Nov 2007

What is psychoanalysis?

As my regular readers will be aware, I’m currently studying for a Masters degree in Psychoanalytic Studies.

But what does that mean exactly? It’s probably fair to say that the popular view of psychoanalysis; both its’ theories and practices; isn’t entirely accurate. This hardly makes it unique amongst academic disciplines of course, and given the anti-intellectualism that currently dominates our culture I doubt there’s a huge amount that can be done about that. We live in a society where academics and intellectuals are often viewed with suspicion and even denigrated for “not doing a real job”. Yet that same society fêtes Z-list celebrities and the participants of vacuous reality* television programmes, while lauding the accomplishments of entrepreneurs whose primary skill is an ability to coax a gullible public into hedonistic acts of meaningless consumerism (often using tools supplied to them by the psychoanalytic community, but that’s another blog post).

[Aside: Speaking of “Reality TV”, a recent episode of “America’s Next Top Model” dedicated itself to producing a series of images that consciously eroticise extreme violence towards women. One hardly needs a psychoanalyst to explain what that says about contemporary western culture.] (link via Smokewriting)

So, in the unlikely event that this piece will be read by someone other than my four regular (and already supremely knowledgeable) readers, allow me to provide a short explanation of psychoanalysis and the aims it pursues.


OK, the first thing that needs to be clarified is that psychoanalysis is not the same as psychotherapy. Which is not to say that psychoanalysis has no therapeutic value. Indeed long-term psychoanalysis can, in fact, be considered a form of psychotherapy. Nonetheless, the term “psychotherapy” is a far broader and more expansive one than “psychoanalysis” and encompasses a whole range of so-called “talking cures”. At the same time, psychoanalysis is not merely a therapy, but is also an attempt to generate a body of knowledge about mental processes, how they work and what function they play.

I should also make it clear from the outset that even within the field itself, psychoanalysis can have both a broad and a narrow definition. Narrowly (arguably “accurately”) psychoanalysis is the specific set of theories and techniques developed by Sigmund Freud to scientifically study the mind — in particular the unconscious mind — and to explain and treat neuroses.

Latterly however, it has been expanded to include a huge subsequent body of work by a whole range of individuals who have built upon — or altered — Freud’s theories and techniques. So the work of Carl Jung, for example, is not psychoanalysis under the strict definition as it bears significant differences to Freud. Jungians are instead known as “analytic psychologists”. Nonetheless, it is not unusual for Jung to be studied under the heading of psychoanalysis. Similarly, Adlerians describe themselves as “individual psychologists”, and there are numerous other subdivisions of the field.

In general, however, I shall use a broader definition of the term on this blog unless otherwise specified. I beg the forgiveness of outraged Jungians, Adlerians and existential psychotherapists everywhere but while unacceptable in an academic thesis, a certain looseness of language is probably appropriate for a weblog that aims to explain the field to those outside it. So when I use the term psychoanalysis, I will be using it to mean…

… 1) the investigation of mental processes which are almost inaccessible in any other way, especially inner experiences such as thoughts, feelings, emotions, fantasies and dreams;

2) a method (based upon that investigation) for the treatment of neurotic disorders;

3) a systematic accumulation of a body of knowledge about the mind, obtained along these lines, which is gradually turning into a new scientific discipline.

Encyclopedia Britannica

Rumblings beneath the surface

The above definitions of psychoanalysis contain at least two words that themselves require further explanation; the first of these I’ll tackle is “neuroses”. What are neuroses?

Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity– Sigmund Freud

Popular culture has absorbed numerous words, phrases and concepts from psychoanalysis. Yet despite their prevalence within our common lexicon, if pressed, many — perhaps most — of us would admit to only a vague understanding of them. So if a person were to describe a friend as “a good bloke, but a bit neurotic”, we’d know roughly what they meant, but in all likelihood would be unable to nail down a precise meaning. Similarly, we know what we mean when we reproach someone with the phrase “stop being so anal”, yet paradoxically would probably admit to having only a vague understanding, strictly speaking, of what “anal retentiveness” actually means.

The word “neurosis” has an interesting history; starting out meaning one thing and later being redefined to mean almost the opposite. It began life in the 18th century when Scottish physician, William Cullen, used the phrase “neurotic illness” to mean “a disease of the nerves”. A little later it was refined to mean “a functional disorder of the nervous system whose organic component cannot be identified”. But it was Sigmund Freud who provided us with the modern definition. As a medical student (studying under Ernst Brücke in Vienna) Freud began research into the condition known as “hysteria” and soon came to the conclusion that it was a personality disorder rather than a nervous one. Since then, the word “neurosis” has come to mean…

… precisely those mental disorders which are not diseases of the nervous system– Charles Rycroft, Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis

There are a number of different types of neurosis — traumatic neurosis, infantile neurosis, anxiety neurosis and so on. Complicating matters, however, is the notion of “psychosis”. Sometimes psychosis is considered an entirely separate phenomenon to neurosis, and sometimes it is considered a form of neurosis (known as “narcissistic neurosis”). Given that certain psychoses — unlike neuroses — can have an organic component (i.e. are created by identifiable organic damage due to disease or physical trauma), and given that psychosis — again unlike neurosis — often involves a demonstrable loss of contact with reality which can render the sufferer mentally incompetent (legally insane) I tend towards considering them entirely separate classifications of disorders. However, this isn’t entirely straight-forward and recent research into “borderline personality disorder” (BPD) would seem to suggest a certain blurred edge between the definitions. But more about BPD in another post.

The important thing to bear in mind regarding the distinction is that, by and large, psychoanalysis can only be used to treat a neurosis and not a psychosis (though some have tried and claim a certain level of success, and while I’m not discounting their work, it is pretty controversial and exists right on the fringes of the discipline). And so we come finally to the definition of neurosis which I’ll be employing. A neurosis is a non-transitory mental disorder which causes suffering and is recognised as problematic by the sufferer, but which involves neither an organic component nor a loss of contact with reality.

