Prof. Tracy McNulty, comparative literature

March 2, 2017

Cornell Professor Looks to Freud for Answers After Contracting Ailments of Study Subject

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Several minutes into listening to a patient during a psychological experiment, Prof. Tracy McNulty, comparative literature, said her head began to spin. Six months after the experiment, her blood pressure spiked drastically enough to be tested for diabetes — she had developed her patient’s symptoms.

McNulty shared her experience as a psychoanalyst listening to a patient during an experiment and argued that a patient’s unconscious can sometimes be transmitted through communication, during a lecture Tuesday.

“While giving my testimony, there were several occasions when I leaned over in my chair, my body almost parallel to the ground, and put my head in my hands — an action that felt very foreign to me, but an action that I nevertheless felt compelled to adopt,” McNulty said.

McNulty added that a week or two later, she began experiencing “dizziness and mental confusion,” symptoms similar to the mental state of the patient she had listened to during the experiment.

This transmission of symptoms, McNulty explained, was a result of the “inadequacy of language.” Our bodies transform the inexpressible unconscious into physical actions, which then imprint themselves on others secondhand, McNulty said.

“There was something [the patient] was not managing to say,” McNulty said. “What is unable to pass through the subject to the analyst is instead felt in bodily symptoms.”

McNulty connected this revelation with the work of Sigmund Freud, who underwent a similar experience in his dream. In “Irma’s Injection,” Freud dreamed of finding “extensive whitish grey scabs” in his patient Irma’s throat. According to McNulty, the white scabs were the emergence of Freud’s unconscious fears on his patient, mirroring his own repressed guilt of cocaine usage.

“When Freud the dreamer peers into Irma’s throat, only to find his own symptoms staring back at him, what he encounters is not only his own relation to the untreatable, but more powerfully the agency of his own object within the body of his patient,” McNulty said.

McNulty concluded the lecture by comparing this psychoanalytic phenomenon to Freud’s study of Moses, who “stamped” his unconscious on an entire people, influencing the entire monotheistic religious movement.

Moses was known to possess a “hot temper” and was “slow with words,” and therefore had priests translate his words to people, according to McNulty.

“There is no direct communication between Moses and those who were stamped by his act,” McNulty said. “Instead, the speech is relayed by an intermediary. The function of the priest is to create a symbolic structure charged with assuring and [en]shrining this submission, and at the same time to repress whatever cannot be transmitted in this manner.”

However, McNulty argued, Moses’ self-identity became lost in translation. This inadequacy of communication did not allow him to fully express his unquantifiable existence, leading to a bursting out of his unconscious in both physical forms as well as actions.

This psychological tranmission is how Moses “[came] to stamp his people with its definite character and determine its fate for millennia to come,” McNulty concluded.