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Epstein, A.W. (1982). Mental Phenomena Across Generations: The Holocaust. J. Amer. Acad. Psychoanal., 10(4):565-570.

(1982). Journal of American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 10(4):565-570

Mental Phenomena Across Generations: The Holocaust

Arthur W. Epstein, M.D.

Human history consists of events impinging on a psyche “designed” to process symbols and their contained affects. This history is not meaningless; having already defined the world at given time points, it is determining the species' present fate.

The human unconscious, as conceived by Freud, contains memories of events not only in the life of the individual but of the species. For example, Freud viewed the son's sense of guilt and defiance toward the father (a component of the oedipus complex) as a biological “given” in the unconscious; he speculated (Freud, 1918) that this tendency stemmed from an actual event in human history, namely the killing of the father by a band of sons. This event “must have left ineradicable traces in the history of mankind.” It presumably was associated with intense affect to ensure its unique encoding and therefore preferential (or dominant) position in the memory hierarchy. Freud invokes a genetic mechanism to answer, in part, the question, What ways and means does a generation use to transfer its psychic states to the next generation? Jung postulated a collective unconscious containing memories of ancient experiences of the species. The contents of the collective unconscious may become manifest through dreams.

Whatever credence is given to these theories, they nevertheless attest to a belief by gifted observers that certain events may somehow capture a genetic mechanism and be thus transmitted across generations. Indeed such a belief is a pillar for the concept of the unconscious. Proof of such theories is of the greatest difficulty.

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