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 last three chapters have been devoted to the definition of the unconscious and the consideration of the mechanism by which experience becomes unconscious and exerts activity in the unconscious state. I have now to consider the nature of the experience which forms the content of the unconscious.

In the examples which I have given the suppressed experience covers a very wide ground. In the case of my claustrophobic patient it included all the memories, memories involving very impressive emotional experience, of a series of activities of unusual complexity in the life of a four-year-old child. In the case from my own life we have the suppression of all the events which took place in part of my infantile environment where much must have happened, equalling, if not surpassing, in interest the many events in other parts of the environment of that early age which I have remembered. The suppression of war-neurosis involves the disappearance from consciousness of both intellectual and emotional experience of the most impressive and varied kind.

If now we turn to the nature of the experience suppressed on the sensori-motor and reflex levels, we find that it includes sensations which, in spite of their crudeness, can be regarded as belonging both to the affective and intellectual aspects of mind. The diffusion and faulty localisation of protopathic sensibility, which I have specially chosen to illustrate suppression on the sensori-motor level, must, in spite of its imperfection, be classed with the intellectual activities of more highly developed mental process. In general, however, the elements which produce this need for suppression belong rather to the affective aspect of [p. 35] mind, while the mass-reflex which furnishes so good an example of the need for suppression on the purely physiological level of reflex action seems also to be associated with experience of an affective kind. The lesson suggested by the study of suppression in the domain of sensation is that it is emotional or affective experience, or intellectual experience with a strong affective tone, which is especially liable to be suppressed.

If we consider the experience from which I have drawn my examples of suppression in the domain of the higher mental processes, we find that the process of suppression is especially likely to occur -- there is even reason to suppose that it only occurs -- when the emotions have been strongly aroused. It is certainly more likely to occur the more strongly this stirring up of the emotional aspect of mind has taken place. The experience which was suppressed in my claustrophobic patient was accompanied by emotion of a most intense and poignant kind; and this is also universally true of the experience which is suppressed in war-neurosis. Suppression is especially apt to occur as a means of getting rid of painful experience, the memory of which would interfere with comfort and happiness, or as its immediate effect would prejudice health.

It is necessary, however, to distinguish between the primary motives for suppression and others which take part in determining the nature of the content of the unconscious. My own infantile experience suggests that if for any reason some part of the mental content is suppressed it tends to carry with it into unconscious a vast amount of other experience of a neutral kind. We do not yet know the nature of the experience which to the suppression of all memories of the upper floor in which I passed so much of my infancy, but if suppression took place on account of some especially unpleasant event; this suppressed unpleasant experience took with it into the unconscious a vast mass of neutral experience, for it would be absurd to suppose that the whole of my life in that upper storey was accompanied by an unpleasant affective tone. Ignorance concerning nature of the experience which led to suppression makes this case inconclusive, but all the knowledge gained by [p. 36] the process of psycho-analysis points definitely in the same direction. We can be confident that when an experience is suppressed on account of its unpleasant nature, it may take with it into the unconscious a vast mass of neutral experience which would have remained accessible to consciousness if it had not been associated with experience needing suppression. There is a large body of evidence pointing to the presence of experience of this neutral kind in the unconscious region of the mind. The investigation of cases of multiple personality, and the exploration of the unconscious by means of hypnotism in healthy persons, point to the presence of much experience for the suppression of which it would be difficult or impossible to find any adequate motive. It is at least a legitimate hypothesis that this experience has come to form part of the content of the unconscious on account of its association with experience which needed suppression on account of its painful character.

