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Windows to the Unconscious

The phrase windows to the unconscious was coined by Freud to label techniques for diagnosing hidden problems, such as dream interpretation. Such techniques were necessary, Freud believed, be­cause people resist bringing conflicts to consciousness.

Resistance is the name Freud gave to the act of fighting against admission of an uncomfortable thought to conscious­ness. Freud wrote:

What are "windows to the unconscious"?

When we undertake to cure a patient, to free him from the symptoms of his malady, he confronts us with a vigorous, tenacious resistance that lasts during the whole time of the treatment. (Freud, 1925, p.93)

Freud believed resistance, although troublesome in therapy, was also useful as a diagnostic tool. It signaled that the therapist was getting close to a painful truth. As Freud put it, "If a child does not want to open his clenched fist, he is certainly hiding something he ought not to have."

How could resistance be revealing

The windows to the unconscious are supposed to be ways of getting clues or hints about problems that might be hidden in the unconscious due to resistance. Carl Jung was attracted to Freud's idea of dream interpretation, but Jung's primary technique was one he developed himself: the method of free association.

Jung would present a patient with a list of words, some of which (like "mother") might touch on sensitive areas in the patient's life. The rules of free associ­ation were simple: the patient had to respond with the first thing that popped into mind, without censorship, regardless of how silly or strange it might seem.

How does free association work?

Sometimes a person doing a free association test will pause longer than is normal, or will blink or swallow. This might indicate the person is censoring the first reaction that came to mind.

If the therapist says "mother" and "witch" pops into the patient's head, the patient is unlikely to say it right away. Instead the patient might pause.

The trained therapist would encourage the patient to go ahead and report the first association, no matter how strange it seems. Unusual associations, or the inability to come up with an association, might point to a problem in the patient's life that could be discussed with the therapist.

What did Jung write about word association?

Jung employed free association in his psychiatric practice around 1900. He wrote that his experiences with free association were what drew him to Freud's concept of repression.

Recall that Freud changed his concept of repression, over time. When Jung first encountered Freud, early in their careers, repression was conceived as an avoidance of painful memories. Later Freud decided it was really about avoiding phantasies of the id.

Jung felt that he had frequently encoun­tered repressions in his patient's attempts to do word association. In his autobiography, Jung wrote:

In response to certain stimulus words the patient either had no associative answer or was unduly slow in his reaction time. As was later discovered, such a disturbance occurred each time the stimulus word had touched upon a psychic lesion or conflict. In most cases the patient was unconscious of this. (Jaffe and Jung, 1965, p.147)

Freudian Slips and Other Errors

Freud believed errors of all types were revealing. Like defense mechanisms, errors come in many varieties. Freudian slips are errors of language such as word substitutions and mispronuncia­tions.

Sometimes Freudian slips involve sex (Freud thought they almost always did) but that is not part of the definition. A Freudian slip is any language error that is unintentionally revealing.

What are Freudian slips? Must they deal with sex?

My roommate and I have been best friends for a couple of years now. After deciding to attend the same college we thought it would be great to be roommates.

This arrangement turned out to be just fine for the first term or so, but that was it! We both noticed our friendship was going downhill. After this went on for some time, we decided to sit down and have a talk.

I had been drinking that night so all my feelings were in the air. My roommate suggested he get a private room next year. I then blurted out that it would be fine with me: "You get yourself a potted room." That was the Freudian slip: potted room.

You see, my roommate smokes pot frequently, so naturally he would stash it all over the room. At the beginning of the term this made me quite uncomfort­able, but after a while I guess I learned to live with it.

That's what I thought. Evidently I had not learned to live with it in my subcon­scious. [Author's files]

The words involved in a Freudian slip usually resemble each other in form and function. For example, "potted" and "private" are both adjectives with two syllables starting with "p."

Freud recognized that errors tended to involve this type of resemblance. He maintained that revealing errors had several causes working together to create the error. He called this over­determination of an error.

This resembles a modern idea about how memory retrieval works: through an intersecting association process. The word "potted" (by this interpretation) lies at the intersection of several associa­tions: (1) starts with "p", (2) has two syllables, (3) fits into the sentence, and (4) related to the underlying worry over the roommate. So the word "potted" was accidentally retrieved and inserted into the sentence.

