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An economic term borrowed from a physicalist epistemological model, "discharge" was used by Sigmund Freud in his theorization of how the psychic apparatus deals with excitation. The notion of discharge thus refers to an outward release of the energy produced in the psychic apparatus by excitations, whether these are external or internal in origin.

By virtue of its economic orientation, this notion is part of the metapsychological approach and speaks to the quantitative dimension in Freud's model. Freud discussed discharge when he described the pleasure/unpleasure principle: the pleasure of discharge, the unpleasure of retention. We should recall that according to Freud, the source of the instinct is a state of excitation in the body and its aim is to eliminate this excitation. Obviously, the concept of discharge implies as a corollary the notion of tension, or charge. Pleasure and unpleasure probably depend less upon an exact level of tension than upon the rhythm of variation in tension. The principle of pleasure/unpleasure is thus considered a particular case of Gustav Fechner's "tendency toward stability," that "tendency" becoming in this instance the "principle of consistency."

Consistency is said to be achieved by means of the discharge of the energy already present, but also by the avoidance of factors that might increase the quantity of excitation. The principle of consistency is indeed basic to Freud's economic theory and is closely linked with the pleasure principle. The psychic apparatus, in this view, also tends to cancel out excitations or reduce them to a minimum, and Freud, following Barbara Low, called this the "Nirvana principle," which works in tandem with the principle of inertia. It is in this realm that the forces of Thanatos lurk; moroever, it was in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g), where the death instinct is introduced, that Freud explicitly formulated the principle of consistency and related it to the Nirvana principle.

Discharge can be total or partial; it can be appropriate or it can contribute to psychopathological, even psychodramatic disorders. The notion thus appears in Freud's discussions of "abreaction" or "acting-out," when there is insufficient regulation of excitation by the psychic apparatus. Another possibility is discharge into the body, which suggests the mysterious leap from the psychic to the somatic, the notion of somatic compliance, and the phenomenon of conversion. Freud also mentioned the pathogenic role of defective discharge in considering the model of actual neurosis, and in presenting the hypothesis of the damming up of the libido to explain the phenomenon of hypochondria. Still in the context of discharge, the soma as an internal safety-valve has been viewed as a way of handling tensions that cannot be worked through or that are too massive—in short, a kind of somatic "acting-in."

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1914c). On narcissism: an introduction. SE, 14, 67-102.
  2. ——. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18, 1-64.
  3. ——. (1926d [1925]). Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety. SE, 20, 75-172.