Psychoanalysis and play

While it is, of course, possible for a psychoanalyst to practise psychoanalysis without engaging in suggestion deliberately, the fundamental mechanism of suggestion—the direct synchronization of emotion through song-and-dance—is so pervasive in human interactions that it is impossible to practise psychoanalysis without engaging in suggestion unintentionally and automatically.

We engage each other constantly on a kinaesthetic, emotional and aesthetic level without knowing we are doing so. Our human tendency to dance together mentally means that we have a built-in bias towards synchronization, towards being in relationships with each other that “share embodied space of music and dance”, as Malloch and Trevarthen put it, in which the “disagreements of verbal discussion” (which include critical thinking) do not weigh heavily. But critical thought is precisely what must be brought to bear on what we experience from and of others on this deep aesthetic level if our relationships are to be anything other than groupish mutual suggestion. And here is the heart of the matter: we must be sensitive in the aesthetic sense of the word to the emotional states conveyed to us by others if we are to understand anything important about them. But if we are to have minds that we can truly call our own, and not simply something that is the sum of all the aesthetic forces impinging on them, we must be able to think about our aesthetic experiences.

David Hume wrote that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” (1978, p. 415). Only through our emotional experiences and desires— what Hume called passions—are we able to be in contact with what things mean to us in a human sense, and if reason does not operate on what things mean—ultimately our passions or aesthetic experiences—it can have no humanly relevant function. It becomes sterile ratiocination. Psychoanalysis is an attempt to think about our aesthetic experiences so we may be better able to think critically about what we mean as humans.1

Psychoanalysis is a relationship between two people the main purpose of which—the only purpose of which, one might argue—is to study its own unfolding on the level of deep feeling. Both patient and analyst are buffeted by the unseen forces of the unconscious, like leaves floating on the surface of a rapidly flowing stream.” If the leaves can observe their own movement, they will learn something about the invisible currents that move them. Prominent among these invisible currents is the force of suggestion, based on the desire to control and shape the minds of others. Psychoanalysis does not and cannot avoid suggestion (it would be dead or inhuman if it did), but it does turn its focus towards suggestion that occurs inevitably and spontaneously, and thence to the forces and processes that drive it, giving us at least a chance to discover what moves us, and especially what moves us to move others, which is an important part of what we mean as humans.

Bion observed that “the progress of psycho-analysis has led to a departure from the state of affairs in which ideas of ‘treatment’, ‘cure’, and ‘results’ had any meaning”. Moving beyond the “practical” activity of fixing psychological problems, psychoanalysis has become an exploration of the elements of mental life, providing the patient an opportunity to experience of the nature of his mind and inner world. It provides one with an experience of a world that one might have had, but probably would not have had, on his own. One of the ways it does this is by providing him with an opportunity to play with his experience of the world, free of the need to achieve something “therapeutic”.

I am using the term “play” in its most serious sense. When a child plays, he learns about the external world by deploying his theories about the world in an experimental way. In his biography of the physicist Richard Feynman, James Gleick captured this aspect of playing when he wrote that,

children are innate scientists, probing, puttering, experimenting with the possible and impossible in a confused local universe. Children and scientists share an outlook on life. If I do this, what will happen? is both the motto of the child at play and the refrain of the scientist. Every child is observer, analyst, and taxonomist constructing theories and promptly shedding them when they no longer fit. The unfamiliar and the strange—these are the domain of all children and scientists.

(Gleick, 1992, p. 19)

The roots of experimental investigation of the world—both the everyday and more formal scientific varieties—lie in the play of infants and children. Scientists often refer to their work as “playing” with ideas or with new tools. One of the things that children explore in their play are the minds of others. Recall from Tronick’s still-face experiment and from countless less formal observations of infants how they actively recruit their mothers into rapport by evoking emotional responses in them.

Children, even very young children, do not just observe other people in a passive way, sitting back and cataloguing their observations like little Baconians until a pattern emerges. They actively probe them to see what will happen— what the people they are playing with (and on) will do. Children are from an early age psychological experimentalists avant le lettre. One probe they use in their explorations of other minds is song-and-dance—the ability to evoke certain states of mind in another person through verbal and non-verbal behaviour.

