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Freudian Repression, the Unconscious, and the Dynamics of Inhibition

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Possibly no other psychoanalytic concept has caused as much ongoing controversy, and attracted so much criticism, as that of "repression". Repression involves denying knowledge to oneself about the content of one's own mind and is most commonly implicated in disputes concerning the possibility of repressed memories of trauma (and their subsequent recovery). While fundamental in Freudian psychoanalysis, recent developments in psychoanalytic thinking (e.g., "mentalization") have downplayed the importance of repression, in part due to less emphasis being placed on the importance of memory within therapy.This book proposes that Freud's theory of repression needs to be understood in a new light, which allows Freudian repression to be evaluated afresh and gives a modern appreciation for the vitality of Freud's thinking. While much contemporary discussion is about the repression of traumatic memories, this book instead shows that Freud appears to conceptualize repression as a specific form of cognitive-behavioural inhibition, and this has enormous implications for understanding repression within a modern context. Situating repression within a dynamic account of persons, Freudian repression is surprisingly congruent with models of inhibitory processes emerging from modern psychology and the neursosciences.

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CHAPTER ONE: The beginning of the theory of repression

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Background influences

Two main sources of influence appear to have shaped Freud’s thinking and the beginnings of psychoanalysis. One of these was the mechanistic and physicalist approach of figures such as Brücke, Meynert, and Helmholtz. The other, a psychological interest in neurotic phenomena and hypnosis, derived from figures such as Möbius, Charcot, Liébeault, Bernheim, Janet, and Breuer (Jones, 1953; Wollheim, 1991). In the latter camp, Josef Breuer’s case of Anna O is historically significant, since it provided the first insight into psychoanalytic explanation. Anna O suffered from, among other complaints, a rigid paralysis to the right side of her body and various thought disturbances. Breuer discovered that her symptoms related to specific psychological traumas, where memories of unpleasant experiences had been split off from her consciousness and subsequently become pathogenic. Recalling the traumatic experience (and attendant emotions) with the aid of hypnosis appeared to remove the symptoms. This method was applied to other cases published by Breuer and Freud in Studies on Hysteria (Breuer & Freud, 1895d), which, according to Freud (on at least one occasion), marked the birth of psychoanalysis (Freud, 1913m, p. 207). This was a period of intensive thought for Freud, evidenced not only by his publications, but also by letters to his friend Wilhelm Fliess, and the posthumously published Project for a Scientific Psychology (1950[1895]). Although Freud’s thinking was to develop in various ways, many of the core assumptions underlying the theory of repression, as well as psychoanalytic theory as a whole, remained consistent with views developed during this time.

 

CHAPTER TWO: Repression in the topographic model

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Rejection of the seduction hypothesis

Freud retracted his seduction hypothesis as early as 1897, in a letter to Fliess dated 21 September (Masson, 1985), although, as Frampton (1991) observes, public denouncement did not occur until 1906 (Freud, 1906a). The retraction is associated with a shift in Freud’s thinking that was to underlie the later developments in Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. Rather than repression simply targeting memories of sexual abuse, such memories were seen as imaginative falsifications or “screen memories” (Freud, 1899a). Here, the appreciation of the ubiquity of motivational factors contributing to psychic life becomes of paramount importance to Freud. As he writes in a letter to Fliess dated 2 May 1897, memory is not simply about recall and retrieval, but rather a motivated activity related to impulses: “[An] important piece of insight tells me that the psychical structures which, in hysteria, are affected by repression are not in reality memo-ries—since no one indulges in mnemic activity without a motive—but impulses …” (Masson, 1985, p. 239, Freud’s italics). Hence, although “memories” were targeted or distorted by defence, it was their association with motivational states (desires, impulses, and phantasies of gratification) that was the deciding factor in repression. Reflecting this, Freud begins to discuss the “repression of impulses” (in letters dated 31 May and 7 July 1897, in Masson, 1985, pp. 252, 255), which, to some extent, simply extends one line of Freud’s early thinking in the Studies where he discusses the notion of conflicting “motive forces” (Breuer & Freud, 1895d, p. 270).

