On unconscious inhibition: Instantiating repression in the brain

Ariane Bazan and Michael Snodgrass

in From the Couch to the Lab

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print May 2012 | ISBN: 9780199600526
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754753 | DOI:
On unconscious inhibition: Instantiating repression in the brain

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In psychodynamic theory, repression is a major neurotic defence mechanism, which operates by separating the drive investment from the conflictual representation. While major insights in unconscious processing have recently been obtained in the cognitive neurosciences, repression as a psychological mechanism remains controversial. In this chapter, we present empirical results obtained with subliminal priming paradigms concerning unconscious inhibition of (1) mental representations and (2) motor control. For these paradigms, we propose that only under very stringent subliminal conditions where stimuli are completely undetectable, the dynamics of deep unconscious processing — which are structurally sensitive to subject factors such as defensivity and anxiety — are discernable. We also present parallel results of (3) suppression and inhibition in memory and language processing. A similar observation in these various results is that inhibition reveals itself by spilling over to associated elements which were not its original targets. Finally, we propose a speculative model on the physiology of repression. First, we present a series of arguments indicating a conceptual closeness between the ‘indications of reality’ in the Freudian model and the efference copies of the sensorimotor models. Moreover, a number of other parallels between the psychodynamic and the sensorimotor approach have been uncovered in recent neurosciences, chief among which is the constitutive link between representation and action: thinking is only possible as a motor activity and this thinking is not a priori conscious. Afferent stimuli probe for a multiplicity of associated action plans: directed action, then, is only possible by selecting one alternative through inhibition of the others. This inhibition might function through the anticipative attenuation brought about by the efference copies. The efference copy-induced somatosensory activations linked to motor control are thought to induce mental imagery in response to incomplete action execution. This, then, would be especially the case for some of these action alternatives, which are easily susceptible of popping up due to their emotional importance. In order to act appropriately, these frequent candidates require a more vigorous inhibition, which would then be particularly prone to induce (unconscious) mental imagery as well as to spill over to associated representations and induce substitutive behaviours, which, together, would constitute ‘the return of the repressed’.

Chapter.  17741 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Psychiatry

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