Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Unconscious in Our Everyday Lives

By Kevin Murphy M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

You’ll often hear people say that talking about things makes no difference, that it has nothing to do with real life, with the real world. Leaving aside how curious that sounds to a therapy practitioner, the comment is worth examining. What people are really saying is that therapy can have no relevance for them in their daily lives. How can it? How can an activity that takes place in a private consulting room, for one hour a week, have relevance for someone’s life? How can talking about oneself to a total stranger make any difference whatsoever?
I was reminded of this question when I visited the London Science Museum recently. It had an exhibition called ‘Psychoanalysis – the unconscious in everyday life’. The very point of this exhibition, in among all the other exhibitions on medical science, space flight and so on, was that psychoanalysis is about the everyday. It is about the small things that go to make up a life. The minor details, the trivial occurrence, the forgotten name, the misplaced phone, the favourite toy, the strange look that someone gave you, the half-glimpsed wishes that surface in day dreams and in night dreams. These are the often overlooked building blocks on which a life is built. They are also the external representatives of inner drives that we never get to see otherwise.
And that’s why talking to someone in a private consulting room has relevance to the outside world, to the everyday reality that we occupy. Because talking about the small details, the overlooked and often forgotten stuff, is the place where we find something of our true selves. The big choices, where to live, what to work at, who to marry, are all very important too. But when we ignore the smaller details, we are discarding a great deal of richness. Or put another way, if life is a great tapestry then we are ignoring the fine needle work that goes into it.
The Psychoanalysis exhibition in London, now unfortunately finished I might add, was divided into a number of sections: Play, Neuroscience, Wish-Fulfillment, The Everyday and The Uncanny. The Play section was an exhibition of how psychoanalysis is used to work with children. It looked at the work of famous child analysts Donald Winnicott and Melanie Klein both of whom drew their ideas from the work of the founder of psychoanalsysis Sigmund Freud and applied them to the area of children.
The section on Neuroscience showed the increasingly ‘fertile’ collaboration between this scientific field and psychoanalysis in recent years. The most active part of neuroscience today is the focus on explaining non-conscious thought processes to explain emotional experiences. In Wish-Fulfillment they showed ancient Roman offerings to the gods that helped them achieve their wishes for good fortune, good health and so on. The point was being made that people today engage in similar activities regarding wishes and dreams even if they do so in different ways. In fact, one of the main areas of focus of contemporary psychoanalysis is on trying to identify what exactly is the wish, the true wish, of the person who comes for therapy.
There was also a Cabinet of the Everyday which had ordinary objects that we use – cars, fashion, kitchen utensils – each of which has the power to become emotionally endowed through our unconscious projections onto them. These items all have a practical use but psychoanalysis is interested in the symbolic and unconscious meanings that are part of them also.
The last section was The Uncanny which was a concept Freud used to describe how we can often feel deeply disorientated even when we are in familiar surroundings. In fact, Uncanny in German, as Freud used it , means Unheimlich which is literally translated as ‘unhomely’. We are usually in vaguely familiar surroundings when this feeling hits us. Our perceptions of the world around us become destabilised, something knocks us off our usual perch and everything begins to seem unreal.
As well as these sections in the exhibition there were numerous works of art, two of which were specially commissioned, and the others which were done by artists inspired in one way or another by psychoanalysis. It was an interesting tie-up of art and psychoanalysis because not only has the latter been used to interpret human behaviour but it has also been traditionally used to interpret literature and the arts. In short, it has been used to interpret nearly every human activity that we find in our everyday lives because it is a therapy of the everyday.