Floating and Sinking in Phychoanalysis
Nikos Sideris interviewed by Alexandra Chronaki
Floating and Sinking. In what way do these two notions appear in psychoanalysis? Do they refer to psychopathology or to the process of psychoanalysis as well?
Floating and sinking are subjective experiences corresponding to vestibular sensations, illusions or hallucinations. They may typically occur in conditions of hypnosis, hypnagogic states (when falling asleep), relaxation and yoga exercises, meditation, drug-induced states or psychopathology of organic (febrile, toxic ...) or functional origin.
Typically, they do not occur isolated. Normally, they are part of a broader complex of experiences corresponding to more or less altered states of consciousness.
As far as the psychoanalytic process per se is concerned, it is highly unlikely to encounter such experiences during a session, because of the preponderance of articulated addressed speech and the effective interaction with the psychoanalyst. Nevertheless, such experiences during the process of free association may occur. Obviously, such mental recollections and verbal reports will be treated as an integral part of the analysand's discourse, according to the principles defining the psychoanalytic listening, perception, elaboration and interpretation of discourse.
The occurrence of floating and sinking experiences in hypnosis, hypnagogic and hypnopompic states, through relaxation, yoga or meditation practices, as drug or pathological effects, is a clear indication of the regressive mechanisms at work. In metapsychological terms, the core mechanism of floating and sinking is actually regression to archaic patterns of perception and mental elaboration - practically, regression to primeval modes of fantasy formation and experience, integrating sensory information of any kind available.
A particular pattern of experience, known as the Isakower phenomenon
, after the Viennese psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who first described it in 1936, reveals the main point of fixation
and offers substantial and decisive indications about the psychic chora
; this is where floating and sinking experiences are emanating from or, more precisely, this is where regression process stabilizes the psychical functioning during this kind of experience. In his article Beitrag zur Pathopsychologie der Einschlafphaenomene
(which appeared in English in 1938 as A contribution to the psychopathology of phenomena associated with falling asleep
, in International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 19, 331 - 325), Isakower describes a varied set of phenomena that occur in certain hypnagogic states and can possibly be observed "in a number of patients suffering from widely different types of psychological disorders and also in some normal persons". Having examined several clinical cases, Isakower observed:" The most striking of all is the blurring of the distinction between quite different regions of the body, e.g. between mouth and skin, and also between what is internal and what is external, the body and the outside world. We note too the amorphous
character of the impressions conveyed by the sense-organs. The visual impression is that of something shadowy
, generally felt to be "round", which comes closer and closer, swells to a gigantic
size and threatens to crush the subject. Then, it becomes gradually smaller and shrinks up to nothing [...]. The auditory impression is of a humming, rustling, babbling, murmuring, or of an unintelligible
monotonous speech. The tactile sensation is of something crumpled, jagged, sandy or dry, and is experienced in the mouth and at the same time on the skin of the whole body. In any other case, the subject feels enveloped by it or knows that it is close at hand. Sometimes it feels as if there was a soft yielding mass in his mouth, but at the same time he knows that it is outside him" (p. 333).