 

CHAPTER THREE: The structural theory and repression

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Limitations of the topographic theory

Freud appears to have formulated what has become known as the “structural theory” in response to the limitations to, and difficulties with, dividing the mental apparatus into systems based on accessibility to consciousness. In particular, equating the repressed with the system Ucs. and the repressing forces with the Cs. and Pcs. was problematic, since aspects of the repressing forces, particularly the defences, were themselves unconscious in the systematic sense (Freud, 1923b, p. 18): “The truth is that it is not only the psychically repressed that remains alien to consciousness, but also some of the impulses which dominate our ego—something, therefore, that forms the strongest functional antithesis to the repressed” (Freud, 1925j, pp. 192–193).

The three main structures, or agencies, proposed instead are the id, ego, and superego. Although some claim that this new “structural” theory can be superimposed on the topographic theory (e.g., A. Freud, 1968; Gardner, 1993; Gill, 1963; Sandler, 1974; Sandler & Sandler, 1983), others see them as radically incompatible (e.g., Arlow & Brenner, 1964; Brenner, 1957). What is clear is that, with the structural theory, Freud made specific additions to the theory of repression, including reference to the “unconscious ego”, formalizing the role of morality in repression (the “superego”), and subsequently revising the role of anxiety in repression.

 

CHAPTER FOUR: The apparent paradox of Freudian repression

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Repression and the indestructibility of the repressed

What emerges in Freud’s account of repression is that the ego must know the target of repression—at least on one occa-sion—for repression to occur. If this were the end of the matter, then there would be no particular difficulty in attempting to explain repression. However, as Maze and Henry (1996) note, one factor that makes Freud’s account of repression both so interesting and difficult to comprehend is Freud’s claim that repression does not do away with the repressed: instead, the repressed remains causally active, pressing towards conscious thinking, and generating symptoms as substitute satisfactions (e.g., Freud, 1900a, p. 577, 1915e, p. 166, 1919g, p. 260, 1933a, p. 68, 1939a, p. 95). As Freud writes,

The unconscious—that is to say, the ‘repressed’ … has no other endeavour than to break through the pressure weighing down on it and force its way either to consciousness or to a discharge through some real action. [Freud, 1920g, p. 19]

 

CHAPTER FIVE: Unconscious mental processes and the nature of the repressed

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Repression and the unconscious

Freud writes that the “the essence of repression lies simply in turning something away, and keeping it at a distance, from the conscious” (Freud, 1915d, p. 147, his italics), and psychoanalytic therapy “aims at … nothing other than the uncovering of what is unconscious in mental life” (Freud, 1916–1917, p. 389). (Freud qualifies this position with respect to overcoming resistances (1910k, p. 225, 1913c, pp. 141– 142, 1919a, p. 159, 1937d, p. 257).) However, Freud also indicates that repression (and its offshoot, resistance) shaped his understanding of unconscious mentality, writing that “we obtain our concept of the unconscious from the theory of repression. The repressed is the prototype of the unconscious for us” (Freud, 1923b, p. 15). The relation between repression and unconscious mental processes thus requires careful articulation, particularly so given that recent discussions cast doubt upon the possibility of unconscious mentality altogether (e.g., Searle, 1992; Talvitie, 2009; Talvitie & Tiitinen, 2006). Freud’s account, however, is further complicated by his descriptive, dynamic, and systematic accounts of unconscious mental processes (Freud, 1912g, 1915e), a point not always recognized by critics of Freudian theory (e.g., Rofé, 2008). The aim of the present chapter is to articulate an account of unconscious mental processes as a basis for understanding Freud’s theory of repression.

 

CHAPTER SIX: Repression and the system Ucs.

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Systematic mentality in the topographic and structural theories

