Dr. Morton Prince

Dr. Morton Prince

American physician, Boston, M.D. Harvard, 1879. He specialized in neurology and abnormal psychology as a physician in Boston and as a teacher at Tufts (1902-12) and Harvard (1926-28). Founder (1906) and editor of the "Journal of Abnormal Psychology", he was a leading investigator of the pathology of mental disorders. Prince also founded (1927) and directed the Harvard Psychological Clinic, where he was succeeded by his assistant Henry A. Murray. His writings include "The Dissociation of a Personality" (1906), and "The Unconscious" (1914).

The Unconscious

 - Morton Prince -

Evidence from Abstraction

         ONE OF the most striking of artificial memory performances is the recovery of the details of inconsequential experiences of everyday life by inducing simple states of abstraction in normal people. It is often astonishing to see with what detail these experiences are conserved. A person may remember any given experience in a general way, such as what he does during the course of the day, but the minute details of the day he ordinarily forgets. Now, if he allows himself to fall into a passive state of abstraction, simply concentrating his attention upon a particular past moment, and gives free rein to all the associative memories belonging to that moment that float into his mind, at the same time taking care to forego all critical reflection upon them, it will be found that the number of details that will be recalled will be enormously greater than can he recovered by voluntary memory. Memories of the details of each successive moment follow one another in continuous succession. This method requires some art and practice to be successfully carried out. In the state of abstraction attention to the environment must be completely excluded and concentrated upon the past moments which it is desired to recall. For instance, a young woman, a university student, had lost some money several days before the experiment and desired to learn what had become of it. She remembered, in a general way, that she had gone to the bank that day, had cashed some checks, made some purchases in the shops of the town, returned to the university, attended lectures, etc., and later had missed the money from her purse. Her memory was about as extensive as that of the ordinary person would be for similar events after the lapse of several days. 

I put her into a state of abstraction and evoked her memories in the way I have just described. The minuteness and vividness with which the details of each successive act in the day's experiences were recovered were remarkable, and, to the subject, quite astonishing. As the memories arose she recognized them as being accurate, for she then remembered the events as having occurred, just as one remembers any occurrence(1). In abstraction, she remembered with great vividness every detail at the bank-teller's window, where she placed her gloves, purse, and umbrella, the checks, the money, etc.; then there came memories of seating herself at a table in the bank, of placing her umbrella here, her purse there, etc.; of writing a letter, and doing other things; of absent-mindedly forgetting her gloves and leaving them at the table(2); of going to a certain shop where, after looking at various articles and thinking certain thoughts and making certain remarks, she finally made certain purchases, giving a certain piece of money and receiving the change in coin of certain denominations; of seeing in her purse the exact denominations of the coins (ten- and five-dollar gold pieces and the pieces of subsidiary coinage) which remained; then of going to another shop and similar experiences. Then of numerous details which she had forgotten; of other later incidents, including lectures, exercising in the gymnasium, etc. Through it all ran the successive fortunes of her purse until the moment came when, looking into it, she found one of the five-dollar gold pieces gone. It became pretty clear that the piece had disappeared at a moment when the purse was out of her possession, a fact which she had not previously remembered but had believed the contrary. The hundred and one previously forgotten details which surged into her mind as vivid conscious recollections would take too long to narrate.

(1) It would have required a stenographer, whom I did not have, to record fully all these recovered memories. They would fill several printed pages, and I can give only a general resume of them. Some weeks later the experiment was repeated and a record taken as fully as possible in long hand.
(2) Later in the day she discovered the loss of her gloves and, not remembering where she had left them, was obliged to retrace her steps in search of them.

(I have made quite a number of experiments of this kind with similar results. That the memories are not fabrications is shown by the fact that, as they arise, they become recollections in the sense that the subject can then consciously recall the events and place them in time and space as one does in ordinary memory, and particularly by the fact that many of them are often capable of confirmation.

I would here point out that the recovery of forgotten experiences by the method of abstraction differs in one important psychological respect from their recovery by automatic writing. In the former case the recalled experiences being brought back by associative memories enter into the associations and become true conscious recollections, like any other recollections, while in automatic writing the memories are reproduced in script without entering the personal consciousness at all and while the subject is still in ignorance...)

