Repression is a key concept of psychoanalysis, where it is understood as a defence mechanism that “ensures that what is unacceptable to the conscious mind, and would if recalled arouse anxiety, is prevented from entering into it.”
According to psychoanalytic theory, repression plays a major role in many mental illnesses, and in the psyche of the average person.
There has been debate as to whether (or how often) memory repression really occurs and mainstream psychology holds that true memory repression occurs only very rarely. American psychologists began to attempt to study repression in the experimental laboratory around 1930. However, psychoanalysts were at first uninterested in attempts to study repression in laboratory settings, and later came to reject them. Most psychoanalysts concluded that such attempts misrepresented the psychoanalytic concept of repression.
Sigmund Freud’s Theory
As Sigmund Freud moved away from hypnosis, and towards urging his patients to remember the past in a conscious state, ‘the very difficulty and laboriousness of the process led Freud to a crucial insight’. The intensity of his struggles to get his patients to recall past memories led him to conclude that ‘there was some force that prevented them from becoming conscious and compelled them to remain unconscious … pushed the pathogenetic experiences in question out of consciousness. I gave the name of repression to this hypothetical process’.
Freud would later call the theory of repression “the corner-stone on which the whole structure of psychoanalysis rests” (“On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement”).
Freud developed many of his early concepts with his mentor, Josef Breuer. Moreover, while Freud himself noted that the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in 1884 had hinted at a notion of repression (but he had only read him in later life), he did not mention that Johann Friedrich Herbart, psychologist and founder of pedagogy whose ideas were very influential in Freud’s environment and in particular with Freud’s psychiatry teacher Theodor Meynert, had used the term in 1824 in his discussion of unconscious ideas competing to get into consciousness.
Freud considered that there was ‘reason to assume that there is a primal repression, a first phase of repression, which consists in the psychical (ideational) representative of the instinct being denied entrance into the conscious’, as well as a ‘second stage of repression, repression proper, which affects mental derivatives of the repressed representative: distinguished what he called a first stage of ‘primal repression’ from ‘the case of repression proper (“after-pressure”).’
In the primary repression phase, ‘it is highly probable that the immediate precipitating causes of primal repressions are quantitative factors such as … the earliest outbreaks of anxiety, which are of a very intense kind’. The child realises that acting on some desires may bring anxiety. This anxiety leads to repression of the desire.
When it is internalised, the threat of punishment related to this form of anxiety becomes the superego, which intercedes against the desires of the id (which works on the basis of the pleasure principle). Freud speculated that ‘it is perhaps the emergence of the super-ego which provides the line of demarcation between primal repression and after-pressure
Abnormal repression, as defined by Freud, or neurotic behaviour occurs when repression develops under the influence of the superego and the internalised feelings of anxiety, in ways leading to behaviour that is illogical, self-destructive, or antisocial.
A psychotherapist may try to ameliorate this behaviour by revealing and reintroducing the repressed aspects of the patient’s mental processes to their conscious awareness – ‘assuming the role of mediator and peacemaker … to lift the repression’. In favourable circumstances, ‘Repression is replaced by a condemning judgement carried out along the best lines’, thereby reducing anxiety over the impulses involved.
The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre challenged Freud’s theory by maintaining that there is no “mechanism” that represses unwanted thoughts. Since “all consciousness is conscious of itself” we will be aware of the process of repression, even if skilfully dodging an issue. The philosopher Thomas Baldwin stated in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995) that Sartre’s argument that Freud’s theory of repression is internally flawed is based on a misunderstanding of Freud. The philosopher Roger Scruton argued in Sexual Desire (1986) that Freud’s theory of repression disproves the claim, made by Karl Popper and Ernest Nagel, that Freudian theory implies no testable observation and therefore does not have genuine predictive power, since the theory has “strong empirical content” and implies testable consequences.
The psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel stressed that ‘if the disappearance of the original aim from consciousness is called repression, every sublimation is a repression (a “successful” one: through the new type of discharge, the old one has become superfluous)’.
The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan stressed the role of the signifier in repression – ‘the primal repressed is a signifier’ – examining how the symptom is ‘constituted on the basis of primal repression, of the fall, of the Unterdrückung, of the binary signifier … the necessary fall of this first signifier’.
Family therapy has explored how familial taboos lead to ‘this screening-off that Freud called “repression”‘, emphasising the way that ‘keeping part of ourselves out of our awareness is a very active process … a deliberate hiding of some feeling from our family’.