While Freud’s descriptive view of unconscious mentality is logically defensible, it does not follow that other aspects of Freud’s account of unconscious mentality are without problems. Notable here is Freud’s systematic view of mentality, arising prominently with the topographic theory and carrying over into the structural theory. Here, Freud proposes that qualitatively distinct processes pertain to the different mental systems, and some view this as Freud’s major contribution to a theory of unconscious processes. Macmillan (1991), for example, claims that Freud’s innovation was the proposition that consciousness or unconscious was bound up with the topographic systems, and Jones (1953) believes that Freud’s “revolutionary contribution to psychology” was “his proposition that there are two fundamentally different kinds of mental process, which he termed primary and secondary respectively, together with his description of them” (p. 436). This systematic view was not restricted to the topographic theory and, as many note (e.g., Boesky, 1995; Compton, 1972a, 1981; Matte-Blanco, 1975; Petocz; 1999; Wiedeman, 1972; Woll-heim, 1991), there is considerable overlap between the topographic and structural theories and much of the difference between the models is in name only: “the criteria of Ucs. and Pcs. are the same as those of id and ego” (Gill, 1963, p. 53), and the primary and secondary process distinction carries over from the topographic theory to the structural one (Boudreaux, 1977; Petocz, 1999). However, some authors believe that psychoanalysis has, nevertheless, neglected the “unrepressed unconscious” (e.g., Fayek, 2005; Matte-Blanco, 1975), and others note that the systematic view has major implications for Freud’s theory of repression (e.g., Petocz, 1999). The aim of the present chapter is to develop Freud’s systematic distinction and its implications for repression.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: A general model for situating repression

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Situating memory within Freud’s general theory

From the beginning of Freud’s theory, memory has been associated with repression. Freud’s early account explicitly equates repression with forgetting (Breuer & Freud, 1895d, p. 10) and “motivated forgetting”, based on primary process thinking, is described as the prototype of repression (Freud, 1900a, p. 600). Freud further emphasizes the relationship between repression and memory when he attempts to clarify the relation between repression and defence, equating repression with hysterical amnesia (Freud, 1926d, p. 163). Nevertheless, this apparent association between repression and memory needs to be understood within a greater context. Freud’s (1915d) metapsychological paper on repression makes no reference to memory at all, and Madison notes that while “[r]epression is tied up in our minds with forgetting … when we check with Freud’s writings, we find that forgetting is apparently not a good criterion of repression” (Madison, 1956, p. 76). To appreciate this greater context requires recognizing the distinction between conflict-free traumatic neuroses and conflict-ridden psychoneuroses (Freud, 1919d, p. 209). The significance of this latter class of neuroses emerges with the abandonment of the seduction hypothesis and the emergence of a dynamic framework, picturing the mind as a society of conflicting motives. Within this framework, memories become repressed in so far as they are associated with desires and anxiety, and, given this broader picture, “memories” are not isolated cognitive units within some non-affective, computational apparatus, but rather intimately bound with drives and affects (Freud, 1907a, pp. 48–49). Freud’s (1900a) account of the development of wishes links these to attending to memories of past satisfactions (p. 598), and Freud recognizes this complex relation between past and present, wishes and memory when he discusses the relation of wishes and memories to previous satisfactions:

 

CHAPTER EIGHT: The role of affects in repression

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The significance of affects

While Freud notes the importance of drives as motivating structures he also writes that “psycho-analysis unhesitatingly ascribes the primacy in mental life to affective processes” (Freud, 1913j, p. 175) and affects are generally seen as central to both psychoanalytic therapy and theory throughout Freud’s time to the present day (Breuer & Freud, 1895d; Freud, 1907a, 1924f; Brierley, 1937; Rapaport, 1953; Brenner, 1974; Green, 1977; Rangell, 1978; Schwartz, 1987; Westen, 1997; Emde, 1999). Brierley (1937), for instance, writes that “analysis is not an intellectual process but an affective one” and both pathology and success are judged by the analysand in terms of experienced affects (p. 266). Moreover, the clinically significant transference relationship is primarily emotional (Brenner, 1974; Emde, 1999; Green, 1977; Rapaport, 1953; Ross, 1975), and one of Freud’s earliest views is that insight is only therapeutic if it is emotional insight: “Recollection [of memories] without affect almost invariably produces no result” (e.g., Breuer & Freud, 1895d, p. 6). Affects, too, have a significant role in repression, implicated as both cause and target (Freud, 1907a, pp. 48–49). The aim of the present chapter is to provide an account of affects outlining both their role in instigating, as well as their vicissitudes after, the act.

