Freudian Psychology

Jung's Explosive Visit to Freud

Did Jung cause Freud's bookcase to explode by mental force?

Posted Sep 20, 2011

The incident happened in April 1909, when Jung was 33 and Freud was 52 years old. Here is Jung's own account, given to interviewer Aniela Jaffé fifty years later:
"It interested me to hear Freud's views on precognition and parapsychology in general. When I visited him in Vienna in 1909 I asked him what he thought of these matters. Because of his materialistic prejudice, he rejected this entire complex of questions as nonsensical ... ...

While Freud was going on in this way, I had a curious sensation. It was as if my diaphragm were made of iron and was becoming red-hot - a glowing vault. And at that moment there was such a loud report in the bookcase, which stood right next to us, that we both started up in alarm, fearing the thing was going to topple over on us. I said to Freud: "There is an example of a so-called catalytic exteriorisation phenomenon."

"Oh come," he exclaimed. "That is sheer bosh."

"It is not," I replied. "You are mistaken, Herr Professor. And to prove my point I now predict that there will be another loud report!" Sure enough, no sooner had I said the words than the same detonation went off in the bookcase.

To this day I do not know what gave me this certainty."

Freud was certainly impressed with the effect, although did not share Jung's certainty about the explanation. In a letter to Jung dated April 16th, 1909, he wrote:

"I do not deny that your comments and your experiment made a powerful impression upon me. After your departure I determined to make some observations, and here are the results. In my front room there are continual creaking noises, from where the two heavy Egyptian steles rest on the oak boards of the bookcase, so that's obvious. In the second room, where we heard the crash, such noises are very rare. At first I was inclined to ascribe some meaning to it if the noise we heard so frequently when you were here were never again heard after your departure. But since then it has happened over and over again, yet never in connection with my thoughts and never when I was considering you or your special problem. (Not now, either, I add by way of challenge). The phenomenon was soon deprived of all significance for me by something else. My credulity, or at least my readiness to believe, vanished along with the spell of your personal presence ... ... The furniture stands before me spiritless and dead, like nature silent and godless before the poet after the passing of the gods of Greece."

There are some differences in two descriptions, which may be accounted for by the fact that Freud's letter was written immediately after the event, while Jung gave his description in a much later interview when. Jung "remembered," for example, that the bookcase was right next to him, while Freud's letter places it in the next room.

Jung's memory is quite likely to have been at fault, since he admitted to Jaffé that "Only what is interior has proved to have substance and a determining value. As a result, all memory of outer events has faded ... An enormous part of these ‘outer' manifestations of my life has vanished from my memory ...".

How are we to account, though, for Jung's association between his inner feeling and the noise made by the bookcase?

Jung certainly believed that there was a "cause and effect" association, but before we accept his testimony too readily we might be wise to take the advice given by Scottish philosopher David Hume in his famous essay "Of Miracles". Hume argued that "no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish." Carl Sagan later reworded this more pithily as: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof".

The idea of a "catalytic exteriorisation phenomenon" is certainly an extraordinary claim. Could there be a more mundane explanation for Jung's experience? One possibility is that preliminary creaking noises from the bookcase induced the sensation (which sounds rather like a typical physiological expression of anxiety) in Jung's diaphragm. Another, related, possibility is that of "false memory syndrome," a now well-known effect that was not understood in Freud and Jung's time, and which sometimes led them into serious error. Put simply, Jung may have remembered both the internal sensation and the noise correctly, but may over time have transposed them in his mind with regard to cause and effect.

When we are trying to decide whether a perceived connection between two events is real or not, we may sometimes end up making false connections or rejecting true ones. Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, calls these type I and type II errors respectively, and points out that evolution has favored the type I error (a tendency to believe in false connections).

This was, and is, a survival mechanism. For primitive man, a movement in the grass may have been a random effect of the wind, or it may have been caused by a dangerous carnivore - for survival, the best strategy was to bet on the carnivore.

This was put more formally by the evolutionary biologists Kevin Foster and Hanna Kokko in an article "The evolution of superstitious and superstition-like behaviour" (Proceedings of the Royal Society B Vol. 276 (2009): 31 - 37). They pointed out that "as long as the cost of type II errors [i.e. rejecting a truth] is high enough, natural selection can favour strategies that frequently make type I errors and generate superstitions." In other words, as they demonstrated with mathematical rigour, superstitions are adaptive.

So was Jung making a type I error (believing a falsehood) or was Freud making a type II error (rejecting a truth)? The strong possibility, reinforced by Freud's subsequent experiments, the Hume/Sagan principle, and the evolutionary argument, is that Freud was right and that Jung was misled into interpreting a coincidence as a causal connection.

This little anecdote carries a profound message. We survive and prosper from infancy onwards by looking for patterns and connections, and acting on the information. Whether it's crying for food, learning social skills or surviving in the commercial jungle, our ability to perceive patterns and connections, to relate causes to effects, is paramount. Learning how to distinguish false patterns and connections from the real ones is an important part of the process. As the example of Jung and Freud shows, it is not always easy, but with reasonable scepticism as our guide at least we have a chance.

Len Fisher

Further reading:
C.J. Jung Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Fontana Library of Theology & Philosophy (1967) (The incident referred to is described on p. 178, and a copy of Freud's letter is to be found on p.395).

Michael Shermer Why people believe weird things: pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time (New York: W.H. Freeman & Co (1998)).

Len Fisher Crashes, Crises and Calamities: How We Can Use Science to Read the Early-Warning Signs (New York: Basic Books (2011)) (where I explore the history of our search for meaningful patterns and connections in nature and society, and list some of the most important traps that we fall into).