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Instinct and the Unconscious: A contribution to a Biological Theory of the
Psycho-neuroses. By W. H. R. RIVERS, M.D., D.Sc., F.R.S. Cambridge
“The aim of the study set forth in this book is to provide a foundation for a biological theory of the psycho-neuroses.” The attempt to establish this foundation occupies the first fourteen chapters. The formulation of the theory and its application to the psycho-neuroses are compressed into five chapters, consisting in all, of only 40 pages. About one-third of the whole book is made up of six appendices, in which the practical application of the theory is illustrated by cases derived from Dr Rivers' personal experience of the psycho-neuroses of war. The most interesting and instructive portion of the book is that in which the attempt is made to find a biological background for the various psychological mechanisms accepted by Dr Rivers as being concerned in the production of the psycho-neuroses and allied states.
One of the most striking features of “the system of psycho-therapy which came to be accepted in Great Britain in the treatment of the psycho-neuroses of the war” was the unanimity with which those medical officers who had had previous training in psychology, as well as those who had not, accepted the Freudian doctrine of repression as a causative factor in the production of those bodily and mental disorders which came to be grouped together under the term “shell-shock.' This one concession to the truth of psychoanalytic theory was made by many who were, and who remain, firmly opposed to Freud's teaching as a whole; and of all who appreciated the importance of repression as a psychopathological mechanism, no one has brought more original thought to bear on its possible implications than Dr Rivers has done in this book.
Dr Rivers seems prepared to accept the mechanism of repression, as well as some other Freudian mechanisms, but his study of the psycho-neuroses of warfare has led him to believe that the pathogenic importance ascribed by Freud to repressions in the sexual life finds here no justification, however important these
be in the causation of civil or peace neuroses. But he thinks that repression bearing on another group of instincts—the dangerinstincts which have arisen in the service of self-preservation does sometimes, when it fails, give rise to just those mental and bodily disorders, characteristic of the psycho-neuroses, which were so widely observed in ‘shellshock' cases. Such differences as are found between the neuroses of war and those of civil life are, he thinks, due in large measure to the differences in the nature of the instinctive tendencies which have escaped from control. So far, however, as mechanism is concerned, his conclusions are quite on psychoanalytic lines: “the main function of psycho-neurosis,” he says, “is the solution of a conflict between opposed and incompatible principles of mental activity.”
In the elaboration of his views Dr Rivers makes a praiseworthy and painstaking endeavour to make clear the sense in which he uses various
terms which have become common in psychopathological writings; and this is the more necessary since he uses some of them in a sense different from that which is customary. His first task is to make as clear as possible the sense in which he uses the two terms incorporated in the title of his book, namely, 'instinct' and 'the unconscious. Very rightly, as I think, he uses the term unconscious only in what psycho-analysts call its systematic' sense. He says, “In so far as the term the unconscious applies to experience, it will be limited to such as is not capable of being brought into the field of consciousness by any of the ordinary processes of memory or association, but can only be recalled under certain special conditions."
Experience of which this is true he calls ‘unconscious experience. His use of this latter term has shocked some of the academic psychologists and the philosophers, just as the notion of “unconscious ideas' had already done; for they maintain that consciousness is of the very essence of experience. This objection apart, however, there is perhaps some ambiguity in Dr Rivers’ use of the words. Generally it is plain that he means by 'unconscious experience' experience that has become unconscious, that is to say, the residua or dispositions left in the mind in consequence of experience; and it is not clear if he would regard as 'unconscious experience the unconscious activity the occurrence of which he admits. It seems possible to understand his use of ‘unconscious experience in these two senses, namely, either as past experience which has become unconscious, or as present experience which is unconscious; and although the examples he gives in illustration of his use of the words are to be understood in the former sense, some of the conditions he describes would imply the latter.