What is "overdetermination" and how does it resemble a modern concept?

Erdelyi (1981) found a Freudian slip in an article criticizing Freudian concepts. Erdelyi had previously written an article titled: "Let us not sweep repression under the rug," a title which was itself a play on words.

But when Loftus and Loftus (1980) cited the paper, while arguing against repressed memories, they rendered the title as, "Let us now sweep repression under the rug." To Erdelyi, that was exactly what they were trying to do, so he saw this error as an amusing Freudian slip.

What are some other types of "revealing errors," besides word substitutions?

Less well-known than Freudian slips are the errors of mishearing or misreading something. For example, one student (who had been dating another girl secretly) was driving along in the car with his supposed girlfriend.

She started looking for something in her purse and he heard her say, "You two-timing bastard." As it turned out, she wanted to use the mirror on the car's visor and she had said something like, "Turn on the dashboard [light]."

The student wrote, "I guess I heard what I heard because I was afraid she had found out about the other girl." [Author's files]

Another type of meaningful error, according to Freud, is forgetfulness. Freud said we often forget things for a reason.

Motivated forgetting is a concept well documented in psychology and recog­nized in everyday life. For example, workers at dental offices know they have to call patients the day before an appointment, because otherwise patients commonly forget to show up. Freud would say this is because on some level they want to forget a dental appointment.

How can motivated forgetting or losing things reflect an "unconscious wish"?

Losing things can be revealing if the loss occurs "accidentally on purpose." Freud said people sometimes lose a valuable thing they borrowed because, uncon­sciously, they rebel at giving it back.

On other occasions, a loss might reflect an unconscious wish to get rid of something. A student who raised her hand during a discussion of meaningful losses supplied an example. She said, "What would Freud say about this? I threw my wedding ring away while I was sleepwalking the first night I was married!"

Not wanting to say, "That means you don't want to be married," I said, "Freud would probably make a lot out of that, but not all errors are meaningful." In this case, however, the student was divorced within a year.

Freud also discussed a type of error he called an erroneous idea. This occurs when a person who "knows better" makes a revealing mistake involving factual or autobiographical knowledge.

For example, you might report your home town as the town where you grew up as a child, rather than the town where you currently live, if the two are different. This might reveal a yearning for the conditions of childhood. Freud also thought people who remembered their own ages incorrectly were unconsciously desiring to be older or younger.

What is an "erroneous idea"?

All the Freudian windows to the uncon­scious have in common an intrusion into conscious life of some thought or emo­tion (Freud would say an urge or desire) that is normally outside of awareness. In some cases it might be something a person is actively resisting, trying to keep out of consciousness (like the metaphor of repression as keeping a cork under water). An error allows such a thought to pop up regardless of the efforts to suppress it.

Adler's Diagnostic Tools

Adler used several diagnostic tools in therapy. He considered early memories to be very important. Adler felt that they revealed a person's characteristic way of interacting with other people.

Adler recognized that first memories reported by people might not be accurate. They might not even be the oldest memories a person had, but that did not matter. What was important was the fact that a person selected this memory as the earliest and preserved it through a lifetime of experience.

How did Adler analyze early memories?

Adler looked first at the social relation­ship expressed in the earliest memory. He asked, "Is it an 'I' or a 'we' situation?" In other words, is the individual alone with his or her own thoughts, or interacting with other people? Adler felt such patterns could persist into adulthood.

Sometimes only one parent or guardian would be in the memory. Then Adler might ask, "What about the other one?" Sometimes a sibling (brother or sister) would be present in the earliest memory. Then, Adler believed, it was likely this brother or sister played a pivotal role as friend or competitor in the child's life.

A man whose first memory was sitting in his living room with his mother, watching men build a house across the street, was seen as taking a passive attitude toward life in which he was an observer while others acted. A person with a first memory featuring whining and complaining was likely, in Adler's view, to remain an adult who whined and complained.

An adult whose first memory is an uncanny feeling alone in a meadow might still be a solitary type, focused on private feelings. A person whose dreams were predominantly visual might be an artist or visually-oriented person, as an adult.

