Popular Science Monthly/Volume 78/April 1911/Freud's Theories of the Unconscious

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By Professor H. W. CHASE


ONCE upon a time it was the fashion to demonstrate witchcraft by sticking pins into the unlucky suspect. If any spots were found that appeared insensitive to pain, the unfortunate was forthwith declared a witch, with dire consequences to herself. Now-a-days such anesthesias are recognized, not as signs of a compact with the devil, but as symptoms of that mysterious disease of personality, hysteria.

This reversal of the point of view is typical. We have come to look upon many phenomena that were formerly ascribed to supernatural agencies—crystal gazing, second sight, hallucinations, double personality, possessions, ghosts, even mediumship—not as manifestations of supernatural powers, but as due to an abnormal condition of mind in the subject. In less enlightened days the Miss Beauchamp of whom Prince tells us in his "Dissociation of a Personality," who was several personalities by turns and had, as a rule, as one personality no recollection of the acts she performed as another, might have been burned as a witch. To-day she is a problem for the psychologist.

As knowledge of the psychological nature of such abnormal phenomena has grown, the need has increasingly been felt for some comprehensive explanation of their character. Here, for example, we have a girl (in a case reported by Janet) who has nursed her mother through a painful illness from consumption, resulting in death. The poverty of the family would not allow her even proper nourishment for her suffering mother. Her grief and despair may be imagined. But after the funeral she has apparently forgotten the whole series of events; the entire "complex" has dropped from consciousness. She is bewildered by any mention of the circumstances. But, on occasion, she falls into a trance-like state, in which she rehearses the circumstances of the illness and death of her mother with the utmost fidelity. And then, suddenly, she is normal again, but again she has no recollection of the crisis through which she has just passed. Here is a series of events apparently split off from her conscious personality altogether, yet instinct with energy that at time brings it to the surface. Here is another hysterical patient who has forgotten all about the shock that the physician suspects must have occurred as the starting point of her dis-disease, and yet in hypnosis the whole thing comes out as vividly as ever. Consciously it could not be recalled, and yet it was existing and working; for it is a peculiarity of such split-off complexes that they may cause all sorts of conscious disturbances, though the patient himself has forgotten all about the event which started the disturbances, or sees no connection between it and the disturbances which it has set up. Here, for instance, is a young German girl (the classic case of Anna 0. reported by Breuer and Freud), well educated, knowing some English, yet not using it as fluently as German. At a certain period in her life she suddenly becomes unable to speak or read her mother-tongue, and is obliged to use English altogether. Finally, in a hypnoidal state, she remembers that, once while she was watching by the bedside of her father, she was frightened by a sudden hallucination. Terrified, she tried to pray, but all that came into her mind were the words of an old English nursery rhyme. The shock, and her manner of reaction to it, caused her to forget her German, and to retain only the English, which had come to her aid at this critical period. There was no connection in her mind between the shock and the disturbances which it had left behind, yet the association, though not a conscious one, had been set up somewhere, somehow.

But all this is abnormal. We do not have to go so far afield to see instances of the same mysterious workings. Who of us has not had the experience of giving up a knotty point in despair for the time, to come back to it and find that our ideas had somehow fallen into place, had apparently worked themselves over without our help. Or how often a name that we have tried unsuccessfully to recall pops into our mind in the midst of some other train of thought. In such cases we have not been dealing with conscious activities as we know them. What has been the process? What has been going on?

