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The Mirror Image of the Present: Freud’s Theory of Retrogressive Screen Memories

Freud formulated the concept of retrogressive screen memories in 1897 to describe memories of past events which unconsciously portray contemporary situations. He used this concept at several points in his self-analysis and in the disguised autobiographical paper “Screen memories” (1899). The 1899 paper on screen memories contains contradictions and incoherences. Freud’s correspondence allows us to reconstruct what may be the immediate triggers for Freud’s recollections of the screen memory of the meadow with the yellow flowers described in 1899. Freud’s theory of retrogressive screen memories seems to have been formulated specifically in order to reinterpret the data previously explained by the “seduction theory” of 1896. Freud never used the theory of retrogressive screen memories to reinterpret this data. It is suggested that if Freud had done this he would have been forced to conclude that his patients unconsciously regarded his psychotherapeutic approach as a form of seduction. Freud’s screen memory of the meadow with the yellow flowers may have provided a source of countertransference in his treatment of the Rat Man en the Wolf Man.

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The evolution of the unconscious

Psychoanalysis is reconceptualized as the scientific study of conflicting biological propensities. According to neo-Darwinian theory self-deception arose as a result of an evolutionary arms race between intraspecific deception and detection amongst hominids. The evolution of self-deception modified an earlier split between conscious and unconscious mental activities. Unconscious social cognition emerged to avoid conscious overload when dealing with highly complex Machiavellian social relations. Evolutionary theory suggests that countertransference, in the classical Freudian sense of the word, is inevitable. Psychoanalytic clinical literature provides support for the hypothesis of unconscious social cognition, as does cognitive science. Evolutionary theory suggests that unconscious responses to the psychoanalytic situation should be particularly responses to modifications of the frame. A clinical example is presented.

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