In analysis, the patient engages in this investigative play by evoking responses in the analyst’s mind. Like the child in Gleick’s example, he says, “if I do this to him, what will happen?” We evoke states of mind in others for many reasons, but among these is the need to find out about their minds: one may establish contact with the part of external reality that we call other minds through a kind of psychological probing, actively provoking responses from them to see what they’re made of. This kind of probing is the only way of learning anything about what people are like inside—which is what really concerns us about them anyway. A person is a mystery to us until we see how he reacts to something.

When children play, they are not just testing the world to see what it is like, they are also externalizing parts of their internal worlds. I say “externalizing” rather than “representing” because this type of play is a way of getting something from inside to outside so we can see what it is, in the spirit of E. M. Forster’s question, “How do I know what I think until I’ve had a chance to hear what I have to say?”

Patients in analysis may evoke aspects of their internal worlds in the analyst partly so that they may explore the nature of whatever aspect of their internal reality they have evoked. The question they pose is “If I do this to the analyst, what will happen?”, but more precisely it is, “If I make him feel what is inside me, what will he do?” Will he explode (i.e., is what I am evoking explosive)? Will he find it pleasurable, annoying, incomprehensible (i.e. is what I am evoking pleasurable, annoying or incomprehensible)? The analyst’s response to the patient’s evocation tells the patient about the probe—his own projection, a piece of his internal world.

This kind of testing allows us to leant about our internal and external realities at the same time: we learn about the minds of others by projecting into them our inner states (to see how they react), and we leant about our own inner states by using the minds of others as instruments for measuring them (by seeing how they reacted).

Here is an example of serious play:

With a great deal of self-hatred, a patient berates herself for not being tolerant enough of her husband, who was at the time being rather cold and unresponsive to her. She says that if only she would be more patient with him, his emotional needs would be satisfied, and he would in turn be able to nurture her emotionally. She seems to feel that she is merely being weak, and just needs to summon the will to pull her socks up, but in fact, it is hard not to notice when listening to her that she is at the end of her rope emotionally, struggling not to be overcome with depression. Breaking through her self-reproaches from time to time is a deep anger and resentment at her husband. When I comment on this, she pours out hatred and contempt for him. He is a weeny and a wimp. She can’t stand men who are wimps.

Her contempt was striking. There was little evident sadness at her sad predicament, only hatred for wimps—herself and him. She expressed this sentiment with such force and absoluteness that I found myself unable to establish any distance from it. I felt I either had to agree with her tough assessment or join the company of wimps and become another target of it. I thought of a song called “Kill the Poor” satirizing the government’s anti-poverty program. I felt like I was supposed to be discussing a problem with someone who was not only advocated that method of solving it, but couldn’t imagine any other. Nor, at the moment, could 1.

An interpretation began to fonn in my mind about her being one of the poor in the song whose existence is treated as an embarrassment, but I was very unsure how to phrase it—not to myself, but to her. I felt that any interpretation I made would lack all conviction in the face of her passionate intensity, and worse, it would only make me look soft and wimpy myself and probably get me included in her list of targets. I felt that nothing constructive could be accomplished by this, but I took a deep breath nonetheless and said, expecting a rain of sneering contempt at my cliché, that she was feeling like a baby that wasn’t being properly held.

Instead of attacking, she stopped talking and appeared stunned as the session ended.

The next day, she said that, following my interpretation, her state of mind had altered for the first time in a week. The conviction that she would have to leave her husband because the marriage was hopeless (and, by thinly veiled implication, that she would have to leave her equally hopeless analysis) that had gripped her for the entire week, had suddenly lifted. She said with some embarrassment that a new film she had mentioned disliking the day before, but only in passing and without saying any more about it, had made her uncomfortable because of a scene in which the protagonist, a busy career woman who inherits a baby and feels stuck with it, was carrying the baby on her hip in a very precarious way. My patient couldn’t help thinking that this was a real baby that might have been dropped for the sake of making a dramatic comment about a character in the film. Though it humiliated her to say so, my words “baby not held” the day before had produced an alteration in her whole state of mind.

