Breathing New Life Into Freud

How the emerging science of neuropsychoanalysis is reviving Sigmund Freud’s old project: analyzing the subjective experience of the individual mind.
  • Transcript


Question: What is neuropsychoanalysis?

Siri Hustvedt:  I became interested in neuropsychoanalysis through the person who is really responsible, I think, for beginning this movement or organization.  His name is Mark Solms.  And he's a brain researcher and a psychoanalyst.  He's worked particularly doing dream research, but he's done other explorations as well.  And it really is an organization that is trying to fulfill an old dream of Freud's.  In 1895, Freud, who was then a neurologist and he had spent a long time working on nerve cells, as a scientist.  So, he sat down and wrote something that is now called "The Project."  It's a project for a scientific psychology.  And his hope was that, what he knew about the brain and the nervous system would provide him with a map or a model of how the mind works. 

He worked on this in a great fury and then he realized that science simply was not able to answer the questions that he had, he put "The Project" aside and the fate of psychoanalysis went from there.  In other words, Freud always knew that the underpinnings of what he thought of as the psyche and his psychic model were in the brain, in these neuronal networks that are coursing through us all the time.  But he couldn't fit them together. 

So, neuropsychoanalysis is really trying to join two languages; the language of the psyche and Freudian psychoanalysis—which of course has gone in many different directions, it’s not just Freud—and neurobiology, and see how these two can be fit together because there is a fit.  It's not easy, but there is a fit.

Question: Does the field further Freud’s project of analyzing the individual mind?

Siri Hustvedt: I think that's the hope.  I think that's exactly the hope.  Now, neuropsychoanalysis does not want to leave out subjectivity.  In other words, we all have a subjective reality.  And talk therapy, psychoanalysis, psychoanalytic psychotherapy, is all about constructing some kind of narrative for the patient out of subjective experience.  But even that... I mean subjectivity itself is now a huge subject in brain research.  Where does subjectivity come from?  How does it work on the level of neurons and synapses in the brain?  And people are studying this very carefully. 

I don't think—there's no solution, but there are overlaps.  I mean, very recently I read a paper by five Italian neuroscientists who were talking about something called long-term potentiation in neural networks in the brain that are connected to learning and memory.  And they had been looking at Freud's project, the project I just talked about that he put aside, and they're conclusion was that the project actually anticipates contemporary neuroscience research into LTP's.  Pretty fascinating.