The Construction, Reconstruction and Deconstruction of Childhood Memories In Light of Developing Social Cognition

(1999) The Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. 47:11, pp.155-186.

Photo by: Suzy Hazelwood

Abstract: Psychic trauma results when the ego is overwhelmed by intolerable affect. Some childhood experiences are directly traumatic, requiring no intervening interpretive process to render them traumatic. Troublesome affect that falls short of being truly traumatic, in the strict sense of the term, may nevertheless exert a psychopathogenic effect on the child’s psychic development. Whether a child is troubled by an experience depends on what that experience meant to the child. Accordingly, the psychopathogenic effects of childhood experience are a function of the child’s general level of cognitive sophistication and specific ability to appreciate the subtle nuances of social interactions. If a child’s cognitive capabilities are not up to the task of providing the necessary explanations for a given social interaction, the child is left to fall back on fantasy to fill in the gaps. The field of “social cognition” proves particularly helpful in understanding what a child is capable of gleaning from an experience. Research in this area helps psychoanalysts understand how experience becomes constructed and reconstructed in the form of memories. Social cognition also helps psychoanalysts understand when and how a lived experience ends up being psychopathogenic or, alternatively, ceases any longer to exert an ongoing psychopathogenic effect on an individual’s psyche. A review of social cognition research leads to a reconsideration of such psychoanalytic concepts as repression, dissociation, reconstruction, and resistance. It also directs attention to the concept of developmental (as opposed to psychoanalytic) reconstruction and deconstruction.