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The Psychology of Communication


8.4 The Contribution To Psycomm

Although it has become fashionable to dismiss the theory of Sigmund Freud, it is important that we do not throw the baby out with the bath water. He has made some important contributions to the psychology of communication. Let us look, in turn, at three contributions - increased empathy with people who are mentally ill, understanding of the role of communication as both cause and cure of mental illness, and possible explanation of the power of the basic human stories.

Whereas Darwin helps us identify with animals, and Piaget helps us identify with children, Freud helps us identify with people who were often previously dismissed as "crazy". The criterion of mental health, implied by the theory of Freud, is, as argued above, an accurate subjective map of the objective world.1 Since none of us have a perfectly accurate subjective map, we are all, to varying degrees, mentally ill. We all use the various defense mechanisms to varying degrees. Freud tells us that we are all a wee bit crazy. The familiar quip is that neurotics build castles in the sky, psychotics live in them, and therapists collect the rent. We all at least partially furnish our sky castles even though we don't all move in.

Freud also teaches us that communication can be therapeutic. He invented the talking cure, by which patients can contribute to the cure of their own mental illnesses by talking about their lives.2 A number of more modern therapists have followed up on this insight by further exploring the role of communication in mental illness. They have argued, however, that communication can also be a cause of mental illness.

Gregory Bateson describes a situation in which a person is put in a double bind by conflicting communications [BATESON]. A simple example is the command "be spontaneous". If a wife, seeking some indication of affection, says to her husband "I wish you would sometimes bring me flowers", she has doomed the fulfillment of her wish by stating it. Now, if he doesn't bring her flowers, she is dissatisfied; if he does bring her flowers, she is dissatisfied, because he has not done so spontaneously.

Paul Watzlawick, one of a group of therapists in Palo Alto, elaborates on this theme by presenting a dialog, from the book Mary Poppins by Pamela L. Travers, between Mrs Corry, a small, witch-like old woman and her two large, sad daughters, Fannie and Annie [WATZLAWICK, Pages 16-17]:

"I suppose, my dear" - she turned to Mary Poppins whom she appeared to know very well - "I suppose you have come for some gingerbread?"
"That's right, Mrs Corry", says Mary Poppins politely.
"Good. Have Fannie and Annie given you any?"
"No, mother," said Miss Fannie meekly.
"We were just going to, mother--" began Miss Annie in a frightened whisper.
At that, Mrs Corry drew herself up to her full height and regarded her gigantic daughters furiously. Then she said in a soft, fierce, terrifying voice:
"Just going to? Oh, indeed. That is very interesting. And who, may I ask, Annie, gave you permission to give away my gingerbread--?"
"Nobody, Mother. And I didn't give it away. I only thought--"
"You only thought! That is very kind of you. But I will thank you not to think. I can do all the thinking that's necessary here!" said Mrs. Corry in her soft, terrifying voice. Then she burst into a harsh cackle of laughter. "Look at her! Just look at her! Cowardy-custard! Crybaby!" she shrieked, pointing her knotty finger at her daughter (who is now crying).
Mrs. Corry has managed to block poor Annie in all three areas of human functioning: acting, thinking, and feeling.

This damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't situation makes an interesting illustration for an argument or an amusing anecdote in a novel. However, it can be tragic if a child is trapped in this situation within that intimate little society of the family. R. D. Laing, a Scottish psychotherapist, has argued that schizophrenia can be caused by such a double bind [LAING & ESTERSON]. He practiced family therapy, in which he treated the whole family, since this was a disorder of the whole family situation rather than of the child trapped in that situation. The child is not insane but caught in an insane setting.

His argument has been subsequently down-played since some biological basis of schizophrenia has been discovered which is treatable with drugs. Perhaps however, the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, since the biological, as opposed to the sociological argument, relieves parents of guilt and therapists of debilitating work. It is much easier to dispense pills than to interact intimately with demanding and frustrating people.