The “non-transitory” part of the definition is important. As Freud discusses in one of his most important papers (“Mourning and Melancholia”), it would not be accurate to describe mourning as a neurosis, despite it sharing most of the symptoms and almost all of the behavioural characteristics** of melancholia (more commonly known today as “depression”) which is a neurosis. Indeed he points out that mourning is clearly a natural and healthy reaction to significant loss, and should not be interfered with; an interruption of the mourning process can be damaging in the long term.

It is also well worth notice that, although mourning involves grave departures from the normal attitude to life, it never occurs to us to regard it as a pathological condition and to refer it to medical treatment. We rely on it being overcome after a certain lapse of time, and we look upon any interference with it as useless or even harmful.

Sigmund Freud | Mourning and Melancholia

Sigmund Freud was arguably the first person in history to approach the subject of mental illness in the same systematic fashion that physical illness had been treated for centuries previously. Difficult though it may be for us to imagine today, this was extremely controversial at the time and it is one of his (several) great contributions to the sphere of human knowledge that he persisted in this work despite the hostility with which he was greeted (hostility compounded in no small part by the anti-semitism he faced).

The Ocean of the Unsayable

In my view, Freud’s greatest contribution of all, however, was his investigation of the unconscious mind. He wasn’t, of course, the first to propose that the mind had both a conscious and an unconscious component. Socrates suggested as much (via Plato) and he was himself elaborating on those who had come before. So it’s an idea that has been around since almost the beginning of history. But Freud is by far the most significant figure in the history of the field, and we have him to thank for liberating the unconscious from the realms of art and philosophy, and bringing it into the mainstream of human knowledge.

Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me– Sigmund Freud

So what is “the unconscious”? And why is it so important?

Simply put, “unconscious” refers to those mental processes of which a person is unaware. This is a straight-forward enough idea and is no longer very controversial. And while there is still some resistance to the idea of unconscious mental processes in certain quarters, I am personally satisfied that there is ample evidence that this resistance is unreasonable. Gregory Bateson in his seminal essay “Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art” has this to say on the subject:

Quantitative Limits of Consciousness

A very brief consideration of the problem shows that it is not conceivably possible for any system to be totally conscious. Suppose that on the screen of consciousness there are reports from many parts of the total mind, and consider the addition to consciousness of those reports necessary to cover what is, at a given stage of evolution, not already covered. This addition will involve a very great increase in the circuit structure of the brain but still will not achieve total coverage. The next step will be to cover the processes and events occurring in the circuit structure we have just added. And so on.

Clearly, the problem is insoluble, and every next step in the approach to total consciousness will involve a great increase in the circuitry required.

It follows that all organisms must be content with rather little consciousness, and that if consciousness has any useful functions whatever (which has never been demonstrated but is probably true), then economy in consciousness will be of the first importance. No organism can afford to be conscious of matters with which it could deal at unconscious levels.

This is the economy achieved by habit formation.

Gregory Bateson | Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art

[The next section of the essay is entitled Qualitative Limits of Consciousness and provides further demonstration of the necessity of unconscious mental processes.]

The kind of unconscious processes being described by Bateson in this essay are what we’d call “descriptively unconscious” (also known as “pre-conscious”). It’s the ability to catch a thrown ball despite being consciously unable to carry out the complex trigonometric calculations required to ascertain where the ball will be at any given moment. It’s the vast store of memories carried around by all of us and which can be called to the conscious mind at will, but which clearly do not reside there permanently. Remember your first kiss? That memory wasn’t part of your consciousness a couple of seconds ago. Now it is. Descriptively unconscious processes are those which can be made conscious with ease.

The other kind of unconscious process, and the one that psychoanalysis is most interested in, is what’s known as a “dynamically unconscious” process. These are processes (memories, phantasies***, wishes) which have become the object of repression and which cannot be easily rendered conscious. One of the primary goals of psychoanalysis is to remove the resistance that the patient has to rendering these processes conscious and thereby freeing them of the repression which is keeping them unconscious.

“I have done that”, says my memory. “I cannot have done that”, says my pride, and remains adamant. At last — memory yields.

Friederich Nietzsche | Beyond Good and Evil (section 68)

The reason psychoanalysis attempts to do this illustrates one of the foundations of Freud’s theory of the unconscious; namely that merely because something is unconscious does not mean it has no influence over us. Indeed, it is Freud’s view that those memories, wishes and phantasies that comprise the dynamic unconscious exert a massive influence over us; far greater in fact than even the influence exerted by our conscious mind. Therefore, until we have removed the resistance which keeps these processes repressed, and cast them onto the screen of consciousness, we will remain forever ignorant of the true motivations behind our own behaviour.

The essential nature of psychoanalysis therefore is twofold. First it seeks a greater (and — as far as possible — a scientific) understanding of mental processes, in particular those of the dynamic unconscious. Second it seeks to use that knowledge, and the techniques with which it was gathered, to treat those who are suffering due to a negative influence being cast on their lives by the contents of their personal dynamic unconscious.

* While I admit to having a far from in-depth knowledge of the genre, can I just point out that the little “reality” television I have seen bears absolutely no similarity to any version of reality I’ve yet encountered (and I’ve encountered a few in my time).

** The distinction I make between symptoms and behavioural characteristics is a vital one to psychoanalysis. Although many of the symptoms of a neurosis will be evident in the behaviour of the sufferer, there will be some symptoms which can only be discovered by listening to the sufferer describe them.

*** “Phantasies” are not synonymous with “fantasies” though they share many of the same characteristics. More on phantasies at a later date.

Posted in: Opinion