What had I done? In one sense, nothing much. And that is the point. I had patiently suffered the psychological state she had evoked in me—the feeling of being a wimp analyst, a helpless baby, with no way out and no way in, impotent in the face of her “kill the poor” state of mind. This contempt was the same as that she felt for herself when she was in contact with what she regarded as her babyishness, and towards her husband for his. It was what prevented her from being able to face her babyishness, or to do anything more than perch it precariously on her hip, as though she were too important to be bothered with such things, and was stuck with it only because it had been foisted on her by a cruel fate. “Stuck with her” would not be a bad description of how I had felt at that point, too. I had resisted the temptation to do something to her—to fix her, or cure her of this hate-filled, imperiously intolerant state of mind (and at the same time, not incidentally, relieve myself of the burden of having to deal with it).

When she was creating the helpless, frustrated state of mind in me, she was, of course, practising a kind of suggestion, using verbal and non-verbal means to define my role in the relationship whether I liked it or not. She was using me as a plaything, but for very serious play. I did nothing other than allow her to use me for her purposes and then use what I could learn from my status as a plaything to talk to her about what she was doing. My restraint here was important, because any attempt to evade my assigned role, or to do something to change or “fix” her state of mind, would have meant to her that I couldn’t stand the feelings she was evoking in me. And that would have only reinforced her feeling that my helplessness (or rather her helplessness, now mine by proxy) was unbearable.

Whatever I said to her, it should not have been in the form of a countersuggestion. It should not have been the enactment of a desire to make her feel a certain way—through reassurance, threats, seduction, or anything else. Only then was there a hope that she could have taken what I said as something to think about, rather than as my having rejected the state of mind she was evoking in me by trying to cure her of it as she had done with the same state of mind in herself. If I had tried to reason with her, or pseudo-interpret what she was feeling while at the same time making her feel it was somehow wrong or ill or that she shouldn’t be feeling it, or that there was a “better” way to go, she would have quite rightly taken what I said as a sign of panic in the face of what she was feeling and making me feel.

The analyst plays a part in the patient’s play; not a part of his own choosing, but of the patient’s choosing. The analyst must suffer his assigned role and he must restrict himself to reflecting it without trying to alter his assignment (that is, alter what the patient is evoking in him). In short, he must allow the patient to play with him without playing on the patient. He cannot be the author of the patient’s mental states, he can only be their trustee. He cannot, in other words, be the type of psychotherapist that the psychoanalyst Thomas Main referred to when he wrote, “the sufferer who frustrates a keen therapist by failing to improve is always in danger of meeting primitive human behaviour disguised as treatment.”

This restraint was a sign of respect for the patient. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstem, at the behest of Claudius, try to extract some information from Hamlet, he hands them a flute and insists that they play it. When they protest again and again that they do not know how, he says,

Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak? ’Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.

The analyst’s job is simply to observe the patient’s inner experiences. The rest is up to the patient. The patient discovers his inner world—the parts he is unable to connect with—in the analyst through his play. Or rather, he misdiscovers them in the analyst as a step towards discovering their true origin in his internal world. This misdiscovery is the patient’s best hope. Direct contact with his inner world has become impossible for various reasons (which is why the patient needs the analysis), so contact with it in an externalized form is the best he can do. The analyst allows himself to be a pawn in the patient’s game so he can find out what kind of game the patient is playing, as a step towards helping the patient himself find out what kind of game he’s playing. The analyst can do this only if he gives up any attempt to game the patient.


  • 1 Hume’s argument was an ethical one: that only passion has an ethical or moral dimension, that reason is ethically and morally neutral, and therefore reason can lead us to ethical conclusions only by being subservient to passion.
  • 2 The most articulate exponent of this view was Georg Groddeck, who expressed it in “The Book of the Id” (Groddeck, 1949).


James Gleick. Genius; the Life and Science of Richard Feynman. Pantheon Books, New York, 1992.

George Groddeck. The Book of the It. Vintage Books, London, 1949.

David Hume. A Treatise on Human Nature (1740). Clarendon, Oxford, 1978.

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