There is a causal link between unconscious conflict, and the conscious symptoms experienced by people with anxiety disorders, according to a University of Michigan professor.
Howard Shevrin, Ph.D., emeritus professor of psychology in the U-M Medical School's Department of Psychiatry, will present data from experiments performed in U-M's Ormond and Hazel Hunt Laboratory.
The research involved 11 people with anxiety disorders who each received a series of psychoanalytically oriented diagnostic sessions conducted by a psychoanalyst.
From these interviews the psychoanalysts inferred what underlying unconscious conflict might be causing the person's anxiety disorder. Words capturing the nature of the unconscious conflict were then selected from the interviews and used as stimuli in the laboratory. They also selected words related to each patient's experience of anxiety disorder symptoms. Although these words differed from patient to patient, results showed that they functioned in the same way.
These verbal stimuli were presented subliminally at one thousandth of a second, and supraliminally at 30 milliseconds. A control category of stimuli was added that had no relationship to the unconscious conflict or anxiety symptom. While the stimuli were presented to the patients, scalp electrodes record the brain responses to them.
In a previous experiment Shevrin had demonstrated that time-frequency features, a type of brain activity, showed that patients grouped the unconscious conflict stimuli together only when they were presented subliminally. But the conscious symptom-related stimuli showed the reverse pattern - brain activity was better grouped together when patients viewed those words supraliminally.
"Only when the unconscious conflict words were presented unconsciously could the brain see them as connected. What the analysts put together from the interview session made sense to the brain only unconsciously," Shevrin notes.
However, the experimental design in this first experiment did not allow for directly comparing the effect of the unconscious conflict stimuli on the conscious symptom stimuli.
To obtain evidence for that next level, the unconscious conflict stimuli were presented immediately prior to the conscious symptom stimuli and a new measurement was made, of the brain's own alpha wave frequency, at 8-13 cycles per second, that had been shown to inhibit various cognitive functions.
Highly significant correlations, suggesting an inhibitory effect, were obtained when the amount of alpha generated by the unconscious conflict stimuli were correlated with the amount of alpha associated with the conscious symptom alpha-but only when the unconscious conflict stimuli were presented subliminally. No results were obtained when control stimuli replaced the symptom words. The fact that these findings are a function of inhibition suggests that from a psychoanalytic standpoint that repression might be involved.
"These results create a compelling case that unconscious conflicts cause or contribute to the anxiety symptoms the patient is experiencing," said Shevrin, who also holds an emeritus position in the Department of Psychology in U-M's College of Literature, Science and the Arts.
"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," he stated.
He noted that a prominent critic of psychoanalysis and Freudian theory, Adolf Grunbaum, Ph.D., professor of the philosophy of science at the University of Pittsburgh, has expressed satisfaction that the new results, when added to previous evidence, show that fundamental psychoanalytic concepts can indeed be tested in empirical ways.
Shevrin will present the data at the 101st Annual Meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association.