15 November 2009

the unconscious and THE Unconscious

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:30 pm

In a recent discussion of psychoanalysis, several commenters questioned the relationship between the empirically-supported unconscious and THE Unconscious of psychoanalytic theory. There is empirical support for the unconscious as a loosely-structured amalgam of neural nodes and connections, of memories and fragmented thoughts, waiting to be assembled into meaningful combinations by consciousness. But is there a place in the mind where hidden truths reside, a structure or process or event that speaks to consciousness with the intent of breaking through and revealing its secrets — THE Unconscious, if you will?

I don’t think so. In my view, the “breakthroughs” of analysis can be accounted for by the workings of the unconscious with a small “u,” without invoking this other repository of truth,  intentional revealer to consciousness, and portal to the Real that constitutes THE Unconscious.

In an earlier post (2½ years ago today!) I outlined Donnel Stern’s description of the unconscious. Stern, a psychoanalyst, offers an interpretation that aligns quite well with contemporary empirical psychology. The unconscious is structured like a language, Lacan famously pronounced, and in a sense that’s how the brain’s interconnections work. Language isn’t organized into prestored sentences that people retrieve as needed. Rather, the vocabulary and rules of language are only loosely organized, available as materials from which language-users can construct sentences on the fly. Brains are structured in this way too. Ideas, memories, and other stuff in the brain are widely but loosely connected to each other, available for retrieval when we need to solve a problem, remember how to get to Joe’s house, or talk about the weather.

Through repetition, certain interconnections become stronger than others — these are the ones most readily accessible to consciousness. But other connections are there too, operating below the threshold of consciousness. These weaker connections are usually overpowered by the stronger ones. This sort of “repression” may result from active effort to prevent certain neural connections from surfacing. More often, the weaker connections just never reach the synaptic “tipping point” which brings them across the threshold into conscious awareness.

In the psychoanalytic encounter, the analyst encourages the analysand to loosen up the dominant, habitual mental connections — to “deterritorialize” the mind, using Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology. By drawing attention to slips of the tongue, metaphors, and dual meanings, the analyst pulls on those secondary neural connections between words and ideas in hopes of bringing them into consciousness. Exploring these alternative ways of organizing mental material may lead the analysand into formulating new insights about past and present experiences and ascribing different meanings to them.

Stern explicitly draws the implications for THE Unconscious of traditional psychoanalytic theory:

“If unconscious experience does not have a single, predetermined meaning, but remains to be interpreted in reflective awareness, the effect of clinical interpretation does not depend on objective accuracy and cannot be judged on that basis.” (p. 63)

It’s difficult if not impossible to verify the supposed truth claims revealed by probing the unconscious, as testified by the recent resurgence and critique of repressed childhood memories retrieved through hypnosis and such as the cause of psychological disorders. Even Freud didn’t believe that these retrieved memories were “true” objectively; rather, he thought they constituted projections and wishes. Stern contends that bringing unconscious material into consciousness usually entails reformulating the meaning of memories that are already accessible to consciousness rather than uncovering previously repressed memories.

Stern continues:

“If unconscious meaning is an objective fact, and the clinical function of language is to label it, then the purpose of interpretation is the accurate matching of facts and labels. The only interpretations we can possibly make of objectively existing unconscious content must be — like their objects — objective, scientific, and nonphenomenological. Under these conditions, the analyst would be expected to explain the patient’s conduct and experience on the basis of nonintrospectible, but theoretically conceivable, abs0lute unconscious phenomena. The analyst would then be expected to convey these explanations to the patient in the form of objectively accurate interpretations.” (p. 164)

Stern doesn’t believe that analysis produces this unveiling of objective truths hidden in the unconscious. (It should be noted that none of what Stern says here would change if the patient rather than the analyst were doing the interpretations.) What is the alternative?

“Psychoanalysts and analysands do judge the goodness of their interpretations, of course. They do that continuously. But the accuracy of our portrayals of unconscious meaning is virtually irrelevant as a truth criterion. ‘Accuracy’ is not really even a meaningful term in discussing the interpretation of unformulated experience, because the term cannot be defined by reference to an observable relation between itself and its object. We know the object (to repeat the essential point) only by means of our interpretation of it. That means clinical interpretation is not objective and scientific, but subjective and phenomenological. And it spells the end of correspondence theory in psychoanalysis. We can no longer hold that the nonverbal unconscious meaning is the ‘real’ one that our words simply clothe or represent, or to which they correspond.” (p. 165)

Stern insists that it’s not necessary to deny the existence of a structured reality outside of awareness or language. He’s only contending that the meaning of the real isn’t fixed, either in the world or in the unconscious mind, waiting to be discovered. In psychoanalysis, interpretation leads to the conscious construction of meanings on material that had previously either been locked into an inadequate meaning or had remained unformulated, uninterpreted, personally meaningless.