Among the conserved forgotten experiences are often to be found fleeting thoughts, ideas, and perceptions, so insignificant and trifling that it would not be expected that they would be remembered. Some of them may have entered only the margin or fringe of the content of consciousness, and, therefore, the subject was only dimly aware of them. Some may have been so far outside the focus of awareness that there was no awareness of them at all, i.e., they were subconscious. Instructive examples of such conserved experiences may be found in persons who suffer from attacks of phobia, i.e., obsessions. The experiences to which I refer occur immediately before and during the attacks. After the attack the ideas of these periods are usually largely or wholly forgotten, particularly the ideas which were in the fringe of consciousness and the idea which, according to my observation, was the exciting cause of the attack. By the method of abstraction I have been able to recover the content of consciousness during the periods in question, including the fringe of consciousness, and thus discover the nature of the fear of which the patient was unaware because the idea was in the fringe.

Mrs. C. D., whom I have mentioned as having suffered intensely from attacks of fear, and Miss F. E., who is similarly afflicted with such attacks accompanied by the feeling of unreality, are instances in point. As is well known, such attacks come on suddenly in the midst of mental tranquility, often without apparent cause so far as the patient can discover. While in the state of abstraction the thoughts, perceptions, and acts of the period just preceding and during the attack, as they successively occurred, could be evoked in these subjects in great detail and with striking vividness. The recovery of these memories has been always a surprise to the patient who, a moment before, had been utterly unable to recall them, and had declared the attack had developed without cause. In the case of Mrs. C. D. it was discovered in this way the real fear was of fainting and death, and in that of Miss F. E. of insanity. These ideas having been in the fringe of consciousness, or background of the mind, the subjects were at the time scarcely aware of them and, therefore, were ignorant of the true nature of their phobias, notwithstanding the overwhelming intensity of the attacks. Among the memories recovered in these and other cases I have always been able to find one of a thought or of a sensory stimulus from the environment which immediately preceded and which through association occasioned the attack. When this particular memory was recovered, the patient, who had declared that the attack had developed without cause, at once recognized the original idea which was the cause of the attack, just as one recognizes the idea which causes one to blush. The idea sometimes has been a thought suggested by a casual and apparently insignificant word in a sentence occurring in a conversation on indifferent matters, or by a dimly conscious perception of the environment, sometimes an idea occurring as a secondary train of thought perhaps bearing upon some future course of action, and so on.

As instances of such dimly-conscious perceptions of the environment which I have found I may mention a gateway through which the subject was passing, or a bridge about to be crossed; these particular points in the environment being places where previous attacks had occurred. The perceptions which precipitated the attack may have been entirely subconscious and yet may be brought back to memory...

Evidence Furnished by the Method of Hypnosis

It is almost common knowledge that when a person is hypnotized - whether lightly or deeply - he may be able to remember once well-known events of his conscious life which he has totally forgotten in the full waking state. It is not so generally known that he may also be able to recall conscious events of which he was never consciously aware, that is to say, experiences which were entirely subconscious. The same is true, of course, of forgotten experiences which originally had entered only the margin of the content of consciousness and of which he was dimly aware. Among the experiences thus recalled may be perceptions of minute details of the environment which escape the attentive notice of the individual, or they may be thoughts which were in the background of the mind and, therefore, never in the full light of attention. You must not fall into the common error of believing every hypnotized person can do this, or that any person can do it in any state of hypnosis. There are various "degrees" or states of hypnosis representing different conditions of dissociation and synthesis. One person may successively be put into several different states; many persons can be put into only one, but the degree of dissociation and capacity for synthesis in each state and in every person varies very much, and, indeed, according to the technical devices employed. Each state is apt to exhibit different systems of memories, that is, to synthesize (recall) past conserved experiences in a different degree...

There is a class of hypnotic memory phenomena which acquire additional importance because of the bearing they have upon the psycho-genesis of certain pathological conditions. They show the conservation of the details of an episode in their original chronological order with an exactness that is beyond the powers of voluntary memory to reproduce. These phenomena consist of the realistic reproduction of certain emotional episodes which as a whole may or may not be forgotten. The reproduction is realistic in the sense that the episodes are acted over again by the individual as if once more he were actually experiencing them. Apparently every detail is reproduced, including the emotion with its facial expressions and its other physiological manifestations, and pathological disturbances like pain, paralysis, anesthesia, movements, etc. I will cite the following three examples:

M-1, a Russian, living in this country, suffers from psycholeptic attacks dating from an episode which occurred seven years previously and which he has completely forgotten. At that time he was living in Russia. It happened that after returning from a ball he was sent back late at night by his employer, a woman, to look for a ring which she had lost in the ballroom. His way led over a lonely road by a graveyard. As he was passing this place he heard footsteps behind him and became frightened. Overcome with terror he fell, partially unconscious, and his whole right side became affected with spasms and paralysis. He was picked up in this condition and taken to a hospital. Each year since that time he has had recurring attacks of spasms and paralysis(3).

