Neurobiology and Psychoanalysis: Thoughts, Ideas, and Controversies


“… In his essentially neuro-physiological account of the mind, Freud did not find a place for the inner world and this prevented him from coming very close to the nature of mental health, for his Darwinian model of the mind could only address itself to mental illness and the causal factors implicated in this. Freud also had difficulty, because of his basic mechanistic model, in thinking of emotionality as being central to mental life, and had no language which could effectively describe the nuances of affective experience. As with symbols, Freud could only think of emotionality in a Darwinian way as a relic of primitive forms of communication and therefore tended to confuse the experience of emotion with the its communication, thus treating it as an indicator of mental functioning rather than as a function itself — akin to a noisy ‘ghost-in-the-machine’.

As we saw in section three, Klein’s work gave an entirely new significance to the concept of phantasy, namely that unconscious phantasies were transactions actually taking place in the internal world — a communication not only between inner and outer, but a negotiation between inner objects, too. This also gave a new meaning to dreams which could not be viewed merely as a process for allaying tension in order to preserve sleep (Freud, 1900). In Klein’s view, dreams could be regarded as pictures of dream life that was going on all the time, awake or asleep, effectively cutting through the primary/secondary process distinction and revising the relationship between conscious and unconscious modes of functioning. In many ways, unconscious phantasy can be regarded as ‘dreaming whilst awake’.

In effect, this transforms psychoanalysis from its status as a Baconian science which aims at explanations leading to absolute truths and laws, into a Platonic account which is essentially a descriptive approach, attempting to observe and describe phenomena that were infinite in their possibilities because they were essentially imaginative and not just neuro-chemical elements of ‘mental energy’ within the brain.

Klein also elevated Freudian psychoanalysis into a Manichean account of the mind where there is an ongoing battle between the psychic forces of love and hate, life and death, fragmentation and integration — the vicissitudes of the struggle in the inner world between the ‘good breast’ and the ‘bad breast’ — all of which structure the of the developing ego and have profound consequences for adult life. This transformed psychoanalysis into a model which could approach the social and organizational relationships not just intrapsychically (literally the “gang in the mind”) but also in terms of the external world. Indeed, it was Bion (1961, 1970) who was to extend this aspect of Klein’s thinking most fully. More recently, Alford (1990) has attempted to link Kleinian insights with the critical social theory of the Frankfurt School.”

What to read in Neuro-Sci-Psych:

Cozolino, L. (2002). The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Building and Rebuilding the Human Brain. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Solms, M. & Turnbull, O. (2002). The Brain and the Inner World. New York: Other Press.

Stephen Kosslyn (2015). Top Brain, Bottom Brain: Harnessing the Power of the Four Cognitive Modes. Simon & Schuster

Excerpt from BrainPickings Blog- by Maria Popova
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