For many of us millennials, our first understanding of the Freudian slip came from the American sitcom Friends. In one of the most-watched series finales in television history, an overwhelmed Ross (David Schwimmer) accidentally takes the name of his ex-girlfriend Rachel (Jennifer Anniston) at the wedding altar, during his vows to Emily (Helen Baxendale). Needless to say, nothing goes down well after this. ‘I Ross take thee Rachel…I mean Emily…’ might just make it to psychoanalytical textbooks in the next decade, assuming it hasn’t already.
That’s the messiness of the Freudian slip, parapraxis, or slip of the tongue, as it is usually called. It’s a whole range of things that you might think but never wish to utter, and yet they find a way to be verbalised. Another instance would be from Indian author Jhumpa Lahiri’s book, The Namesake. While in discussion with her husband about a possible holiday, the woman mistakenly lets slip the name of the man she is having an extramarital relationship with.
These ‘slips’ are possibly repressed desires, forbidden urges, and thoughts that are said to be submerged deeply in the unconscious, that find their way to be vocalised. It occurs when a person intends to say one thing but ends up saying something entirely different, unintentionally revealing a previously hidden or secret desire. “It is said to occur when a person unintentionally says or does something that reveals an unconscious thought, desire or emotional, which are contrary to their conscious intentions or social norms,” explains Nisrine Al Moussaoui, a clinical psychologist from Aspris Wellbeing Centre, Dubai.
These accidental slips form interesting clues to understand what’s really going in your mind.
What really is the Freudian slip?
If someone says, ‘Congratulations on your demotion’, when they actually mean promotion, that’s a Freudian slip right there. It could be a possible indication of hidden envy or resentment that they feel about your success.
The Freudian slip, named after Austrian psychoanalyst and neurologist Sigmund Freud, refers to an unintentional error in speech, memory, or action. “It is mainly associated with slips of the tongue or unintentional mistakes in speech, such as word substitutions, mispronunciation, or mixing up words to mean something different to what the person intended to say,” explains Cabriere Jordaan, a clinical psychologist at Dubai-based German Neuroscience Center. In psychoanalytical theory, these ‘slips’ are said to be clues to materials held from the conscious mind.
According to Freud, the mind has three layers, the conscious, the preconscious and the unconscious. The unconscious was the layer that was filled with repressed thoughts, some of them possibly traumatic, which is not known by the conscious mind. These unconscious thoughts can emerge in the form of the Freudian slip.
Why do we make Freudian slips?
As Freudian slips occur spontaneously, they are difficult to test. However, there are many theories on why a person makes a Freudian slip. For starters, Freud had observed that speech errors resulted from a “disturbing influence of something outside of the intended speech,” such as an unconscious belief, wish, or thought. Freud also addressed the failing to remember names, saying that it could possibly be related to repression. In the case of repression, many thoughts that are considered unpalatable, traumatic or inappropriate, are held from the conscious awareness. These ‘mistakes’ could expose what is hidden in the unconscious. For instance, you meet someone who has the same name of your highschool bully. You might have blocked out the painful memory altogether. Your mind could draw a blank and you don’t remember it, as the memories associated with the name are too traumatic.
Another reason for a memory slip is when you do not wish to do something. For instance, if you have a never-ending to-do list, you might just misplace the list, to avoid doing it altogether.
On the other hand, he also explained the ‘paradox’ of thought suppression. As our brain struggles to suppress certain thoughts, another part of our mind ‘checks in’ to see if we’re still not thinking about the thought. There’s a gradual preoccupation with the suppressed thought. As a result, these thoughts that we try hard to suppress, springs to our conscious. In short, the harder we try not to think of something, it features with more frequency on our minds. And so, these thoughts are verbalised as Freudian slips.
The role of the brain in a Freudian slip
These ‘accidents’ are said to be linked to complexes within the brain, which involves both conscious and unconscious mental activity. Several brain areas and processes are said to be involved, explains Moussaoui.
