by Sigmund FreudFebruary 22nd, 2023
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That the same view-points and observation should hold true for mistakes in reading and writing as for lapses in speech is not at all surprising when one remembers the inner relation of these functions. I shall here confine myself to the reports of several carefully analysed examples and shall make no attempt to include all of the phenomena.
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Psychopathology of Everyday Life by Sigmund Freud, is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. MISTAKES IN READING AND WRITING


That the same view-points and observation should hold true for mistakes in reading and writing as for lapses in speech is not at all surprising when one remembers the inner relation of these functions. I shall here confine myself to the reports of several carefully analysed examples and shall make no attempt to include all of the phenomena.

A. Lapses in Reading.

(a) While looking over a number of the Leipziger Illustrierten, which I was holding obliquely, I read as the title of the front-page picture, “A Wedding Celebration in the Odyssey.” Astonished and with my attention aroused, I moved the page into the proper position only to read correctly, “A Wedding Celebration in the Ostsee (Baltic Sea).” How did this senseless mistake in reading come about?

Immediately my thoughts turned to a book by Ruth, Experimental Investigations of “Music Phantoms”, etc., with which I had recently been[Pg 118] much occupied, as it closely touched the psychologic problems that are of interest to me. The author promised a work in the near future to be called Analysis and Principles of Dream Phenomena. No wonder that I, having just published an Interpretation of Dreams, awaited the appearance of this book with the most intense interest. In Ruth’s work concerning music phantoms I found an announcement in the beginning of the table of contents of the detailed inductive proof that the old Hellenic myths and traditions originated mainly from slumber and music phantoms, from dream phenomena and from deliria. Thereupon I had immediately plunged into the text in order to find out whether he was also aware that the scene where Odysseus appears before Nausicaa was based upon the common dream of nakedness. One of my friends called my attention to the clever passage in G. Keller’s Grünem Heinrich, which explains this episode in the Odyssey as an objective representation of the dream of the mariner straying far from home. I added to it the reference to the exhibition dream of nakedness.

(b) A woman who is very anxious to get children always reads storks instead of stocks.

(c) One day I received a letter which contained very disturbing news. I immediately called my wife and informed her that poor Mrs.[Pg 119] Wm. H. was seriously ill and was given up by the doctors. There must have been a false ring to the words in which I expressed my sympathy, as my wife grew suspicious, asked to see the letter, and expressed her opinion that it could not read as stated by me, because no one calls the wife by the husband’s name. Moreover, the correspondent was well acquainted with the Christian name of the woman concerned. I defended my assertion obstinately and referred to the customary visiting-cards, on which a woman designates herself by the Christian name of her husband. I was finally compelled to take up the letter, and, as a matter of fact, we read therein “Poor W. M.” What is more, I had even overlooked “Poor Dr. W. M.” My mistake in reading signified a spasmodic effort, so to speak, to turn the sad news from the man towards the woman. The title between the adjective and the name did not go well with my claim that the woman must have been meant. That is why it was omitted in the reading. The motive for this falsifying was not that the woman was less an object of my sympathy than the man, but the fate of this poor man had excited my fears regarding another and nearer person who, I was aware, had the same disease.

(d) Both irritating and laughable is a lapse in reading to which I am frequently subject when I walk through the streets of a strange city during[Pg 120] my vacation. I then read antiquities on every shop sign that shows the slightest resemblance to the word; this displays the questing spirit of the collector.

(e) In his important work[25] Bleuler relates: “While reading I once had the intellectual feeling of seeing my name two lines below. To my astonishment I found only the words blood corpuscles. Of the many thousands of lapses in reading in the peripheral as well as in the central field of vision that I have analysed, this was the most striking case. Whenever I imagined that I saw my name, the word that induced this illusion usually showed a greater resemblance to my name than the word bloodcorpuscles. In most cases all the letters of my name had to be close together before I could commit such an error. In this case, however, I could readily explain the delusion of reference and the illusion. What I had just read was the end of a statement concerning a form of bad style in scientific works, a tendency from which I am not entirely free.”

B. Lapses in Writing.

(a) On a sheet of paper containing principally short daily notes of business interest, I found, to my surprise, the incorrect date, “Thursday,[Pg 121] October 20th,” bracketed under the correct date of the month of September. It was not difficult to explain this anticipation as the expression of a wish. A few days before I had returned fresh from my vacation and felt ready for any amount of professional work, but as yet there were few patients. On my arrival I had found a letter from a patient announcing her arrival on the 20th of October. As I wrote the same date in September I may certainly have thought “X. ought to be here already; what a pity about that whole month!” and with this thought I pushed the current date a month ahead. In this case the disturbing thought can scarcely be called unpleasant; therefore after noticing this lapse in writing, I immediately knew the solution. In the fall of the following year I experienced an entirely analogous and similarly motivated lapse in writing. E. Jones has made a study of similar cases, and found that most mistakes in writing dates are motivated.

