Curiosity and ignorance in psychoanalysis
The starting point of all scientific research, as well as that of every child that discovers the world, is the perception of one’s ignorance, then followed by curiosity. Something is unknown and it sparks our attention, a wish to know, to understand. Such is the case in psychoanalysis.
At the beginning on an analysis, everything is ignored, everything is to be discovered: like a vast continent covered by thick forests, winding rivers, and some deserts as well, the unconscious extends itself, waiting to be mapped. The psychoanalyst and the patient do not know what awaits them and experience shows that, in general, as they enter into that continent, they realise that their ignorance is much greater than they imagined. It is interesting to note that this occurs in most scientific research; as soon as one begins to examine a subject, one perceives the extent of its complexity (which, for that matter, makes for the richness of science, and of the human mind). The scope of our ignorance may be discouraging at first, but one must be able to tolerate some degree of it throughout the process since what lies ahead can often be a significant breakthrough.
Common stumbling blocks
However, to realise that we don’t know something important, especially when it concerns us directly, generally provokes three different reactions: a) fear – what consequences is this going to have?; b) contempt – I feel so lost about this that I dismiss it to protect myself; c) curiosity – this could be interesting… Now, the fundamental rule of analysis, to say everything that goes through one’s mind or body, means that, sooner or later, certain surprising or disturbing thoughts, images and feelings will appear in the patient’s consciousness and he/she will not know where they come from or what they mean. And, we all have the tendency, when facing something disturbing within ourselves, to try to continue to ignore it, to re-banish it to the dark territories of the unknown and act as if it had never existed. The risk of giving in to this tendency too much is that it reinforces the sterile repetition of the same difficulties because nothing new is brought to the solution of the problem.
The psychoanalyst’s task, therefore, is precisely to help the patient develop an attitude of open curiosity to what appears within him/her ––which, in the end, is the basis of a scientific approach–– and to try to understand his/her inner productions, whatever they may be, without too much fear and within the safety of the therapeutic setting. The development of this curiosity within the patient is intimately linked to three capacities of the analyst: a) patience – one cannot understand immediately; b) a non-judgmental attitude – judgments limit the scope of self-knowledge; c) the capacity to give meaning to what doesn’t appear to have any.
This third point is essential because, in order for a person to be willing to be curious about something disturbing within themselves, they have to feel that it’s not a useless and painful exercise but rather that it will bring them something useful emotionally. One is only willing to go into the marshes if one believes that there’s something valuable to be found there. In the end, the psychoanalyst has to be able to show the patient that the benefits of curiosity, even at the cost of a certain discomfort, far outweigh the security of ignorance.
Let us remember that the immense progress that human beings have made in science is due to the persistent curiosity of researchers that wanted to understand and that, little by little, making discoveries and accepting mistakes, managed to unveil the mysteries of the world, thus improving our health and quality of life. Such is the goal of psychoanalysis.