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Anne Skomorowsky, M.D.
Anne Skomorowsky M.D.
Freudian Psychology

The Primal Scene: 100 Years of FOMO

Freud wrote the case of the "Wolf Man" 100 years ago, but has anything changed?

In the autumn of 1914, Sigmund Freud finished the analysis of Sergei Pankejeff, better known as the “Wolf Man”, and began to write up his findings. The case history of the Wolf Man introduced European intellectuals to the concept of the primal scene, in which a young child witnesses his parents having intercourse. As we celebrate the centennial of the Wolf Man’s “cure”, it is worth considering the relationship of the primal scene to a 21st century meme: FOMO.

Many readers will be aware of the primal scene, which Freud posited was a world-shattering event in the child’s life. The horror and excitement of watching his parents’ sexual activities traumatized the child, led to castration anxiety, and set the stage for the development of the Oedipus complex. One hundred years—and more doctoral theses than anyone can count—later, the primal scene is no longer taken literally by academics.

For some theorists, however, whenever an outsider watches while other people have fun, a primal scene narrative is occurring. Examples abound in films, in which even the audience is outside watching. In the 2007 horror film Awake, a man awakens on the operating table during a heart transplant. Though his surgeon believes he is asleep, the patient sees the doctor conspiring to take the patient’s inheritance—and his wife. The patient witnesses the couple betray him when they don’t know he’s watching; it’s a primal scene from which he is excluded, and from which he learns the truth.

Now that social media have exploded, everyone watches while other people have fun. The individual afflicted by FOMO feels isolated and regrets the social choices she has made. As her anxiety increases, she returns to social media to feel more connected, and a vicious cycle of self-doubt and compulsive checking begins.

Behavioral scientists have developed the “Fear of Missing Out Scale”, which asks users to rate themselves on such items as “I fear my friends have more rewarding experiences than me”, and “I get worried when I find out my friends are having fun without me”. The new primal scene unfolds on Facebook and Instagram. The user asks herself: What fascinating activity are those people doing, and why can’t I do it too?

Freud’s analysis of the Wolf Man centered on a dream: “Suddenly the window opened of its own accord, and I was terrified to see that some white wolves were sitting on the big walnut tree in front of the window. There were six or seven of them. The wolves were quite white, and looked more like foxes or sheep-dogs, for they had big tails like foxes and they had their ears pricked like dogs when they pay attention to something.” Freud noted in particular the sharp attention of the wolves and the atmosphere of suspense. For today’s psychotherapists, dream interpretation is less about symbols and more about tone; the Wolf Man’s dream is about apprehension.

The psychology of social media shows us that FOMO may lie behind the angst. Drawing a parallel between FOMO and the primal scene, it follows that FOMO is connected with our deepest sources of pain: infantile fears, sexual anxieties, and the limits of our parents’ love for us.

It’s always a wonder to think about where we were 100 years ago today. Freud’s primal scene story presented us with the work of two individuals—doctor and patient—uncovering the experience of three individuals—child and parents—and interpreting its effect on one individual: the Wolf Man. In 2014, we have the internet, with its promise of global interconnectedness. FOMO shows us that despite our fantasies of relatedness, ultimately we remain alone with our anxieties. What could be more 20th century?

About the Author
Anne Skomorowsky, M.D.

Anne Skomorowsky is a psychiatrist at Columbia University Medical Center and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

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