(3) Sidis, Prince and Linenthal: A contribution to the Pathology of Hysteria, Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, June 23, 1904.

In hypnosis he remembers and relates a dream. This dream is one which recurs periodically but is forgotten after waking from sleep. This is the dream: He is back in his native land; it is the night of the ball; he sees his employer with outstretched hand commanding him to go search for the ring. Once more he makes his way along the lonely road; he hears footsteps; he becomes frightened, falls, and then awakes, with entire oblivion for the dream, to find his right side paralyzed and in spasms.

The following experiment is now made. By suggestion in hypnosis he is made to believe that he is fifteen years of age. As a consequence in his hypnotic dream he is once more living in Russia before he had learned English. It is now found that he has spontaneously lost all knowledge of the English language and can speak only Russian. He is told it is the night of the ball, and, as in a dream he is carried successively through the different events of that night. Finally he returns in search of the ring, passes again over the lonely road, hears the footsteps and becomes frightened. At this point his face is suddenly contorted with an expression of fright, the whole right side becomes paralyzed and anesthetic, and the muscles of face, arm, and leg affected with clonic spasms. At the same time he moans with pain which he experiences in his side, which he hurt when he fell. Though consciousness is confused he answers questions and describes the pain which he feels. On being awakened all passes off.

Mrs. W. on her return to Boston after an absence in Europe happened to pass by a certain house on her way to her hotel; the house (a private hospital) was one with which she had very distressing associations. On leaving the steamer she took a street car which she left a block distant from the hotel. She walked this distance and as she passed the house she was seized with a sudden attack of fear, dizziness, palpitation, etc. Although it is beside the point I may say that she had not noticed the locality and did not consciously recognize the house until the attack developed. The attack was, therefore, induced by a subconscious perception(4). She recalls the incident and describes the attack, remembers that it occurred at this particular spot, but without further detail.

(4) The Dissociation of a Personality, by Morton Prince (New York; Longmans, Green & Co., 1906), p. 77.

Now in hypnosis she is taken back to the day of her arrival on the steamship. In imagination, as in a sort of dream, she is living over again that day; she disembarks from the ship, enters the street car in which she rides a certain distance; she leaves the car at the point nearest her destination and proceeds to walk the remainder of the distance; suddenly her face exhibits the liveliest emotion; she becomes strongly agitated and her respiration is short and quick; her head and eyes turn toward the left and upward, as if in search of a cause, and she exclaims, "Yes, that's it, that's it," as she recognizes in imagination the house which had been the scene of her previous distress. Then the attack subsides as she passes by, continuing her way toward her hotel.

Mrs. E. B. suffers from traumatic hysteria as the result of a slight but emotional accident - a fall - when alighting from a railway train. The accident resulted in a sprained shoulder and neuritis of the arm. She fully remembers the accident and describes it as any one might.

When put into hypnosis, however, the memory assumes a different character. She is taken back in imagination to the scene of the accident. Once more the train is entering the station; she leaves the car, steps from the platform upon a truck; then, unawares, steps off the truck and falls to the ground. As she falls her face suddenly becomes distorted with fear; tears stream down her cheeks, which become suffused; her heart palpitates; she suffers again acute pain in her arm, and so on. Her physical and mental anguish is painful to look upon. Though I try to persuade her that she is not hurt and that the accident is a delusion, my effort is not very successful.

In this experiment, as in the others, there is substantially a reproduction in all its details of the content of consciousness which obtained at the time of the accident, and also of the emotion and its physiological manifestations - all were faithfully conserved. Further, each event follows in the same chronological sequence as in the original experience.