Adler also used dreams as a means of diagnosing a person's feelings about his or her current situation. In general, Adler felt, dreams express a "feeling tone" such as being threatened, or being triumphant, or rallying oneself for an ordeal to come.

Inferiority themes included missing trains (in Adler's day), confronting authority, or nightmares. These indicated a person felt insecure or under threat.

Courage or power themes included flying, overcoming difficulties, or climbing mountains. These indicated a person was rallying to take on a challenge, or feeling healthy and successful.

How did Adler analyze dreams?

Adler felt that childhood injuries and illnesses could have a big impact on a person's outlook. Body-related inferior­ities (anything obvious to other people) could lead to defeatism or triumph, depending on how the child reacted.

If a child had asthma that occurred during exercise, the child might learn to avoid challenging situations...or just the opposite, the asthmatic child might develop a burning desire to overcome the disorder and triumph as an athlete. Adler called such extreme reactions against inferiority overcompensation.

Why were injuries and illnesses important, according to Adler?

Compensation could be a good or a bad thing, in Adler's system. It could be based on fighting back against adver­sity or adapting to it.

For example, a child who was physically small might learn to act brave and tough (compensating by fighting against smallness and weakness). Teddy Roosevelt had asthma and very bad vision as a child. As an adult, he was a boxer, champion swimmer, big game hunter, and president of the United States.

This is one typical response to a felt inferiority. A person fights against it. On the other hand, a child who was physi­cally small might learn to act unthreaten­ing and kind to others. Either was pos­sible, and either could be called a compensation.

Adler proposed a unique way to get a glimpse of your true feelings about yourself. He called it unconscious auto-estimation.

Auto means self so the phrase means unconscious self rating. It occurs when you encounter an image of yourself, or a product you have created, without realizing it is yours, and you react with an evaluation.

What is autoestimation and how was it supposed to be revealing?

For example, you may be walking through a department store with lots of mirrors, and suddenly you catch a glimpse of your own image. For a second you think it is somebody else. Then you realize it is yourself.

In that split second before you realize it is yourself, you may have an emotional reaction to the image (positive or negative or a complicated mix). Adler thought it would reveal how you really felt about yourself.

The same thing could happen if you came upon a paper you wrote years ago and read it without realizing it was your product. Adler also thought autoestima­tion could happen if you saw your own handwriting upside down.

You might evaluate upside-down hand­writing as neat and pretty, or sloppy and stupid looking, before realizing it was your own. Such quick emotional reactions were unguarded, so they were important clues to how you really felt about yourself, in Adler's opinion.

Dream Interpretation

Freud called dreaming the royal road to the unconscious. It seemed to him that dreams were rich in material normally excluded from awareness. We have seen how Adler used dreams, in accordance with his own theory, as reflections of personality tendencies such as feelings of inferiority or power.

To Freud, dreaming was a protection against waking up. Freud believed that sleep was a pleasant experience, similar to returning to the womb, and people who were asleep wanted to stay asleep. Freud noticed that when a disturbance such as a loud sound threatened to disrupt sleep, a dream might be built around the stimulus.

Freud hypothesized that dreams would incorporate a disturbing stimulus in order to avoid awakening and stay asleep. Psychological disturbances might function the same way.

A person would endeavor to stay asleep by fending off the disturbance, incorpor­ating it into a dream. Therefore, by analyzing dreams, one could uncover psychological problems.

Why, in Freud's view, did dreams reveal unconscious worries and conflicts?

Sometimes the worry expressed by a dream is transparent, as in this example supplied by a student:

It was a beautiful, sunny, Saturday October day. My boyfriend, Eddie, was coming over. We have been dating over three years and are very close. He and I spent the day together.

It was getting late in the afternoon. Eddie and I went for a drive. While we were gone Eddie proposed to me. I accepted gladly.

We went back to my house to tell my parents. My Mom and Dad were furious. They became so angry that they hired someone to kill Eddie.

We had decided to get married on Sunday, the next day. Everywhere we went Saturday people would shoot at us. We were constantly running for our lives. We went to a car lot to buy a car. We were looking at cars, and all of a sudden we heard a shot.

