image edited by Fernando Kaskais
A revival of interest in the power of introspection and thought has brought Freud’s ideas back into the scientific fold
An old therapist of mine had a signed photograph of Sigmund Freud hanging on her wall. A gift from a former patient who had employed forgery skills in a side business of dubious legality, it was the iconic Freud photo: full suit, blank scowl, half-smoked cigar. Once, mid-session, I asked my therapist what she thought of Freud’s theories. ‘I don’t think much of them,’ she replied.
Her dismissiveness wasn’t a surprise. By any measure, Freud was one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. Following his death in 1939, the British author W H Auden was able to declare in his poem ‘In Memory of Sigmund Freud’ (1939) that Freud had represented ‘a whole climate of opinion’, and the subsequent two decades represented the heyday of psychoanalysis. No longer. Outside academia, for those who give it any thought, psychoanalysis is generally regarded as having followed phrenology and mesmerism into the dustbin of psychological enquiry. Boys lusting after their mothers; girls desiring a penis – such are the luridly risible impressions that persist in the popular imagination.
What went wrong? In 1996, Tom Wolfe wrote that ‘the demise of Freudianism can be summed up in a single word: lithium’. The American author described how in the early 1950s, after years of psychoanalytic ineffectiveness, rapid physical relief for sufferers of bipolar disorder arrived in the form of a pill. Wolfe’s example is microcosmic of a wider state of affairs. The waning of psychoanalysis corresponds precisely to the rise of modern neuroscience, whose physicalist approach now drives psychiatry. Today, almost anyone could have a go at describing serotonin, or dopamine, or Prozac. Few of those same people could define the primal scene, or the super-ego. As the American author Siri Hustvedt puts it in The Shaking Woman, or a History of My Nerves (2010), Freud is now seen by many if not most as ‘a mystic, a man whose ideas bear no relation to physical realities, a kind of monster of mirage who derailed modernity by feeding all kinds of nonsense to a gullible public until his thought was finally shattered by a new scientific psychiatry founded on the wonders of pharmacology’.
But in recent decades, this picture of philosophical antagonism has been complicated. Around 20 years ago, there emerged a new field, bearing the predictably cumbersome name of neuropsychoanalysis. Adherents to this amorphous research programme – spearheaded by the South African neuropsychologist and psychoanalyst Mark Solms of the University of Cape Town – are keen to rehabilitate Freud’s reputation for the age of the brain. They remind us that the young Freud started his career in neurology, and spent two decades in the hard sciences. They point to Freud’s attempts during the 1890s to ‘furnish a psychology that shall be a natural science’ and stress his lifelong belief that one day his theories would be augmented and refined by the empirical study of our grey matter. Neuropsychoanalysis published the inaugural issue of its academic journal in 1999, and held its first conference a year later. Since then, an increasing number of psychoanalysts have begun to investigate what neuroscience can offer their theories and practice, and conciliatory positions have been adopted by some of the most influential brain scientists of the era: Antonio Damasio, Joseph LeDoux, Jaak Panksepp, V S Ramachandran and, above all, Eric Kandel.
Could it be that Wolfe was wrong when he declared that the era of lithium means the end for Freud? Might the analyst’s couch and the brain scanner have something to offer one another?
Freud believed that, over the course of human history, humankind had suffered three ‘great outrages upon its naïve self-love’. First, there was Copernicus, who, with his finding that the Earth revolved around the Sun, showed that we were not at the centre of the Universe; second, there was Charles Darwin who, with his theory of evolution, showed that we emerged from the animal kingdom, and did not exist apart from it; last, there was Freud himself (he was never one for modesty), via whom psychoanalysis had shown that man was ‘not even master in his own house’ due to the massive effects of the unconscious. In a general way, neuroscience supports Freud’s idea of this third outrage. The idea of a vast and powerful unconscious is the central psychoanalytic concept that, it is claimed, the MRI scanner is now vindicating.
Kandel, a Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist, is the most famous advocate of neuropsychoanalysis. In The Age of Insight (2012), he echoes Freud’s view that ‘most of our mental life, including most of our emotional life, is unconscious at any given moment’. And he points to two other big things Freud got right. First, ‘that the instincts for aggressive and for sexual strivings, like the instincts to eat and drink, are built into the human psyche, into our genome’. Second, that ‘normal mental life and mental illness form a continuum’…