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1948 __ « Listening with the Third Ear »
Theodor Reik (1888-1969)
Comment : Reik's most famous book, "Listening with the Third Ear" (1948), describes how psychoanalysts intuitively use their own unconscious minds to detect and decipher the unconscious wishes and fantasies of their patients. According to Reik, analysts come to understand patients most deeply by examining their own unconscious intuitions about their patients.For Theodor Reik, psychoanalysis is a unique discipline. Although it has affinities to both the natural sciences and the humanities, it is distinguished by a special kind of listening: what Reik calls “listening with the third ear.” In his book of the same title, Reik (1948) contrasts conscious comprehension of psychoanalytic data with the clinician’s initial unconscious conjectures that are later elaborated into systematic comprehension. The third ear is the unconscious capacity to decipher the psychological clues that inspire psycho- analytic conjectures. According to Reik, both conjecture and comprehension are crucial. However, the essence of psychoanalytic understanding is the third ear. Reik’s classic "Listening with the Third Ear" (1948) is one of the great unexamined psychoanalytic texts. The ideas Reik presents within it intersect considerably with current debates on intersubjectivity, countertransference, and hermeneutics, while also pursuing concerns rarely broached in North American psychoanalytic discourse, such as the role of timing in analytic listening. Timing is key to much of Reik’s work. In a chapter of "Listening with the Third Ear" entitled “The psychological moment,” Reik addresses the question of timing through a reading of Freud’s dictum that analytic interventions be guided by tact. Reik points out that Freud’s German term "Takt" (tact) “signifies ‘social feeling,’ but. . .is also synonymous with ‘musical beat, time, measure, bar’” (1948). Here, Reik indicates that when it comes to psychoanalytic listening, social sense and rhythmic sensitivity are inseparable. The doublet comprised by the two “determines the right moment to communicate an interpretation” (p. 317). To say the right thing is largely to say it at the right moment. Like sex, "Takt" requires one to synchronize one’s “own vital rhythm” (1948) with the rhythm of another. Reik writes that “. . .the analyst becomes aware of the rhythm of his patient’s instinctual impulses, and this unconscious knowledge will tell him when to make his communications” (p. 328). To be sure, many psychoanalytic authors have stressed the importance of timing in conveying interpretations. For Reik, however, timing is not only at the heart of how the analyst intervenes, but more significantly, how the analyst listens. It is telling that Reik borrowed the term “the third ear” from a passage in Nietzsche’s "Beyond Good and Evil" that discusses the ability to appreciate the musicality of language (Nietzsche, 1973/1886, p.246). What the sensitive therapist hears is the musical rhythm of the patient’s discourse. [...] Reik’s clinical emphasis on timing is linked to a conceptual emphasis on sequencing. Good timing depends on proper sequencing: the right moment is located after the moment that is too early and before the moment that is too late. To be sensitive to the right moment, then the psychotherapist must grasp the overall psychological sequence in which that moment occurs. [...] Reik calls the unconscious “signals” the clinician observes "clues". He contrasts clues with "facts": “Facts are data that are known and fully acknowledged as to their significance for the origin and motivation of the emotional process under observation. Clues are material of a special kind, whose importance has not yet been examined and whose significance is not immediately clear. . .” (p. 197). Although clues are of vital significance, they initially seem both unclear and unimportant in comparison with the rest of a patient’s discourse. [...] After a clue is identified by markers such as those described above, it is "assimilated" by the unconscious mind. Reik characterizes assimilation as the most interesting and least accessible of the phases of psychodynamic conjecture. The clinician “meets the unconscious mind” of the patient with “his own unconscious as the instrument” of understanding, Reik says (p. 132). Reik is speaking here of Freud’s topographical unconscious, the unconscious as a system in the mind. He is arguing that the unconscious mind not only functions in terms of nonrational primary process mentation, it is also the only part of the mind that can decode the meaning of clues on a primary-process level. As the topographical unconscious speaks the language of the primary process, it is also capable of grasping the meaning of that language. Essentially, Reik is claiming that the unconscious has a built-in system designed to intuit the other’s unconscious by decoding interpersonal signals. It is this system which Reik calls "the third ear". - "Recurrent Reflection" - Reik claims that the third ear decodes clues through an indirect process of understanding necessitated by the fact that we cannot directly know ourselves or others. Our own minds, Reik contends, are elusive to us because we