Freud's starting point(4) was his study of hysterical patients and the discovery that, when he found a way to help these patients piece together a coherent account of the antecedents of their conversion symptoms, dissociative phenomena, and pathological affective dispositions, all these psychopathological phenomena could be traced to traumatic experiences in their past that had become unconscious. That is, these traumatic experiences continued to influence the patients' functioning despite an active defensive mechanism of 'repression' that excluded them from the patient's conscious awareness. In the course of a few years Freud abandoned his early efforts to recover repressed material by means of hypnosis, and replaced hypnosis with the technique of 'free association', an essential aspect of psychoanalytic technique until the present time. Freud instructed his patients to eliminate as much as possible all 'prepared agendas', and to try to express whatever came to mind, while attempting to exert as little censorship over this material as they could. He provided them with a non-judgemental and stable setting in which to carry out their task, inviting them to recline on a couch while he sat behind it. The sessions lasted for an hour and were conducted five to six times a week. There has been little change in the essentials of this format, except that sessions have been shortened to 45 to 50 min and are carried out three to five times a week. The method of free association led to the gradual recovery of repressed memories of traumatic events. Originally, Freud thought that the recovery of such events into consciousness would permit their abreaction and elaboration, and thus resolve the patients' symptoms.
Practising this method led Freud to several lines of discovery. To begin, he conceptualized unconscious mechanisms of defence that opposed the recovery of memories by free association. He described these mechanisms, namely repression, negation, isolation, projection, introjection, transformation into the opposite, rationalization, intellectualization, and, most important, reaction formation. The last of these involves overt chronic patterns of thought and behaviour that serve to disguise and disavow opposite tendencies linked to unconscious traumatic events and the intrapsychic conflicts derived from them. The discovery of reaction formations led Freud to the psychoanalytic study of character pathology and normal character formation, and still constitutes an important aspect of the contemporary psychoanalytic understanding and treatment of personality disorders (for practical purposes, character pathology and personality disorders are synonymous concepts).
A related line of development in Freud's theories was the discovery of the differential characteristics of conscious and unconscious thinking. Freud differentiated conscious thinking, the 'secondary process', invested by 'attention cathexis' and dominated by sensory perception and ordinary logic in relating to the psychosocial environment, from the 'primary process' of the 'dynamic unconscious'. That part of the unconscious mind he referred to as 'dynamic' exerted constant pressure or influence on conscious processes, against the active barrier constituted by the various defensive operations, particularly repression. The dynamic unconscious, Freud proposed, presented a general mobility of affective investments, and was ruled by the 'pleasure principle' in contrast to the 'reality principle' of consciousness. The 'primary process' thinking of the dynamic unconscious was characterized by the absence of the principle of contradiction and of ordinary logical thinking, the absence of negation and of the ordinary sense of time and space, the treatment of a part as if it were equivalent to the whole, and a general tendency towards condensation of thoughts and the displacement of affective investments from one to another mental content.
Finally, Freud proposed a 'preconscious', an intermediate zone between the dynamic unconscious and consciousness. It represented the storehouse for retrievable memories and knowledge and for affective investments in general, and it was the seat of daydreaming, in which the reality principle of consciousness was loosened, and derivatives of the dynamic unconscious might emerge. Free association, in fact, primarily tapped the preconscious as well as the layer of unconscious defensive operations opposing the emergence of material from the dynamic unconscious.
This model of the mind as a 'place' with unconscious, preconscious, and conscious 'regions' constituted Freud's 'topographic theory'. (1) He eventually replaced it with the 'structural theory', namely, the concept of three interacting psychic structures, the ego, the superego, and the id. (5) This tripartite structural theory is still the model of the mind that dominates psychoanalytic thinking. A major determinant of the shift from the topographic to the structural model was Freud's recognition that the 'regions' of conscious, preconscious, and unconscious were fluid, and that the defence mechanisms directed against the emergence in consciousness of the dynamic unconscious were themselves unconscious. Another consideration was Freud's(6) discovery of a specialized unconscious system of infantile morality, the superego. What follows is a summary of the characteristics and contents of these structures, an analysis that will lead us directly into contemporary psychoanalytic formulations.
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