Freudian Theory Of Unconscious Conflict Linked To Anxiety Disorders
June 18, 2012

Freudian Theory Of Unconscious Conflict Linked To Anxiety Disorders

New research, presented Saturday at the 101st Annual Meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association (APSA), has reportedly discovered a link between Sigmund Freud's theory of unconscious conflict and conscious symptoms experienced by individuals suffering from phobias and other anxiety disorders.

As part of the study, 11 subjects who had been diagnosed with anxiety disorders were given a series of "psychoanalytically oriented diagnostic sessions conducted by a psychoanalyst," the University of Michigan (UM) said in a June 16 press release. "From these interviews the psychoanalysts inferred what underlying unconscious conflict might be causing the person's anxiety disorder."

The experiments were performed at the university's Ormond and Hazel Hunt Laboratory, and the results were presented at the APSA conference by Michigan Emeritus Professor of Psychology Howard Shevrin.

"Words capturing the nature of the unconscious conflict were then selected from the interviews and used as stimuli in the laboratory. They also selected words related to each patient's experience of anxiety disorder symptoms. Although these words differed from patient to patient, results showed that they functioned in the same way," they added.

Those verbal stimuli were presented to the subjects subliminally at one-thousandth of a second and supraliminally at 30 milliseconds, and an unrelated control category was also added by the research team, the university said. Scalp electrodes were used to record the patients' brain responses to the stimuli.

"In a previous experiment Shevrin had demonstrated that time-frequency features, a type of brain activity, showed that patients grouped the unconscious conflict stimuli together only when they were presented subliminally," the UM press release said. "But the conscious symptom-related stimuli showed the reverse pattern — brain activity was better grouped together when patients viewed those words supraliminally."

Shevrin said that the subjects' brains could only see the unconscious conflict words as connected when they were presented unconsciously, and that the things that were assembled by the analysts as a result of the interview sessions only made sense to them unconsciously.

However, during his prior research, the design of the experiment was such that they could not directly compare the effect of unconscious conflict stimuli on conscious symptom stimuli.

In order to rectify that, the researchers in the most recent experiment presented the unconscious conflict stimuli immediately before the conscious symptom stimuli, then making a new measurement of the brain's alpha wave frequency, which the university said has been shown to inhibit a variety of cognitive functions.

"Highly significant correlations, suggesting an inhibitory effect, were obtained when the amount of alpha generated by the unconscious conflict stimuli were correlated with the amount of alpha associated with the conscious symptom alpha -- but only when the unconscious conflict stimuli were presented subliminally," they said in a statement. "No results were obtained when control stimuli replaced the symptom words. The fact that these findings are a function of inhibition suggests that from a psychoanalytic standpoint that repression might be involved."

"These results create a compelling case that unconscious conflicts cause or contribute to the anxiety symptoms the patient is experiencing," added Shevrin "These findings and the interdisciplinary methods used — which draw on psychoanalysis, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience -- demonstrate that it is possible to develop an interdisciplinary science drawing upon psychoanalytic theory."