It is necessary now to consider how far we are justified in supposing that affects and conative tendencies can be regarded as entering into the content of the unconscious. The nature of the suppressed experience, both on the sensori-motor and fully conscious levels, points to the great importance of feeling and affect as furnishing the immediate motives for suppression, while the experience which is suppressed, especially on the sensori-motor level, is predominantly of an affective kind. This would suggest that the content of the unconscious is made up of affective elements and conative tendencies together with sensory and intellectual experience associated therewith. There is little difficulty in conceiving that affective states and conative tendencies should be suppressed, and that they should nevertheless be ready to reappear and manifest themselves when the suitable occasion arises. It is more difficult to conceive them as parts of the content of the unconscious. It seems to be easier for us, or at any rate for most of us, to conceive the content of the unconscious in terms of intellectual elements such as the memories of my claustrophobic patient or of my own life [in] the upper storey. It is a question, however, whether it is not best to go the whole way and acknowledge that affective states and the [p. 37] impulses associated therewith may be elements in the content of the unconscious, and there is much in the more pathological aspects of suppression which can be most adequately expressed if it be assumed that affective processes are actively present in the unconscious.

This subject is of great interest in that it brings us face to face with the unconscious "wish" of Freud. Many of those[1] who accept the main teachings of this writer are troubled by his use of the term "wish" as the basic element of his system of the unconscious. This term is definitely derived from the psychology of the conscious and it tends to convey much which is very doubtfully to be ascribed to those elements of the unconscious to which so potent a rôle is assigned in the Freudian psychology. It is of the utmost importance that we shall attain clear ideas concerning this fundamental aspect of the psychology of the unconscious. In attempting to deal with this matter it is an obvious task to consider the general character, of affective experience and of the conative trends associated with it.

Through the work of modern psychologists, and especially through that of Shand and McDougall, we have come to see the close relation between affect and instinct. Each of the emotions can be regarded as an affective aspect of an instinctive reaction. Thus, fear is especially connected with the instinctive reaction to danger by flight; anger with the reaction to danger or injury by aggression; love with the parental and sexual instincts, etc., while the primary states of pleasure and pain are the psychical accompaniments of the fundamental reactions of attraction towards the useful and repulsion from the harmful. The primary feelings of pleasure and pain and all emotions, whether simple or complex, can be regarded as aspects of consciousness especially associated with instinct. This close relation between emotion and instinct leads us to a definite theory concerning suppression and the unconscious. It has been found that experience which becomes unconscious through the agency of suppression either belongs definitely to the affective aspect of mind or, when intellectual in character, has [p. 38] been suppressed on account of its association with affective elements. The relation of affect to instinct suggests that the special function of the unconscious is to act as a storehouse of instinctive reactions and tendencies, together with the experience associated with them, when they are out of harmony with the prevailing constituents of consciousness so that, when present, they produce pain and discomfort.

If, now, we study our examples of suppression on the sensori-motor level, we find that they lead us in the same direction. The crude, immediate, and, as it were, unreflecting reactions of protopathic sensibility, which need suppression in the interests of the later and more delicate reactions of epicritic sensibility, are just such as we associate with instinct. According to the view put forward in the last chapter they are reactions belonging to an older order which have been suppressed because they are out of harmony with later and more exact modes of behaviour. We are in similar case when we turn' to the reflexes. Reflex action is generally acknowledged to be clearly related to instinct. Reflex acts are products of evolution even more highly organised than the instincts. It is therefore quite in accordance with the function of suppression in relation to instinct that this process should come into action in connection with the reflexes.

If, therefore, we accept the close relation between emotion and instinct, all branches of our inquiry lead us to the view that the content of the unconscious is made up, in the first place, of the feelings and affects which normally form the conscious aspect of instinctive reactions and tendencies, and in the second place of sensory and intellectual elements which have been associated with these instinctive and affective reactions and tendencies. It is thus suggested that there is the closest relation between the unconscious and instinct, that the unconscious is a storehouse of experience associated with instinctive reactions. Moreover, I have shown that suppression, the process by which the conscious becomes unconscious, itself takes place unwittingly. The question arises how far the unwitting character of a process is a mark of instinct and is associated with instinctive reactions.

The argument of this book has now brought into connection [p. 39] with one another the two concepts which form its title. Up to this point I have been chiefly occupied in making clear what I mean by the unconscious and describing its mechanisms and its content. It is now necessary that we shall become equally clear concerning the meaning to be attached to instinct, and I shall enter upon this task in the next chapter.


[1] See, for instance, E. B. Holt, The Freudian Wish, London (1915)