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Three Registers of Human Reality


Disciplines > Psychoanalysis > Concepts > Three Registers of Human Reality

Description | Discussion | See also



Lacan described what he called 'three registers of human reality', whereby we perceive and understand.

The Real

The 'real' is a world which we never actually perceive. It is the world outside of our senses that we can only perceive through those senses.

Living in the real is almost animalistic in that it is dominated by need and satisfaction, existing before the constraints of language, mental models and cultural codes that censor such basic mores.

We get as close to the 'real' as possible during the neonatal phase, when we are pre-mirror and pre-symbolic, but we never really know it fully. It is as behind a dark glass. We know it is there, but can only see a filtered version of it.

Because we cannot fully know the real, we always have a sense of lack, of something missing or wrong. This is a fundamental motivational force, constantly moving us to seek completion.

The Imaginary

The imaginary is not so much about 'imagination' as 'images'. Images are coherent objects. They have outlines and are distinguished from one another. After the amorphous neonatal phase, this involves separating things out.

The imagination can be used to help fill in the void that is created by the inaccessible real by making images of completeness.

The imaginary is associated with the Mirror phase, where a child sees an image of itself and knows it as itself. It is thus pre-symbolic and pre-language.

When we think in images, we do not need words.

The Symbolic

Symbolic understanding uses metaphor and other symbols and signs to represent our perceptions and ideas, in particular language.

With symbols, we can communicate with others and partake of the wider social sphere, but in doing so we leave behind the 'real'.

Symbolic understanding is most closely aligned with the Symbolic register.


Although we seek to understand and communicate about the real, we can only get to 'reality' in terms of images and symbols (and a written image is a symbol). We can thus never know the real.

A healthy psyche has an effective balance between the three registers, without one dominating to the exclusion of the others. If this imbalance happens, then neurosis appears.

This need for dynamic balance also shows that there is no perfect and stable subject position.

See also

Lacan, The neonatal phase, Mirror phase, The Symbolic Register

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