Unconscious phenomena such as dreams and projective identification have long been seen as uncanny & strange—even paranormal. In this thread I explore the ambivalent ways that psychoanalysts have engaged with the occult and divination. To begin with, two quotations: 1/thread
“Have I given you the impression that I am secretly inclined to support the reality of telepathy in the occult sense? If so, I should very much regret that it is so difficult to avoid giving such an impression. In reality, however, I was anxious to be strictly impartial…” 2/49
“…I have every reason to be so, for I have no opinion; I know nothing about it” (Freud, 1922). “If I had my life to live over again I should devote myself to psychical research rather than to psychoanalysis” (Freud, quoted in Jones, 1957). Early in his career, Freud… 3/49
...was open to extraordinary phenomena, taking seriously “whether there are really no omens, prophetic dreams, telepathic experiences, manifestations of supernatural forces and the like.” Later, he would portray beliefs in such things as neurotic, childlike, and “primitive.” 4/50
In his published works, Freud’s attitude toward magic and the occult generally tended toward skepticism. Freud disavowed belief in telepathy “in the occult sense,” and he judged that “cooperation between analysts and occultists offers small prospect of gain.” 5/50
Ferenczi and Jung were interested in occult and mystical phenomena, but Freud urged caution. He refused to follow their “dangerous expeditions”. Nevertheless, he maintained a private fascination with occult phenomena (and thought-transference—i.e., telepathy—in particular). 6/50
Freud carried out experiments in mediumship with Anna Freud and Ferenczi and espoused deep fascination with psychical research in a letter to Hereward Carrington, a prominent researcher of paranormal and psychical phenomena. 7/50
Ernest Jones, Freud’s biographer described Freud’s beliefs as “an exquisite oscillation between scepticism (sic) and credulity” (p. 375) in part because he maintained an open mind and expressed sympathetic views in private. 8/50
Beyond Freud’s personal views, historical/conceptual connections link psychoanalysis with divination and the paranormal. Divination echoes through the beginnings of psychoanalysis. Consider the suffix of the German title of Freud’s Traumdeutung (Interpretation of Dreams). 9/50
‘Deutung,’ means ‘interpretation,’ but means ‘to forebode’ and occurs in the German word for astrology, ‘die Sterndeutung’; moreover, the noun ‘die Traumdeutung’ also refers to the dream divination practice carried forward from medieval times by the Romani people. 10/50
Freud also wrote about the relationship between dreams and telepathy and the occult, although some such writings appeared only posthumously, such as an essay entitled “Psychoanalysis and telepathy.” 11/50
Psychoanalysis emerged during a high tide of interest in psychical research and spiritualism. The Wizard of Oz and Interpretation of Dreams were both published in 1900, at a time when researchers had been vigorously engaging scientifically with the claims of spiritualism. 12/50
The subject matter of psychoanalysis placed it adjacent to if not within this field of research: manifestations of unconscious processes can seem uncanny and magical, and Gyimesi notes that psychoanalytic theories of the unconscious carry an enigmatic quality. 13/50
This enigma of the unconscious led many to associate unconscious processes with supernatural and occult phenomena. The psychoanalytic view of the mind as housing the archaic history of development lent itself to more ephemeral and dark views of the mind and its contents. 14/50
Freud, for example, noted that people “may for a moment return to a belief in spirits under the combined impact of strong emotion and perplexity,” and phenomena such as projective identification are still seen by some as mysterious, spooky. Initially, as the field matured… 15/50
...psychoanalysis offered a paradigm for explaining such uncanny and enigmatic experiences from a psychological standpoing. Over time, though, investigations shifted away from occult phenomena per se to “what sort of person this must be who can arrive at such…notions[s].” 16/50
This shift allowed analysts to preserve an interest in the occult while avoiding charges of supernaturalism, but it contributed to pathologizing portrayals of believers in “the black tide of mud…of occultism,” which I have written about before:

Freud dismissed “revelation, intuition [and] divination” as “illusions, the fulfillments of wishful impulses,” and mainstream analysts such as Wilson followed, tending to see magical and occult beliefs and practices as “regressively omnipotent,” resulting from “ego defect.” 18/50
