Imagination and the Meaningful Brain (Book Review)

Author:  Modell, Arnold
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003
Reviewed By: Polly Young-Eisendrath, Fall 2005, pp. 55-57

Metaphor, Meaning, and the Science of Making Sense of Ourselves

The popular New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, in his best-selling book Blink (2005), writes appreciatively of psychoanalysis:

Our unconscious reactions come out of a locked room, and we can’t look inside that room. But with experience we become expert at using our behavior and our training to interpret –and decode – what lies behind our snap judgments and first impressions. It’s a lot like what people do when they are in psychoanalysis: they spend years analyzing their unconscious with the help of a trained therapist until they begin to get a sense of how their mind works. (p. 183)

In his new book, Arnold Modell provides a complex and precise theory for how and why psychoanalysts and their patients develop this kind of expertise. For the past two decades, I have been a fan of Modell’s writing and ideas, following his work from Psychoanalysis in a New Context (1984) through his other two books to this one. I believe that Modell consistently writes in a vein that is rich with theoretical insight and clinical practicality. In many ways, this current work is his magnus opus because it weaves together his major lines of thinking from his earlier books. Modell argues here for a “biology of meaning” or a neural-symbolic theory of the mind. He synthesizes relevant work from neuroscience, the study of metaphor, affect theory and science, and his own clinical experience to present a tapestry of ideas that is extremely difficult for this reviewer to convey comprehensively and accurately. Even with my knowledge of Modell’s previous books, his influence on my own writings and clinical approach, I still find it daunting to review this current book. Consequently, I have held onto it for more than a year and read it twice. But the time has arrived to try to do justice to a very important paradigm-shifting work.

Years ago, when I was a doctoral student in psychology under the inimitable direction of Jane Loevinger at Washington University, I learned to study many theories and to hold each one lightly. Loevinger insisted that we use different theories as lenses through which to see and examine our object of investigation: “ego development” in her language, the subjective experience of being human in mine. And so, I found a familiar resonance when I read:

The investigation of meaning requires an interdisciplinary effort that includes the philosophy of language, linguistics, cognitive science, neurobiology, and psychoanalysis. All of these studies differ in their observational methods, and every specialist, like the proverbial blind men and the elephant, will approach the problem from their own perspective. I will claim that the third-person perspective of neuroscience, in its attempt to find the neural correlates of psychological processes, needs also to be augmented by the phenomenology of introspection and intersubjective knowledge of a two-person relationship. (p. 1-2)

I couldn’t agree more. Gladwell, I noted to myself, is writing about language, linguistics, cognitive science, neurobiology and introspection in Blink, his acclaimed work on intuition. Why is his point of view so welcome (a continuing best-seller on The New York Times list, as I write) when Modell’s appeal to augment neuroscience with introspection and intersubjective knowledge already sounds like a lone voice echoing through the academic halls of psychology and psychiatry?

My short-answer is that psychology and psychiatry in America have sold out to the marketplace—known as “psychopharmacology.” Back in graduate school in the late 1970's, when I was scoring thousands of Sentence Completion Tests for Ego Development using a method that Loevinger and her team of researchers had painstakingly developed in a scientifically valid way, I assumed that psychology was on the cusp of a new understanding of subjective life. I was certain that by the beginning of the next century (the one that is now five years old) psychologists would have solved the puzzle of metaphor, emotion, and psychological conflict that is universally expressed in symptoms. Boy, was I wrong! Instead we’re in the grips of a biological reductionism, which can keep us from imagining just how introspection and intersubjective knowledge could ever be “scientific.” Some psychoanalysts have even called a halt to thinking in such terms because they feel certain that science and psychoanalysis do not go hand-in-hand, much less hand in glove.

I disagree. Modell’s book is a welcome invitation to move forward to a human science of psychoanalysis. Reflecting on his profession of psychiatry at the beginning of the book, he says,

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, psychiatry in the United States remains in the grip of a pharmacological scientism, a world of neuromodulators. Psychiatry has lost interest in the patient’s inner life—the inner meaning of mental disorders is considered to be irrelevant to their treatment and etiology. Consequently, psychiatry has become nearly mindless. Today I feel alienated from psychiatry and hardly recognize it as the same discipline that I once embraced. (p. 4-5)

Contrary to the typical reductionism of many contemporary neurobiologists, Modell begins his account of a “biology of meaning” with the idea that metaphor is the central building block from which to understand the meaningful brain. He writes,

Metaphor is a fundamental and uniquely human cognitive ability, a primary form of cognition and thought that becomes secondarily incorporated into language… define metaphor . . . as a mapping or transfer of meaning between dissimilar domains (from a source domain to a target domain). Metaphor not only transfers meaning between different domains, but by means of novel recombinations metaphor can transform meaning and generate new perceptions. Imagination could not exist without this recombinatory process. (p. 26-27, italics in original)

Beginning with this definition, taken from cognitive linguistics, Modell develops his major thesis that emotional memories form categories based on metaphoric similarity and that “Metaphor is thus the interpreter of unconscious memory. Inasmuch as consciousness is simultaneously directed toward the external world and the interior of the body, bodily sensations are the counterpart of perception.” Our spatial metaphors are rooted in the sensations of the interior of our bodies as much as they are in our perceptions of the external world. (p. 69-70).

