Winnicott on the Mind and its Relation to the Psyche-Soma

The featured article is ‘Mind and its Relation to the Psyche-Soma’ by Donald Winnicott. In the introduction, Winnicott quotes from Jones who discusses the mind-body divide and states that ‘I do not think that the mind really exists as an entity’. Winnicott writes that there is no place within the body scheme to accommodate the mind but that the patient’s tendency to localise the mind needs to be accounted for. Winnicott then goes on to say that if the body scheme has passed ‘satisfactorily’ through early development that ‘mind is no more than a special case of the functioning of the psyche-soma’. He also writes

‘We are quite used to seeing the two words mental and physical opposed and would not quarrel with their being opposed in daily conversation. It is quite another matter, however, if the concepts are opposed in scientific discussion’

Winnicott does not define the various terms including psyche, soma and mind. While they may appear straightforward enough and psyche being central to psychoanalysis, the absence of definitions increases the possibility of misinterpretation. I will assume that by psyche, Winnicott is referring to the consciousness and unconsciousness (he does define it initially as ‘the imaginative elaboration of somatic parts, feelings and functions, that is, of physical aliveness’ but this is a reference to the beginning of development and presumably differs from what the psyche later becomes) and by soma he is referring to the body. The best hint of a definition of mind is in the opening quote from Jones – ‘the irreducible mental elements’ (the interested reader is referred to McLaren’s work   ‘humanizing madness’ for a more detailed discussion of mind which also looks at the irreducibility of mind and which is reviewed here).

The essence of Winnicott’s argument is that the mental activity is a ‘special case of the functioning of the psyche-soma’. On closer inspection, this is a rather curious statement as the body and psyche when combined seem to describe the entire person and thus every attribute of a person can be described similarly as a ‘special case of the functioning of the psyche-soma’. Winnicott further adds that ‘There is no localisation of a mind self, and there is no thing that can be called mind’. Again, this is a curious statement given that the article is concerned with the mind and is even referenced in the title.

Winnicott returns to form with his discussion of the development of the psyche-soma. He argues, the mother creates the perfect environment that is needed to facilitate the infant’s development. As the infant progresses, a point is reached in which their internal mental processes can compensate for the perfect environment. There are then variations on this sequence of events which have an impact on the psyche-soma.

Winnicott then goes on to give a case history in which a 47-year-old female patient is regressed to the moment of birth

‘The birth process had to be relived, and eventually I recognised how this patient’s unconscious need to relive the birth process underlay what had previously been an hysterical falling off the couch’

On reading this, I was reminded of Winnicott’s own words

I know that patients at times do produce the sort of things they feel I like getting’

(in Reparation in Respect of Mother’s Organized Defence’ reviewed here)

Winnicott also goes onto contest the localisation of the mind in the brain and suggests that psychosurgery does not take into consideration the important role of the body.

Winnicott’s paper on Mind and Its Relation to the Psyche-Soma covers a broad range of subjects and does not present a coherent approach. The very topic of the paper – the mind – is questioned and dismissed in the conclusions and along the way Winnicott contests any relationship between mind and brain as well as supporting his central arguments with a case of regression to birth. However Winnicott does produce a plausible model of infant development in which the mother produces the necessary environment. Such a model does require an evidence base and is therefore a starting point.


Donald Winnicott. Mind and its Relation to the Psyche-Soma. 1949. In D.W.Winnicott. Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis. With an Introduction by M.Masud R.Khan. The International Psycho-analytical Library. The Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis. pp243-254.


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The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.


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