Sunday, November 18, 2007

Mommy and I Are One

Okay, so I am now willing to retract-- or at least severely qualify-- my earlier disavowal of psychoanalysis. My sincerist apologies to Sigmund.

As you may remember, a few days ago I wondered (in a post entitled "Mind Over Mater") what was so damn compelling about the Freudian reading of Sophocles' inimitable tragedy Oedipus Rex? I have always been suspicious of the way certain axioms of Freudian psychoanalysis are taken up uncritically, especially in literary analysis. Such "critics," it often seemed to me, erroneously claim to find evidence of regard for fathers as adversaries and competitors for the exclusive love of mothers, when more often than not this structure was imposed upon the storyline rather than simply being uncovered there. The bottom line, you see, is that I just didn't believe that the Oedipus complex, so crucial to Freud's description of human psychosexual development, is a "natural" or "scientific" fact about human consciousness.

Now, that is not to say that I didn't (or don't) recognize that the widespread uptake of Freud's ideas have indeed produced just what they claim to have discovered. My objection all along to the thoughtless deployment of orthodox psychoanalytic readings (of literature, of art, of philosophy, of human biography) was simply that it seemed uncritical and unreflective. But, secretly, I also thought it was false.

This past week, Dr. Karen Gover (Asst. Professor of Philosophy at Bennington College) delivered a lecture entitled "Truth Hurts: Why We Still Read Greek Tragedy." In that lecture, she recounted the story of a 1985 psychology experiment conducted by Lloyd Silverman and Joel Weinberger. In this study of the effectiveness of subliminal messages as aids in self-motivation, Silverman and Weinberger secretly flashed the message "Mommy and I are one" to their test subjects. They reported their results in the journal American Psychologist in an article entitled "Mommy and I are one: implications for psychotherapy." (If you are able to access scholarly articles throuh your library, you should really read the entire article. It's absolutely fascinating.) In the authors' abstract, they summed up their findings thus:
"Mommy and I are one: implications for psychotherapy" presents evidence to support the thesis that there are powerful unconscious wishes for a state of oneness with "the good mother of early childhood" and that gratification of these wishes can enhance adaptation. Data come from experiments that used the subliminal psychodynamic activation method with over 40 groups of Ss from varied populations, including schizophrenics, neurotics, and normal students. These studies have reported that the 4-msec exposure of stimuli intended to activate unconscious symbioticlike fantasies (usually the words Mommy and I are one) produced ameliorative effects on different dependent variables in a variety of settings. It is proposed that patient-therapist relationship factors in psychotherapy, seen by many as a common agent of change in different forms of treatment, owe their effectiveness partly to their having activated these symbioticlike fantasies.

Yes, you read that right. When prompted with the subliminal message "Mommy and I are one", schizophrenics got less schizophrenic, smokers quit smoking, students made better grades, neurotics and phobics lost their neuroses and phobias. It didn't work when subjects were flashed "neutral" messages like "People are walking." And it didn't work when even a slightly different positive message was used (like "Mommy loves me"). When the experimenters made the highly dubious decision to flash the message "Destroy Mommy"... well, everybody got worse.

[For the record, I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that decision-making process. DOCTOR ONE: "Hey what do you guys think about trying out the phrase 'Destroy Mommy' with the schizophrenics?" DOCTOR TWO: "Sure. Let's see what happens."]

Anyway, in sum, I am willing now to admit that there may be something more here than ivory-tower speculation aimed at valorizing yet another German theory of consciousness.


Anonymous said...

The study's all well and good unless mommy would have loved to obliterate her offspring; the words 'mommy and I are one' causes this reader to want to leave the planet. Also, is anyone not at least a neurotic?

Doctor J said...

does anonynous = chet ?

Daniel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel said...

Freud is getting popular again:

"It has been…little more than a century since Freud's Project and the beginnings of psychoanalysis and I think it won't be quite that long until the coming of a profound and almost unimaginable union of sorts, between neuroscience and psychoanalysis, between the outer and inner approaches…I suspect it will occur within the lifetime at least of the younger people among you..."

Oliver Sacks, in Neuroscientific and Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Emotion, 2000

bernadette said...

I will think about this more, but I recently looked over Jean-Pierre Vernant's anti-Freud essay on Oedipus in his collection of essays entitled Myth and Tragedy and it's quite interesting. On the one hand I think it is important to take Freud seriously, but on the other hand I think it is so compelling to point out his arbitrariness at the same time.

Anonymous said...

(Your) Mommy and I are one!