Monday, September 26, 2011

An Examination of Psychoanalysis (Part 2/13)

Freud's Biological Roots: The "Project for a Scientific Psychology"
Immediately after completing Studies in Hysteria with Breuer in 1895, Freud undertook one of his most ambitious projects: the formulation of a "Psychology for Neurologists." Comprising three notebooks (two of which contained over 100 manuscript pages), Freud's Project for a Scientific Psychology was probably the clearest statement of his desire to establish a neurobiological model of the mind. In explaining the purposes of the Project in the opening chapter, Freud wrote:

The intention is to furnish a psychology that shall be a natural science: that is, to represent psychical processes as quantitatively determinate states of specifiable material particles, thus making those processes perspicuous and free from contradiction.[1] [Emphasis added]

The content of the Project was ambitious: Freud proposed three separate systems of neuronal activity to account for the varying functions of perception, memory, and consciousness . He also proposed neurophysiological models for the "ego functions" (such as cognition, judgment, recall, etc.), sleep and dream states, and hallucinatory and hysterical states. Despite these rather formidable accomplishments Freud failed in the one area in which he was most interested: the discovery of a biological model of repression. He had wanted to achieve nothing short of "a comprehensive physiological explanation of...the precise neurological and chemical details of repression."[2] Since he viewed the problems of defense and repression as the "core of the riddle," his inability to solve the riddle constituted a major professional loss.
In writing to his friend Fleiss about the first two notebooks of the Project, Freud lamented that the third one, which dealt with the longed-for "mechanical explanation of neurosis," was not "hanging together." By 1896 Freud had abandoned the Project altogether. This failure triggered a decisive turning point in his career in which he ruefully abandoned the unattainable biological laws for more accessible and less disputable psychological concepts. He wrote:

From this point onwards, I shall venture to leave unanswered the question of finding a mechanical representation of biological rules such as this.... Perhaps in the end I may have to content myself with the clinical explanation of neurosis.[3]

This is precisely what Freud proceeded to do.

Freud's First Model of the Mind: A Bipartite System

What Freud had originally described in the neuroanatomical language of the Project in 1895, he now re-described in psychological concepts in his historical The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900. Here he presented what was assumed to be his first formulation of the structure of the mind a psychological description of the "psychical apparatus."
The unexpected discovery of the Project in the 1950s threw shadows of controversy over The Interpretation of Dreams , which had b een always regarded as Freud's first masterpiece. In light of the Project, some historians believed that Freud's psychological re-formulation in The Interpretation of Dreams amounted to nothing more than a "convenient fiction [that] had the paradoxical effect of preserving these [biological] assumptions by hiding their original nature, and by transferring the operations of the apparatus into a conceptual realm where they were insulated from correction by progress in neurophysiology and brain anatomy."[4] In effect, a kind of conceptual whitewash job. Sulloway evaluates:

Did Freud...simply retain old-fashioned neurological terms (e.g., "cathexis") while giving them a new and independent psychoanalytic meaning in The Interpretation of Dreams and subsequent works? Or, are the outmoded nineteenth-century neurological constructs so evident in the Project still holding up the creaking scaffolding of present-day psychoanalysis, as Robert Holt insists, and has their cryptic nature insulated psychoanalysis from a much_needed rejuvenation within the fertile field of neurophysiology where it originated?[5] 

We have no way of knowing if , as Holt suggests, Freud consciously or unconsciously intended to insulate and protect his theories by means of a psychological reformulation. It seems likely that his new terminology might have been a legitimate attempt to sustain psychoanalytic theory despite lack of scientific corroboration, and to propose concepts that might be clinically useful in understanding the human mind. What is noteworthy in this controversy, as Sulloway indicates, is not so much what Freud failed to do, but what his successors have chosen not to do . That is , o rejuvenate modern-day psychoanalytic theory "within the fertile field of neurophysiology where it originated." 

Freud's First Model of Mental Functioning

Freud initially divided the mind into the unconscious system and the preconscious system. Contents in the preconscious system, he theorized, could enter consciousness fairly easily. One need only give sufficient attention and energy (cathexis) to them and they would pass into conscious thought (the "transference phenomena"). A rarely purchased grocery item, an unimportant phone call, the title of a book, and so forth, might slip forgotten into the preconscious for a period of time, but could be remembered. Unconscious contents, however, never had direct access to consciousness. They had to first pass through the preconscious system, which modified them into a form suitable for conscious perception. Thus:

We were only able to explain the formation of dreams by venturing upon the hypothesis of there being two physical agencies, one of which submitted the activity of the other to a criticism which involved its exclusion from consciousness. The critical agency, we concluded, stands in a closer relation to consciousness than the agency criticized: it stands like a screen between the latter and consciousness.[6]

Here we see Freud's free use of metaphor ("it stands like a screen") to depict processes he had formerly described in Project in terms of cell permeability and impermeability, the "inertial pattern of neuronal discharge," and the phi, psi, and omega system of neurones. One might even say this new reformulation anthropomorphizes, with its "critical agency and its "agency criticized" submitting and excluding information between both sets of ideas. This is not to devalue the reformulation, only to point out the degree to which Freud had turned in a different direction.[7]
In essence, Freud suggests that we cannot receive anything directly from the unconscious. All unconscious wishes, impulses, and motivations first had to be censored and altered by a "passage" through the "screen" of the preconscious. This screening process was most clearly observable in dream activity. One could deduce the original unconscious content -- say, a desire to murder the mother -- and see how it was redressed by its passage through the preconscious: in the manifest dream, the dreamer makes several unsuccessful attempts to kill a pesky mosquito. And so forth.
What is interesting to note here is that even at this early point Freud saw the mechanisms of censorship and repression as non-pathological. They could become pathological through the neurotic process, but they were first and foremost a critical part of maintaining normal mental health -- so critical, in fact, that psychosis would result if they failed.

