Freud Dumbed Down: What every schoolchild should know

Freud Dumbed Down: What every schoolchild should know


By Ika B. Roub     

The reception of psychoanalysis in the grand public is a baffling episode in the intellectual history of the twentieth century, an episode which is not finished and will have no doubt to be followed closely in the twenty-first.  As such, the Los Angeles Times and the Skirball Cultural Center, are to be applauded for presenting a series of articles on Freud and psychoanalysis (3/30-31/2000), and a family art workshop on “Freud: Inkblots and Dreams” (at the Skirball Cultural Center).

What is remarkable about the LA Times presentation is that it has had, not only the courage to enter into this century, but has enclosed these articles in the entertainment section for children. For it seems today that Freud and psychoanalysis can be packaged as entertainment and made consumable even to the child.  So much so, that it is no longer a question of the psychoanalytic observation of the child (as it was founded in the work of Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud, and the celebrated work of Melanie Klein), but the child’s observations of psychoanalysis.  A truly extraordinary inversion!

The question is however, not whether the Freudian invention of psychoanalysis is a cultural consumption beneficial to the child, for it can always be posed as such, but rather we must ask if these articles and exhibitions actually succeed in presenting the child a true idea of psychoanalysis.  And if not, then what are we subjecting the child to in the name of cultural merchandising and entertainment? Conversely, what are we subjecting psychoanalysis to in such a “childish” presentation?

No doubt, imagining the reader/spectator of the articles and exhibitions to be a child guided by the family, is an effective way to force the author(s) to write simply.  In careless hands however, this type of writing results in a misunderstanding which confuses simplicity with not only facility, but banality.  In the best of cases, the reader is confronted with nothing other than false and superficial information (a vulgarization), and in the worst of cases one is left with the charm and suggestions of the writer seeking to make the reader consent by whatever means (hypnosis).

Whatever the case may be, such introductions inspire a false or comic Woody-Allenesque notion of psychoanalysis by overrating its apparent frivolity in relation to dreams and cultural activities, while underestimating its relation to reality and simplicity itself.  For indeed, psychoanalysis, once put into relation to that which is simple — and not banal — finds its natural ally not simply in the birth of the child, but the birth of science.

Even as an adult who truly admires the intuitions of infants and realizes that their categories often go beyond those of their parents, I am still embarrassed to admit that I often read the children’s section of the newspaper just to test those qualities which are supposed to characterize my maturity.  Yet, as I have become over the last few years attuned to the finer points of the children’s sections of various newspapers and magazines, I feel my judgment on such matters might be of use in stabilizing the field, especially as it concerns the relationship of the “child-ish” to psychoanalysis.

In opening up the discussion with the in-fant (literally, in Latin, meaning the one without speech), I will merely begin by outlining what every schoolchild should know about psychoanalysis and mathematical sequences.

What Every Schoolchild Should Know About Psychoanalysis

Most modern day commentators of Freud and psychoanalysis coming from a psychological point of view seem to have felt that the notion of the dream found in Freud’sThe Interpretation of Dreams (1899) is one in which the dream occurs first and the interpretation second: that is to say, an interpretation is merely a waking secondary repetition of the dream which happened during our sleep the night before.  The inadequacy of such a perspective can be summarized in our first schoolchild note:

1) For every schoolchild should know no one is ever fully awake and to some extent the dream is still continuing.

The failure to render account of this note can hardly be blamed on the lack of skills or the knowledge of the commentators, for The Interpretation of Dreams is an exceptionally difficult text, not in the least because of the immensity of its examples, but because of the simplicity which underlies its theory.  Confusing this simplicity with facility, we can understand why so many commentators have lost sight of the forest for the trees — having concentrated on the interpretation of dreams and not the equally important dreams of interpretation, the work of the dream is lost to a free play of words having more in common with prophecy and hypnosis than psychoanalysis itself.

For this reason the articles found in the LA Times (3/30-31/2000) are not to be denied, but are particularly instructive in their oversights.  Let us then, follow the presentation found in the articles not as if one were trying to interpret the sleeping dream, but trying to track down the footprints of a sleepwalker.

The Problem

The writer of the article asks a question “Where do dreams come from?” then states a problem which is supposed resolvable by the dream:

“Step 1: Write these letters and blank lines on a piece of paper: O, T, T, F, F, __, __.

Step 2: Before you fall asleep, concentrate on the letters as you relax.  When you fall asleep, your dreams may help you fill in the next two letters for the blank lines.

Step 3: When you wake up, write down your dreams and try to fill in the letters.”

We are, or rather our children are, even coaxed not to be “discouraged if we can not guess the letters right away” for the language of the dream is coded and needs to be interpreted.  Yet, once we hit upon the code — which the author promises he will furnish in the next issue of the paper — we are told that we “should have discovered” the correct answer for the missing blanks as:

“O = one
T = two
T = three
F = four
F = five
S = six (the first missing blank)
S = seven (the second missing blank).”

In reading these articles on Freud — the problem they set out to resolve, and the solution offered — it would not be possible to state that they were resolved by a child, for a child would have never responded to the problem in such a banal and incorrect way.  However, that the author him/herself is the dreamer, and has not only prohibited the intuitions of the child from ever grasping any reality in the interpretation of a sequence, but has ruined any chance the child may have had in encountering a real relation to psychoanalysis.  Which leads us to our next school note:

2) Every schoolchild should know that there is absolutely no reason — unconscious or not — that the sequence O, T, T, F, F, S, S, corresponds to the names of the natural numbers.