 

Introduction to Part III

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The preceding chapters present a working account of conscious and unconscious mental processes and locate Freud’s account of repression within the folk-psychological desire–belief model, with affects having a regulating role. Such a foundation is necessary for providing the context for an explanation of Freud’s theory of repression, whereby: (i) the ego believes that gratifying certain desires and wishes will lead to punishing consequences; (ii) anxiety follows, so that the offending desires are repressed and no longer known; (iii) the repressed desire persists, impelling thought and behaviour such that it would become known unless prevented; (iv) repression must be a continuous activity to prevent the repressed from becoming conscious. We have seen that (iii) cannot be rejected a priori; given the physiological bases of desires, and their “object-hungry” nature (Gardner, 1993, p. 135), the source of a desire would remain active despite repression of its cognitive representative. The first explanatory strategy examines the possibility of a censor initiating repression before then examining whether repression can be reduced to neural processes. Finally, an account of repression is presented which avoids problems of the former two strategies, but which accounts for both the psychological and neural processes involved in explaining repression.

 

CHAPTER NINE: Repression and the censorship

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Censoring and censorship

Possibly the most famous and yet most controversial explanation of repression is that of the repressing “censor” invoked to account for the repression of desires and wishes independently of the ego’s knowing. Freud first mentions censorship in a letter to Fliess dated 22 December 1897, in which he compares the dynamics of the mind to the political oppression in late nineteenth-century Russia:

Have you ever seen a foreign newspaper which has passed Russian censorship at the frontier? Words, whole clauses and sentences are blacked out so that the rest becomes unintelligible. A Russian censorship of this kind comes about in psychoses and produces the apparently meaningless deliria. [Masson, 1985, p. 289, Freud’s italics]

A similar analogy is then drawn in the Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), where Freud writes again in relation to deliria of a “ruthless censorship” that acts exactly like the censorship of newspapers at the Russian frontier:

Deliria are the work of a censorship which no longer takes the trouble to conceal its operations; instead of collaborating in producing a new version that shall be unobjectionable, it ruthlessly deletes whatever it disapproves of, so that what remains becomes quite disconnected. This censorship acts exactly like the censorship of newspapers at the Russian frontier, which allows foreign journals to fall into the hands of the readers whom it is its business to protect only after a quantity of passages have been blacked out. [Freud, 1900a, p. 529]

 

CHAPTER TEN: Repression and neural processes

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The role of neurological processes in repression

The increasing technical sophistication of brain imaging techniques promises much in terms of advances in understanding the biological bases of psychological processes generally. However, making the most of such advances requires a matching conceptual sophistication, and while there has been a growing willingness to understand psychoanalytic processes in terms of neuroscientific ones, it is not always clear that the logical implications of various claims have been carefully thought through. In particular, acknowledging what neuroscience cannot tell us is required if we are to avoid theoretically overstepping from the available findings. To illustrate this, this chapter examines some of the neural candidates for repression and discusses what can and cannot be inferred from the relevant findings.

Theoretical issues in neuroscience

Bennett and Hacker (2003) have recently drawn attention to the ongoing philosophical issues in neuroscience and note the importance of conceptual clarification for both theorizing and interpreting findings relevant to neuroscience. One issue is the “mereological fallacy”, involving confusion between part/whole relations. Bennett and Hacker claim that statements such as “the brain experiences x” or “the brain believes y” should instead be phrased as “the person experiences x” or the “person believes y”: “psychological predicates apply paradigmatically to the human being (or animal) as a whole, and not to the body or its parts” (Bennett & Hacker, 2003, p. 73, their italics).

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN: A psychobiological account of Freudian repression

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The developmental context of repression

As Freud repeatedly notes, both biological processes and social constraints underlie instinctual renunciation and repression. The human infant’s state of helplessness and dependence upon care-givers for satisfaction and survival means that any threat to their providence (such as the loss of the parents’ love) constitutes a situation of danger to the developing organism. The care-givers become learnt sources of gratification and their loss is felt to be tantamount to helplessness and frustration. Consequently, the “need for love” develops reflecting this concern:

The biological factor is the long period of time during which the young of the human species is in a condition of helplessness and dependence. Its intra-uterine existence seems to be short in comparison with that of most animals, and it is sent into the world in a less finished state. As a result, the influence of the real external world upon it is intensified and an early differentiation between the ego and the id is promoted. Moreover, the dangers of the external world have a greater importance for it, so that the value of the object which can alone protect it against them and take the place of its former intra-uterine life is enormously enhanced. The biological factor, then, establishes the earliest situations of danger and creates the need to be loved which will accompany the child through the rest of life. [Freud, 1926d, pp. 154–155]

 

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