From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis
Jump to: navigation, search

For psychoanalysis, memories are conscious representations of the past suspected of being, at least in part, illusory. The fact is that conscious memories or recollections may conceal unconscious ones, even if the ego accepts them at face value and finds comfort therein. In his early work Freud spoke of "unconscious memories," but he later replaced this term with "memory traces.

In Freud's initial work on the theory of neuroses (1894-96), "memories were pathogenic reminiscences of traumatic seduction; subsequently the memories of childhood were included in the category.

Freud contrasted the obsessive "memory image," or "mnemic image," with the supposedly genuine memory adequate to the affect experienced. Memories could be false, however, from their inception (Erinnerungsfälschung): one has only to think of the "first lie" of the hysterical proton-pseudos of Freud's "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c [1895]), or of "screen memories" (1899a), behind which authentic memories lie.

Freud's notion of memories, even when he uses it in the context of the psychology of consciousness in normal states, is always related to his first theory of the neuroses caused by traumatic seduction. It is not by accident that Freud used two very similar words to designate two conceptually opposed concepts—conscious memory (Erinnerung) and the unconscious memory-trace (Erinerungsspur)—and the paradoxical expression "unconscious memory" can often be found in his writings. In the theory of the traumatic origins of hysteria, he constructs the notion of memory traces from that of unconscious memories: the conscious memory of the trauma has been refused, rejected, repressed, or split. It is no longer accessible to consciousness, at least not directly, and is now represented in altered form in the symptom, notably in the mnemic symbol. The unconscious memory strives to become conscious once more, for ontically it is conscious. The notion of unconscious memories prefigures that of the unconscious, as distinct from the idea of a provisional pathological repression, which is still tainted by the psychology of consciousness; likewise, unconscious memory traces or mnemic images are so intense and sensorially alive that they overflow into consciousness in a quasi-hallucinatory form nonetheless distinct from hallucination.

Memories are par excellence the memories of affects, "the persistent effect of an emotion experienced in the past" (1896a) in the "memory chain." In Freud's work there is much that belongs to the associative theory of memory. Memories, like the mnemic symbols, screen memories, and fantasies, form "memory chains." It was from this conception of memory that Freud developed the technique of free association, whence in turn he derived the notion of primary processes.

The archaeological metaphor accompanied the notion of memory throughout Freud's work, from 1896 ("The Aetiology of Hysteria"), where he writes of the explorer, whose "interest is aroused by an expanse of ruins" and who "may start upon the ruins, clear away the rubbish, and, beginning from the visible remains, uncover what is buried. . . . If his work is crowned with success . . . [it may] yield undreamd-of information about the events of the remote past, to commemorate which the monuments were built" (p. 192), to Civilization and its Discontents (1930a [1929]), where he introduces a visitor who discovers beneath the city of Rome not an ancient Roman city but the ruins of reconstruction performed at the end of the ancient era on the site of primitive buildings that have disappeared, attempting to picture to himself what might produce the simultaneity of memories, here visual, of intertwined monuments from different eras.

What distinguishes between "true" and "false" memories is the affect, which is "always right" (1900a), and which can lead to the rediscovery, on the basis of the mnemic symbol of the original idea. In the Emma case (1950c [1895]), the phobic symptom and the belief that an ordinary event from adolescence could be its cause concealed what should have been a memory but had become a memory trace, namely the scene of childhood seduction. The transition from conscious memory to unconscious memory trace follows the topography of a psychic internalization of the event requiring a certain amount of time. Every memory is more or less a screen, always suspected by Freud of not faithfully conveying the impressions of the actual experiences of childhood.

In Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood (1910c), Freud states that memories include both historically constituted memory-traces of perceptions in childhood and pure fantasy elements. In Leonardo's memory a vulture opens the mouth of the child Leonardo with its tail, which Freud analyzes as the desire to have been engendered by a phallic mother. A memory then, appears to be a fantasy, but in fact the fantasy harbors real memories: the memory of having been passionately kissed by his mother during childhood, the memory of breastfeeding, the father's absence—all essential elements described by Freud as "real nothings," out of which Leonardo created his fantasy. Finally, what Leonardo remembers is not any specific event from childhood but elements from the psyche of the child he was, which constitutes the background of his adult psyche. Without realizing it Leonardo discovers on the lips of the Mona Lisa his mother's smile, of which he has no memory.

In psychoanalysis the concept of memory is part of the paradigm of the lost object. In "Mourning and Melancholia" (1916-17g [1915]), Freud demonstrates how, in melancholia, the pathological memory fixes and fetishizes the idealized object, hated as much as loved, and how, in the work of mourning, all memories about the object are illuminated in their smallest detail, so that remembering may facilitate abreaction, followed by a withdrawal of cathexis.

