Latency Period

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Freudian Dictionary

The period of life from the end of the fourth year to the first manifestations of puberty at about eleven.[1]



The latency period is the stage of suspension of psycho-sexual development between the age of five and six and puberty. During this period, sexual activity and interest tends to decrease, a consequence of repression, secondary identifications and the establishing of the superego, resulting in the resolution or the waning (Untergang) of the Oedipus complex. As the drives slow their pace, inhibitions surface, the product of the building of moral and aesthetic dams (shame, disgust, and modesty) through reaction formations (countercathexes). By the same token, with sublimation, there is a change of goal in drive discharge toward socially acceptable and valorized activities, together with the formation of an ideal, while in object relations feelings of tenderness (aim-inhibition) take precedence over oedipal eroticization.

Freud articulated this concept (1905d) based on his clinical observations, emphasizing its significance for the later normalcy of the individual subject and his insertion into the culture. The latency period is also important for the progress of civilization.

Beyond the descriptive point of view and the psychic mechanisms at work within it, the notion of a latency period seems like a logical necessity for posing certain questions. Through it infantile sexuality is approached from the perspective of future neurosis or normalcy, highlighting what Freud later called "the two-phase start" of human sexual development. In earlier writings he had already stressed the importance of sexuality in the etiology of neuroses. He had to mark the connection of neuroses with infantile experiences, the notion of deferred action and discontinuities in the evolution of sexuality. He also developed the notion of infantile amnesia through what he termed "screen memories."

Freud claimed to have borrowed the term "latency period" from Wilhelm Fliess, although nothing of the sort can be found in their known correspondence. It seems that the term Latenzeit first surfaced in Fliess's work in 1909, but it meant something else in that context; also, its definition was not consistent conceptually with Krafft-Ebing's use years earlier ("sexuelle Latenzperiode").

Although latency appeared to be a keystone concept in his theoretical edifice, Freud did not make much of an effort to develop it. Nevertheless, in his later writings, he alluded to it frequently, although without adding anything substantial to its explanation.

However, he did make two elucidations about the latency period: In 1924 Freud affirmed that he had "no doubt that the chronological and causal relations described here between the Oedipus complex, sexual intimidation (the threat of castration), the formation of the super-ego and the beginning of the latency period are of a typical kind" (1924d, p. 179); and in 1926 he emphasized that the struggle against the temptation of onanism is a major task, a combat ordinarily productive of symptoms like rituals or ceremonies. Subsequently he singled out the emergence of anxiety in response to the imperatives of the superego as characteristic of the latency period.

Other concepts in Freud's works can be useful in understanding latency, although he did not specifically link them to it: primary and secondary thought, the pleasure principle and the reality principle, the pre-conscious, fantasy, literary creation and games, daydreams and the family romance, the notions of psychic work and working through.

Throughout his work, in order to explicate this period, Freud oscillated between phylogenetic and biological formulations and formulations conditioned by the ontogenetic model and education, causal agents that he sometimes superimposed upon one another, as in the note he added in 1935 to An Autobiographical Study: "The period of latency is a physiological phenomenon. It can, however, only give rise to a complete interruption of sexual life in cultural organizations which have made the suppression of infantile sexuality a part of their system" (1925d [1924], p. 37).

Defined as an anodyne stage between two major periods of sexuality, the latency period has not been studied very much. Rodolfo Urribarri reformulated certain notions, insisting less on the temporal aspect than on the basis of the construction of the superego, which obliges the ego to cover itself by means of symbolization and displacement in order to allow drive discharge through the operation of various mechanisms under the control of sublimation, while utilizing diverse external resources, a process he terms the "work of latency." Urribarri also stressed modifications that occur in thought and language, the preponderant role and the functionality of the preconscious and of formations proper to it, like daydreams and the family romance. He also was able to identify sex differences in the representations of the body in games and drawing, which can be explained as a way of distinguishing functionality and genital differences. This in a way is typical of the work of latency, which precedes and conditions the masculine-feminine differentiation.

In this organization of latency, the psychic apparatus evolves while becoming more complicated by affording an outlet to the drives and expanding the subject's resources and the range of his social participation, and also extending psychosexual evolution in a disguised and subtle manner.


See also: Bornstein, Berta; Genital stage; Infantile amnesia; Libidinal development; Moses and Monotheism; Oedipus complex; Psychology of Women. A Psychoanalytic Interpretation, The; Psychosexual development; Puberty; Stage (or phase); Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Bibliography

   * Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.
   * ——. (1924d). The dissolution of the Oedipus complex. SE, 19: 171-179.
   * ——. (1925d [1924]). An autobiographical study. SE, 20: 1-74.

* ——. (1926d [1925]). Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety. SE, 20: 75-172.