But in these observations the reproduction differs somewhat from that of ordinary memory. It is in the form of a dream, hypnotic or normal, and the subject goes back to the time of the experience, which he thinks is the present, and actually lives over again the original episode. Unlike the conditions of ordinary memory the whole content of his consciousness is practically limited to that which originally was present, all else, the present and the intervening past, being dissociated and excluded. The original psychological processes and their psycho-physiological accompaniments (pain, paralysis, anesthesia, spasms, etc.) repeat themselves as if the present were the past. Plainly, for such a reproduction, the original episode must have left conserved dispositions of some kind which when excited were capable of reenacting the episode in all its psycho-physiological details. From a consideration of such phenomena it is easy to understand how certain psycho-neuroses may be properly regarded as memories of certain past experiences. The experiences are conserved and under certain conditions reproduced from time to time...

Evidence from Hallucinatory Phenomena

I may mention one more example of conservation of a forgotten experience of everyday life as it is an example or mode of reproduction which differs in certain important respects both from that of ordinary memory and that observed under the artificial methods thus far described. This mode is that of a visual or an auditory hallucination which may be an exact reproduction in vividness and detail of the original experience. It is a type of a certain class of memory phenomena. One of my subjects, while in a condition of considerable stress of mind owing to the recurrence of the anniversary of her wedding-day, had a vision of her deceased husband, who addressed to her a certain consoling message. It afterwards transpired that this message was an actual reproduction of the words which a friend, in the course of a conversation some months previously, had quoted to her as the words of her own husband just before his death. In the vision the words were put into the mouth of another person, the subject's husband, and were actually heard as an hallucination. Under the peculiar circumstances of their occurrence, however, these words awakened no sense of familiarity; nor did she recognize the source of the words until the automatic writing, which I later obtained, described the circumstances and details of the original episode. Then the original experience came back vividly to memory. On the other hand, the "automatic writing" not only remembered the experience but recognized the connection between it and the hallucination. (The truth of the writing is corroborated by the written testimony of the other party to the conservation.)

Although such types of hallucinatory memories are not actual reproductions of an experience but rather translated representations, yet they show the experience must have been conserved in order to have determined the representation. The actual experience, as we shall see later, is translated into a visual or auditory form which pictures or verbally expresses it, as the case may be. This type of hallucination is common. That which is translated may be previous thoughts, or perceptions received through another sense. Thus Mrs. Holland records a visual hallucination which pictured a verbal description previously narrated to her by a friend, but forgotten. The hallucination included "the figure of a very tall thin man, dressed in gray, standing with his back to the fire. He had a long face, I think a mustache - certainly no beard - and suggested young middle age." ... On a second occasion "the tall figure in gray was lying on the bed in a very flung-down, slack-jointed attitude. The face was turned from me, the right arm hanging back across the body which lay on the left side. I started violently and my foot seemed to strike an empty bottle on the floor."

There is very little doubt that these visions of Mrs. Holland's represented Mr. Gurney, who had died from an accidental dose of chloroform. Mrs. Holland "took very little interest" in Mr. Gurney, hence she had entirely forgotten that the main facts of his death had been told to her a few months previously by the narrator, Miss Alice Johnson(5).

(5) Proceedings of the S.P.R., June, 1908.

In an hallucination of this sort we have a dramatic pictorial representation of previous though forgotten knowledge which must have determined it. In order to have determined the hallucination the knowledge must have been conserved somehow. I have frequently observed a similar reproduction of a forgotten experience, which was not visual, through translation into a newly created visual representation in the form of an artificial hallucination. The following is of this kind: Miss B., looking into a crystal(6), saw a scene laid in a wood near a lake, etc. Several figures appeared in this scene, which was that of a murder. Although she had no recollection of anything that could have given rise to the hallucination, investigation showed that the original experience was to be found in one of Marie Corelli's novels which she had read but forgotten. The vision was a correct representation of the scene as described in the book...

(6) Crystal or artificial visions are hallucinatory phenomena which, like automatic writing, can be cultivated by some people. The common technique is to have a person look into a crystal, at the same time concentrating the mind, or putting himself into a state of abstraction. Under these conditions, the subject sees a vision, i.e., has a visual hallucination. The vision may be of some person or place, or may represent a scene which may be enacted. Because of the use of a crystal such hallucinations are called "crystal visions," but a crystal is not requisite; any reflecting surface may be sufficient, or even the concentration of the attention. The crystal or other object used of course acts only by aiding the concentration of attention and by force of suggestion. - The subconscious is tapped.

