosis) and primary process mechanisms emerge by means of regression (Freud 1900/1953). In his later economic-dynamic model, he conceptualized secondary process as dominated by mental energy that is bound, or restrained, from freely seeking pleasure, so to allow time for mental experiments to test possible paths leading to satisfaction. Therefore, secondary process operates in service of the reality principle by seeking to match the mental image of an object with something in the real world, thereby delaying wish fulfillment until that object can be found (Freud 1911/1958). Similarly, secondary process is associated with the ego, which serves the function of translating the id’s wishes, experienced in the form of images, into contact with actual objects. The ego, and by association secondary process, exercises a regulatory function by inhibiting the id or primary process allowing for the type of delayed gratification considered the hallmark of mature adulthood (Freud 1923/1962).
Empirical Support for Secondary Process Thought
While more efforts have been made to research primary process thought, the GEOCAT (Brakel et al. 2000) assesses both primary process (attributional) and secondary process (relational) thinking by judging the similarity of geometric figures. Relational cognition concerns logical and abstract relationships between stimuli, rather than perceptual resemblance and impressions, and takes the total configuration of the components into account. Using the GEOCAT, secondary process has been found to develop by age 7 and consistently remain the predominant mode of thinking throughout life. Secondary process is more commonly used when participants are presented material supraliminally and in periods of relative psychic calm (low anxiety) (see Vanheule et al. 2011 for a summary of research using the GEOCAT). Findings supporting the existence of two cortical systems, one superordinate system that inhibits another freely mobile system, suggests possible neural correlates to the secondary and primary process, respectively (Carhart-Harris and Friston 2010).
Linguistics and the Secondary Process
Secondary process thinking makes logical and conceptual connections between words, while primary process thinking is associative and builds on the similarity between word sounds (Shevrin and Fisher 1967). Connections have been made between linguistics and the language of dreams such that dreams or fantasy images, like word sounds, are associated with primary process, while the structure of dreams, like the structure of sentences, results from secondary process (Edelson 1972).
Controversies and Revisions of Secondary Process Thought
Freud wrote more extensively on primary process than secondary process and has been criticized for taking as fact that secondary process, or conscious thought, was so well understood that he could merely allude to it with confidence (Holt 1989). Due to Freud’s conceptualization of secondary process as running parallel to and excluding primary process, it cannot translate to the current understanding of an executive functioning capacity that coordinates multiple mental functions, including primary process thought (Holt 1989). As such, it is unclear what function secondary process serves. Some argue that primary and secondary processes are interrelated and use each other as means of generating complex mental phenomena. For instance, primary process is associated with affects, while secondary process is associated with concepts. During language acquisition the preverbal, primary process mode of thought becomes embedded in the world of concepts, represented by secondary process. As a result, there is a dialectical relationship between affective and conceptual thought such that primary process manifests as the emotional aspect of thought, informing conscious decision-making. Dreams, art, jokes, and pathological states always employ primary process thinking in the context of formerly acquired secondary process structures (Soldt 2006). Mature cognitive functioning in any area requires a balance between primary and secondary process operations (Noy 1979). For instance, while primary process has been linked to creativity, secondary process must exert integrative control over primary process manifestations in order to allow an individual to execute creative ideas in reality (Suler 1980). From these perspectives, primary process and secondary process thought inform each other to give conceptual and emotional meaning to cognition and communicate nonverbal material in a way that can be understood by others.
Freud’s concept of secondary process as a more mature and reality-based system running parallel to primary process has been criticized for being poorly defined and in light of current understanding of the brain’s executive function role of coordinating mental activity, including brain functions akin to primary process. However, empirical studies have found support for related concepts such as relational cognition which develops by age 7 and remains the dominant mode of cognition throughout life (Brakel and Shevrin 2003) and a superordinate cortical system that restrains a more freely moving cortical system (Carhart-Harris and Friston 2010). As such, primary and secondary process may be interrelated means of generating complex mental phenomena that integrate both affective and conceptual understanding such as humor, art, and the creative process.
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