Experimental Attempts to Study Repression
According to the psychologist Donald W. MacKinnon and his co-author William F. Dukes, American psychologists began to attempt to study repression in the experimental laboratory around 1930. These psychologists were influenced by an exposition of the concept of repression published by the psychoanalyst Ernest Jones in the American Journal of Psychology in 1911. Like other psychologists who attempted to submit the claims of psychoanalysis to experimental test, they did not immediately try to develop new techniques for that purpose, instead conducting surveys of the psychological literature to see whether “experiments undertaken to test other theoretical assertions” had produced results relevant to assessing psychoanalysis. In 1930, H. Meltzer published a survey of experimental literature on “the relationships between feeling and memory” in an attempt to determine the relevance of laboratory findings to “that aspect of the theory of repression which posits a relationship between hedonic tone and conscious memory.” However, according to MacKinnon and Dukes, because Meltzer had an inadequate grasp of psychoanalytic writing he misinterpreted Freud’s view that the purpose of repression is to avoid “unpleasure”, taking the term to mean simply something unpleasant, whereas for Freud it actually meant deep-rooted anxiety. Nevertheless, Meltzer pointed out shortcomings in the studies he reviewed, and in MacKinnon and Dukes’s view he also “recognized that most of the investigations which he reviewed had not been designed specifically to test the Freudian theory of repression.”
In 1934, the psychologist Saul Rosenzweig and his co-author G. Mason criticized Meltzer, concluding that the studies he reviewed suffered from two basic problems: that the studies “worked with hedonic tone associated with sensory stimuli unrelated to the theory of repression rather than with conative hedonic tone associated with frustrated striving, which is the only kind of ‘unpleasantnesss’ which, according to the Freudian theory, leads to repression” and that they “failed to develop under laboratory control the experiences which are subsequently to be tested for recall”. In MacKinnon and Dukes’s view, psychologists who wanted to study repression in the laboratory “faced the necessity of becoming clear about the details of the psychoanalytic formulation of repression if their researches were to be adequate tests of the theory” but soon discovered that “to grasp clearly even a single psychoanalytic concept was an almost insurmountable task.” MacKinnon and Dukes attribute this situation to the way in which Freud repeatedly modified his theory “without ever stating clearly just which of his earlier formulations were to be completely discarded, or if not discarded, how they were to be understood in the light of his more recent assertions.”
MacKinnon and Dukes write that, while psychoanalysts were at first only disinterested in attempts to study repression in laboratory settings, they later came to reject them. They comment that while
“the psychologists had criticized each other’s researches largely on the grounds that their experimental techniques and laboratory controls had not been fully adequate, the psychoanalysts rejected them on the more sweeping grounds that whatever else these researches might be they simply were not investigations of repression.”
They relate that in 1934, when Freud was sent reprints of Rosenzweig’s attempts to study repression, he responded with a dismissive letter stating that “the wealth of reliable observations” on which psychoanalytic assertions were based made them “independent of experimental verification.” In the same letter, Freud concluded that Rosenzweig’s studies “can do no harm.” MacKinnon and Dukes describe Freud’s conclusion as a “first rather casual opinion”, and state that most psychoanalysts eventually adopted a contrary view, becoming convinced that “such studies could indeed be harmful since they misrepresented what psychoanalysts conceived repression to be.”
Writing in 1962, MacKinnon and Dukes state that experimental studies “conducted during the last decade” have largely abandoned the term “repression”, choosing instead to refer to the phenomenon as “perceptual defence”. They argue that this change of terminology has had a major effect on how the phenomenon is understood, and that psychoanalysts, who had attacked earlier studies of repression, did not criticise studies of perceptual defence in a similar fashion, instead neglecting them. They concluded by noting that psychologists remained divided in their view of repression, some regarding it as well-established, others as needing further evidence to support it, and still others finding it indefensible.
A 2020 meta-analysis of 25 studies examined the evidence that active memory suppression actually leads to decreased memory. It was found that in people with a repressive coping strategy, the wilful avoidance of remembering certain memory contents leads to a significant reduction in memory performance for these contents. In addition, healthy people were better able to do this than anxious or depressed people. These results indicate that forgetting induced by suppression is a hallmark of mental wellbeing.
One of the issues Freud struggled with was the status of the childhood “memories” recovered from repression in his therapy. He concluded that “these scenes from infancy are not always true. Indeed, they are not true in the majority of cases, and in a few of them they are the direct opposite of the historical truth”. Controversy arose in the late 20th century about the status of such “recovered memories”, particularly of child abuse, with many claiming that Freud had been wrong to ignore the reality of such recovered memories.
While accepting “the realities of child abuse”, the feminist Elaine Showalter considered it important that one “distinguishes between abuse remembered all along, abuse spontaneously remembered, abuse recovered in therapy, and abuse suggested in therapy”. Memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus has shown that it is possible to implant false memories in individuals and that it is possible to “come to doubt the validity of therapeutically recovered memories of sexual abuse … [as] confabulations”. However, criminal prosecutors continue to present them as evidence in legal cases.
There is debate about the possibility of the repression of psychological trauma. While some evidence suggests that “adults who have been through overwhelming trauma can suffer a psychic numbing, blocking out memory of or feeling about the catastrophe”, it appears that the trauma more often strengthens memories due to heightened emotional or physical sensations (However these sensations may also cause distortions, as human memory in general is filtered both by layers of perception, and by “appropriate mental schema … spatio-temporal schemata”).
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