Evidence Obtained from Dreams

Another not uncommon mode in which forgotten experiences are recovered is through dreams. The content of the dream may, as Freud has shown, be a cryptic and symbolical expression or representation of the experience, or a visualized representation or obvious symbolism, much as a painted picture may be a symbolized expression of an idea, or it may be a realistic reproduction in the sense that the subject lives over again the actual experience... One subject of mine frequently dreamed over again in very minute detail, after an interval of eight or nine months, the scenes attending the deathbed of a relative. Indeed, in the dream she realistically lived them again in a fashion similar to that of hypnotic dreams such as I have related. Although she had not forgotten these scenes it is highly improbable that she could have voluntarily recalled them, particularly after the lapse of so long a time, without the aid of the dream, so rich was it in detail, with each event in its chronological order.

Dream reproductions, whether in a symbolic form or not, are too common to need further statement. I would merely point out that the frequency with which childhood's experiences occur in dreams is further evidence of the conservation of these early experiences. The symbolic dream, cryptic or obvious, deserves, however, special consideration because of the data it offers to the problem of the nature of conservation which we shall later study. In this type of dream, if the fundamental principle of the theory of Freud is correct, the content is a symbolical continuation in some form of an antecedent thought (experience) of the dreamer(7). When this thought, which may be forgotten, is recovered the symbolic character of the dream, in many cases, is recognized beyond reasonable doubt... If the principle is sound, then it follows that symbolism includes memory of the original experience which must be conserved. So that even this type of dream offers evidence of conservation of experiences for which there may be total loss of memory (amnesia).

(7) According to Freud and his school it is always the imaginary fulfilment of a suppressed wish, almost always sexual. For our purposes it is not necessary to inquire into the correctness of this interpretation or the details of the Freudian theory.

Before closing this lecture I will return to the point which I temporarily passed by, namely, the significance of the difference in the form of reproduction according as whether it is by automatic writing or through associative memories in abstraction. In the latter case, as we have seen, the memories are identical in form and principle with those of everyday life. They enter the personal consciousness and become conscious memories in the sense that the individual personally remembers the experience in question. Abstraction may be regarded simply as a favorable condition or moment when the subject remembers what he had at another previous moment forgotten. We have seen also that the same thing is true of remembering in hypnosis (excepting those special realistic reproductions when the subject enters a dreamlike or somnambulistic state and lives over again the past experience in question). In automatic writing, on the other hand, the reproduction is by a secondary process entirely separate and independent of the personal consciousness. In the examples I cited the latter was in entire ignorance of the reproduction which did not become a personally conscious memory. At the very same moment when the experiences could not be voluntarily remembered, and without a change in the moment's consciousness, something was tapped, as it were, and thereby they were graphically revealed without the knowledge of the subject, without memory of them being introduced into the personal consciousness, and even without the subject being able to remember the incident after reading the automatic script. Even this stimulus failed to bring back the desired phase of consciousness. It was very much like surreptitiously inserting your hand into the pocket of another and secretly withdrawing an object which he thinks he has lost. What really happened was this: a secondary process was awakened and this process (of which the principal or personal consciousness was unaware) revealed the memory lost by the personal consciousness. At least this is the interpretation which is the one which all the phenomena of this kind pertaining to subconscious manifestations compel us to draw(8). At any rate the automatic script showed that somehow and somewhere outside the personal consciousness the experiences were conserved and under certain conditions could be reproduced.

(8) If the physiological interpretation be maintained, i.e., that the script was produced by a pure physiological process, this phenomenon would be a crucial demonstration of the nature of conservation, that it is in the form of physical alterations in nervous structure. I do not believe, however, that this interpretation can be maintained.

We now also see that the same principle of reproduction by a secondary process holds in hallucinatory phenomena whether artificial or spontaneous, and in many dreams. When a person looking into a crystal sees a scene which is a truthful pictorial representation of an actual past experience which he does not consciously remember, it follows that that visual hallucination must be induced and constructed by some secondary subconscious process outside of and independent of the processes involved in his personal consciousness. And, likewise, when a dream is a translation of a forgotten experience into symbolical terms it follows that there must be, underlying the dream consciousness, some subconscious process which continues and translates the original experience into and constructs the dream.

This being so we are forced to two conclusions: first, in all these types of phenomena the secondary process must in some way be closely related to the original experience in order to reproduce it; and, second, a mental experience must be conserved in some form which permits of a subconscious process reproducing the experience in one or other of the various forms in which memory appears.


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