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  • Maria R. de Almeida

Forgetfulness and slips


It is a very interesting topic because… who has not had some time a forgetfulness? A slip?

What are the mechanisms that gives them way? When we make a mistake or when we forget about something, we tend to think that those things happen, that we were not focus, that we were very busy with something else…

However if you are reading this blog you might suspect that there is something else behind that slip, forgetfulness… you are going to name someone, you are in a difficult situation and no way you name that person with the wrong name but… you do it.

These situations are shocking but we just deal with them because we dont have the right tools to give them the right explanation. I am going to use in this writing “ Psycopathology of every day life” -1900, published in 1901. It was written at the same time as the “Interpretation of the Dreams” which is the cornerstone of Psychoanalysis. They are subjects that Freud had already been working: in "Screen Memories" 1899 where he said all the memories are screen memories; in the “Interpretation of the Dreams” he worked the forgetfulness of the dreams and in “Remembering, repeating and working through” (1914). All these are works which show that Freud was working on these subjects during all his life. But… was Freud really interested in slips and forgetfulness? Or in reality, what he was interested in was in how to use these phenomena to be able to explain the working of the psychic apparatus (as he always was)? Freud had been criticised for having discovered the unconscious working with his hysterical patients. So to prove his discovery of the unconscious and generalise the theory, he used mainly the dreams 1 but also the slips and forgetfulness 2. Why? Because we ALL make slips and forget things: healthy and sick individuals. By studying the mechanism of the forgetfulness and slips 2, Freud explained how the unconscious works.

In order to go deeper into this subject, we need to accept that there are things in ourselves that we dont know. This is basically what Freud proved: there are psychic processes which produce effects in our everyday life about which we know nothing, they are unconscious, we can not give an account of them with just a simple reflection of the conscience. We can come up with many excuses and explanations to justify our forgetfulness but by ourselves, we can not analyse the underlaying cause of that slip or forgetfulness, how we are involved in it. This is one of the key novelties of the Psychoanalysis: it explains we are always involved in everything that happen to us and explains how. It is not due to an external factor: cold, heat, time difference, someone who distracts me… something happens in ourselves when we make a slip, a mistake, when we forget about something. We are involved in that situation.

Another contribution of the Psychoanalysis is that we have psyche and soma which are different but inseparable. We separate them in order to be able to study them. Exactly the same occurs in our psychic apparatus: psychic processes happen simultaneously but we separate them in order to be able to study them. Inside our psychic apparatus, there is something unconscious, that we dont want to know about, it is no where. The unconscious is in our speech. It has to be built. When we make a mistake, a slip, when we forget about something… that is an effect of the unconscious, and effect of the unconscious working. Unconscious only objective is to show up, it odes not care about (rational) logic, morality or convenience. That is why, by definition, people do not want to know about it. Remember our psychic apparatus is governed by the pleasure principle: it tends to zero tension, it tends to seek that “balance”. When there is something which cause us discomfort, our psychic apparatus represses it, it disappears from our conscience. However, that does not completely disappear. To be repressed means that it is transferred to another system: whatever we find painful, that memory, that thought… it goes over the unconscious system, it becomes unconscious. However, in his willingness to show up, he will bump into the censorship. In order to understand this, we can think it is like the publishing house of a newspaper: a journalist writes an article and the publishing house tells him: “I am not going to publish this article because this word is not acceptable”: and he crosses it out. Same with this sentence, and he changes by a different one.” Ok, you want to say this but… you have to say it in a different way”. The publishing house changes all the wording. The journalist send the article with the new wording and the publishing house says: “Ok, we are going to publish it”. That is exactly how the psychic apparatus works: the repressed wants to show up but the censorship says… “no way”. Why? Because something which is bearable for the unconscious which does not judge, nor calculate.. for the conscience, is unbearable. Censorship says: “Look, this can not go over like this, it is painful for the conscience”. The unconscious, by condensation and displacement, modify the repressed content: it is disguised, it becomes linked with a different representation bearable for the conscience, it has been transformed. What reaches the conscience is no longer the unconscious, it is what we called “manifest content”. If we make a slip, that slip will highlight the existence of a conflict that for us is painful and wants to show up. However, by ourselves, we can not know what is the unconscious wish behind it. How can we know about it? By freely associating with a psychoanalyst. In “Psychopathology of the everyday life” Freud give a number of examples about himself and about other people and explains all the process: he start associating ideas until reaching a construction related to the unconscious wish. Most of the cases, what we repress is related to:

  • loving impulses towards inconvenient people

  • hostile impulses against loved ones

We don’t tolerare them but.. we can not know about these conflicts alone. By definition, the unconscious is the knowledge unknown, it is no where. It has to be built by interpretation by the psychoanalyst. It is complex to understand. In our every day life the unconscious produces symptoms, dreams, slips, jokes, forgetfulness… but this is all we can know about it. If we want to access our unconscious, we need to freely associate to built the unconscious conflict or desire which led to that mistake or forgetfulness. The unconcious main objective is to show up and not only once, it wants to show up over and over again.

This is key, it changes our mindset, the way we live our lives. Whenever something happens to us, we tend to blame the outside world, external factors, we dont realise we are involved . It might be easier to do that but we dont reach any truth about ourselves. Freud explains that it is manifest text, what does that mean? It means that when we say something, there is something else beyond our speech and… we dont know about it. Manifest text means, it has been transformed: whatever I really wanted to say is not there. My truth desire is disguised when I talk . The same exact thing happens with memories, according to Freud: not only we forget but also, we remember wrongly. It is hard to believe,… “ I remember perfectly, I was a child, I was with my sister, she would not stop crying because she wanted my sweet…”. It is shocking to believe that every memory, is a screen memory. What is more, if it has really happened in reality or not… it does not really matter, what it is important is what we tell about it. Memories are contemporary even when I think they are in the past. When I talk about a memory, it is present, I am involved in it, I am building it. We dont know if it really happened or not and we dont care about that.

For example, in an accidente, there are many witnesses and all of them will have a different version: It is not about how my father tought me, it is not about how my mum took care of me, it is about how I build what happens. Most likely, brothers and sisters in the same family, will have a different version about their parents. In reality, they were the same parents but for each of the brothers/sisters, they were different: one can say his father was loving and caring and the other that he was a tyrant. With memories happens exactly the same as with our speech: we build them, so… we cannot blame our childhood. We are involved. With this approach, the way we live our lives changes completely. “ But… it is because my parents treated my like dad…” When I change the way I talk abut it and I ask my self: “ Why did I build this memory? Maybe in order not to move forward? To continue in this zero tension?" We then have the chance to transform ourselves. In a way, remembering is a way of transforming. Because we can build our memories, we can change them and by changing them, we transform our selves.

No way we can scape from our unconscious processes, no matter how much we try to control them, justify them… Unconscious processes determine our lives, now that control ego psychology is trendy, more than ever. According to Psychoanalysis, there are personality treats but… we should be flexible, malleable… we can not be “the same person” with our boss, our boyfriend, our friends, our parents…

When we talk and we make a slip of the tongue, in a way, we betray each others: the slip talks about something we dont know about. When we make a slip of the tongue, we discover something.

Here is an example: Freud is travelling by train with someone he does not know well and they begin to talk about Italy. Freud asked him if he had been in Orvieto, if he had seen the paintings, he was going to say the name of an artist: Signorelli, but he forgot about the name. He forgot about that name, but he came up with substitutes: Boticelli, Boltrafio… This is what happens when we forget a name, we come up with substitutes. Freud realised there was something which had trigger the forgetfulness. He began to investigate the mechanisms that had prompted it. He begins to freely associate and comes to the conclusion that there is something related to the death of a patient. If he had remembered the name of Signorelli, he would have remembered the case of that patient, and that was not a topic that should be discussed with a stranger. That is why he had forgotten the name Signorelli: not remember the case of that patient at that moment. Forgetfulness has an aim, a purpose, it is not random. In this example, to Freud, the forgetfulness was not to remember the case of that patient.

We need to make sure we do not mistaken how the forgetfulness happens, the mechanism (condensation and displacement) with the external factors which could foster it (it is cold, I have a headache…). Neurology tries to find the physical perturbation which produces the forgetfulness. That is not the right approach at all. Why? Because thinking that tiredness or a headache had provoke the forgetfulness, would be the same as walking alone in a dark night, being stolen the wallet and reporting to the police that the darkness and loneliness have stole it. The reasonable think to say would be: “Foster by the darkness in the nigh, the thief took the chance to steal my wallet”.

