Tuesday, October 11, 2011

an Examination of Psychoanalysis (Part 7/13)

Free Association

As Freud wrote in his History of the Psychoanalytic Movement, "The history of psychoanalysis proper...starts with the technical innovation of the rejection of hypnosis. ” Hypnosis was discarded for a number of reasons including , the realization that patients could not recall repressed, unconscious material when fully awake. Further, it became clear to Freud that trauma, though repressed, permeated the psyche in a total way, leaving no train of thought unrelated or unimplicated. This recognition formed the basis for the psychoanalytic technique of free association. Free association now replaced hypnosis as the central probing device of the mind.
In the words of A.A. Brill (reference!!!), Freud persuaded his patients "to give up conscious reflection and abandon themselves to calm concentration, follow their spontaneous mental occurrences and impart everything to him. It was the job of the analyst to discover the connection between traumatic memory and the associations provided in this way."[1] .
Sulloway points out that intrusion might be a better translation of the original German than association.[2] Freud viewed free association as a process whereby ideas intruded upon waking consciousness. That the unconscious (the instincts) could not be directly experienced . The only way to know it was through its derivative ideas. Psychoanalysis thus became confined to the level of ideation -- to concept and language. It became the "talking cure." Derivative ideas were made conscious by using free association techniques, having the patient ramble on and on until something significant (to the therapist) was said. This was supposedly a breakthrough of unconscious material, after which the analyst would help the patient gain insight into the connections between the associations and the original trauma.
So, the patient talked and the analyst talked because it was assumed that language was the only means by which we could have access to consciousness. And what is more, in the classical Freudian approach, the analyst said very little, never betraying his own feelings to the patient. His role was to be the silent observer, the donor of insights, and a model of rectitude for the patient. In his Outline to Psychoanalysis, Freud stated this position plainly:

There is no hope of our being able to reach (the real state of things) since everything new that we deduce must nevertheless be translated back into the language of our perceptions from which it is impossible for us to set ourselves free.
It was certainly important to realize that the unconscious could be probed directly via language; that language could do a detective job on itself, pinpointing traces from the unconscious. But in restricting himself to the medium of words, Freud was inevitably led to the conclusion that the knowable unconscious was linguistic in nature. To some extent it is, but that is by no means the whole picture, for the principal role of the unconscious is to code and store suffering and other emotions. A child doesn't suffer from intellectual conflict with her parents. She suffers because her emotions had to be buried in order to get along at home
Although unconscious content permeates language, language cannot alone fully express the unconscious. This is because the unconscious is primarily comprised of non-verbal elements, particularly Pain. And because of this the linguistic approach achieves the opposite of its intent: it buries feelings deeper and deeper.
Remember, there are hundreds of millions of years of evolution between the sensate-feeling brain and the human rational one. That is why when one is cut-off from one's feelings one can discuss the most incredible events with no emotional content to the language.
The non-verbal elements lying behind the gates of Pain in the unconscious are knowable in their own ways -- through their own "language" -- through the feelings and sensations , which are the "raw material" of the unconscious process.

There is a tautology inherent in the Freudian concept of consciousness. We only know what is knowable, and what is knowable is only what can be ascertained through intellect and language. According to Freud and the Freudians, t he unconscious is not knowable directly. If knowledge is viewed as the exclusive property of the intellect, then anything beyond the scope of ideas and language cannot be known. What's more, any further discovery of knowledge is limited to the use of these conceptual tools. This would be fine if experience were mediated purely by intellect, yet quite clearly it is not. As the colloquialism goes, there are some things that you just can't put into words.
If Freud hadn't perpetuated the demonology of the 19th century, he would have delved into the unconscious. As it was, he thought such probing to be deleterious to mental health. Freud's discoveries were mediated through the brilliance of his intellect. It is no wonder that he gave such kudos to the intellect (and language) in developing psychoanalytic therapy. It is interesting to note that, although Freud challenged many of the entrenched beliefs of his day, he implicitly accepted the intellectual boundary to knowledge. The unfortunate legacy of this assumption is a psychotherapy in which self-knowledge is attainable only through intellectual activity. By awarding the proprietorship of self-knowledge to the uppermost parts of consciousness, the knowledge gained becomes more and more detached from the reality it supposedly explains. Ultimately, knowledge limited to one level of consciousness reinforces the mind-body split which is itself the essence of neurosis. 