R. D. Laing himself went on to describe the complex interpersonal knots we get tied up in through meta-communication and miscommunication. For example [LAING 1970, Page 5]:

He does not think there is anything the matter with him
one of the things that is
the matter with him
is that he does not think there is anything
the matter with him
We have to help him realize that, the fact that he does not think there is anything
the matter with him
is one of the things that is
the matter with him

Placing schizophrenics in mental hospitals often only allows them to escape the frying-pan of the family setting into the fire of the hospital setting. David Rosenhan arranged to have sane people admitted to the insane setting of a mental hospital [ROSENHAN]. They were in another double bind. They were all admitted, diagnosed as schizophrenic, based on their statement that they heard voices in their heads. Though acting sane during their hospitalization, they took an average of 19 days (range from 7 to 52) to get out again as "schizophrenics in remission". Ironically, whereas none of the staff recognized them as fake, many of the real mental patients did.

It was argued above that functional disorders were disorders of the person-environment system. Treatment must focus on the whole system. In those cases of a child in a dysfunctional family or a patient in a mental hospital, the problem lies largely in the environment. There are insane people but there are also sane people in insane situations. Whereas good communication can cure mental illness, poor communication can cause mental illness.

In the Triad Model - see Figure 3-1 - the person is considered as the triple overlap of the natural world (ecosphere), the social world (sociosphere), and the person-made world (technosphere). Stories require drama which requires conflict. Thus, this model suggests a classification of stories into four categories - conflict between the person and the ecosphere (e.g. Moby Dick), conflict between the person and the sociosphere (e.g. The Scarlet Letter), conflict between the person and the technosphere (e.g. Frankenstein), and conflict within the person (e.g. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

Id, superego, ego could be identified respectively with the three spheres of this Triad Model. Those classic stories focus on those conflicts described by Freud. One insight from Freud is that those great themes of literature may owe their lasting appeal to the fact that they reflect dramas occurring within our own nervous systems. Freud wrote the original script for those stories, and Freudians have since added variations to it. Adler preferred the themes of Horatio Alger and Jung those of Herman Hesse. Reich cast Id as hero, and Sullivan preferred Superego in this role.

My students challenged me to fit "The Matrix Trilogy" within this framework. I had to add a second-story to my model, representing the subjective map of the objective world within the person in the centre. Thus, the Matrix fitted (with Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, to which there are frequent references in the Matrix movies) in another story - the conflict between the objective world and the subjective map. You fall down a rabbit hole or click your heels three times or are immersed in a virtual reality and find yourself in a world where your map does not fit.3 Freud anticipated me here too, since an ill-fitting map of the world is the general situation of the neurotic. The five stories are represented in Figure 8-2.

Henry Gleitman, one of my mentors in graduate school, gave two three-hour lectures on Freud in the evening independent of his brilliant introductory course in psychology during the day. He concluded the Freud lectures by asking the following three questions:
If you wanted your ceiling painted, would you hire Leonardo da Vinci or an average graduate of an art school today? The class chose Leonardo.
If you had a medical problem, would you choose Hippocrates the father of medicine or an average graduate of a medical school today? The class chose the mediocre graduate.
If you had a psychological problem, would you go to Freud or an average graduate of a school of psychoanalysis today? The class chose Freud.
Ah, said Gleitman, you placed Freud with Leonardo rather than Hippocrates, with the artist rather than the scientist. That is why I do not include Freud in a course in the science of psychology.

However, I choose to include him in a book on the psychology of communication, since psycomm is both science and art. We may not be able to stand on the shoulders of an artist and see further as we can in the case of a scientist. However, we can benefit from the insights into the psychology of communication provided by Sigmund Freud.

1   This does not necessarily imply that someone who is mentally healthy lacks imagination. He can take a woman and a fish from his objective world and make a mermaid in his mind, but he recognizes her as his own creation and does not get depressed because he cannot eat her like a fish or love her like a woman.

2   I once attended a seminar by a psychologist who argued that Freud's talking cure could be augmented by his writing cure. In one of his exercises he invited us to write a dialogue with a wise old man. I chose to write a dialogue with an uncle I lived with for a couple of years as a child. To my surprise, I found that, in my part of the dialogue, I was writing cursive. I hadn't written cursive for 40 years - I had printed and typed my way through High School and university. I told this story to my uncle on visiting him after his 100th birthday. He said that I had learned to write when living with him. When I asked Why then did I not write for 40 years?, he answered You repressed it because I left you - don't you know Freud? The repression had been so effective that, despite getting a Ph. D. in Psychology and teaching it for many years, I couldn't see what was clear to a 100-year-old man who never went to High School!

3   The Harry Potter stories are more recent examples of this category. When you get on that train at platform 9 3/4 in King's Cross Station, your destination is a world dramatically different from the muggle world you have left.