Alternatively, analysts dismissed magic as illusion: Khan stated that “magic works only through accomplices and not with witnesses and recalcitrant participants.” Nelson also noted that psychoanalysts tended to ostracize other analysts who believed in the paranormal. 19/50
In the main, however, psychoanalysts mostly met occult and paranormal phenomena with silence rather than critique, perhaps in part out of an eagerness to demarcate, as Gyimesi puts it, “superstitious belief[s]” in the occult from scientific psychoanalysis. 20/50
Farrell surveyed the psychoanalytic literature on telepathy and drily noted that it was “a rather minor undertaking”; moreover, numerous psychoanalytic scholars have noted how psychoanalytic scholars have by and large passed over Freud’s writings on telepathy. 21/50
Jung drily observed that occult phenomena “are much easier to ignore than to explain,” and psychoanalysts appear implicitly to have agreed. Three exceptions merit attention, however: (1) Freud and others have drawn parallels between magic and psychoanalysis; … 22/50
(2) some analysts have offered psychoanalytic explanations of paranormal phenomena; and (3) one analyst, Leah Davidson, has explored the meanings and uses of Tarot cards from a psychoanalytic perspective. 23/50
Freud compared analysis with magic spells. He noted: “there is hardly anything quite like [interpretation] in medicine; in fairy tales you hear of evil spirits whose power is broken when you can tell them their name, which they have kept secret.” Other analysts followed. 24/50
Bernstein and Goldwater echo Freud’s remark that “the words we use in our everyday speech are nothing other than watered down magic." Both note that the effects of psychoanalytic discourse on a patient’s mental life are akin to magic and can foster magical thinking. 25/50
Wilson compared analysis to Malinowski’s description of magical rites, noting that the “ritual of the appointment” and “the spell of the exact interpretation” work with the patient’s belief in the powers of the analyst “to reinforce the patient’s…expectation of magic.” 26/50
Totton and de Peyer note how analysts’ knowledge of transference represents “communication…outside the normally recognized channels” not unlike telepathy. Totten claims phenomena such as projective identification “are essentially ‘paranormal’ concepts.” 27/50
Notably, what one finds in the literature is that analysts largely stay within a psychological frame. Most analysts appear to treat these connections as metaphorical or symbolic, electing by and large not to address metaphysical questions about the existence of real magic. 28/50
Beyond observing broad similarities between psychoanalytic technique and magic, however, a small but significant number of psychoanalysts have examined paranormal phenomena directly and attempted to explain them using psychoanalytic theory. 29/50
Interest in paranormal phenomena peaked in the 1940s and ‘50s, culminating in a volume edited by Devereux on psychoanalysis and the occult that focused mostly on thought-transference; a more recent edited volume by Totten rekindled psychoanalytic interest in the paranormal. 30/50
Analysts who have taken up the topic tend to view occult phenomena as uncanny unconscious processes. Deutsch, for example, stated that “analytic experiences confirm that ‘occult’ powers are to be sought in the depth of psychic life.” 31/50
The scare-quotes around the word ‘occult’ seem to signify a belief that the occult powers in question are only so-called, and ultimately reduce to unconscious phenomena. Unconscious processes offered by psychoanalysts to account for paranormal phenomena include… 32/50
...empathic communication (from the Greek ‘pathos’ and ‘tele’: feeling at a distance), enhanced intuition stemming from affective identification between people, perceptions of primary process happenings stemming from quasi-psychosis, and fragile reality testing. 33/50
Freud also viewed apparent telepathy as unconscious emotional emanations deriving from the Oedipus complex. Analytic accounts of the paranormal emphasize how such phenomena arise almost without exception in the context of intense emotions within close relationships. 34/50
Regarding Tarot in particular, the psychoanalytic literature remains mostly silent with the exception of a paper by Leah Davidson, in which she draws upon case material and personal experience with Hispanic Tarot readers to examine Tarot from a psychoanalytic perspective. 35/50
Davidson observed similarities between Tarot and therapy/analysis: seeking comfort from an authority figure, reliance on an emotionally calm space, coming to new ways of thinking to control one’s fate, and the use of symbols to provide narrative structure to life. 36/50