Freud envisages a drive to remember (Impuls zur Erinnerung) whose motor is a wish for a kind of representation close to hallucination: where the "mnemic image," the sensory intensity of the "unconscious memory" becomes conscious in a hypnoid mode by virtue of the lifting of amnesia. This drive also strives to rediscover the strength of the impressions (Eindruck) imparted by previous experience (Erlebnis).

In Freud's original approach to therapy, centered on abreaction and remembering, memories were meant to confirm the accuracy of the interpretation. In "Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through" (1914g), Freud noted "the patient does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, but acts it out" (p. 150). "[T]he patient repeats insted of remembering" (p. 151). This leads to the possibility of a clinical approach based on working-through rather than remembering and abreaction, or, otherwise stated, a conception of remembering centered on constructions rather than memory. From this point of view a childhood memory is always a memory about childhood. The concept of memories belongs to the psychology of consciousness more than to the metapsychology of the unconscious, despite the obvious kinship between Erinnerung (memory) and Erinnerungsspur (unconscious mnemic trace) in Freud's work. An illusion of consciousness, memories support the defenses and idealizations of the ego.

No memory is exempt from the influence of fantasy, and no fantasy can do without ideational elements borrowed from a perceived reality. The notion of memory employed by Freud differed from that found in psychology and philosophy. Although in "Heredity and the Aetiology of the Neuroses" (1896a) he tried to establish the ages of memories because it was the oldest events that were the most pathogenic, he wrote to Fliess on May 2, 1897 that it was not, strictly speaking, memories that the hysteric repressed but instinctual impulses associated with stimulating fragments of memories. What he refers to as memories derive from multiple sources and are the object of constant reworking. In discussing the memories and the childhood dreams of the "Wolf Man," Freud concluded that what was involved was a complex mixture of memories, fantasies, and day's residues (1918b [1914]). Psychoanalytic interpretation rediscovers—but more often reconstructs—childhood memories with the help of screen memories, fantasies, and dreams, whose day's residues, in combination with memory traces, give rise to visual representations that appear as memories. What is thus disinterred is the child's psyche. The frequently debated question is whether analysis constructs the mind as fiction or reconstructs the past facts to take into account the complexity and paradoxical nature of memories at once historical and subjectively constructed. The continuous rewriting of every subject's history by the subject himself defines memory as a temporary current version only. Freud played down the contrasts between memory and screen memory and memory and construction, emphasizing instead the complexity of psychic working-through, which mixes different types of mnemic representations as well as non-mnemic ones—including libidinal representations and unconscious and conscious thoughts. A memory is something other than a memory-trace, but there are points of contact between the two. Freud refuted the idealist psychology of consciousness but he also avoided falling prey to a metaphysics of an unconscious with no relationship to reality, perception, or memories.


If one views memory as the ability to retain and recall past states of consciousness, then psychoanalysis has played a considerable role in its delineation. But in terms of memory theory considered more broadly, its significance is much more modest. Freud approached memory from three perspectives. In terms of neurology, his contributions were original but limited. From the standpoint of psychology, he added to the pre-existing framework. Finally, in creating the psychoanalytic perspective, Freud essentially reworked views that had been extensively discussed in philosophy, literature, and scientific research.

In 1891 Freud's On Aphasia: A Critical Study (1891b) proposed a solution to the problem of memory retrieval and disorders of memory, which was much discussed at the end of the nineteenth century following the discoveries of Paul Broca. Freud did not take sides in the dispute between Broca, who localized language function to a specific cerebral area, and Carl Wernicke, who developed the functional concept of conduction aphasia. Freud's solution, which resembled the one that Henri Bergson adopted five years later in Matter and Memory, could serve as the basis for a dialogue between neurology and philosophy. But the 1891 text is a pre-psychoanalytic work.

Freud's second, psychological perspective finds him apparently subscribing to the theory of memory traces. Already expressed in its major outlines in Plato's Theatetus, this theory was commonplace in the nineteenth century, when the vogue for scientific materialism made it seem self-evident (although spiritualists also accepted it). In this sense Freud is close to his contemporary, Théodule Ribot, but for Freud the theory of memory traces assumed a specific form intended to account for the role the unconscious plays in remembering. This led to Freud's Project for a Scientific Psychology of 1895 (1950c [1895]) and the best expression of the doctrine, in chapter 7 of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a). The "Mystic Writing Pad" (1925a) represents an attempt to provide the theory of memory traces and process of memory retrieval with a metaphor suitable for psychoanalysis. But in these texts, Freud was concerned to place facts revealed by psychoanalysis within the framework of conventional psychological theory; he made no effort to create a new "theory of memory."