The mechanism is the same for all the formations of the unconscious: dreams, jokes, symptoms, slips…

Forgetfulness is not soemthing wrong, in fact, it is necessary. Our conscience is not to keep or stock, actually, it is a perceptual organ. The moment it is charged, it has to discharged. Memory is unconscious. When we forget about something, it is the best way to remember. Forgetfulness is necessary in our psychic apparatus.

As opposed to what Neurology claims, Freud established that the psychic apparatus is no where, it does not have a physical location: Memories are faithfully stocked no where, that does not exist. We build them as we speak. Psychical proceses dont have a physical location.

Everything we remember and we forget is related to ourselves and in connection with three instances: Personal, family and work. Freud gives several examples to explain this: A patient, asked me about a sanatorioum on the river side, he knew one close to Geneva and remembered well the name of the physician, he was German. However, he could not remember the name of the village where it was and… he knew it well. He asked the patient to wait and asked the women in her family: “Where is the sanatorium where Dc X works?”. Her wife answered him: It is quite understandable you have forgotten the name of that place… it is called “ Nervi”. Freud thought… it is true that “nerves and everything related to them, keep me quite busy”. It is something related to his personal scope.

Another example of the family scope: Freud was going to take a train ticket in the station and he forgot the name of the next station, station where he had stopped so many tims and knew very well. He had to look for it in a map. The name was “Rosenheim” (Roses house). The moment he saw it, he knew very well the association which led him to forget: an hour before, he had been at one of her sisters’s who lives close to Rosenheim, she is called “Rose”so… he was coming from Rose’s house: Rosenheim. This name has been stolen by my familly scope.

When we forget, we forget very common things, it is not a matter of memory. There is no explanation for those forgetfulness, they are things of our everyday life that we normally would remember: when we call our partner by other name… we know very well what is his name. It is not a matter of the memory, it is not a mistake. There is a reason why I want to forget. Freud says, it is not that we have made a slip but just the opposite: it is a success. It has a meaning that needs to be interpreted. Unconscious is never mistaken.

Remember that unconscious main objective is to show up. However, there is a part of me, the unconscious one which wants to show up and a part of me that censors, so that it can not show up. The part of me which is always right is the unconscious: when we make a slip it is an accomplished act, not a failed one: I forget the keys and that they my mom- in-law was coming.

Thinking that forgetfulness and slips are not random… is a narcissist wound. In medicine, when they discovered that bacteria produced sickness, it was very difficult to accept that such a tinny worm could sicken the amazing human being. It took long time until physicians realised that if they wash properly their hands, less women dies giving birth because the risk of infection was lower. Accepting that I cannot control a part of me, that I dont know about it… that it over determines me, is a wound in our narcissism.

It is complex to approach Psychoanalysis, in order to do that, we need to transform ourselves, our mindsets, the way we think the world… we need to transform our ideology and abandon our narcissism and the way we think our ego. The only way to avoid unconscious to work against us is psychoanlysis. Psychoanalysis can interpret those things in ourselves, we dont know about. Because even when we do not want to know about them, that is how the human being is built and the unconscious will continue producing effects in ourselves. Behaviorist psychology tries to deny the unconscious. You can deny it but it will continue producing effects: same situation will happen over and over again. Without psychoanalisys it is impossible to to fall over and over again into the same trap.

Being aware that we have unconscious is liberating, it opens doors that were never there. Symptoms imprisons, insanity imprisons. When Van Gogh painted he was not insane, he was a painter. When you write a poem, you are not insane, you are a poet. One thing is to let yourself go when you are writing and something very different … to rave. If you go beyond the limits, you are no longer a poet, you are are not in this world but in the clouds. When Van Gogh cut his ear, he was raving, he was insane, but when he was painting he was one of the best painters. In our world, with our ideology is understandable to think that he was raving when he was painting but... insanity produces nothing.

  1. With the Interpretation of the Dreams 1900 the concept of the unconscious and the Psychoanalysis was born

  2. To explain how the unconscious work, Freud study what he called “formations of the unconscious”: dreams, jokes, symptoms and slips.

  3. Remember that this mechanism is the same as in a dream, a hysterical symptom…


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