Techniques for Revealing the Unconscious

The goal of psychoanalysis is to make the unconscious conscious. Mental illness, problems with living, and unexplained physical symptoms can all be viewed as the result of unconscious conflicts. Thoughts, feelings, ur ges, or memories have been forced into the unconscious, because of their disturbing or threatening nature. Due to the dynamic nature of the human mind, these conflicts or restrained u ges may slip out of the unconscious in ways that cause trouble. They often obtain expression as psychological or physical symptoms.

The first aim of psychoanalysis is to identify these unconscious thoughts and feel ings. Once the patient can be made aware of this material, the second aim is to enable the person to deal with the unconscious ur ges, memories, or thoughts realistically and maturely. The major challenge facing the psychoanalyst is determining how to penetrate the unconscious mind of the patient. By its very definition, the unconscious mind i the part of which the person has no awareness. How can one person (the therapist) come to know something about another person (the patient) which that other person does not know? Freud and other psychoanalysts have developed a set of standard techniques that can be used to dredge up material from the unconscious minds of patients.

Free Association

If you were to relax, to sit back in a comfortable chair , to let your mind wander , and then to say whatever came into your mind, you would be engaging in free association. Chances are, you would say some things that would surprise even yourself, and you might even be embarrassed by what comes out. If you were able to resist the ur ge to censor your thoughts before speaking, then you would have an idea of how a patient spends much of his or her time in psychoanalysis. The typical psychoanalytic session lasts 50 minutes and may be repeated several times a week; the sessions may continue for years. The goals of the sessions are to enable patients to identify unconscious material that might be causing unwanted symptoms and to help them cope with that material in an adult fashion.

By relaxing the censor that screens our everyday thoughts, the technique of free association allows potentially important material into conscious awareness. This takes some practice. Patients are encouraged to say whatever comes to mind, no matter how absurd, trifling, or obscene. The technique is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack, in that the psychoanalyst is likely to be subjected to a barrage of trivial material before stumbling on an important clue to an unconscious conflict

In free association, the psychoanalyst must be able to recognize the subtle signs that something important has just been mentioned—a slight quiver in the way a word is pronounced, a halting sentence, the patient' s immediate discounting of what he or she has just said, a false start, a nervous laugh, or a long pause. An effective psychoanalyst will detect such signs and intervene to ask the patient to stick with that topic for awhile, to free associate further on that issue. Archeology is a good metaphor for this type of work, as the psychoanalyst is digging through all sorts of ordinary material in search of clues to past conflicts and trauma


Thinkers have always speculated about the meaning of dreams, and it has long been thought that dreams are messages from deep regions of the mind that are not accessible during waking life. In 1900, Freud published his book The Interpr etation of Dreams, in which he presented his theory of the meaning and purpose of dreaming. He held that the purpose of dreaming was to satisfy ur ges and to fulfill unconsciou wishes and desires, all within the protection of sleep. But aren' t most dreams absurd and nonsensical? How, then, can they have anything to do with desires and wishes? For example, a person might have a dream about riding a white horse that suddenly begins to fl . Does this mean the person wishes to have a flying horse? No, Freu would argue, because the dream contains wishes and desires in disguised form. Dream analysis was a technique Freud taught for uncovering the unconscious material in a dream by interpreting the dream's content. Freud maintained that we must distinguish between the manifest content of a dream (what the dream actually contains) and the latent content (what the elements of the dream represent). He believed that the direct expression of desires and wishes would be so disturbing that it would waken the dreamer. The ego is still somewhat at work during sleep, and it succeeds in disguising the disturbing content of our unconscious. The wishes and unacceptable impulses have to be disguised in order to allow the person to keep sleeping, which is necessary, yet must be expressed in order to satisfy desires. Having a dream about killing one's father, for example, might be so disturbing that it would awaken a young boy who has an Oedipal fixation. Howeve , a dream about a king who has a garden containing a fountain that is disabled by a small animal, so that it no longer shoots its plume of water up into the air , might make the same psychological point yet allow the sleeper to remain asleep.

Thus, although our dreams often appear to be ridiculous and incomprehensible to us, to a psychoanalyst, a dream may contain valuable clues to the unconscious. Freud called dreams "the royal road to the unconscious." The psychoanalyst interprets dreams by deciphering how the unacceptable impulses and ur ges are transformed by the unconscious into symbols in the dream. Parents may be represented as a king and queen. Children may be represented as small animals. Hence, a dream about a king whose fountain is broken by a small animal can be interpreted as wish fulfillmen with an Oedipal overtone.

According to Freud, dreaming serves three functions. First, it allows for wish fulfillment and the gratification of desires, even if only in symbolic form. Secon dreams provide a safety valve by allowing a person to release unconscious tension by expressing his or her deepest desires, although in disguised form. And, third, dreams are guardians of sleep. Even though a lot is going on in dreams, such as the expression of wishes and desires, the person remains asleep. Although tension is being released, no anxiety is being aroused, and the person sleeps without interruption.

In many of his writings, Freud provided interpretations or translations of common dream symbols. Not surprisingly , most symbols have sexual connotations. This may be because Freud was influenced by the Victorian era in which he lived, when most people were very inhibited about sexual matters. Freud believed that, because people repressed their sexual feelings and desires, these inhibited ur ges came out in symbolic form in dreams. Many later thinkers have been critical of Freud' s seeming preoccupation with sex, which they have attributed to the historical period during which he was developing his theory .


For a few days, keep a pencil and pad of paper by your bedside. Immediately on awakening each morning, write down anything you can remember about the dreams you had the night before. After a few days, read over your dream diary and look for themes. Do you see any recurring themes or elements in your collection of dreams? What are some of the common symbols in your dreams, and what do you think they represent? To help you answer these questions, try free associating to your dream content. That is, find a quiet place and relax. Start by describing your dream aloud, and then just keep talking, saying anything that comes to mind, no matter how foolish or trivial. After doing this exercise, have you learned anything about yourself or about what is important to you?

Projective Techniques

You've undoubtedly seen drawings that can be interpreted in two or more ways (e.g., the picture of a vase that, when looked at dif ferently, looks like two faces). Or maybe you've seen the children's games in which, within a lar ger drawing, there are hidden images that you are supposed to find. Imagine that you give a person a picture o something totally ambiguous, such as an inkblot, and ask him or her what he or she sees. A person might see all sorts of things in the shapes created by the ink splatter: a rocketship, two fish swimming, a clown. The idea that what a person sees in an ambiguous figure, such as an inkblot, reflects his or her personality is called t projective hypothesis. People are thought to project their own personalities into what they report seeing in an ambiguous stimulus. A hostile and aggressive person might

Swiss Psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach
Projective techniques, such as the inkblots developed by the Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach, are popular methods for assessing unconscious aspects of personality, such as repressed desires, wishes, or conflicts.

see teeth, claws, and blood in an inkblot. Someone with an oral fixation might se food or people eating. The inkblot technique, as well as other projective measures, is often criticized by research psychologists for the scant scientific evidence as to it validity or reliability (W ood, Nezworski, Lilienfeld, & Garb, 2003).

Another type of projective technique involves asking the person to produce something, such as a drawing of a person. What someone draws might be a projection of his or her own conflicts. Consider a young man whom, when asked to dra a person, draws only a head. When asked to draw another person, but this time of someone of the opposite sex, he draws another head. Finally , when asked to draw a picture of himself, he again draws only a head. We might presume that this person has an unconscious conflict about his body image. As with dreams and free association, the goal of projective techniques is to bypass the patient' s conscious censor and reveal his or her unconscious conflicts and repressed u ges and desires.

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    4 years ago
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