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Speech And Memory Defects

( Originally Published 1920 )

The neurotic type in its negative attitude to life refuses to face unpleasant facts. It adopts the ostrich's tactics and buries its head in the sand. The most efficient way to flee from an unpleasant reality is not to know any longer that it was once perceived. Oblivion is the simplest way to rid oneself of an unpleasant fact. If it cannot be entirely forgotten, avoiding to mention it is the next best negative expedient. Loss of memory, partial or complete, obliterates a part of our biography which we lack courage to acknowledge as our own. Aphasia, aphonia or stammering withhold conveniently statements which our unconscious considers damaging.

A German woman of fifty who at the beginning of the war had been especially loud in her progermanism and had thereby caused her family and relatives a great deal of annoyance, was absolutely prostrated when her son, a naturalized citizen, was drafted. A panicky fear seized her lest her indiscrete utterances might bring punishment upon her beloved boy's head.

The night when he left for camp, she became strangely silent and the next morning she was absolutely disoriented, being unable to recognize any member of her family or her environment.

Her memory for everything which had occurred since August, 1914, was entirely gone; she could speak only with great difficulty and for a while her vocal cords lost all resonance; she regained to a certain extent her powers of speech when expressing herself in English but she was absolutely unable to make herself heard when she talked German.

On the other hand, her memory of events preceding the world catastrophe was absolutely unimpaired. While she never joined a conversation or addressed any one first she would very often supply with astounding accuracy facts or dates needed by those conversing in her presence. All the facts of her biography and of that of her children ante-dating 1914 were perfectly clear and well remembered, but when asked their age, she gave the age they had reached in August, 1914.

Here is a case then in which partial amnesia and partial aphasia proved a negative asset to the neurotic. The war which brought her much misfortune was forgotten. The voice which had carried to hostile ears many indiscrete statements was muted and the language which at a time none could speak in public without being eyed suspiciously or ostracised, failed to make her vocal cords vibrate.

A stammerer engaged in scientific research never had any difficulty in mentioning a certain chemical whose methods of production he was trying hard to improve. One day, however, a fellow laboratory worker forestalled him in finding a more efficient device. At the next appointment, the stammerer was almost unable to tell me of the occurrence and could not for several minutes pronounce clearly the name of the chemical in question. His unconscious egotism was bent on withholding from me information of a humiliating character. As soon as the neurotic expedient became obvious to him, his impediment disappeared.

A woman compelled in self-defence to tell her husband a very complicated story lacking in plausibility, began to stammer whenever a word in her conversation seemed to be unconsciously associated with the compromising incident. A full confession in my office relieved the tension and the "watchful technique" did the rest.

A study of all cases of memory and speech disturbances will soon convince the observer that our memory does not retain or lose words and facts indiscriminately.

Stammerers do not stammer indiscriminately.

There always is an absurd unconscious reason, neurotically logical, which causes us to forget a word, a fact, a duty, a figure, or to lose partly or completely our powers of speech.

We may forget anything which has an unpleasant unconscious connotation, we may stammer on any word which has an unpleasant association or be totally unable to pronounce it.

Hence the usual methods for improving the memory are psychologically absurd.

We may memorize long lists of words or sentences, poems and orations and yet at the crucial moment the right word may be withheld because some unconscious complex makes it impossible for us to utter it.

Mnemotechnic methods which seek to create new and at times illogical and absurd associations of the "clang" type or of the pun type are better. They grant unconsciously what the analysts claim, that the associations conjured up by a word may be of such a nature that the word cannot be uttered and they seek to replace a natural and unconscious association by an unnatural and conscious one.

This involves however a gigantic amount of exertion and the results of this procedure cannot be permanent.

The removal of the complexes which hold words down is the only scientific method for "improving" one's memory. Psychoanalysis does not, however, "improve" one's memory; it disintegrates the elements which impair our memory.

Our memory is simply the faculty our autonomic nerves have of making use, in an emergency, of impressions received in the course of our bringing up. When some fear-impression causes the safety division of the autonomic system to repress the natural activities of the other divisions, the words are, if the repression is complete, entirely forgotten, or if the repression is less complete, remembered but unpronounceable and, if the repression fails, stammered on more or less painfully.

The various cures suggested for stammering have never cured any one permanently.

Any stammerer can be trained to read without any difficulty lists of disconnected words and sentences of varying length. Any stammerer can be trained to sing without stammering.

This means that the words he studies lose gradually their present, unconscious associations and become mere sounds. As soon, however, as those words are grouped differently and acquire anew their unconscious associations, the stammerer once more becomes tongue-tied.

Making the sufferer change the pitch of his voice, one popular method of treating stammerers, is just as inefficient. Called upon to single out one word and to treat it as a "vehicle" for sound, not for thought, the stammerer no longer feels any embarrassment. The embarrassment returns, however, when the stammerer has to speak in a natural, even tone of voice.

Experiments show that fixation of the reading glance on one word only at a time, helps the stammerer, for it accomplishes more simply the same purpose as a change of pitch. It disconnects each word from its context and hence rids it of its associations.

This is, however, little more than an expedient and does not go to the root of the matter.

Nothing avails except to free the subject from the unconscious complexes withholding the words on which he stammers.

The stammerer who gains insight into the mechanism of his disability, who realizes not only that every bothersome word, sound or even letter, is fraught with an unpleasant connotation, but, furthermore, that his stammering is a valuable negative asset for him, will gradually acquire perfect fluency of speech.

One stammerer I treated came to realize that his stammering enabled him. to dominate his environment, as his mother and sister had to do all his shopping, receive and send all his telephone messages; he could keep his employer waiting for explanations, he could delay his answers and modify their wording (hereby satisfying his safety cravings). While he could pronounce without difficulty the name of any woman he was acquainted with, he could seldom pronounce men's names, especially when those men wielded some authority over him.

The usual memory and speech methods are based on the assumption that certain people are born with a poor memory or a "heavy tongue." Psycho-analysis assumes that all human beings are born with probably the same average ability but that in the course of their bringing up some of that average ability has been handicapped by complexes and cannot manifest itself freely. Instead of developing memory or fluency, psychoanalysis busies itself with the removal of the complexes which disable the patient.

This precludes the relapses which are so frequent and so discouraging in the treatment of amnesia, aphasia and stammering by the old fashioned methods.

Pointers to the Pathology of Collective Memory


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