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



Some of the instinctive reactions to danger described in the last chapter are evidently subject to the all-or-none principle. If an animal is to flee from danger it is essential that this reaction shall be carried out as completely as possible. There is no opening for graduation of the degree and rapidity of flight, and probably in the most primitive forms there is little power of regulation of direction, while the flight may continue long after the animal is at a safe distance from the source of danger. Even in Man there is no graduation of the rapidity and length of a flight accompanied by definite fear. The extent of the flight is usually quite out of keeping with the nature of the danger, real or imaginary, to which the emotion and its reactions are due.

It is much the same in the case of the aggressive reaction its affective accompaniment of anger. If an animal, instead of fleeing from an enemy, stands and fights, it does so with all the energy at its command, and this is also true of Man in his natural state. It needs a prolonged course of training to enable a man to fight, whether with his fists or with weapons, yet preserve his composure so that he can discriminate the movements of his enemy and adjust his own actions accordingly. Even the practised fighter may allow the purely affective attitude to overcome him and, as we say, may lose his head, putting out all his powers blindly, and failing because he is no longer regulating his actions according to the nature of the situation. In such a case a crude instinctive impulse of aggression has mastered all the later developments due to his special training. This training consists in putting the crude actions of [p. 62] the primitive instinct of aggression under subjection to carefully discriminative and chosen actions based on intelligence.

I have now to consider how far the all-or-none principle applies to the process of suppression which forms so important an element in the reaction to danger by means of immobility and in that of manipulative activity. We have to inquire whether a principle which holds good of certain emotional reactions also applies to the process by which these reactions are controlled and suppressed.

In the case of the reaction of immobility, we can be confident that the all-or-none principle holds good. The reaction by immobility is radically opposed to the other two chief reactions by flight and aggression. If the animal is to flee or fight, suppression would be wholly out of place. Any trace of it could only interfere with the success of the more active reaction. If, on the other hand, the animal adopts the reaction of immobility, the process of suppression upon which this reaction depends must be complete. Even the slightest movement will endanger the success of the whole reaction. Any graduation of the process of suppression, any attempt to discriminate differences in external conditions and to adjust the degree of suppression accordingly, would be fatal to success. We have here a case in which the all-or-none principle applies most definitely and is essential to the working of the instinctive reaction.

The manipulative reactions of Man or of arboreal mammals also require that the suppression of tendencies to other kinds of reactions shall be thorough, though not necessarily as complete in the case of the reaction by immobility. The movements of flight from bough to bough, or from tree to tree, would be impaired if the animal were at the same time the subject of blind impulses of the same order as those which actuated ancestors who lived on the ground or underwater. In the case of Man, we know that where the efficiency of manipulative activity is greatest, there is no trace of impulses of other kinds, certainly no trace of fear or of emotional states associated with other kinds of reaction.

Thus far I have considered the process of suppression as it [p. 63] affects instinctive reactions to danger. Let us now turn to our earlier topics and consider the suppression of forgetting. The first point to notice is that forgetting, and especially that kind of active forgetting with which we are especially concerned, is not a graduated process; or, any graduation that it may possess is not adjusted to the needs of the situation. We may remember experience with different degrees of clearness, dependent on such factors as the time which has elapsed since the remembered experience, the intensity of the experience, and the interest given to it by association or meaning. But when an experience has been forgotten by means of the active process of forgetting, there is, so far as we know, no corresponding graduation of the process. An experience is either remembered or forgotten. There may, however, be different degrees of difficulty in bringing the experience again to consciousness, and these differences would seem to be due to different degrees of obstruction to recall. The experience of the psycho-analytic school goes to show that there are such differences of resistance, and this may be regarded as constituting different degrees of strength of suppression. Consequently these differences suggest that suppression of this kind is not subject to the all-or-none principle. If, as seems clear, the process of suppression was originally subject to this principle, the nature of active forgetting suggests that it has been modified in later evolution and that in Man, at any rate, the process of suppression has departed from the all-or-none principle and is, at any rate in some degree, capable of graduation. It is noteworthy that the most complete cases of forgetting seem to occur in early childhood, when we are justified in supposing that the later developed principle of graduation is still of little power. The forgetting of adult life may be regarded as an epicritic modification of the original instinctive or protopathic process of suppression, just as most our adult sensations are the result of the modification of the original protopathic forms of sensation by fusion with epicritic elements.

The application of the all-or-none principle may be examined from another point of view. We have seen that there is evidence [p. 64] that the process of suppression does not act merely on the special experience which is producing pain or discomfort, but when it suppresses this, it suppresses with it much other experience of a neutral or even beneficent kind. Thus, if I am right in supposing that the suppression of all memories and images of the upper floor in my own child-memory is due to the existence of some unpleasant event or events, the process has not been limited to that experience, but every memory of life on that upper floor has disappeared completely. Similarly, those whose memories of some painful experience of war have been suppressed have at the same time lost the memory of all that happened over a period much longer than that of the unpleasant experience itself. In getting rid of the memory of an unpleasant experience, the process of suppression tends to involve all experience associated in time and space with that which is the immediate occasion of the suppression.

The foregoing considerations seem to show that, while suppression in the primitive form revealed in the simple instinctive reactions to danger is definitely subject to the "all-or-none" principle, this principle does not hold good, or is much modified, in later development, so that the process becomes at any rate to some extent, capable of graduation. The idea that the all-or-none principle holds good of instinct, at any rate in its more primitive and cruder forms, was supported by the nature of primitive sensibility as revealed by the experiments of Head. It is, therefore, of great importance to note that the suppression of protopathic manifestations revealed by those experiments was far from being complete. Only certain elements of the protopathic complex have been suppressed, while others have been utilised to enter into the composition of the fully developed cutaneous sensibility. The process of suppression on the sensori-motor level has here shown that it possesses the capacity for discrimination, selection and graduation, and if this be so on the physiological level, it is not surprising that the relatively high development on the psychological level of active forgetting should reveal a similar process of development and modification. The evidence, therefore, goes to show that, while suppression was [p. 65] originally subject to the all-or-none principle, this principle has in the course of phylogenetic development been modified, and has become capable of graduation. But it is still liable to show itself in its original form when it occurs in infancy. I hope to show later that the all-or-none principle tends to reappear in disease, when the process of regression reduces mental activity to a state comparable with that which it possessed at an early stage of its development.