It is such considerations as these that have led to the building up of theories of unconscious action, which fill out the gaps in our conscious life. By unconscious action we understand action which goes on without our being aware of it, and yet which seems intelligent, adapted to a purpose. In short, it is activity which it is hard to differentiate from conscious action, except in its lack of this very property of awareness. Most psychologists to-day admit that activities which are more or less like conscious activities go on under the threshold of consciousness; but the orthodox psychological explanation is that they are mere physiological activities, complex changes in the neurones, and that there is nothing mental about them. The brain itself is so complex, they say, that there is no need of supposing that we really think and feel unconsciously, all that occurs is a change in physiological arrangement. The mental and the conscious are co-extensive terms. On the other hand, those who have dealt most with the abnormal phenomena, and are less at home in the field of pure psychology, see in such con" Bcious activities something mental as well. The phenomena are so complex, they say, that if they occurred in an animal, for example, we would unhesitatingly call them mental. They are of course physiological, hut it is hard to explain their apparent intelligence without supposing that they are mental as well. The conflict is very like that now waging between the two schools of animal psychologists, those who would reduce everything in the life of the animal to a series of mechanical reflexes, and those who look for signs of conscious intelligence. Like this conflict, too, it is one which can never be decided by introspection, it is only as results accumulate that the balance will swing to one side or the other. In accordance with the law of economy that regulates scientific thinking, it would seem that such activities ought to be explained in physiological terms if it is possible to do so; in this ease the question becomes: are they too complex to be so explained?

The thing of all others most needful here, then, would seem to be more evidence as to the nature of such unconscious activities. Such a body of evidence has been brought forward by Professor Freud, of Vienna, whose work is just beginning to be known in this country. Professor Freud is primarily an alienist, a former student of Charcot at the Salpétriêre. In the course of a long practise with neurotic patients, he has arrived gradually at theories of the mechanism of the unconscious, which, if they are substantiated, will go far to revolutionize present psychological conceptions.

Freud's theory is unique in that he supposes the region of the unconscious to be built up of two distinct layers, and that he would explain all the facts of unconscious action as due to the interaction of these two layers.

The upper layer is a sort of vestibule to consciousness. When, for example, as in the case cited above, we try in vain to recall a name, and later find it coming of itself into consciousness, Freud would explain the case as follows: The train of conscious activity set up by the effort has, as soon as attention was turned away from it, sunk below the threshold of consciousness. But it does not at once die away. The activity rather goes on exactly as though it were in consciousness, new associative connections are made, and by and by the associative train succeeds in reaching the name of which we were in search. This now appears in consciousness, seemingly out of all associative connection, and yet a train of association has led to its discovery, only it was a train of unconscious association. So during the day we break off scores of trains of thought without carrying them to a conclusion, because they are too trivial, too complex, too unwelcome, to occupy the mind further. Such trains of thought drop below the threshold, and there may form new associative connections. If these are strong enough, they may again appear above the threshold, apparently without cause. If such connections are not formed readily, the activity may die out without effect. Or such a train of thought may form still other associations, and sink to lower depths of the soul, still to be considered. This upper layer of the unconscious, then, which we find in Freud's theory, is very like the usual sense in which the word "unconscious" is used, especially by those who would see something mental in its activities.

But the unique contribution which Freud has made to the subject is in his theory of the lower layer of the unconscious, which is in many respects totally different in its structure and activities from the upper layer which we have been considering. In order to see his conception more clearly, let us follow for a moment the development of the individual. We all know that the child exhibits many tendencies which in the adult would be signs of criminality, insanity or abnormality. Our conscious personality as it exists to-day is the result of a long process of growth, each stage built on the ruins of the one beneath. The child is savage, primitive; it is only by degrees that he becomes adapted to the restraints of our modern civilization, and represses his old activities. But now, says Freud, such repressed activities leave their traces behind. They may not seem to affect us consciously; we may have even forgotten many of the old ways of thinking and acting, but their traces still exist. What has become of the energy which went to the gratification of our old selfish, individual, feral, modes of thought and action? With most of us the energy has found for the most part new outlets, it has produced the motive force for new developments. It has been "sublimated" to higher uses. But the draining off of the energy from the old modes of action has not been complete. The old primitive tendencies still persist unconsciously in the best of us, and will crop out in some form or other if the provocation be sufficient. We have repressed our childish desires so long that we may have forgotten that they ever existed, but yet they are not quite dead. Particularly is this true in the realm of sex—for Freud holds that the child has a sex life of his own as truly as the adult. It has, to be sure, not yet come to a head in the sexual organs, but it is none the less existent, and in ways which in the adult would be called perversions; which, indeed, if not repressed, are the origin of perversions in later life. Now these old ways of sexual satisfaction are usually repressed under the influence of the environment, yet the tendency to their gratification still exists; we may see it cropping out in the most normal of us in dreams, for example. The energy that went to the satisfaction of such impulses has for the most part been drained off into new channels, but a little of it still remains locked up with the old complexes. Perhaps none of us have as much energy at our disposal for mental work as we ought to have, for some of it still is attached to old and outworn tendencies, making it a little easier and a little more possible for them to come into operation under favoring circumstances than for new tendencies so to do.

