Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

ISSN 1492-3173

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By William H.R. Rivers (1920)

Posted March 2000



The concept of "the unconscious" in psychology is one which has aroused the liveliest differences of opinion and has been met by bitter opposition. Even those who are ready to accept the vast influence of unconscious factors in psychology may well be appalled by the difficulties of treating the unconscious in a scientific manner and fitting so necessarily hypothetical a factor into the explanation of behaviour. One line of opposition has come from advocates of the older introspective school of psychologists who have found it difficult to fit an unconscious region of the mind into their schemes of description and explanation. The aim of the older psychology was to furnish a rational explanation of human behaviour and endeavour. As the material for such explanation they used almost exclusively the happenings in their own minds, which could be directly, though really only retrospectively, observed, and made this material the basis of constructions whereby they fitted into coherent schemes the infinitely varied experience of the human mind. When their introspective method failed them, and they were driven to assume the existence of factors lying outside those accessible to introspection, they were accustomed to assume subconscious processes, or to speak of psychological dispositions and tendencies, or they would even throw psychology wholly aside, bringing into their schemes of explanation factors belonging to the wholly different order of the material world, and used physiological processes as links in the chain whereby they connected one psychological happening with another.

Those who adopted subconscious processes as elements of their constructions, viz., processes which only differed from other [p. 8] mental processes in the lesser degree of distinctness and clearness with which they could be observed, paid in this way lip-service to the supposed essential character of consciousness in psychology, but failed to recognise that they were only evading a difficulty by clinging to a simulacrum of the conscious, the existence of which was just as hypothetical as any of the constructions of the thoroughgoing advocates of the unconscious.

Those who spoke of psychological dispositions, or going still further, adopted physiological dispositions in their place, were also positing purely hypothetical factors where those open to direct observation failed them. These measures were only means by which these psychologists and psycho-physiologists escaped from the necessity of facing the difficulties presented by many aspects of animal and human behaviour, and especially those presented in Man by the phenomena of disease.

It is noteworthy that the due recognition of the importance of the unconscious and the first comprehensive attempt to formulate a scheme of its organisation and of the mechanisms by which it is brought into relation with the conscious should have come from those whose business it is to deal with the morbid aspect of the human mind. The necessity for the use of unconscious factors continually arises when dealing with the experience of health, but the opportunities afforded by such experience are usually so fleeting, and the experience itself often so apparently trivial, that they failed to force the psychologist of the normal to face the situation. It was only when unconscious experience had contributed to wreck a life or produce a state with which the physician had to struggle, and then often ineffectually, for months or years that it became impossible to push such experience aside or take any other line than that involved in the full recognition of its existence. It is only the urgent and inevitable needs of the sick that have driven the physician into the full recognition of the unconscious, while it has needed the vast scale on which nervous and mental disorders have been produced in the war to force this recognition upon more than the few specialists to whom it had been previously confined. [p. 9]

In entering upon an attempt to make clear the sense in which the term "unconscious" will be used in this book, I will begin by pointing out one sense in which it will not be used. At any given moment we are only clearly conscious of the experience which is in the focus of attention. This forms only an infinitesimal proportion of the experience which is capable, by being brought into the focus of attention, of becoming conscious with an equal degree of clearness. Again, at any one moment a much larger amount of experience is within the region of the conscious though less clearly, but even the largest amount which can thus I be brought within the outermost fringe of consciousness at any instant or even within any brief space of time, forms but a very small proportion of that which, with other directions of the attention, could come into the field of consciousness. At any given instant there is a vast body of experience which is not in consciousness because at that instant it is neither the object of attention nor so connected therewith as to occupy consciousness with more or less clearness at the same time. Experience of this kind will not be included within "the unconscious" as the term is used in this book. In so far as the term "the unconscious" applies to experience, it will be limited to such as is not capable of being brought into the field of consciousness by any of the ordinary processes of memory or association, but can only be recalled under certain special conditions, such as sleep, hypnotism, the method of free association, and certain pathological states.

The kind of experience which will form the main subject-matter of this book may best be illustrated by some examples.

A good instance of the unconscious is afforded by the conditions underlying the claustrophobia of a sufferer from war-neurosis, whose case is described in full in Appendix II. as long as he could remember, this patient had been subject to a dread of confined spaces so severe, and producing states so painful and unendurable, that he was debarred from taking part in many of the ordinary occupations of life, or could do so only at the risk of suffering and discomfort. When his profession as a doctor took him at the age of thirty to the front his specific [p. 10] dread was brought into pronounced activity by the necessity of working in dug-outs, and the strain so produced formed a most important factor in producing a state of anxiety-neurosis. During a course of treatment to discover the origin of his claustrophobia, there came to the patient's consciousness an experience at the age of four in which he had been confined in a narrow passage with no means of escape from a dog by which he was terrified. In spite of attempts, continued over several years, to discover some experience of childhood which could explain his symptoms, this memory of the dog in a passage had wholly failed to appear in consciousness, and was only brought to memory by a special procedure. We have no direct evidence that the incident had been wholly unconscious during childhood, but owing to his prolonged search for such experience at a later period of life, and its total failure to appear in consciousness, we have the most decisive evidence that an arresting experience, one accompanied by an emotional state of the most poignant kind, can lie dormant and evade the most searching attempts to bring it into the field of consciousness. When it was at last recalled, this did not happen through any association of waking life but came in the semi-waking state following a dream. Its coming to consciousness occurred in definite connection with an experience of sleep which we know to furnish conditions especially favourable to emergence from the unconscious.