The great paradox of psychoanalysis is that we can know ourselves in such a way as to preclude true knowledge of ourselves:

Reality will always remain "unknowable." What scientific work elicits from our primary sense perceptions will consist in insight into connections and interdependencies in the external world, which can somehow or other reliably be produced or reflected in the internal world of our thoughts.[3]
What the above explains is how insight and knowledge of oneself can be used as defenses. Analysis and interpretation of the information provided by the process of free association is where the psychoanalytic method truly fails. The analyst makes the whole business more complicated than it need be. Since he thinks the unconscious will always be a mystery, he pursues off-track approaches rather than going directly to the source. It is intricate work to have to apply principles from the fund of psychoanalytic theory to individual experience. It assumes that the answers to personal experience lie in someone else's head. It distrusts the intelligence of feeling, puts too much faith in mental understanding, and is blind to the fact that traumatic memories and neglected needs are straining to become conscious.

[3]Freud, Outline, p. 106.


  1. Art: It is remarkable to me that here you are inferring the use of language and intellect and hence reason to the human psyche without mentioning this whole period in our lives when language was something only the future would enable us to grasp. Even then, there was the necessity to undergo the education system to make language more 'UNDERSTANDABLE' in the conveyance of ideas, reason and understanding.

    To me, all this demonstrates my notion that thinking is our first and foremost act-out. Until the advent of a RE-LIVING of an old early feeling, which you so brilliantly articulated in the introduction to "The Primal Scream". I want to say "n'ough said" The rest is merely 'pitter patter' about that, that only after age seven (or thereabouts) was there an ability to understand anything; save re-action to unfeeling big people.

    Freud (and for that matter all his followers) never got to the heart of the matter until Danny Wilson said to you, "I've done it; I don't know what; but I can feel. No-more needs to be said ... it's all over ... but the screaming.


  2. Hi,

    -"The great paradox of psychoanalysis is that we can know ourselves in such a way as to preclude true knowledge of ourselves"-.

    It's also altogether the great paradox of the mind, the 3rd line.

    This is 'knowing about' ourselves, isn't it. "I know all about myself". Of course I do, I mean I am a discrete and mature individual and my head is screwed on tight, so, don't go telling me I'm repressed, because if I was I would know all about it wouldn't I?

    Horse to water etc.

    Paul G.

  3. Jack one day I will write a serious piece on the necessity fo the prefrontal cortex. Don't negate it. art

  4. Art: genius that I feel you are; it is my strong feeling that your desire to promote the superiority of the human prefrontal cortex seems to run counter to mankind's debilitating single disease 'neurosis'. God knows (whomever he, she it might be) why, if we were able to CURE neurosis, what we might do with this prefrontal cortex?

    "Me-thinks the lady doth protest too much"; to quote the bard. It seems (to me) that somehow we want to hang onto this debilitating disease; if it will continue to demonstrate our superiority to all other creatures.

    My take (crazy that it might seem) we are the inferior creature on the planet, that can't even go along with nature (and feel), but need somehow to conquer it. I ask Art; is that not the very essence of NEUROSIS ????

    Genius that Freud was (as you have in the past acquiesced to) his neurosis eventually got the better of him until the advent of Danny Wilson. I hope Art, you too don't fall victim to the same "ego," lol.


  5. Jack: Fear not did you not get my piece on how we go crazy on different levels of consciousness? All levels get dislocated or distorted in some way. Remind me to do another piece on this. art

  6. Hi,

    -"All levels get dislocated or distorted in some way"-.

    That's my experience of my psyche and explains my observations of other peoples' caprice as well.

    By the way Art, don't forget to do another piece on this soon.

    Paul G.

  7. Paul G: Do another piece on what ? art

  8. Hi Art,

    -"Jack: Fear not did you not get my piece on how we go crazy on different levels of consciousness? All levels get dislocated or distorted in some way. Remind me to do another piece on this. art"-.

    I experience (ever increasingly more predictable) distortions and dislocations in my psyche; these disconnects feel like they're pushed by my 1st line pressure. I sense you have got a lot more to say about this!

    Paul G.


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Bailey Endowed Chair of Animal Well Being Science
Washington State University

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