The process by which experience becomes unconscious Dr Rivers speaks of as “suppression. It is a process which takes place unwittingly, without conscious effort. He chooses the term “repression' to indicate the process by which we wittingly endeavour to banish experience from consciousness. This would appear to be a most unfortunate choice of words. The principles involved in what is here called suppression are principles which, without any doubt, we owe to Freud's teaching, and to the mechanism by which mental processes are kept out of consciousness he applied the term 'verdrängung.' The psycho-analysts of English-speaking countries have, almost unanimously, adopted the word 'repression’ as a suitable translation of this, and have used it extensively in their writings as a technical term which carries with it all the implications of the German word as used by Freud. Consequently, nothing but confusion can result from any attempt to substitute another word, - even if it be etymologically more correct,--for that which has come into common use. Especially is this so when the term whose ordinary usage has been discarded is used to describe a very limited part of the whole process to which it was originally applied. Many writers have felt the need of separate terms for the two processes--the pushing out of consciousness what has been there, and the exclusion from consciousness of what is endeavouring to get in-and some writers have used the words suppression and repression in just the opposite way to that which Dr Rivers has adopted; that is to say, they have used suppression in the sense in which Dr Rivers uses repression, and they have used repression in the sense in which he uses suppression. This way of using the words is not so apt to lead to confusion as that chosen by Dr Rivers, for at least the word repression is here applied to the main part of the process which the psycho-analysts understand by this term. Although I deprecate Dr Rivers’ use of these terms it will be necessary, for the purposes of this notice, to adhere to his terminology. believed by Dr Rivers to conform to the 'all-or-none' reaction in which there is an absence of graduation according to the conditions by which the behaviour is produced. He finds this all-or-none principle holds very largely true of protopathic sensibility and of certain reflex actions, such as the extensor thrust, and the mass-reflex. So, also, in the child, or in the adult whose emotions are not well under control, instinctive or emotional response to a dangerous situation tends to exhibit the characteristics of the all-or-none principle. In addition to the absence of graduation in the response to stimulation, its immediacy is another characteristic, as is also the absence of discrimination in regard to the degree of danger which is threatened.
A physiological parallel to suppression is found by Dr Rivers in the control or inhibition which belongs to the essence of nervous activity. “The suppression by which experience becomes unconscious is only a special variety of the process of inhibition common to every phase of animal activity.” The examples chosen to illustrate this parallelism are taken from the work of Dr Head and his colleagues on protopathic and epicritic sensibility, on the relation between the cerebral cortex and the optic thalamus, and on the ‘mass-reflex.'
When in the evolution of the nervous system, epicritic sensibility arose, the more primordial protopathic sensibility became in great part suppressed. The vague and crude character of the sensations in the protopathic stage, which sufficed for such movements as would withdraw the threatened part from contact with an object, was incompatible with the finer discrimination and localisation of the stimulus necessary for more intelligent behaviour. Protopathic sensibility, therefore, had to be suppressed, because its persistence would have been detrimental to the developing organism. A somewhat similar relation exists between the cerebral cortex and the optic thalamus. When the cortex is in action the affective over-response which Head and Holmes observed in cortico-thalamic lesions is largely suppressed. So, also, the massreflex obtained from the lower end of the spinal cord, when this is isolated from the rest of the nervous system, is wholly suppressed in the normal human being. Dr Rivers sees in these examples a number of processes which form intermediate links connecting the suppression of highly complicated mental processes at one end of the series with the suppression necessary for the perfection of reflex action at the other end of the series.
In considering the nature of the content of the unconscious Dr Rivers gives in illustration the experiences repressed in a case of claustrophobia, his own missing memories of childhood experiences connected with a particular part of the house in which he spent his early years, and the disappearance from consciousness of intellectual and emotional experiences observed in cases of war-neuroses. In all these instances, as also in suppressions at the sensorimotor and reflex levels, he finds that the elements which produce the need for suppression belong to the affective aspect of the mind, and he concludes that 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. This conclusion is not far removed from Freudian teaching, although perhaps the utilitarian aspect of suppression is given more prominence than the purely hedonic aspect which Freud emphasises. But, on the whole, Dr Rivers thinks that the relation of affect to instinct suggests that “the special function of the unconscious is to act as a store-house 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.” This is practically pure Freudian doctrine both as to the mechanism of 'suppression and, in general terms, as to the nature of the content of the unconscious.
Its innate character is taken to be the distinguishing mark of instinct on the biological side, but various kinds of instincts, differing according to their psychological character must be recognised. Certain forms of instinct are
When he first put forward the view that instincts are subject to the allor-none principle Dr Rivers implied that this held true of all instincts, but he now admits that such features as lack of discrimination and absence of grading in the response are not found in the behaviour of many animals whose activities are universally regarded as our pattern of the instinctive. As he says, “it is certain that the all-or-none principle does not hold good of the activity of the bee when constructing the cells of the honey-comb." He thinks, however, that the original modes of response in the insect were of a crude and more 'protopathic' kind, and that these have been modified and regulated by some graduating influence comparable to that which is exercised by intelligence in the grading of certain human instincts. This influence he identifies with suggestion which, with its three constituent processes of sympathy, mimesis and intuition, he regards as an “aspect of the gregarious instinct whereby the mind of one member of a group of animals or human beings acts upon another or others unwittingly, to produce in both or all a common content, or a content so similar that both or all act with complete harmony towards some common end."
