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Villa, K.K. Shevrin, H. Snodgrass, M. Bazan, A. Brakel, L.A. (2006). Testing Freud's Hypothesis that Word Forms and Word Meaning are Functionally Distinct: Subliminal Primary-Process Cognition and its Link to Personality. Neuropsychoanalysis, 8(2):117-138.

(2006). Neuropsychoanalysis, 8(2):117-138

Target Article

Testing Freud's Hypothesis that Word Forms and Word Meaning are Functionally Distinct: Subliminal Primary-Process Cognition and its Link to Personality Related Papers

Karen Klein Villa, Howard Shevrin, Michael Snodgrass, Ariane Bazan and Linda A. W. Brakel

One of Freud's seminal hypotheses first appearing in his monograph On Aphasia (1891) posited that word meaning and word presentation (e.g., phonemic and graphemic properties) needed to be distinguished if aphasic symptoms were to be accurately understood. In his later psychoanalytic writing, this supposition was generalized to refer to the primary-process uses of language in dreams, symptom formation, and unconscious processes (1900, 1915). To test Freud's hypothesis that word meaning and word presentation are functionally distinct when processed unconsciously (Freud, 1891, 1915), 50 participants were tested with a priming paradigm in which a “palindrome” prime, presented either subliminally or supraliminally, was followed by two target alternatives. In the forward condition, the prime (e.g. DOG) was followed with a semantic associate (e.g. CANINE) and a distractor. In the “palindrome” condition, the prime was followed with a semantic associate of the reversed word (e.g. ANGEL) and a distractor. The participants' task was to choose the word they preferred. The supraliminal results confirm classical semantic priming, but only in the forward condition. Subliminally, however, while no main results emerged, there were interaction effects with self-rated personality factors and stimulus detectability. High trait anxiety induced priming facilitation, while in low anxiety there was inhibition, for both forward and palindrome conditions. On the other hand, high scores on the Hysteroid-Obsessoid Questionnaire, a measure of repressiveness, lead to inhibition of the priming effect while facilitation was observed with low scores—but only for forward priming. Consistently, these interaction effects were even stronger when stimulus detectability was low than at higher levels of detectability, ruling out any skeptical account that the measured effects might be due to residual conscious perception. Taken together, these findings support Freud's hypothesis that the perceptual object dimension of a word, being functionally distinct from its meaning, can give rise to novel sequential processing, an effect that is more likely to occur unconsciously (i.e., d' < 0) and under conditions of anxiety.

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