Unconscious Mental Processes


Unconscious Mental Processes


The inference that unconscious mental processes determine a very large portion of our lives has proven enormously fruitful. Although the idea of unconscious mental life dates back millennia, systematic investigation of unconscious mental processes began with the clinical researches of Sigmund Freud at the end of the 19th century. Listening to patients telling their stories with the use of hypnosis (following the example of his mentor, Josef Breuer), Freud grasped the usefulness of this central hypothesis—the bedrock of psychoanalysis—that the inexplicable, irrational nature of symptoms could be understood to be meaningful if he inferred unconscious influences. The first hypothesis, in which he joined Breuer in the Studies on Hysteria (Breuer and Freud 1893–1895), introduced an explanatory mechanism, the hypnoid state, an altered state of consciousness that at least sometimes was induced by trauma. The hypothesis included the assumption that the memories of traumatic events that occurred during a hypnoid state could be assisted to reach consciousness and to -permit abreaction of dammed-up affect by talking under hypnosis. They hypothesized the occurrence of dis-sociations in mental life caused by damming up of affect. Dissociation would ordinarily not occur, because affect would ordinarily be discharged and the experience would be absorbed into the “great complex of associations.” (Subsequent revival and reformulation of that hypothesis are discussed later.) Freud’s attention, however, shifted to a more compelling inference: the delineation of repudiated unconscious wishes. The major emphasis of his subsequent work on the nature and organization of the mind elaborated on his inferences about the nature of the wishes and the motives for repudiation, that is, to unconscious conflict. Psychoanalysis became the psychology of human experience and behavior viewed from the perspective of unconscious conflict. By mid-20th century, the focus had extended beyond conflict, although conflict has remained central to psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalytic theory

“psychoanalytic theory is above all a theory of motivation” (p. 6). Others have made similar comments. For example, Lichtenberg (1989) stated that “psychoanalytic theory at its core is a theory of structured motivation” (p. 1), and Rubinstein (1976) observed that “in one sense, the whole of psychoanalytic theory is a theory of motivation” (p. 68). Indeed, what is referred to as “psychic determinism” in Freudian theory is more accurately called motivational determinism. After all, one does not have to be psychoanalytically oriented to accept the idea that, like physical events, all psychological events are determined; all one needs to be is a strict determinist. The more distinctively psychoanalytic contribution to the principle of psychic determinism is the claim that all meaningful behavior (other than, say, reflexes) is motivated—by wishes and desires.

[Textbook of Psychoanalysis, Second Edition
Edited by:Glen O. Gabbard, M.D.,
Bonnie E. Litowitz, Ph.D.,
Paul Williams, Ph.D.]