We ducked behind a car. We kept low and were afraid to get up. All of a sudden... That is all I remember because my roommate woke me up when she slammed the door. I tried to finish my dream, but I never could.

Interpretation: Eddie is my boyfriend. He and I have been dating for over three years. Eddie gave me a diamond ring for my birthday. We aren't engaged, yet.

My Dad was a little upset when I got my ring. My parents are afraid we are going to rush into things. I think I had this dream because I've been worried about what my parents were thinking.

My father is very protective and is always looking after me. He likes Eddie a lot, but he doesn't like the idea of me having a ring. [Author's files]

What did Freud believe about dream symbols?

Freud believed that dreams were full of sexual symbolism. He believed, for example, that umbrellas and purses were disguised references to male and female genitals, respectively.

Dreams of flying, he said, surely repre­sented sexual activity. Most present-day psychologists do not accept this idea.

However, there is no doubt that symbols can occur in dreams. Here is another example from a student.

One night, I had a dream that was very unusual but understandable to me. In my dream I was driving down the road in a car, but I did not know what kind of car it was. Anyway, my gas gauge was on "EMPTY", and I was in the middle of nowhere.

Then I came to a fork in the road, but I did not know whether to take the right or the left road. Only one of the roads had a gas station. Well, I took the right road and there was a gas station. Then I woke up.

How does the student's dream illustrate symbolism?

Interpretation: I took this dream as advice because I was about to quit school. So the right road meant there was no use quitting, and I should keep going on because there was a gas station to fill me up. But the left road was an empty and lonely road that would have led me nowhere. This dream was very meaningful to me. [Author's files]

That is a clear example of metaphor in a dream. "Reaching a fork in the road" is a figure of speech, meaning that one is approaching the point of making a big decision. The student's mind converted it into a concrete image.

Another example comes from a tele­vision documentary about the black baseball leagues (O'Connor, 1981). Black players were not allowed in the "regular" major leagues before World War II. Jimmy Crutchfield described a dream he had when he was a star in the black leagues:

I singled off a left-handed pitcher, and the ball crossed over second base. I started running, but I couldn't get to first base.

Again a dreaming brain seems to have converted a figure of speech ("you can't even get to first base") into an image. The resulting symbolism relates to an important concern in the person's life.

So Freud may have been half right. Dreams are not necessarily about sex symbols, but dreams can relate to major emotional themes in a person's life.

Freud and Jung were also correct in saying that dreams commonly use symbols or metaphor. In these examples, dreams converted common figures of speech into concrete symbols, to express an attitude or thought.

One student experienced a close call with drowning. Afterwards, she had a powerful dream she still remembers:

After a close call with death, when I almost drowned on a summer vacation, I had this dream. It was not until the lectures on dreams that I tried to analyze it.

I was on a rocky cliff high above some water. There was a struggle on the cliff between me and something. This something was not actually visual but I knew it was there, and I was threatened by it.

I won the struggle because I saw a distorted figure with no facial features fall into the water. I felt a mixture of relief and victory as I saw it falling off the cliff. Then, when it hit the water, it began to swim away and I became frightened.

It had survived the fall and could climb back up the cliff to where I was. I wanted to run but could not because the cliff was surrounded by water and there was no way down. I awoke suddenly and I have never forgotten that feeling of total helplessness as I was trying to find a way off the cliff.

Interpretation: The cliff represented life and the struggle was me fighting death to stay alive, just as I had fought to keep from drowning. I won the struggle and death fell into the water, which was symbolic because I almost died in the water. Maybe the water also represented death.

Seeing death swim away represented the fact that I had not beaten death but just delayed it. Having no way off the cliff meant that I could not run from death because there is no way out of life except through death. [Author's files]


Erdelyi, M. H. (1981) Not now: Comment on Loftus and Loftus. American Psychologist, 36, 527-528.

Jung, C. & Jaffe, A. (1963) Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Pantheon. (English edition.)

Loftus, E. F. & Loftus, G. R. (1980) On the permanence of stored information in the human brain. American Psychologist, 35, 409-420.

O'Conner, J. J. (1981, February 16). Only the ball was white. New York Times. Retrieved from:

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