Much more familiar (and often wrongly considered as the specific psychoanalytic contribution to problems of memory) is the third perspective, involving the alleviation of pathological symptoms by recalling forgotten traumata. Freud himself did a great deal to promote this point of view through the significance he attached in numerous of his writings to Josef Breuer's treatment of Anna O. Too common is the impression that the famous formula "hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences" (Studies on Hysteria, 1895d, p. 7) expresses the most fundamental idea in psychoanalysis.

There is no question that the idea of recollection constitutes an essential part of psychoanalytic therapy, and to think otherwise is to betray Freud in a fundamental way. Serge Viderman's claim in La Construction de l'espace analytique (1970) that the search for lost memories is one of Freud's youthful illusions to be replaced, in analysis, with co-constructions of subjectivity, is simply an attempt to employ non-analytic therapy, proposed in the past by such authors as Karen Horney. Until the end of his life Freud remained attached to this model: trauma / repression / forgetting / symptom / remembering / healing. In 1937, in "Analysis Terminable and Interminable," he went so far as to say that, like hysterics, psychotics also suffer from reminiscences, implying that certain delusional representations were, in fact, the reappearance in consciousness of past experiences unrecognized as such. Between Anna O. and this late text, Freud's entire body of work is sprinkled with thoughts along these lines. In "Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through" (1914g), for example, he resolved the conflict between impossible access to memory and the sterility of repetition through the introduction of what he called "working through" (Durcharbeitung). Further proof is found in his "A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis" (1936a), in which Freud displaces the memory trauma (thinking the Acropolis did not exist) onto another type of fact (fear of surpassing the father). The "search for lost time," the attempt to alleviate repression that has produced a failure of memory and the associated symptom, is one of the major themes of Freudian psychoanalysis. However, reservations are in order regarding its originality and theoretical scope.

Even though Freud often felt that the cure for hysterical symptoms through recollection of repressed traumatic memories could be presented as a revolutionary discovery, such figures as Janet and other late nineteenth-century psychotherapists viewed the idea and even the method as commonplace. The idea can even be traced back much further. For example, in a letter to Pierre Chanut, dated June 6, 1647, René Descartes recounts that his penchant for girls with a squint came to an end with his recollection of a childhood memory. Descartes's interest in such women may not have been a true hysterical symptom, but the link between current behavior and its origin in the past is indicated along with all the characteristics (forgetting, unconsciousness, healing through remembrance) that Freud would later employ. Much earlier, Plato, in the Phaedrus, interpreted the process of falling in love in a similar manner. In short, there is no end to the number of literary, philosophical, and clinical sources for what is often considered the most significant psychoanalytic contribution to the theory of memory.

More plausibly, psychoanalysis lent to a certain type of amnesia and memory retrieval an unanticipated practical (therapeutic) scope. Its importance was practical. Although it constitutes an original theoretical point, it does not amount to a global theory such as those developed by philosophers and psychologists. However, it has a good fit with such theories. It works, for example, within the framework that Henri Bergson described and interpreted in Matter and Memory.

See Also

Amnesia; Autohistorization; Character formation; Conscious processes; Day's residues; Deferred action; Dementia; Disavowal; Facilitation; Fantasy, formula of; Forgetting; Historical reality; History and psychoanalysis; Memory; Mnemic trace/memory trace; "Project for a Scientific Psychology, A"; Psychology and psychoanalysis; "Recommendations to Physicians Practicing Psychoanalysis"; Remembering; "Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through"; Reminiscence. Bibliography Acting-out/acting-in; Amnesia; Compromise formation; Cryptomnesia; Forgetting; "Heredity and the Aetiology of the Neuroses"; Isolation (defense mechanism); Neurotic defenses; Primal scene; Primary process, secondary process; Quota of affect; Remembering; Reminiscence; Repetition; Screen memory; Thing; Thought. Bibliography


  • Freud, Sigmund. (1891b). On aphasia; A critical study. New York: International Universities Press, 1953.
  • ——. (1896a). Heredity and the aetiology of the neuroses. SE, 3: 141-156.
  • ——. (1896c). The aetiology of hysteria. SE, 3: 186-221.
  • ——. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. Part I, SE,4: 1-338; Part II, SE, 5; 339-625.
  • ——. (1910c). Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood. SE, 11: 57-137.
  • ——. (1914g). On narcissism: An introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.
  • ——. (1914g). Remembering, repeating and working-through (Further recommendations on the technique of psycho-analysis II). SE, 12: 145-156.
  • ——. (1925a). A note upon the "mystic writing pad." SE, 19: 225-232.
  • ——. (1936a). A disturbance of memory on the Acropolis. SE, 22: 239-248
  • ——. (1937c). Analysis terminable and interminable. SE, 23: 209-253
  • ——. (1950c [1895]). Project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1: 281-387.