Brain and Psychoanalysis, The

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The effort to establish the relationships between psychological functioning, the organization of the apparatus that implements it, and the working and structure of the brain, is an issue that has been raised continually since the beginnings of psychoanalysis. Psychic activity that arises wholly independent of the brain itself is inconceivable. The question is whether we can identify specific cerebral mechanisms and structures that could be said to govern those characteristics of mental functioning that psychoanalysis has discovered.

This means viewing psychoanalysis in the context of a much more general problem, that of the relationship and interaction between mind and brain. Freud was confronted with this question long before he developed an interest in psychopathology and the psychotherapy of hysteria. His work on aphasia (1891b) is part of what has been rightly described as a neuropsychological tradition (Pribram and Gill).

In the early 1890s, thanks to the anatomico-pathological methods introduced by Paul Broca, it was shown that the function of language resulted from independent mechanisms that could be altered in isolation and that such specific alterations were tied to relatively localized lesions. This work, especially that of Carl Wernicke, confirmed the existence of cerebral localizations and the "modular" nature of the mechanisms involved in the exercise of particular functions. Freud, anticipating the findings of much later neuropsychology, went on to criticize the exaggeratedly modular approach involved in this conception of the brain and proposed a more comprehensive and functionalist view of cerebral activity according to which the "centers" identified would participate in carrying out their respective functions.

In 1895, in what is known as his "Project for a Scientific Psychology," a work that remained unfinished and was later abandoned, and which was to have been titled "Psychology for Neurologists," Freud proposed a structural and functional model based on the recently recognized concept of the neurone to describe brain functions in relation to mental activity. Like many others at the time (Gauchet), he was careful to conceive of mental activity independently of consciousness, and attempted to base his picture of psychic functioning on the model of the brain. That picture already bore the imprint of Freud's own metapsychology, especially with respect to the assimilation of consciousness to an internal perception, the dissociation between perception and memory traces, the priority of "hallucinatory" representation over reality, and in other facets.

Freud soon abandoned any pretensions to constructing a model of the brain likely to account for the features of mental life revealed by psychoanalysis. This abandonment was strictly methodological, however, and throughout his work he firmly maintained the idea that brain mechanisms must ultimately determine these features. On several occasions, in fact, he risked drawing parallels between cerebral and metapsychological models.

Subsequently, and especially during the last four decades of the twentieth century, the considerable progress made in understanding the brain has not failed to invite speculation among psychoanalysts. Hemispheric laterality, cortical-subcortical dissociation, individualization of the limbic circuit, experiments with self-stimulation leading to the isolation of structures of positive and negative reinforcement (pleasure-unpleasure), humoral transmission systems, and so on, have resulted in research and the construction of models involving a distinct parallelism.

This immediately raises several questions. No one contests the need to postulate the existence of cerebral mechanisms, but does it follow that we need them to identify the symbolic structures (language, social structures, etc.) that influence mental development? Clearly every particular aspect of mental life can be explained by some form of psychological determinism, but what can be said about the functions of dreaming, in particular its function as a guardian of sleep? Will we ever establish any strict isomorphism between brain functions and mental functions? All such questions are still open.

More generally, a distinction may usefully be drawn between those who believe that the psychoanalytic conception of mental life can help us understand the workings of the brain and those who feel that this understanding must involve reducing the complexity of observed mental activities to elementary cognitive mechanisms. This debate affects psychoanalysts and philosophers as well as specialists in brain physiology.

Daniel WidlÖcher

See also: Hard science and psychoanalysis.


Freud, Sigmund. (1891b [1953]). On aphasia (a critical study) (E. Stengel, Trans.). New York: International Universities Press.

. (1950c [1895]). Project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1: 281-387.

Gauchet, Marcel. (1992). L'Inconscient cérébral. Paris: Le Seuil.

Pribram, Karl H., and Gill, Merton M. (1976). Freud's "project" reassessed. London: Hutchinson.