There’s a meme out there with the caption “no talk before coffee”. And yet, miraculously, instances occur where a person will pound back that morning cup of joe and breezily go about their day, only later to realize that they’d consumed decaf. What?!? Herein lies somewhat of a mystery: how the placebo effect of something enjoyable can lead us to such contentment. It all has to do with drives, as we shall shortly show. We all have pets, objects, hobbies, and even other people that get us going, for better or for worse.
The way we deflect and focus our mental energies has its very own term, to which we can ironically affix our thoughts when we seek to understand those stimulators of consciousness: cathexis. Or maybe it’s cathexii for the plural but you get the idea. Say or wish what we want about being a self-starter or possessing cognition capable of inner motivation within a contextual vacuum, but the facts are, much of what gets us going is external in origin, even while simultaneously being a produced desire arising from within our mind. Just as romance is mostly from the neck up, so too do our academic, uh, urges get piqued by concepts that truly twig our interest. External reality is part and parcel with how we make meaning in our world; we all require creative and physiological stimulation to get our juices going. Be they conversation topics, some favoured tunes, a go-to passage from a book, or simply a moment of silent prayer, these external inputs to our mind and body are crucial to the experience of being human. This is why it’s literally senseless to knock our heads against the wall of an academic discipline that doesn’t interest us, no matter the economic outcomes promised to graduates of certain programs.
So, there’s an intellectual component to cathexis, that concentration of energies that gets us rolling on the slipstream to success. But how many of us ask a beloved pet for suggestions going forward in our day? Animate or inanimate objects, such as a pet or hobby or rosary beads, hold a somewhat mysterious power in our reality. We look to people and things to frame and augment our lives; we imbue them with psychological significance, so it’s worth delving deeper into the term and its meanings with our pariah of psychology, who nevertheless founded our modern understanding of the mind: Sigmund Freud.
Consider a moment where person A looks at person B and person B, instinctively, looks at the dog. And then the dog farts. Moments of cabin fever, well known in our Northern culture, carry the weight of the psychoanalytic term cathexis when we focus our energies on a hobby, task, or person. “Cathexis is defined as the direction, attachment, or charge of some amount of psychic energy to a mentally represented object, person, or intrapsychic component.” (Adams & Stack). Recalling a moment where a youngster was aghast that his lego inventions strewn across the floor were cleaned up, it’s worth wondering why importance is attached to these items.
To begin explaining why energy is focussed on tasks ranging from noble (a well-ordered pantry) to arguably ignoble (the fervid arrangement and rearrangement of items on our study desk), we must explore Sigmund Freud’s concept of drives. “A drive has two parts: a biological need and a psychological need. For example, the state of hunger leads to both a physical need for food and a psychological desire to eat.” At first the latter, physical, sort of drive might seem unproblematic. Whether it’s metaphorical Soylent green or David Bowie’s “protein pills” from his famous song, the raw reality of being a body incorporated into the realm of matter and homeostasis means that we do have to consume to survive. Yet, food conveys oh so much meaning as anyone encountering a proliferation of social media virtue signalling about dietary regimes and ethical eating knows. Food is a presentation of self to oneself and to others.
So maybe there’s food and then there’s culinary arts. And then, well, if you’ve ever been accosted by a vegan (or, in my case raised in a caring but vegetarian lifestyle) there’s the moral impetus that impels many of us to eat, or not eat, certain foods for dietary, ethical, or cultural reasons. Turkey bacon, some say, was invented not just for a low-fat offering to be on offer, but also to allow Halal and Kosher eaters to enjoy the timeless, though not Biblical, pleasures of a BLT.
Nature provides insight into the unique way we humans affix our attention on food, cathecting our minds onto items of nutrition (or lack thereof, if you’ve ever munched out on a bag of Cheezies). Laughing, we might note a recent news item about our most monolithic of great ape ancestors. “Gigantopithecus blacki, which once lived in southern China, represents the largest great ape known to scientists — standing 10 feet tall (3 meters) and weighing up to 650 pounds (295 kilograms).” Tragically, or if we subscribe to the belief that all of nature applies harmony to its existence, this ancestor of ours went extinct because it didn’t get enough to eat. Gigantopithecus vanished over time as the climate changed and its favourite edible plants diminished in availability. Botanical ecosystems always change, quickly or slowly, not least of which because dominant species overpopulate and over-consume; that is, over-satiate their physical drives by dint of their sheer weight in numbers—like being eaten out of house and home by visiting teenagers. Yet, while other proto-orangutans and their ilk may have broadened their culinary horizons, chiefly by eating a wider range of bark, leaves, birds, and rodents, our largest ancestory stuck to its evolutionary guns and remained on a vegetarian diet. You can see where this is leading. All that’s left of them are a few fossils in China’s Guangxi region. But the great ape didn’t choose to go extinct based on misguided egoistic pride or a desire to keep to its word or culture about dietary restrictions. It’d be the height of anthropomorphism to imagine that the noble Gigantopithecus chose to die rather than, uh, man up and order the steak. A preposterous notion—but one that illustrates how closely our desires embrace cathexis as core to our meaning-making, even if we’d never heard the word before.
