Who knows what’s in your mind?

Or: Is there such a thing as repression?  (from Mixing Memory)

A thoughtful student of mind recently discovered research that bore on a way she had been treating a language-disabled child. The prescribed task was for the child to put together phonemes (basic letter-sounds) to make a word and then take words and decompose them into distinct phonemes. The child could do the first, but not the second and she remembered saying, “O you can do it. If you can put sounds together, you can take them apart.”

It turns out that she was, according to recent research, just wrong. These are very different tasks, and someone with a mis-wiring problem might well be able to do the first and not the second. Of course, the child knew he couldn’t do the decomposition task and said so, but his self-knowledge had been put in question and instead it was suggested he was unwilling to try. So in addition to his language disability, he may now worry about how he isn’t even able to be cooperative.

If you are nine or ten and are very aware that you do not fit in, you really do not need this extra burden.

There is a way to make the situation very much worse for the child. Well, probably many more ways than one. But one way is to take the now certifiably uncooperative child to a doctor who is convinced that she knows what the real problem is, and it is entirely out of the child’s consciousness. And that’s because the child has repressed all his negative feelings about his parents, which repression is producing the uncooperativeness. If everyone is very unlucky, the child will be encouraged to think that the solution to his language problems is to act on his previously entirely unknown dislike for his parents. So the family will shortly have an adolescent child who is convinced that being a loving member of the family is very harmful.

This story is not entirely a fantasy; I’ve seen a father situated as a target by his son’s psychiatrist and it is really not easy to deal with. But the question that needs to be raised is: Who really does know what’s in your mind.

The idea that some stranger whom we haven’t known for long can have better insight into our real motives and beliefs is a familiar one in some cultural circles and it forms the basis for an approach to psychotherapy. It has recently received yet another challenge in the Review of General Psychology (March 08). In addition to the empirical challenge to the truth and therapeutic effectiveness of the repression hypothesis, the article argues another important point: the empirically supported hypothesis of the unconscious in cognitive science is VERY different from that of the unconscious in Freudian theory. Here’s the abstract; the article is, unfortunately, not widely available on the web unless you have a suscription and can get it through the electronic services of your library.

Does Repression Exist? Memory, Pathogenic, Unconscious and Clinical Evidence, Yacov Rofé
The current dispute regarding the existence of repression has mainly focused on whether people remember or forget trauma. Repression, however, is a multidimensional construct, which, in addition to the memory aspect, consists of pathogenic effects on adjustment and the unconscious. Accordingly, in order to arrive at a more accurate decision regarding the existence of repression, studies relevant to all three areas are reviewed. Moreover, since psychoanalysis regards repression as a key factor in accounting for the development and treatment of neurotic disorders, relevant research from these two domains are also taken into account. This comprehensive evaluation reveals little empirical justification for maintaining the psychoanalytic concept of repression. My stress.

It is important that nothing in this says that all experiences are always remembered and so a case of recovered memory is not necessarily put in question.

Added In case you are wondering what’s feminist about this, there are a couple of things at least. (1) The ‘reality’ of recovered memories has been discussed in a lot of feminist literature; (2) feminist theory is sometimes inclined to invoke theories of repression (and so note that the theory of repression is not described as refuted); and (3) In practice, a feminist philosophy professor may find that a Freudian’s supposed insight into her unconscious is clouded by many of the factors we have discussed here, from Valian’s interpretative schemas to misunderstandings of our conversational strategies if they have been affected by our professional context.

2 thoughts on “Who knows what’s in your mind?

  1. Alison – my deep apologies for losing your comment! Somehow it got repeated and I thought I was removing a duplicate. Anyway, it was an important question, which I hope I can repeat and then respond to. But this time after coffee. – jj

  2. Alison, I was able to retrieve your comment, which is:

    What, though, is the alternative to believing in repression? Presumably one doesn’t – as a feminist – want to endorse the (presumably Cartesian) view that all of one’s thoughts and memories are transparently available to one, or can readily be made available? That seems to make the individual too much the master of their house – which seems to me to run contrary to feminist sensibilities.
    I ask this question quite sincerely, as I find it intriguing that many philosophers tend to be unsympathetic to Freudian ideas of repression and of unconscious thoughts.

    That’s a great question, though I’m not sure I’m seeing the connection between feminism and having the mind be transparent. Still, the bigger point is that the mind certainly doesn’t seem to be transparent. What the article maintains is that there is an unconscious, but it is very different from that of Freudian psychology. There is also, the author seems to say, something like being able to ‘put things out of one’s mind. However, the bad news for Freudean repression is that the ability to put things out of one’s mind tends to make one healthier. Which reminds me of the now fairly common claim that depressives are not people hiding conflicts and anger from themselves; depressives tend to be MORE accurately aware of their circumstances than others.

    Finally, there is a sad cluster of finding surrounding trauma, which is that it can decrease one’s ability to dampen down reaction to stimuli, memories, and so on. Hence, PTSD.

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