FROM COMPULSION TO STRUCTURE: An Empirical Model to Study Invariant Repetition and Representation

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Despite the central role that repetition plays in foundational analytic concepts such as instinct, transference, and regression, the presence of different kinds of repetitive forms and their relationship to representation and symbolization have only been subject to limited empirical investigation. The current article defines a continuum of repetitions from redundant, invariant repetitions, which remain closer to action, to symbolic repetitions that involve different modes of mental representation. Using a single-case study with a mixed quantitative/qualitative methodology, measures of repetition and symbolization were applied to verbatim recordings of psychoanalytic sessions. As verbs are the grammatical form that best track intention and motivation, invariant verb forms were chosen as a linguistic marker of repetition. Symbolic processes were evaluated by a computerized measure of referential activity, an empirical tool to measure imagistic language. There was an overall negative correlation between invariant repetitions and imagistic speech. Following the quantitative analysis, qualitative clinical illustrations indicated that when the patient constructed a narrative with a vivid, specific, and evocative representational structure (i.e., dream, fantasy, memory), the use of invariant repetitions decreased. Further qualitative analyses showed that a measure of repetition, when used in conjunction with a measure of symbolization, was able to identify different discourse patterns reflecting fluctuations in the patient’s thinking processes and affective states.

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