Moussaoui attempts to explain the complex connections between the brain and the mind during a Freudian slip. In his theory, Freud had explained the ‘preconscious’ as a kind of a mental waiting room. It consists of thoughts that could potentially be brought to the conscious mind. When we communicate, our brain engages in preconscious processing. Here our thoughts, emotions, and memories are evaluated before being expressed verbally or through action. During this process, the brain filters and selects appropriate information to convey while inhibiting or suppressing other thoughts or desires. However, sometimes, the brain fails to do so for possible reasons:
Freudian slips are said to be linked to complexes within the brain, which involves both conscious and unconscious mental activity. Several brain areas and processes are said to be involved
The slip of the prefrontal cortex: The prefrontal cortex, a region located at the front of the brain, plays a vital role in executive functions, decision-making, and impulse control. In the case of a Freudian slip, the prefrontal cortex may momentarily fail to inhibit the unconscious material from being expressed.
Neurotransmitters and neural pathways: Certain neurotransmitter imbalances or changes in mental neural pathways could contribute to lapses in the filtering process and increase the chances of unintended thoughts or feelings slipping through into speech or action.
Error in language processing
While Freudian slips are helpful for providing insight into our conscious, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, as Freud is claimed to have also said. In other words, there doesn’t have to be a deeper meaning to many errors that we make.
In psychoanalytic theory, slips of the tongue are often believed to reveal material which is withheld from the conscious mind. However, in contrast to psychoanalytic theorists, cognitive psychologists believe that these slips are associated with errors in language processing, adds Jordaan. Our verbal errors are also connected to the manner in which our brain processes language. Consciously, we edit our words before we speak, and stop ourselves from saying inappropriate things or making mistakes.
When a person is tired, sleep deprived, fatigued or stressed, their ability to maintain strict control over their thoughts and actions may weaken, making Freudian slips more likely, explains Moussaoui. Sleep deprivation causes problems in memory and attention. Hence, not all slip-ups have an underlying psychoanalytic interpretation. For instance, if a tired parent accidentally calls one child by another child's name, it is likely due to fatigue or distraction and doesn't necessarily hold a deeper meaning.
Another reason could simply be distraction. For example, if someone keeps talking as you’re trying to write something at work, you accidentally note down what they’re saying instead. Your attention has been diverted from the task at hand.
Can a Freudian slip be controlled?
Controlling Freudian slips can be challenging as they can stem from the unconscious mind. As these slips of the tongue are unintentional and spontaneous, it is not easy to prevent or control. We can, however, try to be more mindful, relax, slow down, reduce multitasking and think before we speak, says Jordaan.
As these slips of the tongue are unintentional and spontaneous, it is not easy to prevent or control. We can, however, try to be more mindful, relax, slow down, reduce multitasking and think before we speak...
Here’s what can help apart from mindfulness and meditation:
Self-awareness: Being mindful of your thoughts and feelings can provide valuable insights into your unconscious desires or conflicts, suggests Moussaoui. The more you try to avoid some thoughts, the more you might be reminded of them. So acknowledge these thoughts, accept them, even if they are painful. If you start processing these thoughts in a controlled manner, they might stop bothering you in time.
Healthy distraction: Some thoughts are difficult to constantly confront and process. So you can pace it out with a few distracting activities that will help you focus your attention. It will also keep your mind occupied temporarily.
Improved communication skills: Enhancing communication skills can minimise verbal errors. Take a moment to think before speaking, it can reduce the chance of Freudian slips. Slow down and speak carefully.
Fix your sleep patterns: Get enough sleep and exercise to reduce fatigue and improve overall well-being.
Avoid multi-tasking: When you try doing too many things at once, your brain is overworked, and splits focus. Try not to multi-task or be in a hurry, as this can make it more likely for you to make a Freudian slip. Give your mind rest at regular intervals.