Now, for Freud, it is of just such cast off complexes, each with its own complement of energy, that the lowest level of the unconscious is made up. All the unethical acts and unsocial ways of thought of the child, repugnant to us to-day, still exist in the lowest dark chamber of the soul, not strong enough to break out into action, but alive. It is the penalty which we pay for our civilization, that it imposes standards of thought and action which are foreign to the deepest tendencies in us, modes of life of the cave-man and the ages before civilization, which have left their marks on the soul forever. And for all of us there has been some strain in adjusting to its requirements, resulting in the abandonment after a struggle of the old racial ways, and the substitution of newer and more ethical modes of action. But a part of our personality still remains in the troglodytic stage. We may not allow this part expression; we may not even be conscious that it longer exists, and yet it lives and works below the threshold, just as the remembrance of the death of her mother still affected the girl, though consciously it had lapsed. With the split between childhood and adolescence, the chasm between the old and the new becomes still wider; we turn our back more and more on the old ways; they lapse from consciousness more and more completely. Childhood seems a little alien to all of us; there has been a "transvaluation of all values" so that the remembrance of how we thought and felt then comes to us with the mark of a little strangeness upon it. It is strange just because we have cast it all out, we have "put away childish things." But in the dark limbo of the unconscious they still live on, unconscious though we may be that such is the case. The lowest level of the unconscious is thus far removed from consciousness in its modes of functioning. The conception that such tendencies still function, still need contiuual, though not conscious repression, is the essential point here.

But now what is the mechanism that prevents us from knowing that these old tendencies are still striving upward toward conscious expression? Consciousness is guarded from a knowledge of their existence and their activities, holds Freud, by the interposition of the upper level of the unconscious. This acts like a censor, a guard at the gate, and will not admit to conscious expression these outworn complexes, because of the pain which they would cause us if we were compelled to take account of them in our thinking. It would require too much energy consciously to keep them down; so it is the function of the upper level of the unconscious to save consciousness all this trouble, and to leave it free for other things. This it does, in ordinary circumstances, so well that we are not even aware that any repression is going on, or, indeed, that there is anything to repress. We have repressed our old complexes so long and so well that the act of repression has dropped below the conscious level; we are not aware of its existence. But, on the other hand, it is continually going on, for the old complexes are always striving up to expression. And so the system of energy in the unconscious is a two-way system; the upper system keeping down the lower. If this be true, how different is our mind from the report which consciousness gives us. Outwardly, all is calm and placid, and yet beneath the surface is the mighty conflict always going on. We are like citizens sleeping in security while outside the gates the battle rages hot between our protectors and our enemies. Fortunately, it is our protectors who are usually victorious; the repressive force of the upper level is strong enough to prevent the emergence of the denizens of the lower stages. But this is not always so. Occasionally the assailants find a breach in the fortifications, or a weak spot in the line of battle, and echoes of the conflict come to us within.

