By Allen Esterson
The May 2004 issue of Scientific American carries an article on Freud and some recent research in neuroscience with the title “Freud Returns”. Below are some comments on the article by Allen Esterson.
I never cease to be astonished at the confidence with which erroneous assertions about Freud are made in articles such as “Freud Returns” in the May 2004 issue of Scientific American, written by Mark Solms, psychoanalyst and neuroscientist. For instance, Solms writes: “When Freud introduced the central notion that most mental processes that determine our everyday thoughts, feelings and volitions occur unconsciously, his contemporaries rejected it as impossible.” This piece of psychoanalytic mythology has been shown to be false by historians of psychology since the 1960s and 1970s, yet it is still being propagated in popular articles by pro-Freud writers like Solms. Schopenhauer had posited something akin to the notion Solms ascribes to Freud before the latter was born. Francis Galton, writing in Brain in 1879-1880, described the mind as analogous to a house beneath which is “a complex system of drains and gas and water-pipes…which are usually hidden out of sight, and of whose existence, so long as they act well, we never trouble ourselves.” He went on to discuss “the existence of still deeper strata of mental operations, sunk wholly below the level of consciousness, which may account for such phenomena as cannot otherwise be explained.” (Incidentally, Freud subscribed to Brain at that time.) The historian of psychology, Mark Altschule, wrote in 1977: “It is difficult - or perhaps impossible - to find a nineteenth century psychologist or medical psychologist who did not recognize unconscious cerebration as not only real but of the highest importance.”
Solms cites the cognitive neuroscientist Eric R. Kandel among an increasing number of neuroscientists who are reaching the conclusion that the current model of the mind as revealed by neuroscience “is not unlike the one that Freud outlined a century ago.” Is this the same Eric R. Kandel who wrote in 1999 that “the neural basis for a set of unconscious mental processes” provided by current discoveries in neuroscience “bears no resemblances to Freud’s unconscious”? Kandel continues: “[This unconscious] is not related to instinctual strivings or to sexual conflicts, and the information never enters consciousness. These sets of findings provide the first challenge to a psychoanalytically oriented neural science.” (Am. J. Psychiatry, 155:4, p. 468) (Solms implicitly alludes to the title of this very article [“A new intellectual framework for psychiatry”] when he cites Kandel a second time later in Scientific American piece!)
That Solms is well-versed in Freudian mythologies, but ignorant of the facts that have been documented to refute them, is confirmed by his writing that when Freud argued for the existence of “primitive animal drives” in humans his ideas were received with “moral outrage” by his Victorian contemporaries. This account purporting to give an overall picture of the situation at that time has been refuted so many times by scholars who have researched the period that one despairs that the actual facts will ever penetrate the hermetically sealed world of psychoanalytic traditionalists.
Solms presents (in the usual imprecise fashion of such descriptions) Freud’s notions of the id and ego as having correlates in current brain research. But, as the British psychologist William McDougall pointed out seventy years ago, the notion expressed by Freud that the ego stands for reason and circumspection and the id stands for the untamed passions goes back to “Plato’s doctrine of Reason as the charioteer who guides the fierce unruly horses, the passions, which are the motive powers.” Sometimes it seems that there is almost no psychological insight in the history of the human race that Freudians do not ascribe to Freud.
Supposedly in support of Freud’s notions of infantile development (highly bowdlerised, as is the nature of such presentations) Solms writes that one would be hard-pressed to find a developmental neurobiologist “who does not agree that early experiences, especially between mother and infant, influence the pattern of brain connections in ways that fundamentally shape our future personality and mental health.” There are several comments one might make in regard to this statement. How could it be otherwise than that life experiences influence the pattern of brain connections in a baby, growing into infancy, in a way that is crucial to the future development of the brain? The idea that we owe the origination of such notions to Freud, or that to accept them is to credit Freud’s highly specific notions of infantile psychosexual development, is absurd. Whether it can be said that such experiences “shape” the future personality and mental health partly depends on what precisely is meant by the word “shape” in this context. That they have considerable influence on the future personality and future mental health of the individual is without doubt the case, but the extent to which they are a determining factor is a matter of dispute.
