Unconscious Conflicts May Cause or Contribute to Anxiety Symptoms, New Research Reveals

By Lisa Franchi on June 18, 2012

People experience ‘Freudian slip’ – an error in speech, action, or behaviour which is linked to the unconscious mind. This concept was formulated by Sigmund Freud, a Jewish Austrian neurologist, 100 years ago. In a new research, experts found that these unconscious conflicts may have something to do with anxiety symptoms.

Unconscious Conflicts and Anxiety Symptoms

For over 40 years, Dr Howard Shevrin, a professor from the University of Michigan who spent decades studying psychoanalysis and his team of researchers have looked for evidence that the Freudian concepts can be documented through physical measures of the brain activity. Psychoanalysis, conceptualised by Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century has been criticised by numerous scientists during his time and even in the present. This discipline rests mainly on the theory that human behaviour, experience, and cognition are greatly caused by irrational drives and that conflicts between the conscious and unconscious mind result to various behavioural disturbances including anxiety, depression, neurotic traits, and so on.

In a research involving 11 people, Prof Howard Shevrin looked at the causal link between unconscious conflict and anxiety symptoms most commonly experienced by people who have anxiety disorders like phobia.

The participants all received a series of psychoanalytically oriented diagnostic sessions. During each interview, the psychoanalyst investigated the underlying conflicts which might have been causing or affecting the anxiety disorder of each participant. They recorded words from the unconscious conflict and were used as stimuli in the experiment. Although the participants have varying slips of the tongue, the results showed that they all functioned in the same manner.


Such verbal stimuli were presented subliminally at one thousandth of a second, and supraliminally at 30 milliseconds. Then, a control category of stimuli was added which has no relationship to the unconscious conflict and the anxiety symptoms experienced by the participants. Every time the stimuli were shown to the participants, the researchers look on how their brain responded to it using scalp electrodes.

Before this, Prof Shevrin conducted an experiment which demonstrated how the patients categorise unconscious conflict stimuli though the time-frequency features – a kind of brain activity. He found that patients only grouped these stimuli together when they were presented in a subliminal level. But the opposite happens when it comes to conscious symptom-related stimuli. Here, he discovered that participants better grouped them together when perceived such words in a supraliminal level.

Prof Shevrin’s finding was, it is only when the unconscious conflict words were presented unconsciously does the brain identifies them as connected. These results have led to the conclusion that unconscious conflicts may cause or contribute to a patient’s anxiety symptoms.

As Prof Shevrin puts it, "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."


Source of this article:

Freud’s theory of unconscious conflict linked to anxiety symptoms in new U-M brain research, University of Michigan Health System 

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