To abandon figures, the lower level of the unconscious may under certain circumstances win a partial victory, and some feature of the old complex may arise in our minds. This may happen in the following way. Suppose that a train of thought broken off during the day, and sinking to the upper level of the unconscious, works out there to a conclusion which permits it to be brought into associative connection with one of the complexes on the lower level. The whole process has been unconscious; we are not aware that such a connection has been made, and yet in the trivial event of the day there has been some element, some common feeling tone, some phrase, some suggestion, which is like enough to the old complex to form an associative connection with it. Suppose that during the day we express some slight concern about the health of a near relative, and, in the pressure of work, forget about the matter. Under the threshold, on the upper level, this train of thought may spread further. Now it is one of the traits of children that they have at first little sympathy and love for their younger brothers and sisters. It is not uncommon for them to express a wish that they would die, that they might have more attention from their parents. For death for the child means of course only an absence; he has no conception of its real significance. But such an idea is foreign to the adult mind; it has been so repressed and was expressed at so early a stage that we can hardly realize that it ever existed. However, on Freud's theory, it still does exist, and is continually being repressed by the upper levels. Suppose now that the train of thought having to do with the health of the relative in question works out to a conclusion below the threshold which tends to call up the old complex. This is at once given new energy, its repression is more difficult. And yet it does not emerge consciously. But at night, when the inhibitions are down in sleep, when the repressive force is not quite so great, it makes a supreme effort, and gets through—in a dream. We may awaken terrified from a dream of the death of the same relative who caused us the concern during the day; what gave the motive force to the dream was the old childhood complex, which in this case has, by the help of the new energy, succeeded in breaking through into consciousness. For Freud, the motive force behind a dream is always that of some old complex in the depths of the soul; the dream is a deeply significant revelation of the true nature of our unconscious life, to him who knows how to read it.

This last qualification is important, for it usually happens that the inhibiting force, though not able to completely prevent the emergence of the buried complex, distorts it almost beyond recognition, so that the dream seems to us absurd, disconnected, void of all meaning. This distortion is sometimes so complete that there is only here and there a hint of the true meaning of the dream; it seems to be made up from trivial events of the day alone; but in such cases close examination will show that rational association of such events has been carried on through the complex, which has served as the connecting link and given new energy which permits the trivial events to recur in the dream, though openly the complex does not appear at all. Such was the dream of the woman who saw her nephew lying dead, and yet felt no grief. Now it chanced that on the day before, she had bought a ticket to see her lover, from whom she had parted, in a public performance, and was looking forward eagerly to the event. Some of the details of the dream seemed to suggest that there was some association with this fact; and, indeed, it was found on analysis that the last time she had seen her lover was at the funeral of another nephew. It was as though she had said to herself, "If my other nephew dies, I shall see him again." Do we not perhaps see here the activity of the old childish way of thinking that would sacrifice anything for a moment's happiness for the individual? And yet that complex had not appeared at all in the dream as such. It is thus Freud's thesis that the dream never says what it means, that it is the product of a compromise between the two systems of energy. The complex is distorted in getting around the censor, and thus there arise all sorts of symbolic and indirect ways of expression; the complex is only alluded to in the dream in allegorical ways, or under cover of the trivial events of the day that stand in connection with it; it is not expressed directly. Blood and fire in dreams may appear as sexual symbols; the symbolism may be very complex, as in the case of some of the symbols of primitive man; associations may be determined in the most superficial ways; for example, one person may stand for another in a dream on no more basis of identification than that both wear eyeglasses. The complex makes use of any possible associative connections in order to utilize a little energy to strengthen itself. And it is of course also true that the more indirect and symbolic the associations, the less likely we are to suspect the complexes which are manifesting themselves through them, and so much the more likely will the complex be to avoid the censor. It is as though the complex, in its mad desire to escape, disguised itself and slipped around the back way. It succeeds in escaping, but its disguise alters it so beyond recognition that even its best friends will not recognize it.

Thus in the dream we see the conflict of the two systems of energy, and, if we are skilled, we may even interpret the signs as the woodsman would do, and tell what complex has passed that way, and how it was clad. For the first time the psychology of dreams is thus given a coherent setting, which shows it as a type of activity not foreign to our usual modes of thought, but of one piece with them. For the dream is only one illustration of this conflict. What, says Freud, are the symbols of the artist and the poet but just such disguises, the product of the conflict in his own soul between the primitive and the civilized ways of thought? Other observers have already shown that the root of art is in sex; here we see that it is through the symbolism of a sex-conflict that it develops.