The instincts which have most clearly retained their original protopathic character and remain subject to the all-or-none principle are those reactions which subserve self-preservation by ensuring protection from danger; but even here Dr Rivers has to admit that in man they become modified by intelligence and capable of graduation. The principle seems especially true of the reactions of flight and aggression, and also of the suppression of these when other modes of reaction, incompatible with them, come into play. In the reaction to danger by immobility the suppression of the tendency to flee or to fight must be complete if it is to be successful-it must be all-or-none. So, likewise, in man, when a dangerous situation is met by aggression, discriminative and chosen actions, such as the manipulative dexterity necessary for the use of weapons, requires that the crude instinctive impulse to fight in blind anger should be suppressed, though here the suppression need not be so complete.
Dr Rivers believes that originally suppression was subject to the allor-none principle, but in the course of phylogenetic development became modified, so that now, in adult man at least, it is capable of graduation. Yet he thinks it may still be found in its original form in infancy, and in those morbid states which are associated with regression towards infantile forms of mental activity. It would seem probable however, that Dr Rivers has attached too great importance to the findings of physiological and pathological experiment, and has generalised too widely from the results so obtained. For every demonstration of the all-or-none principle has entailed some mutilation of the living organism whereby that inhibition which he admits to be common to every phase of animal activity is completely abrogated. Such demonstrations can never show us that the all-or-none principle is ever exhibited in the normal reactions of any living creature, however low its organisation may
be. So soon as multicellular organisms arose in the evolutionary process, the mutual inhibitions which mutual interdependence entailed would prevent the retention of the all-or-none reaction by any particular element, and would ensure a certain amount of grading in every response to stimulation. With the growing complexity of instinctive activities as we rise in the animal scale, the possibility and the necessity for grading would proportionately increase. If the grading of the human instincts were due only to the control acquired in the course of individual experience we might agree with Dr Rivers that, in infancy, examples of the all-or-none principle might be found; but when we consider the facts of inheritance, and realise what is innate in the human mind, we may be prepared to admit that the tendency to gradingi.e. the inhibitions, as well as the instincts, is there from the beginning. There are, therefore, good grounds for doubting whether the all-or-none principle is ever manifested by the intact living organism.
In such an example of suppression as he found in his case of claustrophobia, Dr Rivers recognises that the unconscious experience shows signs of activity. “This activity," he says, “is usually known by the name of dissociation,” but he declines to adopt such a use of this term. And in this he is surely justified, for few, I think, would agree to such a definition. But in his desire to make the facts of psychopathology fit into his biological theory of the neuroses, Dr Rivers sometimes puts disconcerting restrictions on the meaning of terms in common use; and nowhere does this practice seem more confusing and unwarranted than in his chapter on dissociation.
He regards dissociation as a process which experience undergoes when it has been suppressed. The special feature of dissociation, as he understands it, is that the suppressed experience does not remain passive, but acquires an independent activity of its own. This independence of activity he regards as an essential character of dissociation. But another essential character he desiderates is “that this independent activity carries with it independent consciousness.” Now I would submit that this definition is much too narrow, and that its adoption would lead to endless confusion.
Dr Rivers takes the fugue as the most characteristic example of dissociation, and by doing so he implies that in the fugue state we witness the independent activity of some suppressed experience. And this is, in some sense, no doubt true. There has been some suppression of feeling or desire which finds an outlet in the fugue. But this is very different from the independent activity witnessed, for example, in what Janet calls monoideic somnambulism; for here behaviour consists entirely of suppressed experience which is merely re-enacted in the somnambulism. Dr Rivers says, “the fugue usually comes into being owing to the fact that some unpleasant experience has become unconscious by the unwitting process of suppression”; but it is not the unpleasant experience in question which shows independent activity in the fugue. The fugue does not, in this respect, seem a very good example of the kind of independent activity which is held in this book to be characteristic of dissociation.
But "if we accept the fugue as a typical and characteristic instance of dissociation, we are at once faced by another problem of definition,” namely, the question of “the independence of consciousness” which he holds to be