This patient not only affords conclusive evidence for the existence of experience shut off from consciousness under ordinary conditions, but his case shows that this experience, though inaccessible to consciousness directly, may yet be capable of affecting it indirectly. His dread of confined spaces had so definite a relation to the early experience that the two were undoubtedly connected, while the complete disappearance of his claustrophobia, after bringing the long dormant experience to the surface, affords further, though standing alone, not necessarily conclusive, evidence in the same direction.

Psychological literature contains many similar histories. I take this case of claustrophobia as an example, partly because, having come under my own notice, I am able to estimate its [p. 11] trustworthiness. Still more important is the fact that it was possible to obtain conclusive evidence that the infantile experience had really occurred, and was neither the fancy of the patient nor the result of suggestion on the part of the physician, the latter possibility being especially present when a supposed experience of childhood is discovered by means of hypnotism.

The records of others can never, however, carry the conviction which comes from one's own experience, even though such experience can rarely have the dramatic and conclusive character of my case of claustrophobia. One who wishes to satisfy himself whether or no unconscious experience exists should subject his own life-history to the severest scrutiny, either aided by another in a course of psycho-analysis or, though less satisfactory and less likely to convince, by a process of self-analysis. It will perhaps be instructive if I give a result of my own self-analysis, which though at present incomplete, has done much to convince me of the reality of the unconscious.

I am one of those persons whose normal waking life is almost wholly free from sensory imagery, either visual, auditory, tactile or of any other kind. Through the experience of dreams, of the half-waking, half-sleeping state, and of slight delirium in fever, I am quite familiar with imagery, especially of a visual kind, which, so far as I can tell, corresponds with that of the normal experience of others. I am able to recognise also that in the fully waking state I have imagery of the same order, but in general it is so faint and fragmentary that the closest scrutiny is required for its detection. It is clear to me that if it were not for my special knowledge and interest I should be wholly ignorant of its existence. On looking back in my life I am aware that my mental imagery was more definite in youth, and I can remember the presence at that period of fairly vivid visual imagery in connection with certain kinds of experience, especially of an emotional kind.

Some years ago, as part of an examination into my memories of childhood, I discovered that I had a more definite knowledge of the topography of the house I left at the age of five than of [p. 12] any of the many houses I have lived in since. I can make a plan of that house far more detailed, based on memories clearer to myself, than I can make of houses in which I have lived far longer and at times of life when one might expect more permanent and vivid memories. Moreover, I can even now obtain visual images of the early house more clear and definite than any I usually experience, while other memories of my first five years bring with them imagery more definite than accompany the memories of later life. I have concluded, and I think I am justified in doing so, that before the age of five my visual imagery was far more definite than it became later and was perhaps as good as that of the average child.

For some time I explained the loss of imagery of which I am the subject as part of a process by which I had become especially interested in the abstract. I supposed that my imagery had faded for lack of the attention and interest which would have kept it active, even if they had not promoted its development into the instrument which imagery has become in the mental life of the majority of human beings. It is only during the last year or two that I have discovered an aspect of my early experience which has led me to revise this earlier opinion. This discovery is that my knowledge of the house I left when five years old is strictly limited to certain parts of it, and that the rest of the building is even more inaccessible to memory than any of the houses in which I have lived since. So far as I remember the house had three floors. I can remember, and even now image fairly vividly, every room, passage and doorway of the ground-floor. I can in imagination go downstairs into a kitchen in a basement and I can go upstairs towards the upper door, but when I reach the top of the stairs I come to the absolutely unknown, an unknown far more complete than is the case with any house occupied more recently, where I have some idea of the topography, though this is inexact and vague. For more than two years I have been attempting, by means which have succeeded in evoking other early experience, to penetrate into the mysterious unknown of the upper storey. Though I have recalled many incidents of my early life which took place on the [p. 13] ground-floor, in the basement, in the regions before and behind the house, no event of any kind which happened in the upper storey has ever come to my consciousness. Now and then, when in the half-waking, half-sleeping state, peculiarly favourable in my experience to the recovery of long-forgotten events, I have had the sense that something is there, lying very near emergence into consciousness. But I have not yet succeeded in penetrating the veil which separates me from all knowledge of my life in that upper storey.

