The spleen: a reservoir of energy
The spleen is a mysterious organ. In that real and symbolic space delineated by the body and its boundaries, which the imagination populates with its fantasies, the spleen is present as an arcane element. A sudden pain difficult to locate and with unusual characteristics felt in the area of the left side immediately brings out in the imagination, “the spleen” as a possible cause.
As children - when running at breakneck speed playing in the fields or in the woods - the spleen with a sudden pain in the left side could occur abruptly breaking that garrulous and joyful chase, leaving us gasping for breath with a compressed hand just where the pain had manifested itself, as if to calm an unknown god reminding us of its archetypal power expressed in the pain.
The spleen since its removal does not produce disorders that are apparently important for human survival, is not a vital organ, even if going deeper to examine the more subtle psychic aspects present in splenectomies, some elements emerge to suggest that this enigmatic organ may play a significant role in the psychosomatic economy of the individual.
The spleen is like a sponge, approximately 12 cm by 7 cm, ovoid in shape, inserted into the circulation of the abdomen; it is nourished by the splenic artery while the venules that concentrate in the splenic vein end up flowing into the hepatic circulation. From a structural point of view, it is made up of fibro-muscular septa that radiate towards the interior of the organ, just as in an orange, the internal fibrositis delimit the pulp on the segments. The cavities left free by these fibro-muscular septa, which are widely communicating with each other, are filled with splenic tissue or splenic pulp. The splenic pulp consists of the so-called 'white pulp', formed by periarterial lymphatic sleeves, which like white granules surround the arteries, and the 'red pulp', formed by red blood cells, macrophages, large mononuclear cells that have the property of absorbing (phagocytizing) the harmful material that passes through the spleen.
The spleen, which is part of the circulation of the abdomen, acts as a store and reservoir of red blood cells that stop in the venous sinuses of the splenic pulp. From there, eventually the blood cells can be expelled and sent into the general circulation through the squeezing action induced by the splenic nerves or through the action of humoral factors such as adrenaline.
All stressful conditions, such as a sudden lack of oxygenation of the tissues, muscular exercise, psychological stimulation of attack and escape, etc. induce contraction of the spleen with the release of an increased quantity of red blood cells in order to have more oxygen available for biochemical reactions, which support the increased energy expenditure of the cells.
On a symbolic level, this function of emotional reservoir can be analogically compared to the psychic possibility of the libido to refer to a 'centre of mental energy' felt as a 'functional reserve' in moments of greater psychological exhaustion. Let us think, for example, about when, in moments of fatigue due to an overloading commitment on the level of thought, we suddenly feel an exhaustion of our ideational possibilities, a net dropping in psychological tension, so much so that we seem to have no more reserves of ideas. It is then that, driven by the pressing motivation of the work, the mental forces seem to awaken again, allowing us to continue for a certain time to maintain our mental tension.
The energy reserve function
It is the “archetypal spleen” that has contracted feeding the libido with new ideational cores that are conducive to the continuation of work.
The same thing happens in emotional situations, when we seem to have exhausted our capacity for tolerance, so that any further stress threatens to empty us completely of all our capacity to respond: that sudden influx of energy which allows us to face the threatening situation arises precisely from the "archetypal spleen", which represents the Ego's capacity to use the libido by drawing it from its energy reserves. When we speak of the 'archetypal spleen', we are not thinking about an actual organ of the brain, or a brain function located at some anatomical site, but rather about a faculty of the libido which, as energy in motion, retains within itself the possibility of 'concentrating' in real energy nodes, capable of being used in times of need.
If the blood, on the level of bodily functions, can be assimilated to the libido as far as it pertains to psychic life, the spleen, a storage organ and real blood reservoir, corresponds on an analogical level to what we define in psychological life as the 'concentration capacity' of the circulating libido.
The ability to concentrate
The 'concentration capacity' of the libido is a very ancient prerogative on the phylogenetic scale, so much so that it can be found in those expressions of living forms that must accumulate energy in order to survive.
