Lecturer's Précis - Freud (1891)

"On Aphasia" [Extract]

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First published online 11:12 4th March 2002, Copyright Derek J. Smith (Chartered Engineer). This version [2.1 - link to graphic] dated 09:00 BST 2nd July 2018

An earlier version of this material appeared in Smith (1996; Chapter 7). It is repeated here with minor amendments and supported with hyperlinks.



Sigmund Freud as Cognitive Modeler

Long before he achieved fame with his theory of psychoanalysis, the Austrian physician Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was a competent neuropsychologist, having published an influential monograph on aphasia in 1891. In it, he used information flow diagrams to explain the relationship between a word and its referent. The paper became better known after it had been translated into English (Stengel, 1953), and positively reviewed (Pribram, 1969; Henderson, 1992). Here is the core argument in the words of the reviewer whose paper first brought the monograph to the present author's attention .....


"From the psychological point of view the 'word' is the functional unit of speech; it is a complex concept constituted of auditory, visual and kinaesthetic elements. [] We learn to speak by associating a 'word sound image' [Wortklangbild] with an 'impression of word innervation' [Wortinnervationsgefühl]. When we have spoken we are in possession of a 'kinaesthetic word image' [Sprachbewegungsvorstellung], ie. of the sensory impressions from the organs of speech. [] We learn the language of others by endeavouring to equate the sound image produced by ourselves as much as possible to the one [we originally heard], ie. we learn to 'repeat'. [] We learn to spell by associating the visual images of the letters with new sound images. [] We learn to read by linking up with each other, according to certain rules, a succession of word innervation impressions and kinaesthetic word impressions []. Next we associate with those word images acquired by spelling the significance attached to the original word sounds. [] We learn to write by reproducing the visual images of the letters with the help of kinaesthetic impressions received from the hand (cheiro-kinaesthetic impressions) until we have obtained identical or similar pictures. [] The word, then, is a complicated concept built up from various impressions, ie. it corresponds to an intricate process of associations entered into by elements of visual, acoustic and kinaesthetic origins. However, the word acquires its significance through its association with the 'idea (concept) of the object' [Objektvorstellung] [which] is itself another complex of associations [Assoziationskomplex] composed of the most varied visual, auditory, tactile, kinaesthetic and other impressions. [] In the light of observations in speech disorders we have formed the view that the word concept (the idea of the word) is linked [] to the object concept. In consequence, we have arrived at a division of speech disorders into two classes: (1) verbal aphasia [verbale Aphasie], in which only the associations between the single elements of the word concept are disturbed; and (2) asymbolic aphasia [asymbolische Aphasie], in which the association between word concept and object concept are disturbed." (Henderson, 1992:33-37; emphases added; German inserts from Vogel, 1992.)


Freud saw the primary sensory and motor areas as being anatomically tied to particular functions because they were directly connected to specific sensory or motor mechanisms. However, he then saw them as "radiating" their primary activity out across secondary and association areas of cortex, and drew attention to what might happen when the radiations from different primary areas overlapped. In these areas of overlap, he argued, "complexes of associations" (above) would be formed, linking visual information to auditory, auditory to tactile, tactile to articulatory, etc. And wherever this happened, areas to deal with the conceptual side of language - semantic areas - would develop quite automatically. (We mention this argument because it is wholly compatible with the more recently developed holographic theory of memory, in which great emphasis is laid on what happens when two beams of wave energy coincide.) All this is shown diagrammatically below.


Freud's (1891) Linked Storage Systems: Freud suggested that when an object is known to the mind, two main storage systems are involved, namely a word concept system and an object concept system. The word concept system stores the surface forms of the name of the object, and the object concept system stores all the mental associations of that object - the things which give that object its meaning. The word concept system (the Wort system) has, in turn, four lesser elements. These are the Bewegungsbild, or "motor-image", the Klangbild, or "sound-image", the Lesebild, or "read-image", and the Schriftbild, or "write-image". The object concept system (the Object-Associationen system) has, in turn, at least three (and potentially a lot more) lesser elements. These are acustik, or auditory object associations, taktil, or tactile object associations, and visuell, or visual object associations. Note how the overlapping "radiations" from primary projection areas serve to create more complex association areas. Note also that the primary connection between a word and its meaning is between the sound image of the heard word and the visual elements of the associated concept. And note finally that the idea of a distributed semantic representation linked to separate input and output word stores remains at the heart of modern psycholinguistics.


It is unclear how much Freud may have been influenced by the earlier work of Kussmaul (1878), whose diagram is similar in some respects.

If this diagram fails to load automatically, it may be accessed separately at




Redrawn from white-over-black originals of Figures 8 and 9 of the Vogel (1992) edition of Freud (1891). This version Copyright © 2002, Derek J. Smith. Freud actually drew single lines in Figure 8, and introduced the radiations in Figure 9: we show here how the two arguments can be merged into a single diagram.



Evaluation and Further Reading


For more detail we recommend the following websites .....


General commentary from Rizzuto (2007 online)


Integration into modern psycholinguistic theory (Dell et al, 1997/2007 online)


Karl Pribram himself on holographic memory.






Freud, S. (1891). Zur Auffassung der Aphasien. Leipzig: Deuticke. [Available in English as On Aphasia: A Critical Study. Translated by E. Stengel, International Universities Press, 1953, or (in extract) in Brain and Behaviour 4: Adaptation. Pribram, K.H. (Ed.) (1969). Harmondsworth: Penguin. Available in German as Vogel (1992) - see panel below.]


Henderson, V.W. (1992). Sigmund Freud and the diagram-maker school of aphasiology. Brain and Language, 43:19-41.


Vogel, P. (Ed.) (1992). Sigmund Freud: Zur Auffassung der Aphasien. Frankfurt: Fischer. [ISBN: 3596104599]


Recommended Reading (for German speakers): "Sigmund Freud: Zur Auffassung der Aphasien" (Vogel, 1992). To see an abstract, or to order this book, click here