Lecturer's Précis - Freud (1896)

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First published online 08:43 BST 30th April 2002, Copyright Derek J. Smith (Chartered Engineer). This version [2.1 - link to graphic] dated 09:00 2nd July 2018

An earlier version of this material appeared in Smith (1999). It is reproduced here with minor amendments and supported with hyperlinks.


Sigmund Freud as Cognitive Modeler (Example Two of Five)

We have already seen in Freud (1891) how Freud's first attempt at cognitive modeling produced a psycholinguistic model whose impact was still being felt a hundred years later. Yet while this model has much to say about the modularity of the communication system, it says little (a) about the control logic involved, or (b) about the (many) non-communication aspects of that control. Control hierarchy diagrams, by contrast, address the control aspects of cognitive modularity, but say little specifically about communication. Fortunately, we have some idea of Freud's thinking on the broader aspects of cognition because he occasionally resorted to control hierarchy diagramming to help put across the basic tenets of psychoanalytic theory. There are the bare bones of such a diagram in an 1896 letter to Wilhelm Fliess, and there are then gradual improvements to this in "The Interpretation of Dreams" (1900), "The Ego and the Id" (1923), and "New Introductory Lectures" (1933). Here is the 1896 offering. To see the others, click Freud (1900), Freud (1923), or Freud (1933) as appropriate. Concluding remarks are given in the 1933 entry.

Freud's (1896) Five Stages of Perception: In diagram (a), from a handwritten letter to Wilhelm Fliess dated 6th December 1896, we see a five-stage system of "successive registrations" of sensory input during the overall process of perception. Freud was working here on the assumption that the brain provided several separate memory resources, "at least three, probably more" of which were involved in perception. Content was passed from stage to stage by a process of "transcription" (literally, "copying across"). Here are the stages and the corresponding memory types. The three transcriptions are shown as I, II, and III.

  • W = Warhnehmungen (perceptions), the stage of transitory perceptual input, when the senses begin to respond to an external entity. The effective resource at this stage is a class of neurons in which "perceptions originate", and to which "consciousness attaches", however these neurons themselves retain no permanent trace of either the perceptions or the consciousness after their momentary impact has subsided.
  • Wz = Wahrnehmungszeichen (indications of perception) result from the first transcription (I), and are the stage at which the content of the initial experience begins to be "registered", that is to say, begins to have some permanent impact upon the organism in question.
  • Ub = Unbewusstsein (unconscious) results from the second transcription (II), and is the stage of unconscious conceptual memory, when conceptual meanings are beginning to be activated.
  • Vb = Vorbewusstsein (preconscious) results from the third transcription (III) and is the stage of nearly conscious memory, more advanced than the preceding item, but not so advanced as the next. It corresponds roughly to the ego.
  • Bew = Bewusstsein (consciously known), the stage of full conceptual consciousness.

Note how the left-to-right linear progression soon fills the available page width; only later did Freud adopt the more width-efficient omega shape used by Lichtheim's House or Wundt (1902). Diagram (b) illustrates how diagram height can be increased to squeeze in more effective width. Diagram (b) also emphasises that there is no motor side to Freud's diagram, on which technicality it actually fails to qualify as a full inverted-U control hierarchy diagram.

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



Diagram (a) redrawn from a printer's reproduction of the manuscript original in Masson (1985:207). Diagram (b) our own attempt to realign the information flow to an inverted-U control hierarchy standard. This version Copyright © 2002, Derek J. Smith.




Freud, S. (1896). See Masson, J.M.

Masson, J.M. (Ed.) (1985). The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess 1887-1904. New York: Grove.

Smith D.J. (1999). Freudian Structures in the Computational Mind: Some Lessons from the Study of Ritual Sacrifice. Cardiff: UWIC. [ISBN: 1900666111] [Transcript of paper presented 15th April 1999 to the 13th Annual Conference of the History and Philosophy of Psychology Section of the BPS, York.]