“Interpretation has an organizing function. It is not a set of correct labels, but a redescription of the patient’s experience at a level of differentiation and articulation higher than the patient had heretofore reached. In this process of redescribing, an interpretation may bring together pieces of experience, or even of logic or emotional argumentation, that have never before appeared in the patient’s mind in a single configuration. An interpretation is a new Gestalt.” (p. 171)



  1. Interesting that you mention Stern’s work in connection with Deleuze and Guattari. I first came across Stern’s Interpersonal World of the Infant in Anti-Oedipus or A Thousand Plateaus, or perhaps What is Philosophy? I can’t remember which. At any rate, both of them were raving about how terrific it was. It’s worth noting that his understanding of the intersubjective constitution of subjectivity coincides with the Lacanian model of subjectivity as intersubjectivity very nicely. The neurological model of the unconscious you outline is also exactly what Freud argues in his early unpublished Project Essay written in 1895. The Project Essay is fascinating because it is a neurological investigation. It is truly amazing how much Freud was able to infer through his investigations of the neurological systems of invertebrates. At any rate, it is truly a must read. You can find it in volume one of the standard edition. The Lacanian psychoanalyst, biochemist, and neurologist Arian Bazaan from Belgium has based her own research on this early work. Her recent book has won awards and generated all sorts of discussion. I’m probably partial as she’s a friend of mine, but she’s the real mccoy, holding multiple PhD’s (I think she’s up to three now), working as the head of a clinic that focuses on the treatment of psychotics and schizophrenics, and having done a good deal of genuine experimental lab work to develop neurological evidence for the Lacanian unconscious through various forms of language experiments and the use of rMRI and whatnot. Much of this experimental work was conducted at University of Michigan. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t see a contradiction here.

    Comment by larvalsubjects — 17 November 2009 @ 8:37 pm

    • I agree, Levi, that Stern’s description of the unconscious is very similar to your accounts of how the Lacanian analytic session actually works. Curiously, the Stern that Guattari and you reference is a different guy — Daniel Stern versus Donnel Stern. Donnel’s book, published 2003, draws connections between analysis and Gadamer’s hermeneutics. Like Lacan but unlike the self-psychology oriented American analytical tradition, Donnel isn’t big on establishing an empathic relationship with the client. Unlike Lacan, he is prepared to interact fairly freely with the client. He sees analysis as a kind of conversation in which both participants are actively trying to eliminate distortions and prejudices in mutual understanding. prejudices in such a way that they become clear to us, and understanding emerges. So he takes a more active role in asking than would Lacan. He also makes interpretations in the traditional sense of offering possible meanings for things the client says or experiences. Like Lacan, though, he doesn’t regard his interpretations as definitive or expert. He says:

      “Thus the field of hermeneutics, like psychoanalysis, seems to be moving from an older conception of meaning as a static phenomenon, a thing that preexists its interpretation, to a newer understanding that meaning is an activity, an event, and can only take place in interaction.”

      Comment by john doyle — 17 November 2009 @ 9:41 pm

  2. And if I were to give advice as to how to get a sense of the unconscious or what it is, I’d give the following reading list. First, where Freud is concerned don’t start with his theoretical works. This is the mistake everyone makes. Instead, the following is the way to go:

    The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

    Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious

    The Interpretation of Dreams

    The Rat Man

    The Wolf Man



    In more or less that order. To even have this discussion it’s first necessary to get a sense of what the unconscious is. From there it becomes possible to move into Lacanian thought. Before even reading Lacan I would recommend reading secondaries by clinicians. You can’t go wrong with Fink. I would read his books in the following order:

    A Clinical Introduction to Psychoanalysis

    Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique

    The Lacanian Subject

    From there it becomes possible to move on to Lacan. If you can get a hold of them, the following are good places to start:

    Seminar 5: The Formations of the Unconscious

    Seminar 6: Desire and its Interpretation

    “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious” (Ecrits)

    “Subversion of the Subject” (Ecrits)

    Seminar 11: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis

    People make the mistake of thinking that Ecrits is the book to read because it’s Lacan’s only book. This is a bad move. The essays of Ecrits are not only extremely dense, but they are mere summaries of the seminars.

    It will be noted that I have emphasized the clinical dimension of psychoanalysis over the theoretical dimension. My premise is as follows: one must first know what a theory is about, what it is trying to explain before they can understand the theory. In the humanities folks get the theory alone without knowing what the hell the theory is about. The clinical texts draw attention to the phenomena to be explained and show psychoanalysis in action. I realize this is a big list. I’m pitching this as what the ideal introductory reading list would look like. Anyway, hope this is of interest to someone.

    Comment by larvalsubjects — 17 November 2009 @ 9:01 pm

  3. Thanks for taking the time to recommend the list, Levi. I agree with your concluding recommendation: understand the clinical experience first, then try to evaluate/formulate theories accordingly.

    Comment by john doyle — 17 November 2009 @ 9:44 pm

  4. I must read Stern’s book.

    The interpretation is the structure. First a vase, then two faces.

    Comment by NB — 18 November 2009 @ 4:17 am

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