[2]In Sulloway, op. cit., p. 113.
[3]In Sulloway, op. cit., p. 126.
[4]In Sulloway, op. cit., p. 120 (quoting Robert Holt).
[5]Sulloway, op.cit., p. 120.
[7]It is important to realize that although Freud had opted to draw this "first crude map" of the mind in the hypothetical (and often metaphorical) language of psychology, he made lt quite clear that he viewed psychological processes as derivatives or secondary manifestations of the underlying and primary biophysiological processes -- which he still hoped someday to discover.


  1. It's interesting how you said Freud gave up on a mechanical representation of the minds pathology. So after that came clinical observation, and then (as I see it) a best attempt to explain things through observing relationships between phenomena, and then guessing at psychological laws.

    When Freud moved in this direction (because he had no choice) it seems everyone else did too. We have seen a huge amount of pull-it-out-of-out-butts style theorising in the psychology world, with no respect for an attempt to ground our ideas in neurology.

    Maybe this whole game that has evolved is, in essence, an expression of psychology being a failed science - beginning with Freud's failure. If so then Freud is still one of the most dignified scientists because at least he strived for a science based in neurology. Other theorists (excluding yourself of course, Art) seem to be happy to outright ignore neurology.

    It is true, I believe, that psychology and neurology should not be a separate science. At the end of the day they are both dealing with the exact same reality - the human brain.

  2. Andrew: My friend, Dr. Ed Park, the man who investigates telomeres calls psychiatry the fascist pseudoscience. art

  3. frankly i can do without the "fascist pseudoscience" bit; sorry.

  4. Grumpy: It ain't my word. It's a reader. art


Review of "Beyond Belief"

This thought-provoking and important book shows how people are drawn toward dangerous beliefs.
“Belief can manifest itself in world-changing ways—and did, in some of history’s ugliest moments, from the rise of Adolf Hitler to the Jonestown mass suicide in 1979. Arthur Janov, a renowned psychologist who penned The Primal Scream, fearlessly tackles the subject of why and how strong believers willingly embrace even the most deranged leaders.
Beyond Belief begins with a lucid explanation of belief systems that, writes Janov, “are maps, something to help us navigate through life more effectively.” While belief systems are not presented as inherently bad, the author concentrates not just on why people adopt belief systems, but why “alienated individuals” in particular seek out “belief systems on the fringes.” The result is a book that is both illuminating and sobering. It explores, for example, how a strongly-held belief can lead radical Islamist jihadists to murder others in suicide acts. Janov writes, “I believe if people had more love in this life, they would not be so anxious to end it in favor of some imaginary existence.”
One of the most compelling aspects of Beyond Belief is the author’s liberal use of case studies, most of which are related in the first person by individuals whose lives were dramatically affected by their involvement in cults. These stories offer an exceptional perspective on the manner in which belief systems can take hold and shape one’s experiences. Joan’s tale, for instance, both engaging and disturbing, describes what it was like to join the Hare Krishnas. Even though she left the sect, observing that participants “are stunted in spiritual awareness,” Joan considers returning someday because “there’s a certain protection there.”
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Barry Silverstein, Freelance Writer

Quotes for "Life Before Birth"

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Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D.
Bailey Endowed Chair of Animal Well Being Science
Washington State University

Dr. Janov’s essential insight—that our earliest experiences strongly influence later well being—is no longer in doubt. Thanks to advances in neuroscience, immunology, and epigenetics, we can now see some of the mechanisms of action at the heart of these developmental processes. His long-held belief that the brain, human development, and psychological well being need to studied in the context of evolution—from the brainstem up—now lies at the heart of the integration of neuroscience and psychotherapy.
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An expansive analysis! This book attempts to explain the impact of critical developmental windows in the past, implores us to improve the lives of pregnant women in the present, and has implications for understanding our children, ourselves, and our collective future. I’m not sure whether primal therapy works or not, but it certainly deserves systematic testing in well-designed, assessor-blinded, randomized controlled clinical trials.
K.J.S. Anand, MBBS, D. Phil, FAACP, FCCM, FRCPCH, Professor of Pediatrics, Anesthesiology, Anatomy & Neurobiology, Senior Scholar, Center for Excellence in Faith and Health, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare System

A baby's brain grows more while in the womb than at any time in a child's life. Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script That Rules Our Lives is a valuable guide to creating healthier babies and offers insight into healing our early primal wounds. Dr. Janov integrates the most recent scientific research about prenatal development with the psychobiological reality that these early experiences do cast a long shadow over our entire lifespan. With a wealth of experience and a history of successful psychotherapeutic treatment, Dr. Janov is well positioned to speak with clarity and precision on a topic that remains critically important.
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His new book “Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script that Rules Our Lives” shows that primal therapy, the lower-brain therapeutic method popularized in the 1970’s international bestseller “Primal Scream” and his early work with John Lennon, may help alleviate depression and anxiety disorders, normalize blood pressure and serotonin levels, and improve the functioning of the immune system.
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