The Unconscious; a Symposium

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Several years ago [says Koffka] Dr. Wulf undertook the following investigation. He showed to several observers a number of very simple geometrical figures and asked them to draw these figures afterwards from memory, the first drawing being made immediately after the presentation, the second twenty-four hours later, the third after a week, and possibly a fourth several weeks later. The comparison of the successive reproductions of one and the same figure revealed some significant facts. Not only was each later drawing different from the preceding one, but the direction of this difference remained constant through time; peculiarities of the figures were either reduced or enhanced. A slightly broken line, for example, became after a while in the drawings either a straight line or a pronounced angle. I speak of leveling in the first case, of emphasizing in the second. These two processes appeared under two different forms. These changes either assimilated the figures to standardized forms, or they took place independently of such standardization, in which case I shall speak of structural changes. These changes indicate that the traces which enabled the observers to produce their drawings have become altered with the lapse of time. Not only did they grow weaker, corresponding to the degree of forgetting, they also underwent changes of shape.2

In this case the copy is reproduced at intervals, by the same person, but if a drawing is copied successively by a number of persons, each working from the preceding copy, the changes are more rapid and radical. Thus a drawing of a bird’s nest attached to a bough may eventually appear as an admiral’s hat or a butterfly net.3

This type of change is apparent in language systems. Individuals and generations do not reproduce the sounds and structures completely and, especially in unlettered and isolated communities where the copies are not stabilized by the printed page, as, for example, in peasant Germany and Italy, dialects are developed which tend to become mutually unintelligible. Similarly, when a portion of an American Indian tribe migrates its linguistic affinity with the parent stock will presently be recognizable only by a trained philologist.

2Koffka, K.n/an/an/an/an/a, "On the Structure of the Unconscious," in , 56–57 (F. S. Croftstand Co. By permission).

3 Balfour, H., The Evolution of Decorative Art, 25 ff.

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Chicago: The Unconscious; a Symposium in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed September 22, 2023,

MLA: . The Unconscious; a Symposium, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 22 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , The Unconscious; a Symposium. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 22 September 2023, from