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Harris, H.I. (1950). Repression as a Factor in Learning Theory. Psychoanal Q., 19:410-411.

(1950). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 19:410-411

Repression as a Factor in Learning Theory

Herbert I. Harris, M.D.

In addition to the widely accepted factors of practice, reward and punishment (1), it is proposed that the learning process involves other important elements, among which is the efficient use of repression and repressive mechanisms. 'Repression is the process by which a mental act capable of becoming conscious is made unconscious and forced back into the unconscious system' (2). How this process goes on we can only speculate, but we infer that, while more complex, it is elaborated from the processes of suppression and inhibition that can be observed in animal and man. For the purpose of this discussion the three terms are used interchangeably.

The well-adjusted, effective adult appears to be one who represses efficiently his primitive impulses (3) in such fashion that excessive quantities of energy are not used up in the process but are, by the efficiency of the repressive mechanisms, freed for use in the expression of the individual's life activity. Life activity is in essence an exchange of energy between the organism and its environment (4). The expression of energy by the organism is optimal when it achieves mastery of the environment. Any repression of outpouring energy by the organism is of value to it only if greater mastery of the environment is thereby accomplished.

In man, the prototype for such repression of energy may be in the activity of the agonist and the antagonist muscles (5). All movement is the resultant of forces of expression and repression of energy, skilled movements appearing to involve the acquisition of very selective repressive as well as expressive muscular actions. The purposeless movements of the infant, for example, disappear as it acquires increasing coördination between hand and eye. Such coördination contains elements of neuromuscular repression of tendencies to express energy diffusely. It is possible that with maturation these primary neuromuscular repressive patterns are elaborated by progressively higher nerve centers.


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