She also noted differences, notably that Tarot symbolism includes moral, philosophical, and religious views about the meaning of an individual’s life, and the symbolism “seems to provide an additional vehicle for hope, even if the predictions do not always materialize.” 37/50
(As a side plug, I wrote a thread on the similarities between psychotherapy and divination, which you can read here:)

Davidson ultimately concluded that Tarot represents a “psychological bridge between ‘dream,’ ‘wish,’ and ‘omen’ for the human psyche” functioning like “an anxiety-allaying transitional phenomenon between reader and client.” 39/50
Davidson thought that as the querent becomes “more certain of [their[ own integrity and identity as an individuated person,” that Tarot will, like “Winnicott’s transitional object… loses significance” after “more working through and attainment of autonomy in therapy.” 40/50
This reflects a bias, in my view, to reduce Tarot and divination to magical thinking and assume that people will “grow out of it.” This perspective downplays or ignores the spiritual, cultural, and playful/creative horizons of the practices. 41/50
Overall, mainstream psychoanalysis has remained ambivalent about magic and the paranormal. Some have ignored or denigrated magic and the paranormal, while others drawn merely symbolic parallels between psychoanalytic technique and magic spells and rituals. 42/50
Psychoanalytic approaches to magic and the paranormal have been criticized for two reasons. First, the philosopher of psychoanalysis Cherry suggests that psychoanalytic accounts are better viewed as using psychoanalysis to eliminate rather than illuminate the paranormal. 43/50
Cherry writes that “finding an acceptable explanation—a psychoanalytic one, perhaps—for a paranormal event, such as a telepathic exchange or a poltergeist display, is tantamount to declaring that the event in question isn’t paranormal after all.” 44/50
Second, Ullman notes that a “lost battalion of people” who have had paranormal experiences avoid mental health professionals who equate such experiences with psychopathology and instead “ultimately gravitate toward fringe groups in search of the support they need.” 45/50
By denigrating magic and the occult, psychoanalysis has given up on certain patients and withdrawn its research tools from whole realms of human experience. In doing so, psychoanalysis has failed to secure its status in clinical science, where it remains still marginal. 46/50
Perhaps psychoanalysis could use some of the medicine prescribed by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “That is basically the only case of courage required of us: to be courageous in the face of the strangest, the most whimsical and unexplainable thing that we could encounter…” 47/50
“… The fact that people have been cowards in that regard has caused infinite harm to life… The experience that one calls ‘ghosts,’ the entire spirit world, death, all these related things have been forced out of life.” (From Letters to a Young Poet) 48/50
One final point bears mention: Davidson also observed that the symbolism of Tarot cards provides a transformational focus and potential “vehicle of hope” and cites C.G. Jung’s interest in the Tarot as “examples of the archetypes of the collective unconscious.” 49/50
This thread has not engaged Jung and those following in his tradition of analytical psychology, who represent a major exception to mainstream psychoanalytic views on magic, the occult, & divination. I'll explore Jungian conceptualizations of divination in a future thread. 50/50
Anything pique your interest, or anything you’d like me to expand upon in a future thread? Let me know what you thought of this brief historical overview: there’s plenty worth digging into in greater depth! /thread
This thread can be read in long-form as a blog post with full references on my website. Read “Psychoanalysis, magic, & the occult: An uneasy shared history” here:

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26 Jun
1/ Although some diviners do tender conclusions purely on the basis of the rational symbolic significations of their divinatory system, any claim that this is the norm, let alone the only possibility, is ahistorical, culturally conditioned rasure the anthropological evidence.
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3/ The Syrian philosopher Iamblichus distinguished inspired divination from inductive divination. Inspired divination encompasses dreams, oracles, visions, and mania/enthusiasm: forms of divination seen as direct communications from gods to human beings.
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How academic psychology tries (and fails) to dunk on astrology, a thread. 1/
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