Now, suppose that the complexes are a little stronger, have not been as well suppressed as in the normal individual; in such a case they may break out as hysterical symptoms or obsessions—yet the emergence is not complete, though more complete than in the dream, for the individual still has gaps in his conscious memory with regard to the ways in which the complexes are connected with his symptoms, or he may have forgotten the origin of some of his symptoms altogether. And yet in every case his neurosis goes back and roots in the strength of just such complexes, which have seized on events of his adult life somewhat similar to them in nature, and through the breaches thus made have burst forth into a real, if detached, life.

Shocks, traumatic experiences, cause forgetfulness and splitting of personality, on this theory, because they resemble sufficiently in some respect the old childhood complexes, and these latter are for one reason or another so strong that the experience forms its associative connections with the older complexes, and not with conscious personality. So it drops below the level of consciousness, to in turn strive to rise to the surface. The hysterical symptom is then a symbol of the conflict between the two tendencies. If there were no conflict the old complex would emerge wholly; that it emerges in indirect and symbolic ways is additional proof of the conflict which is going on. One must, then, have reached a certain stage of ethical development, must have repressed old tendencies, in order to develop a neurosis.

It is of course true that this repression of the lower by the upper is in general good for the organism; it is well that consciousness should be left free. The fact that it miscarries at times and a neurosis or a nightmare ensues is only because of the relative strength of the complexes, and not because of a defect inherent in the system itself.

Thus for Freud the most real part of the drama of the soul goes on behind the scenes. Most things that we think we do from conscious motives, most of the thoughts that come into our minds, are but the surrogates and the symbols for the processes that go on beneath the threshold. Ideas are so censored before they get admission to consciousness that we have often little notion of their real nature, and can only wonder that the apparently meaningless idea should haunt us so.

If these conclusions are substantiated, we seem to have a new light shed on the old question of the unconscious. It becomes for us the most real part of ourselves; the expression of our deepest tendencies. It is a realm far larger and far deeper than consciousness; it holds secrets that we thought lost forever. The psychologist would explain the unconscious from the nature of consciousness; Freud, on the other hand, explains consciousness from the nature and function of the unconscious.

The assertion that much of our thinking is symbolic in its nature, due to the fact that it serves as a sort of safety-valve for the escape of our repressed complexes, is of course a problem which can never be solved by appeal to consciousness alone. And it is so with most of the other positions which Freud has taken; we are following pathways where introspection is no guide. Thus he would have us shift the emphasis in psychology from a study of consciousness over to a study of the unconscious. Consciousness, for him, is but the surface; it is in the depths below consciousnes that true reality is found.

We may then sum up the contribution which Freud has made to the psychology of the unconscious as follows: he has supposed that the unconscious consists of two streams of tendencies, or energy, one stream striving to revive all the time experiences which would be repugnant to us, and which we have outgrown, and the other striving to check the revival of such tendencies. As a result of this conflict, we have introduced into our thoughts and acts, especially in conditions when barriers are somewhat down (as in dreams, lapses, neuroses, reveries), a vast deal of the symbolic and the indirect methods of presentation.

Now is such activity as we have been considering mental in its nature—are the unconscious associations and connections of which we have been speaking really associations and thoughts that go on underneath the surface? Or are we dealing with a very complex degree of nervous activity, and with that alone? Freud nowhere states his own position definitely, though it is perhaps too easy to accuse him of leanings toward the mental interpretation. What he has done is rather to open up new lines of approach to the problem, to give us a consistent and closely reasoned interpretation of observed facts. Psychologists are beginning to recognize that, right or wrong, he must be reckoned with. He has given a stimulus to work along this line that may go a long way toward the ultimate solution of some of our baffling psychological problems.