Drawing on research on infants’ cross-modal matching, Modell argues further that metaphor originally brings creative pleasure in even its first appearance:

The earliest experience of what might be called a proto-metaphor may be found in the infant’s perception of cross-modal matching between the major sensory portals of sight, hearing, kinesthesia, and touch. We know that infants and young children are delighted when the narrative of a nursery rhyme or song is accompanied by mimetic gestures: infants experience the transfer of meaning between different sensory domains as inherently pleasurable. (p. 71)

By one month, infants can match the oral feel and sight of textured pacifiers and by three months they can integrate and coordinate information from many sensory modalities. Experiments have demonstrated that infants as young as four months prefer to watch complex visual events that match complex auditory events. Cross-modal matching also colors the infant’s sensory and sensuous experience of its mother, probably the root of infant-mother emotional attunement.

Modell first grounds his theory of metaphor in the work of a famous Italian philosopher who was born in 1668: Giambattista Vico. I was also influenced by Vico in my early writings on metaphor, the transcendent function and play space, and came to feel that his ideas gave birth to constructivism and post-modernism. Although Vico was very famous in his day, his influence was vastly overshadowed by Descartes, in part perhaps, because Vico was not as systematic a writer as Descartes, and in part because the world was not ready yet for Vico. What Descartes would deny and what Vico was the first to describe is how (quoting Modell, italics in the original): “meaning is embodied in our total affective interest in the world.” Modell quotes Vico to state “Meaning is constructed through imaginatively entering into the minds of others” (italics also in original, p. 15). Vico wrote that humans at first communicated by means of signs and gestures, but with the acquisition of expressive metaphor, the world could gratefully be interpreted animistically: “thunder was a god, and reality was structured in accordance with myth” (p. 15). Vico also wrote, quoting Modell’s quotation of Vico: It is noteworthy that in all languages the greater part of the expressions relating to inanimate things are formed by metaphor from the human body and its parts and from the human senses and passions. (p. 75)

There is not much of a leap from these seventeenth century statements to a contemporary psycholinguistic theory of metaphor that originates with George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (e.g., 1999), from whom Modell draws many of his fundamental arguments. These two linguists have argued that we unconsciously create metaphors from sensory inputs arising within the body and, as a result, form fundamental cognitive tools for transferring meaning between different sensory domains. Take, for example, our pervasive and foundational experience of balance. It is mapped onto so many of our artistic, legal, mental health, and architectural domains that it seems to be a part of the natural order rather than a metaphor from our own learned uprightness.

Modell proceeds from cognitive linguistics to review affective neurobiology, synthesizing themes that are widely familiar to psychoanalytic audiences: emotional memory being nonrepresentational, the activation of which is more like assembling some potential meaning (triggered by affect and metonymy) from cues than it is like remembering a narrative.

He considers a clinical vignette in which a woman, who as a child lost her adored father to a brain tumor and gradual deterioration ending in death, is compulsively driven to uncover defects in men that she loves, most prominently her husband. Modell focuses on her fear that her husband’s driving, which she considers to be overly cautious, means that her husband is incompetent as a driver, potentially developing brain damage and becoming senile. The key metaphor in her case, “the interpreter of the unconscious memory, ” (as Modell states it, italics in original) can be described as “the terror that ensues when she seeks care and protection from someone whom she perceives as incompetent. To be dependent on someone who is incompetent threatens her sense of safety in the world.” (p. 101) Illustrating his ideas about the workings of unconscious intentionality, Modell further analyzes this case:

In this instance, unconscious intentionality both selects and deselects perceptual items . . .The metaphoric matching between her emotionally charged memories of the past and her current experience was then felt to be an exact fit. She experienced only a sense of similarity and not a sense of difference. This can be described as an illustration of involuntary imagination in which the memory of an entire ensemble of feelings from the past is substituted for the present experience. (p. 102)

This is the crux of the way in which Modell analyzes the development and use of metaphor to enhance our clinical work and theoretical investigations.

