The problem with psychoanalysis

(Publiquei este post em português no meu blog)

Psychoanalysis has always intrigued me, since my first contact with it at high school until now that I feel able to contextualize it and compare it among the other mind sciences. There is no doubt that it is a controversial issue, both in terms of theory, methodology and practice; people seem to have a reaction somewhat skeptical and mocking to the idea that we can have incestuous desires (unconscious) towards our parents, that a good model of psychotherapy consists basically saying “tell me more about this” or that someone is in need to face repressed feelings.

I must say however that I think that psychoanalysis should be taken seriously. The main reason for this is because I believe in the reality of its subject matter, I think we have strong evidence that the unconscious, the meaning of dreams, repression, hypnosis, defense mechanisms, personality disorders, neurotic symptoms are real phenomena, and they are not so satisfactorily explained by other theories. Psychoanalysis seems to be the only theory (along with its variants) that attempts to broadly explain how our emotional and symbolic representations are made in the face of problems that life imposes us, how they shape our personality and influence our behavior, and their implications on the nature of our mental apparatus, our identity and culture and society in general.

However, one must have great caution when reading Freud and his followers, not because they were careless investigators (I think Freud had a fairly good level of scientific rigor), but because they lived at a time when our knowledge about the brain and human evolution were still very, very primary, so that there was no way to know clearly what kind of structures, mechanisms and functions (physiological and adaptive) were implemented the human brain, and all they could do was to guess. But even with all faith in the projects of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, I still think that psychoanalysis maintains its explanatory niche, to describe, explain and analyze how do symbolic representations form, what is their dynamics and how they are related to the contents of consciousness. I also have serious doubts whether such phenomena could be studied in such depth in any way other than the analysis of individual discourse.

Unfortunately, psychoanalysis seems to have lagged a little in time. Freud and his followers were not as successful in creating a science as tthey were in creating a professional sect, as well as several other schools of psychology, and instead of focusing on checking, testing, grounding and confirming the originally proposed thesis, incorporating new findings from other sciences, dismissing unverifiable theories, psychoanalysts were happy to read the founders and follow them orthodoxically. So that instead of having progress, and becoming a robust body of theory, open and integrated with the rest of human knowledge, it degenerated, became more hermetic, obscure and obsolete.

I have the feeling that something went terribly wrong. Psychoanalysts do not seem to have inherited the investigative spirit of Freud, probing, feeling, experimenting and describing the form of the subjective structures; they seem to me much more in the position of mere observers, comfortable to seek confirmation of their beliefs; psychoanalysis seems to have become a mystical game like astrology or tarot and the psychoanalysts excited about their cultural status and distinctiveness are deliriously playing with metaphors and concepts of doubtful reality while forgetting that they are supposedly talking about a very concrete object: the human psychic apparatus, how does the psyche in every individual of our species in fact works.

I’m sad to see the contempt that the neuroscience community has towards psychoanalysis, which is increasingly taken as pseudosciencientific. I think there is much to be lost here, psychoanalysis loses by ignoring a paradigm that should ground it, and neurosciences loses by ignoring the fine symbolic structure that relates it to the representations of consciousness, feelings and language. The responsibility for this situation as I see it is from both, but primarily of the psychoanalysts who do not show interest to test their hypotheses, formulating them clearly and structuring their theories in a formal way.

One of the great difficulties of psychoanalysis in my opinion is its linguistic imprecision, and since it apparently is not derived from the inability of its authors, I interpret it to be some kind of defense mechanism that protects an insecure self-esteem with a pedantic obscurantism because it fears that clear and assertive claims may expose them to be refuted as any ordinary science. Of course, a true precise statement, on the other hand, is much useful and valuable.

Therefore, in defense of my thesis that psychoanalysis is valuable as a science of the psychic symbolic domain, I will propose some statements that I judge to be significant, reasonably falsifiable, and that as far as I know are in good agreement with the conventional psychoanalytic theory. In particular, I think many of them are susceptible to neuroimaging testing, behavioral experiments and simple practical tests, of course, accompanied by a good statistical analysis:

– The conscious mental life is regulated by a system that restricts or blocks access to certain representations of strong emotional or moral negative meaning.

– Representations “pushed out” of consciousness have a more difficult voluntary access (resistance) to consciousness. Note: There are similar documented cases in patients with anosognosia.

– Symbolic conflicts and blockages may have consequences on the voluntary motor mobility (hysteria).

– Episodic representations are often associated to emotional evaluations (liking, disliking, aversion, disgust, expectation, frustration, humiliation, exaltation, etc.) that influences their conscious accessibility.

– Representations associated with similar emotional evaluations often associate, the evocation of one spontaneously bringing or facilitating access to another. The free association method often reveals this kind of association.

– Unreachable representations (repressed) are often associated with others, transfering its emotional value to them when they usually don’t seem to have a specific reason for that value. The recall of the inaccessible representation should destroy this emotional displacement.

– Emotional intensity during recall is relevant to the relief of symptoms (catharsis).

– The content of dreams often express unconscious desires transfigured in metaphor and metonymy.

– Recent traumatic episodes often cause initial little transfigured dreams. This should increase as the individual re-signify their experience better integrating the memory of the episode with the rest of his/her life.

– The pattern of relationship with the mother, especially in childhood, shapes a model that strongly influences on later intimate relationships of individuals, which often repeat similar patterns (Oedipus complex). John Bowlby developed this idea in his theory of attachment. Perhaps neuroimaging studies would be interesting.

– Moral repression done by the parents is the basis for the individual’s own repression over the moral contents of consciousness (superego).

– There is a sexual energy (libido) that can be released in several ways, of which the sexual act is usually one of the most efficient, but could also be released by other pleasurable activities.

– There should be typical expected behaviors at each stage of psychosexual development according to the symbolic issues involved (Freud).

– Defense mechanisms (Anna Freud) and their triggers, and their ontogenetic determinants (repression, denial, rationalization, projection, idealization, fantasy, dissociation, etc. …).

– Prediction of neurotic symptoms based on personality characteristics of the patient.

– Prognosis of symptoms based on the type of issues addressed in therapy and personality type.