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



In the last chapter I have attempted to make clear the sense in which I shall speak of "the unconscious" in this book. I have illustrated its nature by three kinds of example; one taken from a definitely pathological state dependent on an experience of early life; the second derived from my own history, also derived from the unconscious experience of early life, but one which may be regarded as coming within the limits of normal psychology; while the others are taken from cases of psycho-neurosis in which the experience which has become unconscious is made up of the events and memories of warfare. I have now to consider how such experience becomes and remains unconscious.

The first process to be considered is that by which experience becomes unconscious. I shall speak of this process as suppression. Writers on the unconscious often use "repression" for the process in question, but I propose to reserve this term for the process by which we wittingly endeavour to banish experience from consciousness. It seems that this process of witting repression may be one means of producing suppression, that experience wittingly repressed may, at any rate under certain conditions, succeed in becoming suppressed and inaccessible to the general body of consciousness. But there is little doubt that this is only one of the ways in which suppression occurs, and that more often it takes place wholly without the intervention of volition, especially when it occurs as the result of some physical or mental shock. We are still in much uncertainty concerning the exact mechanism by which suppression occurs, but there is reason to believe that in the majority of [p. 18] cases it takes place without conscious effort, or according to the terminology I propose to use, unwittingly. There is even some reason to believe that suppression only follows witting repression, when conditions of some other kind favourable to suppression are present. One of the chief aims of this book is to discover the nature and biological significance of the mechanism of suppression.

One line of inquiry which may be used to this end is the comparison of suppression with the ordinary process of forgetting. Suppression is only one form of forgetting -- a form in which the forgetting is especially complete -- and light should be thrown upon the nature of suppression by a general study of the process by which we forget. Formerly psychologists were especially concerned with the process by which we remember, but they have gradually been coming to recognise that the more important problem is to discover how and why we forget. It is one of the many merits of Freud[1] that he has thrown much light on this problem and with a wealth of examples has illustrated the complex nature of forgetting in the ordinary course of daily life. According to him forgetting is not a passive process, dependent on lack of interest and meaning, or varying with the intensity of an impression, but is an active process in which some part of the mental content is suppressed. The content which is thus suppressed does not disappear because it is uninteresting or unimportant; on the contrary, it is usually of very special interest and has a very definite meaning. It is suppressed because the interest and meaning are of a kind which arouse pain or discomfort and, if present in consciousness, would set up activities which would be painful or uncomfortable. Active forgetting is thus a protective process or mechanism, one by which consciousness is protected from influences which would interfere with the harmony essential to pleasure or comfort. The examples of the unconscious which were recorded in the last chapter are only pronounced examples of a similar process. Just as we tend to forget an appointment which seems likely to be the occasion of a quarrel or forget to write a letter [p. 19] which involves the undertaking of an unpleasant responsibility, so we may suppose that the painful experience of my claustrophobic patient was forgotten because the memories of the passage and the dog were so painful as to interfere with his happiness. The completeness of the suppression may have been due to the fact that the interference with the comfort of the child was so great as seriously to disturb his health. In the case of my own experience it is not possible to say why the memory of the upper floor has been forgotten, since I do not yet know the nature of the suppressed experience, but we can be fairly confident that it was of an unpleasant kind and was forgotten because the memory of it interfered with my comfort and happiness. The memories which disappear in war-neurosis are always of happenings so distressing that the most painful emotions arise when the happenings are recalled. The conclusion to which we are led both by the experience of everyday life and by the analysis of pathological and semi-pathological states is that there is no difference in nature between the forgetting of he [sic] unpleasant experience of ordinary life, often quite trivial in character, and such examples of complete and life-long suppression as those which I have chosen to illustrate the nature of the unconscious.

If these two kinds of forgetting are essentially alike, if they furnish the two ends of a continuous series, a study of the forgetting of everyday life should provide a means of understanding the suppression which occurs in pathological states. If we attempt such a study the first point which may be noticed is that the active forgetting of everyday life is not voluntary and intentional, but is essentially a process which takes place unwittingly. If we try to forget an appointment which we expect to lead to a quarrel, or try to forget a letter undertaking an unpleasant responsibility, we should not succeed. We should probably only fix these duties the more firmly in our memories. It is characteristic of the active forgetting of which Freud has provided such a wealth of examples[2] that it occurs spontaneously. In such instances as I have given, we do not know that [p. 20] we have forgotten. It is only when we are reminded of the missed appointment, or the overdue letter, that we become aware of the lapse. In other cases, as when we forget the name or address of a correspondent to whom we should write, we know that we have forgotten, but the act of forgetting has still been involuntary and unwitting.

The pathological suppression taking place in adult life seems in most cases to be clearly involuntary and unwitting. The most complete cases of suppression do not occur in people who have tried consciously to repress painful experience, but have come about without any conscious activity on the part of the sufferer, especially as the result of shock or illness. Hypnotism furnishes a striking example of the process by which experience is suppressed. By means of suggestion given in the hypnotic state any experience, pleasant or painful, which occurs during this state may be banished from the memory. When this has been done the hypnotised person is quite unable to recall the experience, and it will remain unconscious until he is again hypnotised or until the experience is recalled under some other condition in which unconscious suppressed experience comes to the surface. In this case the suppression takes place independently of the will of the hypnotised person, but there is reason to believe that the suggestion to forget is more likely to be successful, the more the forgetting is in consonance with the conscious wishes of the subject. This probably gives the clue to the fact that conscious repression seems often to lead to suppression. The suppression itself is unwitting, but the wish of the sufferer for suppression assists the process, or at least helps in its maintenance and completeness.

I have now to consider a characteristic of active forgetting and suppression which is of great importance in understanding its nature. The experience which tends to be forgotten or repressed is the immediately painful. If we forget an appointment or a letter in connection with which we anticipate unpleasant emotions, the ultimate consequences may be even more unpleasant than the immediate experience from which we escape by the act of forgetting. If we were able to consider rationally the consequences [p. 21] of the lapse, we should find that in most cases the I course which would give us least trouble and inconvenience is the long run would be to keep the appointment or write the letter. The process of active forgetting, however, takes no account of these ultimate consequences, but is directed exclusively towards the avoidance of the more immediate pains and discomforts. The same seems to be true of cases of pathological suppression. If, as I suppose, the claustrophobia of my patient was the result of the suppression of his four-year-old experience, there can be little doubt that the sum-total of unhappiness due to his dreads was far greater than that which would have resulted from the immediate memories of his terror when in the passage with the dog. The memory was suppressed because of its immediately painful character, and in following this course Nature took no account of the effects of the suppression which were to torment the child and man for thirty years. The suppressions which form so large an element in thc neuroses of war we also directed to allow escape from the immediately unpleasant, regardless of future consequences. Suppression is a process of reaction to the pleasures and pains which are immediately present, and takes no account of the more extended experience with which it is the function of intelligence to deal.


[1] See Appendix I.

[2] The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.