The evidence for the existence of unconscious experience which is provided by these memories of my infancy is, of course, incomplete, in that I have not yet discovered the nature of the unconscious experience and have even no certain guarantee that it exists. The feature of the experience which impresses me -- I cannot expect it to have an equal influence on others -- is the completeness of the blank in my mind in connection with that upper storey. I fail to explain that blank by any mechanism provided by differences in the effect of interest on memory. A psychologist of the old school would probably say that we tend especially to remember the striking and unusual, and that it is therefore natural that my memories of the upper storey, where I probably passed most of my life at that time, should be less vivid than those of the lower parts of the house, which I visited less often. This might well explain a different degree of distinctness of memory, but it cannot explain the completeness of the blank left by the memories of the upper storey. Another line which might be taken is that, at any rate during the year before I left the house, I lived on the ground-floor during the day and only visited the upper floor at night when tired. But even if such a reason were valid, it cannot explain the completeness of the blank. Moreover, such explanations seem to be put out of court by the fact that when I recall memories of houses lived in later, I find no such difference between upper and lower storeys. Though my memories of later houses are more vague than the early memory, they are quite as definite for the upper as for the lower parts of the buildings.

The two cases I have given are examples of the experience of [p. 14] early life which has become inaccessible to consciousness. This period of life is especially apt to afford occasions for experiences to become unconscious, but the passing of experience into the unconscious may happen at any age, and its occurrence has been brought to notice very widely by the experience of war. One of the most frequent features of the nervous disturbances of war has been the complete blotting out of the memories of certain events, the obliteration usually extending considerably beyond the event which furnished its special occasion. In some cases, where the loss of memory for a period of the soldier's life has been produced by physical shock accompanied by complete unconsciousness, as in cerebral concussion, the obliteration has been complete, and the case does not come within the scope of this book, for there is no evidence that any experience exists capable of being again brought to consciousness. In many cases, however, in which the obliteration is due to mental shock or other physical factors, the experience which is inaccessible to the consciousness of the subject under the usual conditions of memory has been recovered in the hypnotic state or by the method of free association or has expressed itself, usually in a distorted form, in dreams. In such cases soldiers have lost the entire memory of their lives from some moment preceding a shock or severe strain until they have found themselves in hospital, perhaps weeks later, although during at least part of the intervening time they may have been to all appearance fully conscious and may even have distinguished themselves by actions on the field of which they have no recollection. Although these memories may remain for months or years quite inaccessible to memory when approached by the ordinary channels, they may be brought to the surface by means of hypnotism or by the method of free association.

In a case of a somewhat different kind under my care a soldier had lost all memory of his life from a day in July when he was training in England until the following January when he found himself in hospital in Egypt, having no recollection whatever of his service in various parts of England, of the voyage to Egypt, or of his life in Egypt before going to hospital. The memory [p. 15] of this period was not recovered until more than a year later following the disclosure of a painful experience in his life which had a definite connection with his amnesia.

In cases such as these the loss of memory forms part of the complex group of changes which make up the state we call psycho-neurosis. There is reason to believe that many of the manifestations or symptoms of this state are due to the activity of the experience which has become unconscious, just as the dread of my claustrophobic patient has been ascribed to the unconscious experience of which he was the subject at the age of four. The effects which can be thus ascribed, at any rate in part, to the unconscious experience of war, fall into two main groups. There are, on the one hand, general changes in personality, and changes in tastes, in likes and dislikes, in preferences and prejudices, while on the other hand, there are specific dreads or other morbid experiences of waking or sleeping life, such as nightmares, hallucinations or morbid impulses, which can be more or less directly ascribed to the activity of the unconscious experience. In such cases we have definite evidence, not merely for the existence of unconscious experience, but for its activity, or capacity for activity, in this unconscious state.

I will conclude this chapter by considering a way in which the term "unconscious" is often used which I shall endeavour to avoid. If an idea springs spontaneously into the mind without obvious antecedents in consciousness we are accustomed to speak of this mode of appearance as unconscious. Again, when a person behaves in a manner which corresponds to something taking place in the mind of another person, but is not wholly, or perhaps not at all, determined by anything in the mind of the behaver, we regard the behaviour as due to the suggestion of the second person and we are accustomed to speak of this process of suggestion as unconscious. In these instances the antecedent of the thought or behaviour may, and probably does, come from the unconscious, in the sense already proposed, either of the person who experiences the thought or of the person by whom the behaviour is suggested, but it is a question whether it is convenient to use the term "unconscious " for the [p. 16] process by which the thought or the behaviour is promoted. It is only necessary to point out that in such a case we are speaking of a change being set up in consciousness unconsciously to see how unsatisfactory is this usage and how little relation there is between the use of the word "unconscious" in this sense and that in which I propose that it shall be used. I shall not, therefore, call such processes as I have mentioned unconscious, but shall make use of a special term to denote them and shall speak of them as "unwitting." When a thought or feeling comes into the mind without antecedents in consciousness so that we suppose it to have come from the unconscious, I shall not speak of the thought as having arisen unconsciously but unwittingly. Similarly, I shall speak of the process of suggestion as taking place unwittingly and not unconsciously, leaving open how far the source of the suggested thought or behaviour is in the "unconscious" as the term will be used in this book.