Solms writes at this point that “It is becoming increasingly clear that a good deal of our mental activity is unconsciously motivated.” Yes, indeed, as has been implicit in the writings of Rochefoucauld, Montaigne, Trollope, Austen, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, and so on, and explicitly spelled out by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche well before Freud wrote about this notion. The only remarkable thing about this passage in Solms’s article is that he is so determined to credit Freud with this commonplace.
Solms writes of a “basic mammalian instinctual circuit” recently discovered in the brain that it is a “seeking system” which “bears a remarkable resemblance to the Freudian ‘libido’.” He later refers to a statement by the neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp in an article in Newsweek (11 November 2002), and it happens that this very article provides more details of the “libido” claim. It reports some recent experimental research by Panksepp on the ventraltegmental area of the cortex of the brain. The author of the article, Fred Guterl, writes:
“When Panksepp stimulated the corresponding region in a mouse, the animal would sniff the air and walk around, as though it were looking for something… The brain tissue seemed to cause a general desire for something new. ‘What I was seeing,’ he says, ‘was the urge to do stuff.’ Panksepp called this seeking. To Mark Solms of University College in London, that sounds very much like libido. ‘Freud needed some sort of general, appetitive desire to seek pleasure in the world of objects,’ says Solms. ‘Panksepp discovered as a neuroscientist what Freud discovered psychologically’.”
Note the steps in this argument. A neuroscientist discovers a region in a mouse’s brain which, when stimulated, causes it to walk around as if it is seeking something, described by the neuroscientist as an “urge to do stuff”. Solms associates this directly with Freud’s “libido” concept, and proclaims the new research as the neuroscientific correlate of Freud’s psychological ‘discovery’. And then in Scientific American he unequivocally calls the “seeking” brain circuitry the “neural equivalent” of Freud’s libido. What nonsense! We didn’t need Freud to tell us that human beings have an innate propensity to explore the world, and to endeavour to intensify their sensual and emotional experiences. That Solms is at pains to identify this basic behavioural characteristic of many mammals with Freud’s ill-defined, highly elastic concept of “libido” tells us more about his devotion to Freud than about the subject matter in question. Such is the sycophantic attitude that many such magazines in the United States still retain towards Freud, the “Newsweek” report on Panksepp’s research on a mouse’s brain was titled “What Freud Got Right”!
On the theme of “what Freud got right”, Solms cites the notion supported by brain research that dream content has a “primary emotional mechanism”. But more accurately he should have said that this is what Charcot, Janet, and Krafft-Ebing got right, because, as the Freud scholar Rosemarie Sand has documented, such a view of the content of dreams was postulated by these psychologists (among several others) before Freud wrote a word on the subject. This includes Krafft-Ebing’s view that unconscious sexual wishes could be detected in dreams, i.e., essentially the wish-fulfillment theory of dreams, alluded to in his article, that Solms is itching to claim as another triumph for Freud - if (and it’s a big if, in the view of the dream researcher J. Allan Hobson), an hypothesis he has put forward concerning the results of recent dream research and their interpretation, is correct. As Hobson has argued, Solms’s broad assertions that imply that current brain research validates the specific content of Freud’s theories of dreaming and dream analysis do not withstand close examination.
I could go on, but I’ll conclude with Solms’s statement that “Today treatments that integrate psychotherapy with psychoactive medications are widely recognized as the best approach to brain disorders.” What he doesn’t say is that, in the UK at least (and Solms until very recently resided there), it is widely recognized that the most effective form of psychotherapy for this purpose is cognitive and behavioural therapy, not psychodynamic therapies that are based on Freudian concepts. That he then attempts to associate the aforementioned “psychotherapy” with (by implication, psychoanalytic-style) “talk therapy”, and thence to “brain imaging”, is more than a trifle disingenuous. For Solms, it seems, all roads lead to Freud, and one gains the impression that whatever the results of current brain research he will continue to write articles seeking to show they are “consistent with” some or other contention of the Master.
Allen Esterson is the author of Seductive Mirage: An Exploration of the Work of Sigmund Freud
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