Published online by Cambridge University Press: 08 December 2006
Repression has become an empirical fact that is at once obvious and problematic. Fragmented clinical and laboratory traditions and disputed terminology have resulted in a Babel of misunderstandings in which false distinctions are imposed (e.g., between repression and suppression) and necessary distinctions not drawn (e.g., between the mechanism and the use to which it is put, defense being just one). “Repression” was introduced by Herbart to designate the (nondefensive) inhibition of ideas by other ideas in their struggle for consciousness. Freud adapted repression to the defensive inhibition of “unbearable” mental contents. Substantial experimental literatures on attentional biases, thought avoidance, interference, and intentional forgetting exist, the oldest prototype being the work of Ebbinghaus, who showed that intentional avoidance of memories results in their progressive forgetting over time. It has now become clear, as clinicians had claimed, that the inaccessible materials are often available and emerge indirectly (e.g., procedurally, implicitly). It is also now established that the Ebbinghaus retention function can be partly reversed, with resulting increases of conscious memory over time (hypermnesia). Freud's clinical experience revealed early on that exclusion from consciousness was effected not just by simple repression (inhibition) but also by a variety of distorting techniques, some deployed to degrade latent contents (denial), all eventually subsumed under the rubric of defense mechanisms (“repression in the widest sense”). Freudian and Bartlettian distortions are essentially the same, even in name, except for motive (cognitive vs. emotional), and experimentally induced false memories and other “memory illusions” are laboratory analogs of self-induced distortions.
1. Anna Freud might have agreed. In a telling conversation with Joseph Sandler (Sandler & A. Freud 1985), published posthumously, she anticipates one of Daniel Holender's (1986) criticisms of experimental psychology's efforts to demonstrate nonconscious priming: The prime might have been fleetingly conscious but forgotten by the time the experimenter tests for it. Here is how Anna Freud treats the conundrum in an interchange on the defense mechanism of reaction formation:
Anna Freud: Heinz Hartmann would say that it can become automatic.
Joseph Sandler:… I still think that there must be an awareness of the impulse to evoke the response.
Anna Freud: Hartmann and I discussed it at the time, in 1936 and 1937. There must be a momentary awareness. (Sandler & Freud 1985, pp. 22–23)
Charles Eriksen, the great critic of subliminal perception, later proposed also the idea of “automatization” of highly practiced behaviors (Eriksen & Pierce 1968), now a common notion in cognitive psychology.
2. A foreshadowing of the present twofold organization of repression can be found in Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1900/1953): “There can be no doubt that the censoring agency, whose influence we have so far recognized in limitations and omissions in the dream-content, is also responsible for interpolations and additions to it” (Freud 1900/1953, p. 489).