(b) I received the proof sheets of my contribution to the annual report on neurology and psychiatry, and I was naturally obliged to review with special care the names of authors, which, because of the many different nationalities represented, offer the greatest difficulties to the compositor. As a matter of fact, I found some strange-sounding names still in need of correction; but, oddly enough, the compositor had[Pg 122] corrected one single name in my manuscript, and with very good reason. I had written Buckrhard, which the compositor guessed to be Burckhard. I had praised the treatise of this obstetrician entitled The Influence of Birth on the Origin of Infantile Paralysis, and I was not conscious of the least enmity toward him. But an author in Vienna, who had angered me by an adverse criticism of my Traumdeutung, bears the same name. It was as if in writing the name Burckhard, meaning the obstetrician, a wicked thought concerning the other B. had obtruded itself. The twisting of the name, as I have already stated in regard to lapses in speech, often signifies a depreciation.[26]

(c) The following is seemingly a serious case of lapsus calami, which it would be equally correct to describe as an erroneously carried out action. I intended to withdraw from the postal savings bank the sum of 300 crowns, which I wished to send to an absent relative to enable him to take treatment at a watering-place. I noted that my account was 4,380 crowns, and I decided to bring it down to the round sum of 4,000 crowns,[Pg 123] which was not to be touched in the near future. After making out the regular cheque I suddenly noticed that I had written not 380 crowns, as I had intended, but exactly 438 crowns. I was frightened at the untrustworthiness of my action. I soon realized that my fear was groundless, as I had not grown poorer than I was before. But I had to reflect for quite a while in order to discover what influence diverted me from my first intention without making itself known to my consciousness.

First I got on a wrong track: I subtracted 380 from 438, but after that I did not know what to do with the difference. Finally an idea occurred to me which showed me the true connection. 438 is exactly 10 per cent. of the entire account of 4,380 crowns! But the bookseller, too, gives a 10 per cent. discount! I recalled that a few days before I had selected several books, in which I was no longer interested, in order to offer them to the bookseller for 300 crowns. He thought the price demanded too high, but promised to give me a final answer within the next few days. If he should accept my first offer he would replace the exact sum that I was to spend on the sufferer. There is no doubt that I was sorry about this expenditure. The emotion at the realization of my mistakes can be more easily understood as a fear of growing poor through such outlays. But both[Pg 124] the sorrow over this expense and the fear of poverty connected with it were entirely foreign to my consciousness; I did not regret this expense when I promised the sum, and would have laughed at the idea of any such underlying motive. I should probably not have assigned such feelings to myself had not my psychoanalytic practice made me quite familiar with the repressed elements of psychic life, and if I had not had a dream a few days before which brought forth the same solution.

(d) Although it is usually difficult to find the person responsible for printers’ errors, the psychologic mechanisms underlying them are the same as in other mistakes. Typographical errors also well demonstrate the fact that people are not at all indifferent to such trivialities as “mistakes,” and, judging by the indignant reactions of the parties concerned, one is forced to the conclusion that mistakes are not treated by the public at large as mere accidents. This state of affairs is very well summed up in the following editorial from the New York Times of April 14, 1913. Not the least interesting are the comments of the keen-witted editor, who seems to share our views:—

“A Blunder Truly Unfortunate.

“Typographical errors come only too frequently from even the best-regulated newspaper[Pg 125] presses. They are always humiliating, often a cause of anger, and occasionally dangerous, but now and then they are distinctly amusing. This latter quality they are most apt to have when they are made in the office of a journalistic neighbour, a fact that probably explains why we can read with smiling composure an elaborate editorial apology which appears in the Hartford Courant.

“Its able political commentator tried the other day to say that, unfortunately for Connecticut, ‘J. H. is no longer a Member of Congress. Printer and proof-reader combined to deprive the adverb of its negative particle.’ At least, the able political commentator so declares, and we wouldn’t question his veracity for the world; but sorrowful experience has taught most of us that it’s safer to get that sort of editorial disclaimer of responsibility into print before looking up the copy, and perhaps—just perhaps—the world-enlightener, who knows that he wrote unfortunate, because that is what he intended to write, didn’t rashly chance the discovery of his own guilt before he convicted the composing-room of it.

“Be that as it may, the meaning of the sentence was cruelly changed, and a friend was grieved or offended. Not so long ago a more astonishing error than this one crept into a book review of ours—a very solemn and scientific[Pg 126] book. It consisted of the substitution of the word ‘caribou’ for the word ‘carbon’ in a paragraph dealing with the chemical composition of the stars. In that case the writer’s fierce self-exculpation is at least highly plausible, as it seems hardly possible that he wrote ‘caribou’ when he intended to write ‘carbon,’ but even he was cautious enough to make no deep inquiry into the matter.”

(e) I cite the following case contributed by Dr. W. Stekel, for the authenticity of which I can vouch: “An almost unbelievable example of miswriting and misreading occurred in the editing of a widely circulated weekly. It concerned an article of defence and vindication which was written with much warmth and great pathos. The editor-in-chief of the paper read the article, while the author himself naturally read it from the manuscript and proof-sheets more than once. Everybody was satisfied, when the printer’s reader suddenly noticed a slight error which had escaped the attention of all. There it was, plainly enough: ‘Our readers will bear witness to the fact that we have always acted in a selfish manner for the good of the community.’ It is quite evident that it was meant to read unselfish. The real thoughts, however, broke through the pathetic speech with elemental force.”