lack distance from them (pp. 421– 422). We are too much in the thick of our own mental processes to see them directly. The minds of others are also hard to grasp. We may be able to readily understand the “uppermost and conscious planes” of the other’s mind, but “the unconscious planes are not grasped directly” (p. 464). Presumably, this problem can be accounted for by the same factors responsible for the obscurity of the clue. The other’s unconscious cannot be known directly because it is defensively concealed and speaks the hard-to-translate language of the primary process. [...] Reik compares the induction of such virtual experiences with hearing the opening bars of a familiar melody. Even if only a few bars are played, the memory of the entire melody “will occur spontaneously to the listener” (p. 166). Similarly, even a handful of clues to the patient’s psychodynamics will allow the therapist’s unconscious to intuit the overall pattern of these dynamics by drawing upon the myriad possible experiences of which the therapist is capable. Thus, “The road to the conjecture of the unconscious part in another’s mental processes leads through the inner perception of. . .possibilities in the ego” (p. 397). [...] Because Reik claims that so much of psychoanalytic listening is unconscious, one may wonder what Reik or anyone else has to teach us about it. Indeed, Reik states that the ability to listen with the third ear “is not teachable” (p. 145). From this perspective, either you’ve got it or you don’t. However, one must assume that Reik felt he had something to convey to clinicians. Otherwise, "Listening with the Third Ear" should be exclusively of scientific interest and have no practical relevance. It seems unlikely that Reik intended to write a clinically irrelevant work, given the fact that the book is filled with examples from his clinical practice and advice to practicing analysts, and also given that Reik (p. xi) states explicitly that “The way we conjecture unconscious processes. . .is of the utmost educational importance from the point of view of the training of analysts.” It must be asked, therefore, what Reik expected clinicians to learn from his book, if not how to listen with the third ear? It is worth noting that the explicit advice offered to clinicians in "Listening with the Third Ear" is predominantly negative. Reik more often tells clinicians "what not to do" than what "to" do. Clinicians should avoid interfering with the natural unfolding of the sequence of conjecture that flows from the detection of clues to their unconscious assimilation and the emergence of insight into consciousness. For the third ear to function smoothly, rational thought must be suspended until the right moment. Furthermore, we may surmise that an understanding of the workings of the third ear is crucial during the phase of comprehension. If the therapist is to rationally evaluate her clinical intuitions, she must trace them back to their origins in the clinical data and her unconscious responses to those data. Without an awareness of where her intuitions came from, the therapist cannot verify her intuitions by examining the evidence on which they are based. The clinician who lacks a conceptual grasp of her own listening process runs the risk of being left with a collection of unanchored insights that cannot be critically tested and verified. Finally, a respect for the wisdom of the third ear may help therapists resist the temptation to suppress the odd, often absurd associations that are the beginnings of conscious insight. If therapists are to facilitate the emergence of insight into consciousness, they must be open to the irrational. Perhaps Reik’s most vital lesson, then, is that we can only bring our patients’ psychodynamics within the sphere of rational comprehension by learning to appreciate the ineluctable irrationality within ourselves. (Kyle Arnold, "Reik's Theory of Psychoanalytic Listening")
Original excerpt : « The last chapter [Conscious and Unconscious Observation] spoke of communications for which conscious perceptions have only the function that relays have in telegraphy. It would, of course, be nonsense to assert that this language of the unconscious is understood only by psychoanalysts. (Sometimes it would seem that it is least understood by analysts.) As a matter of fact, this interchange of impulses goes on between all human beings, and analysis only evaluates them as psychological indications. Psycho-analysis is in this sense not so much a heart-to-heart talk as a drive-to-drive talk, an inaudible but highly expressive dialogue. The psycho-analyst has to learn how one mind speaks to another beyond words and in silence. He must learn to listen "with the third ear." (This phrase is borrowed from Nietzsche, "Beyond Good and Evil", Part VIII, p. 246). It is not true that you have to shout to make yourself understood. When you wish to be heard, you whisper. »
Source : Reik, T. (1948). “Listening with the Third Ear : the inner experience of a psychoanalyst”. New York: Grove Press (Chpt XV & XVI, (pp. 144-172)).
Source : Arnold, Kyle (2006). "REIK’S THEORY OF PSYCHOANALYTIC LISTENING". In Psychoanalytic Psychology, 2006, Vol. 23, No. 4,( pp. 754 –765).

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