In the embryonic life, the first drafts of the spleen appear as early as the first week of gestation, reminding us how the spleen takes over after the primitive conditions for the drafts of the primitive digestive system have been created.
On a symbolic level, if each "form" corresponds to a "function", so much so that we can speak of an inseparability between "form" and "function", the primitive digestive tract will correspond on the level of phylogenetic consciousness to the birth of what we call the possibility of introjecting psychic elements destined for amplification, while the spleen as "form" will correspond to the function of "concentration" of the libido in its energy reserves. But the spleen, in addition to its function as a deposit and reservoir of blood, demonstrating its primitive relationship with phylogenetic evolution, has another function, that of contributing during foetal life to the production of blood. Therefore, the spleen as an organ is closely linked to blood, so much so that it produces blood during foetal life. Therefore, on a symbolic level, the spleen is not only representative as a "form" of the function "concentration of libido", but at least in foetal life, it is at the basis of the genesis of libido itself, contributing with the bone marrow to this important action. If, on a concrete level, the bone marrow is the organ that generates blood cells and white blood cells, on a symbolic level, like the spleen in foetal life, it can be seen as the very source of emotional life (note, for example, the assonance between the terms blood cells and emotion) and of defence mechanisms, represented on a concrete level by white blood cells and antibodies.
The latter, in fact, have the prerogative of keeping the biological Ego intact in the face of aggression from foreign substances (antigens), bacteria, viruses, etc., and of the defence mechanisms.
The red blood cell graveyard
But the spleen also has the important function of phagocytosing various cells, parasites, fragile red blood cells, etc., thus performing a particularly important action in the body's defensive mechanisms. On a symbolic level, this organic function corresponds to the implementation of defensive psychic functions, capable of balancing psychic life thanks to removal and denial, which "engulf" contents unacceptable to the consciousness, holding them in the unconscious.
Another important function performed by the spleen is the destruction of aged red blood cells, and the storage of iron contained in haemoglobin in iron stores. It is usually said that the spleen is normally a graveyard and not a slaughterhouse of red blood cells.
On a symbolic level, this bodily function of the spleen corresponds to the similar psychological mechanism of changing old modes of emotional expression in favour of renewing them, just as it does on an intellectual level. When we discover that we are capable of new initiatives, abandoning the usual patterns of behaviour learned from parents, and are able to renew our opinions beyond educational preconceptions, then that archetypal psychic capacity revealed on the somatic level of this function of the spleen works.
The spleen is also capable of storing iron, derived from the destruction of haemoglobin in aged red blood cells, and is thus one of the most important iron stores in the body. On a symbolic level, iron was sacred in myths to Mars, god of war and fertility; we know that in psychic life Eros and Thanatos (love and death) are the fundamental poles within which the occurrence and development of psychological life is marked.
The ability to accumulate iron is therefore fundamental to the psyche, because through a proportionate accumulation of "aggressive forces" - the destroyer and farmer Mars - the psyche has the possibility, through the implementation of aggression, to be able to elaborate its projects and through fertility to manage them appropriately, without forgetting the relationship of reality.
This means that when we are able to decide on our own initiative, coming out of the abysmal inertia in which the character of the child rests, we use the aggressive components as a psychological aspect capable of elaborating our projects and we give them a real and concrete value thanks to the fertile aspect induced by the martial archetype that inhabits our psychosoma.
Diego Frigoli – Founder and promoter of the ecobiopsychological thought. Psychiatrist, Psychotherapist and Director of the ANEB Institute – School of Specialization in Psychotherapy. Innovator in the study of the imaginary focusing on the symbol in relation to its dynamics between the individual and the collective knowledge.
Translated by Raffaella Restelli – Psychologist, member of the British Psychological Society (UK), Ecobiopsychological Counselor and expert in ANEB Psychosomatic Medicine. Linguist in ANEB Editorial area.