(f) The following example of misprinting is taken from a Western gazette: The teacher was giving an instruction paper on mathematical methods, and spoke of a plan “for the instruction of youth that might be carried out ad libidinem.”

(g) Even the Bible did not escape misprints. Thus we have the “Wicked Bible,” so called from the fact that the negative was left out of the seventh commandment. This authorized edition of the Bible was published in London in 1631, and it is said that the printer had to pay a fine of two thousand pounds for the omission.

Another biblical misprint dates back to the year 1580, and is found in the Bible of the famous library of Wolfenbuttel, in Hesse. In the passage in Genesis where God tells Eve that Adam shall be her master and shall rule over her, the German translation is “Und er soll dein Herr sein.” The word Herr (master) was substituted by Narr, which means fool. Newly discovered evidence seems to show that the error was a conscious machination of the printer’s suffragette wife, who refused to be ruled by her husband.

(h) Dr. Ernest Jones reports the following case concerning A. A. Brill: “Although by custom almost a teetotaler, he yielded to a friend’s importunity one evening, in order to avoid offending him, and took a little wine. During the next morning an exacerbation of an eye-strain headache gave him cause to regret[Pg 128] this slight indulgence, and his reflection on the subject found expression in the following slip of the pen. Having occasion to write the name of a girl mentioned by a patient, he wrote not Ethel but Ethyl.[27] It happened that the girl in question was rather too fond of drink, and in Dr. Brill’s mood at the time this characteristic of hers stood out with conspicuous significance.”[28]

(i) A woman wrote to her sister, felicitating her on the occasion of taking possession of a new and spacious residence. A friend who was present noticed that the writer put the wrong address on the letter, and what was still more remarkable was the fact that she did not address it to the previous residence, but to one long ago given up, but which her sister had occupied when she first married. When the friend called her attention to it the writer remarked, “You are right; but what in the world made me do this?” to which her friend replied: “Perhaps you begrudge her the nice big apartment into which she has just moved because you yourself are cramped for space, and for that reason you put her back into her first residence, where she was no better off than yourself.” “Of course I begrudge her the new apartment,” she honestly admitted. As an afterthought she added, “It is a pity that one is so mean in such matters.”

(k) Ernest Jones reports the following example given to him by Dr. A. A. Brill. In a letter to Dr. Brill a patient tried to attribute his nervousness to business worries and excitement during the cotton crisis. He went on to say: “My trouble is all due to that d—— frigid wave; there isn’t even any seed to be obtained for new crops.” He referred to a cold wave which had destroyed the cotton crops, but instead of writing “wave” he wrote “wife.” In the bottom of his heart he entertained reproaches against his wife on account of her marital frigidity and childlessness, and he was not far from the cognition that the enforced abstinence played no little part in the causation of his malady.

Omissions in writing are naturally explained in the same manner as mistakes in writing. A remarkable example of omission which is of historic importance was reported by Dr. B. Dattner.[29] In one of the legal articles dealing with the financial obligations of both countries, which was drawn up in the year 1867 during the readjustment between Austria and Hungary, the word “effective” was accidentally omitted in the Hungarian translation. Dattner thinks it probable that the unconscious desire of the Hungarian law-makers to grant Austria the least possible advantages had something to do with this omission.

Another example of omission is the following related by Brill: “A prospective patient, who had corresponded with me relative to treatment, finally wrote for an appointment for a certain day. Instead of keeping his appointment he sent regrets which began as follows: ‘Owing to foreseen circumstances I am unable to keep my appointment.’ He naturally meant to write unforeseen. He finally came to me months later, and in the course of the analysis I discovered that my suspicions at the time were justified; there were no unforeseen circumstances to prevent his coming at that time; he was advised not to come to me. The unconscious does not lie.”

Wundt gives a most noteworthy proof for the easily ascertained fact that we more easily make mistakes in writing than in speaking (loc. cit., p. 374). He states: “In the course of normal conversation the inhibiting function of the will is constantly directed toward bringing into harmony the course of ideation with the movement of articulation. If the articulation following the ideas becomes retarded through mechanical causes, as in writing, such anticipations then readily make their appearance.”

Observation of the determinants which favour lapses in reading gives rise to doubt, which I do not like to leave unmentioned, because I am of the opinion that it may become the starting-point[Pg 131] of a fruitful investigation. It is a familiar fact that in reading aloud the attention of the reader often wanders from the text and is directed toward his own thoughts. The results of this deviation of attention are often such that when interrupted and questioned he cannot even state what he has read. In other words, he has read automatically, although the reading was nearly always correct. I do not think that such conditions favour any noticeable increase in the mistakes. We are accustomed to assume concerning a whole series of functions that they are most precisely performed when done automatically, with scarcely any conscious attention. This argues that the conditions governing attention in mistakes in speaking, writing, and reading must be differently determined than assumed by Wundt (cessation or diminution of attention). The examples which we have subjected to analysis have really not given us the right to take for granted a quantitative diminution of attention. We found what is probably not exactly the same thing, a disturbance of the attention through a strange obtruding thought.

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