Just as many human primates choose not to wear a bra, for liberatory and comfort reasons, the low-hanging nipples of jungle monkeys are, as the saying goes, just the way things are. In the animal world creatures do what they do with nary a concern about being unfriended by the more sanctimonious, or emotionally salacious, amongst their social media audience. All this’d be the height of redundancy if it weren’t for the fact that much of our identities, from sports teams to Taylor Swift concert tickets, are heavily invested with the weight of cathexis in a way that animal lives are not. Animals do animal things while humans invoke all the powers of their being onto assorted items, symbols, and practices. We’re still animals, to be sure, but we have a different something that ties meaning to things beyond survival and comfort. No wonder that people become so incorrigibly butt-hurt when their core beliefs are challenged; as Slavoj Zizek said about ideology, to step outside of our mental comfort zone can literally hurt. Likewise, many a court room has been filled with supporters of a perpetrator who’s known in the community as a caring person who wouldn’t possibly commit one or many crimes. And then they’re found guilty based on facts. We invest meaning in other people and to give up that meaning is to have cathexis interrupted, contaminated, damaged. In a sense, then, the comfort blankets of toddler yore remain with us throughout our life – only in more abstract or complex form. Just ask a Chevy guy for a joke about how the only good part of a Ford truck is its gas cap!
Humans alone make the tough choice to tie their egos and their morals to items in their lifescape. Imagine how dull and Kafka-esque life would be if we didn’t have a favourite musical genre or video game or Netflix-and-chill series. The object may change over time, but the process of cathexis remains the same: we project our powers onto something or someone and thereby forge a sense of our unique ego over and against the outside world. Hostile or friendly, our social surrounds become Other to our identity and its chosen preferences.
The process of cathexis means that a hobby or academic discipline becomes intertwined with our identity in a way that can lead us to argue vociferously about our favourite pleasure’s meaning and merit. In Freud’s words, “I showed from examples from ordinary life that a cathexis such as this of an idea whose affect is unresolved always involves a certain amount of associative inaccessibility and of incompatibility with new cathexes” (Freud 1895a, p. 89). Cathexis does not an open mind make, in other words. We seek a sense of authenticity expressed through consistency; once a wearer of leather jackets or a sporter of tattoos, always a proverbial badass or artist or whatever it all means. Key here is that the meaning is personal and private while simultaneously conveying known cultural capital to others.
Here Athabasca careens into view as a heroic saviour of our vital energies that might otherwise be sapped away, leached like toxic sludge into the soil at some distant tar sand locale gone wrong. Instead of becoming unduly neurotic about a hobby or a project we can, if we dare, engage our mental energies in academic coursework. And like a healthy home-made granola bar, we’ll glom onto some meaningful form of cathexis that, with apologies to reality tv or sports playoffs, we can be sure that our future self will look back on with universal pride. Not that every last vocation isn’t valid or worthy of our attention; after all, a simpering pooch has a value immeasurable to those who’d prefer shovelling snow or a litter box, but, really, if we ever need an excuse to follow through on our pretexts of being a university student, it’s to make sure that our drives are invested on something that will bring pride to our future self.
If Freud was right about our biological and psychological drives being preset in essence but not in object, then meaning and interest for us can really be whatever we wish them to be. Therefore, our academic success is simply down to us investing our powers of cathexis in the right spot and, like asking for a favour after serving a pleasant meal, we can expect for a high likelihood of good results. So treat your studies as a hobby you enjoy and you might get downright carried away by the process – after all, unlike monkeys, our brains yearn to learn more than just where the next nearest fruit tree is or the next specimen of our chosen partner for coitus. And if we need anymore convincing, just think of how many hours a young video gamer (perhaps our past self) can wile away, fully pert and rapt and attentive, when in the midst of a weekend-long video game session. It’s not our skill of attention span that needs honing, simply a focused shining of the light of cathexis on the chosen object of our desire!