Daniel Gilhooley (2005): Stepping Back: An Empirical Study of Regression in the Analytic Hour

This study examines the process of “adaptive regression” or “regression in the service of the ego” as expressed in the language of patients in psychoanalytic sessions. Adaptive regression is a state of altered consciousness selectively and temporarily used by an individual for the purpose of adapting to changing internal and external conditions. Freud (Sandler, et al., 1997) described three forms of regression: temporal (returning to a point of traumatic fixation), topographical (such as a revived memory appearing in a dream), and formal (the form of expression in which the regression occurs). In this research project only the formal qualities of regression will be considered. From a formal perspective, the concept of adaptive regression consists of two complementary mental processes: first, the selective breakdown of existing mental structures through a “disintegrative” process of regression. This disintegrative process is followed by a synthesizing, “reintegrative” process in which thoughts, feelings and beliefs become reorganized. It is through this process of alternating disintegration and reintegration that new ideas and understandings are formed, and that previously unknown feelings become known. Adaptive regression plays a fundamental part in all psychological development, in learning, creativity and adaptation. In the language of psychoanalysis, adaptive regression is a method employed by the mind to create ego or psychic structure. In this study, patterns of disintegrating regression and subsequent integration are examined through a computerized textual analysis of the language used by fifteen patients in psychoanalytic treatment.

From a formal perspective, regression occurring in the process of “adaptive regression” is a psychological process that is two-pronged: it is fundamentally both narcissistic and disintegrative; it is “self-conservative” even while undertaking “self-revision.” It is proposed that the psychological process of regression can be observed through qualities of a corresponding narcissism and disintegration occurring in language. It is further proposed that the disintegrative aspects of language associated with schizophrenia, autism, aphasia, and dementia, as well as the language used by individuals under conditions of fatigue or stress, all reveals common properties that together can be used to form a measure of psychological regression.

Employing a method of computerized textual analysis, patterns of disintegration and integration reflected in the language spoken by patient and analyst will be studied to test the following two hypotheses:

1. The psychological state of regression is reflected in a kind of speech which is both narcissistic and disintegrative.

2. There are qualitatively different kinds of regressions appearing within the process of adaptive regression.