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Spence, D.P. Gordon, C.M. (1967). Activation and Measurement of an Early Oral Fantasy—An Exploratory Study. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 15:99-129.

(1967). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 15:99-129

Activation and Measurement of an Early Oral Fantasy—An Exploratory Study

Donald P. Spence, Ph.D. and Carol M. Gordon


Unconscious fantasies are often inferred from behavior in the treatment situation, but they rarely appear in a form that can be

measured or studied for long periods. Taking advantage of the fact that a subliminal stimulus is, by definition, outside of awareness, it was hypothesized that it would provide a point of entry for the unconscious fantasy, much as the day residue is believed to enable the unconscious wish to emerge in the dream. With such a mediating subliminal stimulus, we would expect that the unconscious fantasy would appear in consciousness in a relatively undistorted form. Inferences about the underlying fantasy, based on these derivatives, would, accordingly, be less subject to error.

To test this proposition, we hypothesized that severe rejection would arouse a compensating unconscious fantasy of being fed. Such a fantasy would be particularly likely to appear among subjects who showed, on a questionnaire, that they used food in response to rejection. High- and low-scoring subjects on this questionnaire were divided into four groups. Two of these groups were made to feel rejected and two made to feel accepted. One of the Rejected groups was exposed to an oral subliminal stimulus, the word "milk," immediately after being rejected, and the other group was exposed to a blank slide. Similarly, one of the Accepted groups was given the subliminal stimulus and the other the blank slide. All subjects were then asked to learn a list of words, some related to the infantile nursing situation and some related to a more socialized eating situation.

It was expected that rejection would arouse an oral fantasy in all subjects, but that it would appear most clearly in the Rejected-Subliminal subgroup where the subliminal stimulus could facilitate the entry of the fantasy into awareness. Within this subgroup, high-scoring subjects on the oral questionnaire were expected to show a stronger effect than low-scoring subjects. The hypothesis was most strongly confirmed in the analysis of the importations—words which were not on the word list but were erroneously recalled. Four findings are worthy of note: (i) Importation of regressive oral words (i.e., milk, bottle, mouth, nipple, smell, and taste) were much more frequent in the Rejected-Subliminal condition than in any other condition. (ii) Within the Rejected-Subliminal group, high-scoring subjects on the oral questionnaire imported many more of the regressive words than low-scoring

subjects. (iii) The subliminal stimulus, in the absence of rejection, did not appreciably increase the number of regressive importations. (iv) Rejection alone, without a subliminal stimulus, did not appreciably increase the number of regressive importations. Thus it appeared as if the effects of rejection—namely, the derivatives of an unconscious oral fantasy—did not clearly emerge in the awareness unless a subliminal stimulus had also been exposed.

These and other findings are discussed with reference to two main questions: (i) Can a highly organized fantasy be aroused outside of awareness? (ii) Can a subliminal stimulus function as a day residue and provide an entry point for material outside of awareness?

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