For even if one cared to decipher the sequence as the names of the seven forgotten dwarfs:

O = Ozzie
T = Theodore
T = Tiptoes
F = Fritz
F = Frederick
S = Sal
S = Sigmund

such a sequence would be no less correct than that being “suggested” by the author of the article as the “correct” response.  In short, what a child is being subjected to here has little to do with the storybook notions of going to bed, dreaming and sleeping, but is on a closer look an introduction to a regressive state of mind called hypnosis, which should be landmarked here with another school note:

3) What every schoolchild should know is that if they agreed with the writer of the article — that the sequence naturally corresponds with the natural numbers — then they have been hypnotized.

Freud abandoned hypnotism and was not so much interested in the dream as it occurred in sleep, but the dream work as it reoccurred in waking life, especially as it is re-enacted during the analytic session.  What became evident was that there was a place in our everyday waking reality, where we are always asleep.  For this reason Freud rejected the practice of hypnosis, which requires that one become passive and go to sleep to experience the dream of the hypnotist; rather psychoanalysis searches for an absolute dream which is at work even during the waking state of the day.  It is on the basis of the waking dream and interpretation — and the rejection of hypnosis and suggestion — that Freud coined term “talking cure” in the invention of psychoanalysis.

What Every Schoolchild Should Know About Sequences

Anyone who has more than a cursory practice in mathematics knows that the use of sequences in intelligence tests are not only highly suspect but become perverse when applied as dream tests in the realm of emotions.  This knowledge comes from a simple, but little known theorem of mathematics.  We include this here as our first school note on mathematics:

4) Every school child should know that it is always possible to produce a formula defining an unintended number from a given sequence.

For example, given the sequence: 1, 2, 3, __. We ask what is the next number?  Suppose, the adult reader replies ‘4’, and the child says ’10’.  Well, then I could always side with the child, if the next number in the series were to be defined by the formula: (n -1), (n -2), (n-3) + n; where n ranges over the natural numbers in order (1, 2, 3, … n…).  This formula is nothing other than a definition which interprets the sequence exactly.  Without such a defining formula, the next number of the sequence can be anything (just as a dream without an interpretation signifies anything).  The mathematicians have rendered account of this ambiguity in their field by affixing to any sequence a general term — or formula — which defines and condenses the whole of the sequence.  Thus, instead of writing the ambiguous sequence:

{1, 4, 9, . . .}

where [. . .] stands for “and so forth” or “infinity”, the mathematician will write:

{1, 4, 9, . . . n2 . . .}

where n2 is a formula or general term which ranges over the natural numbers N = {1, 2, 3, . . . n . . .}.  Here, then, by plugging in the natural numbers in their order into n2, you will generate all the numbers of the sequence.  Call this defined sequence the intended sequence, now by our school note (4) we know, we can always write an unintended sequence.  For example, the child might state the next number of the sequence is ’16’.  Can you determine the formula which defines this next number?  If so, what is the number after ’16’?

The question here is not whether dreams in your sleep really solve problems or not — they probably create as many as they resolve — but rather how awake does one have to be to resolve the problem?  Said in another way, how much work can the dream perform in order to resolve the problem?  For Freud, one does not simply dream in order to sleep, but to work, and it is this dream work which is crucial in the resolution of the problem.  This is not the place to go into the finer points of mathematics or psychoanalysis, but it will be easy to observe that what resolves the problem of sequences is not banally to guess the next number (for the schoolchild knows that the next number can be anything, if the sequence is not defined beforehand), but to create a simple formula which generates all the numbers of a given sequence.   To find this formula, is not only to decipher the sequence but to define it, just as an interpretation not only deciphers, but defines the dream.

Thus, in re-writing our first sequence above we state:

{1, 2, 3, 10, . . . (n-1), (n-2), (n-3), +n . . .}

In this sequence, we are assured by the formula that there is a next number, even if we can not count that high. What is more important for psychoanalysis, however, is to inverse the problem: instead of simply asking if the child can establish a definition determining exactly what is the next number of the sequence, it is necessary to ask if the child can establish a sequence which is totally disordered.  Thus, we leave this as a problem to be resolved by the reader (it really will not matter if you choose to try to formulate the response while dreaming in your bed or soaking in a hot bath):

Step 1) Write down any sequence of marks, numbers, or words, without thinking beforehand just what it is you are writing (this is sometimes called free association orautomatic writing).

Step 2) Can you determine if the sequence is random or not?  Can you determine a purely random sequence? (Hint: are there sequences for which you cannot give an interpretation or write a formula? Or again, are there formulas which are themselves random?)

Step 3) Write down your results and how you were (not) able to determine this and compare it with others.  How do you determine the correctness of your result beyond a suggestion?

Surely, these are the simple things every schoolchild should know about psychoanalysis and sequences.

The text above was first presented in a seminar held on April 5, 2000 at the association PLACE (Psychoanalysis Los Angeles California Extension) in response to the articles found in the LA Times on a child and family presentation of Freud at the Skirball Cultural Center.  The author, Ika B. Roub, is without any claims.  Nothing could please him more than to be regarded as a layman of psychoanalysis, who has contributed to stabilizing the field by explaining psychoanalysis in an extraordinarily simple way. Beyond this he has nothing to add except to state that the LA Times refused to accept this article as a response to their article.