Complex beginnings

The term ‘complex’, used to refer to a mental illness or psychological hang-up, has become so common as to have entered everyday language (e.g. ‘he has an inferiority complex’) but I only just recently found out about the origin of the concept.

The following is from the epic and endlessly fascinating book The Discovery of the Unconscious by Henri Ellenberger, where he discusses the use of the ‘word association test’ in early 1900s psychiatry.

The story takes us through some of the most important figures in the history of 19th and 20th century mind science. From p691:

The test consisted of enunciating to a subject a succession of carefully chosen words; to each of them the subject had to respond with the first word that occurred to him; the reaction time was exactly measured…

It was invented by Galton, who showed how it could be used to explore the hidden recesses of the mind. It was taken over and perfected by Wundt, who attempted to experimentally establish the laws of the association of ideas.

Then Aschaffenberg and Kraepelin introduced the distinction of inner and outer associations; the former are associations according to meaning, the latter according to forms of speech and sound; they could also be called semantic and verbal associations.

Kraepelin showed that fatigue caused a gradual shift toward a greater proportion of verbal associations. Similar effects were observed in fever and alcoholic intoxication. The same authors compared the results of the word association test in various mental conditions.

Then a new path was opened by Ziehen who found that the reaction time was was longer when the stimulus word was to something unpleasant to the subject. Sometimes, by picking out several delayed responses, one could relate them to a common underlying representation that Ziehen called gefühlsbetonter Vorstellungskomplex (emotionally charged complex of representations), or simply a complex.

Carl Jung later used the test extensively as a more rigorous alternative to Freudian free association and found some interesting results.

In women, erotic complexes were in the foreground with complexes related to the family and dwelling, pregnancy, children and marital situation; in older women he detected complexes showing regrets about former lovers. In men, complexes of ambition, money and striving to succeed came before erotic complexes.

The description comes from a chapter about Carl Jung, who was originally a psychoanalyst but broke away from Freud’s system and developed his own.

Freud’s theories, with only a few exceptions, just seem to get loopier the more you read them. Jung is interesting because on the surface his ideas seem quite barmy but are often remarkably sensible when you understand them in more detail.

Despite his interest in everything from ghosts to UFOs, he always maintained these were essentially psychological phenomena that reflected important aspects of our collective culture and subconcious mind.

For example, I always thought his concept of the ‘collective unconscious’ was supposed to be some sort of semi-mystical psychic connection, but in fact, he was just describing much of what is now a premise of evolutionary psychology.

Namely, that by nature of being human, we may share some inherited psychological structures, common symbols or ideas – such as what ‘motherhood’ entails – that can be seen in both common behaviours and in myths and stories throughout history.

3 Comments

  1. Posted January 27, 2009 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    I knew something about the origin of the term complex, but not its relationship to word association. Thanks for that interesting history. As for Freud–loopy indeed. I like the one about where “hysteria” is related to genital “dysfunction” is related to a problem in the nose, cured by nasal surgery. Not a fine moment in the history of psychiatry.

  2. Posted January 27, 2009 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    This is fascinating. I’ve always thought Freud was loopy (good word for it).
    Jung interests me much more and it’s good to know that the “collective unconscious”, which I’d always thought was a rather iffy idea, has some basis in evolutionary psychology.

  3. thinker
    Posted January 29, 2009 at 3:11 am | Permalink

    I consider Freud to be a genius. It is currently fashionable to rip on him. Those who do have likely not read all of his work. You probably don’t like Nietzsche, either. Please define loopy.


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