Because I am deeply familiar with Carl Jung’s theory of an affectively-driven complex, that he eventually dubbed a “psychological complex,” I am aware of how Modell explicitly expands and refines Jung’s prescient theory of complexes. Jung’s final theory of the complex was of an emotionally driven dynamic, arising from unconscious affective meanings, that has both a subject and an object pole—thus, a potential for an interactive drama (like the above one between a wife and her husband) waiting to be triggered. Of course, Jung did not have available to him contemporary affective neurobiology, but his ideas about psychological complexes arose originally from his scientific work on the association experiment. Modell’s extension of these ideas into a neurobiological and linguistic theory of unconscious intentionality adds convincing support for a scientifically grounded theory of unconscious complexes.

Modell presents a fertile set of arguments, from his various scientific and clinical sources, to support his conclusion that we need to hold a strong distinction between the uniquely synthetic human capacity for imagination and the widespread “imaging” capacities that we share with other species. He argues,

Imagination is unquestionably an aspect of intentionality. Perception, memory, and imagination are all interwoven into the fabric of intentionality and will determine the nature of our actions in the world. Acknowledging the role of imagination in intentionality makes it impossible to view imagination and perception as separate faculties. It is therefore misleading to contrast imagination with reality. (p. 107)

Amen. And why can’t this news make it onto a best-seller list? Modell’s argument for a biology of meaning—especially for the unconscious intentionality of our affective imagination—is at also at the core of the best-selling book written by Gladwell on the scientific basis for intuition. Modell’s book, though, tells us much more about the science and the clinical applications of this enormously important idea.

The final important topic that Modell takes up is empathy and empathic imagination and their relationship to projective identification and the recent neurobiological discoveries about “mirror neurons.” Because I want you to read Modell’s book, I’m not going to summarize all the crucial new material he covers in regard to the importance of imagination for our connections and disconnections with each other.

Instead, I hope to entice you with a few apt quotes from the book. In the following quote about empathy, you can easily see the direction in which Modell is moving in linking metaphor with empathy:

We usually think of empathy as a form of voluntary imagination in which there is a sense of self as agent. . .[However] empathy requires this play of similarity and difference: one recognizes a sense of identity with the other while at the same time retaining one’s sense of self. If this play of similarity and difference is absent, one may experience a total identification with the other . . . The absence of metaphoric play of similarity and difference can . . . be linked to trauma. In individuals and families that have been severely traumatized, metaphor becomes degraded; instead of feeling an empathic connection to a parent, a traumatized individual may feel as if he is his parent. (p. 118)

Refining our understanding of projective identification, and illustrating how traumatized people lack the capacity for “as if” in their imagination, Modell expands on the venerable insights of Jung, Piaget and Harold Searles to show that an impaired capacity for metaphor can lead affectively to the experience of the other “as hazardous, as one may fear the possibility of becoming swallowed up in the other and losing one’s sense of self” (p. 175).

Finally, Modell takes up the important recent neurobiological findings about mirror neurons. A group of Italian investigators reported on their discovery of a certain kind of neuron in the premotor cortex of monkeys:

[T]hey observed that the same neuron fired both when the monkey grasped an object, such as a raisin, and when a human or another monkey performed the same specific action. This is the first evidence that there is an area in the motor cortex that can respond specifically and only to goal-directed, relational actions. (p. 183)

This representation of another’s action, dramatically demonstrated now in many experiments, is direct and immediate and does not require any mental code or symbolic meaning. The data on mirror neurons support the theory that there is an instantaneous mapping from self to other and from other to self, verifying biologically that innately the self-and-other is a unit, a oneness that doesn’t have to get together to feel connected, but is together from the start. We are always and everywhere responding directly and unconsciously to the perceived qualities of another’s intentionality. These new findings carry extraordinary implications for our theories of emotional conditioning in early empathic attunement and of projective identification as a proto-communication in psychotherapy and life.

Discussing the unconscious affective dimensions of intuition in gambling and personal relationships, as well as the effects of subliminal cues and stereotypes in prejudice, our best-seller Gladwell concludes that, in general, people do not know themselves very well.

[W]e can learn a lot more about what people think by observing their body language or facial expressions or looking at their bookshelves and the pictures on their walls than by asking them directly . . . [W]hile people are very willing and very good at volunteering information explaining their actions, those explanations, particularly when it comes to the kinds of spontaneous opinions and decisions that arise out of the unconscious, aren’t necessarily correct. In fact, it sometimes seems as if they are just plucked out of thin air. (p. 155)

Reading Modell’s book illustrates in great detail the habitual and predictable patterns that fill that thin air. People often don’t know why they spontaneously respond as they do, but it is the job of the psychoanalyst to be an expert on figuring that out—in relationship with the person who wants to know. Arnold Modell’s new book has made that job easier to do.


Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: the power of thinking without thinking. NY: Little Brown.
Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh. NY: Basic Books


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