Freud's theory vindicated.
In experiments done by Dr. Howard Shevrin, of the University of Michigan Medical Center, a word
like fear is flashed on a screen for a thousandth of a second, too fast for the conscious perception
to grasp and act upon. The recognition of the stimulus is called Subliminal Perception; Sub=below,
Electrodes attached to a subject's head to record surface brain activity convey a very brief
response to the subliminal flashing of the word fear, and then, a half second later, there is a sharp
burst of (brain) activity. Conversely, when the word is flashed supra-liminally (at the normal
conscious level of awareness and perception), that is, at a rate slow enough for normal conscious
perception, it takes twice as long for the brain to react.
Dr. Shevrin concludes from this difference in reaction time that all messages to the brain are
selectively transmitted first to the subconscious mind for an evaluation and filtering process.
It is this process that causes the delay. When the words are presented supra-liminally, so that the
subject can actually see them, there is some kind of inhibition or delay of the brains response to
those words. It is suggested that the word is suppressed because it is the type of term that brings
distress with it.
He, actually, has used these techniques to examine Freud's theories. After subjects received
extensive psychological testing by clinicians to determine their core unconscious emotional
conflicts -- e.g. hidden guilt, anxiety, or love and hate for someone -- words summarizing those
conflicts were flashed at them in two ways. First they were flashed subliminally, too fast for the
subjects to consciously register them. Next they were flashed "supraliminally," or just fast enough
for them to register. When words connected to a patient's unconscious conflicts were flashed
subliminally, their brains had a quick recognition wave. When they were flashed supraliminally, or
consciously, the patients were very slow to recognize them. In other words, their brains recognized
their conflicts unconsciously, but had inhibited conscious recognition of them. When words having
nothing to do with their conflicts were flashed, the pattern was reversed -- i.e. we don't repress
In 2005, a new study from the University of
, showed that 80 per cent of Göttingen, Germany
patients in analysis showed significant improvement: their symptoms decreased and they
improved their interpersonal problems and general sense of well-being -- and continued to
improve a year after their analyses ended. These patients did better than those in shorter-term
This supplements a series of recent German studies that show patients in psychoanalysis and
related therapies end up using less medication, have fewer visits to doctors, days off work, or
days in hospital than others.
Another study, by Rolf Sandell of Linköping University, Sweden, showed that patients in
psychoanalysis -- compared to those who have less intensive therapy -- continue to make more
gains, even three years after therapy, and to hold on to the gains they have made. Those who
have had analysis are also far less likely to require more treatment later in life.
But the most exciting story is the way neuroscience, with its new generation of brain scans, is
supporting Freud's assertion that the majority of our thinking, and much of our motivation, goes
on beyond our conscious awareness, or is unconscious.
Freud was originally neither a psychiatrist nor psychologist, but a neuroscientist, who worked in
a lab and who made important discoveries about the brain's nerve cells, or neurons. Freud argued,
in the 1890s, that neurons connect between small junctions, now called synapses, and that when
we learn, two neurons fire at the same time and they connect more closely. When he began seeing
patients, he wrote a manuscript called "The Project". His goal was to unite the science of the
brain with a science of the mind and meaning. But he eventually concluded that brain science was
not yet up to the task. So he turned to understanding the mental triggers for, and meaning of,
emotional and psychiatric symptoms. Psychoanalysis was born. Still, he made sure it was
consistent with what was known about the brain. He soon discovered we are often not conscious
of the triggers of our symptoms or emotional reactions.
Now, brain-scanning techniques can show us our brain while it does mental processing, and study
of the mind and brain can be bridged. A new discipline called neuro-psychoanalysis is completing
Freud's project, made up of many of the world's most impressive neuroscientists, such as Nobel
Prize-winner Eric Kandel, Antonio Damasio, Jaak Panksepp, Oliver Sacks, Joseph LeDoux,
V.S. Ramachandran, and like-minded psychoanalysts. They are drawn to Freud because they see
him as having a far more adequate picture of mind and brain integration than those who see the
brain as nothing more than a sophisticated chemistry set, into which you add medications to make
it work better. Medication has a role, but it is not everything.
Kandel is one of the driving forces behind these developments. Kandel says he himself "benefited
greatly" from being psychoanalyzed, and wanted to become a psychoanalyst. He reasoned that
psychoanalysis and other therapies work by learning, and he set out to understand learning and
memory in the brain. He won his Nobel Prize in 2000 for showing that when animals learn and
remember, the actual structure between the nerves changes, and the synaptic connections
strengthen -- as Freud imagined. Kandel's was one of the most compelling proofs that the brain is
"plastic" and that thinking changes the brain structure. Indeed, a number of recent studies show
that psychotherapy actually rewires the brain, and its changes are no less structural than those
seen with medication. [!!]
Brain scans now show that thought processing goes on beyond awareness, and desires, emotions
and emotional conflicts can actually be unconscious. This means we can, for example, have guilt
without being aware of it, or anger or attraction toward others that we dare not face.
A 2004 study by Kandel and his colleagues at Columbia University, New York, published in Neuron,
demonstrated that when people are shown photos of frightened faces too fast for them to register
consciously, the almond-shaped amygdyla, a part of the brain that processes anxiety and
emotions, lights up on functional magnetic resonance imaging -- fMRI scans. The study also
showed that the amygdyla uses one set of neurons when we "perceive" an emotional experience
unconsciously, and another set when we perceive it consciously. Scientists studying brainwaves --
the electrical fields given off when thousands of our neuron cells fire -- have learned to detect
"recognition waves" forms of brain activity manifested when the brain recognizes something.
Freud's theory that dreams are "the royal road" to understanding unconscious thought has also
received support from brain imaging. Allen Braun, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health
, has used positron emission tomography (PET) scans to measure brain activity in Washington
dreaming subjects. He has shown that the region known as the limbic system, which processes
emotion, sexual, survival and aggressive instincts, and interpersonal attachments, shows high activity in dreaming. But the prefrontal cortex, an area responsible for achieving goals, discipline,
postponing gratification and controlling our impulses, shows lower activity.
With the emotional-instinctual processing areas of the brain turned on, and the part that controls
our impulses relatively inhibited, it is no wonder wishes and impulses we normally restrain, or are
unaware of, are more likely to be expressed in dreams.
Another Freudian idea that is being vindicated by brain scans is how formative early childhood
experience is. Before Freud, it was assumed that since most adults couldn't recall very early
childhood, all that occurred then -- good or bad -- was forgotten. Now, brain scans and other techniques show that when infants undergo great stress (such as
extended separation) or depression, a part of the brain called the hippocampus, required for laying
down verbal or "explicit" memories, shrinks and stops functioning normally.
A study in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2002 showed the hippocampus of depressed
adults who suffered childhood trauma is 18 per cent smaller than that of depressed adults without
childhood trauma. This contributes to sketchy memories of traumatic events. But that doesn't
mean the events don't affect us. Another memory system, called the implicit memory system,
which encodes our emotional patterns for relating, does register the trauma. So traumas can be
encoded without us being able to remember them.
Freud divided the mind into the 'id'- the pool of instincts and desires, which includes our repressed
unconscious wishes, the 'superego'- the opposite - the seat of rules, taboos and authority, and the
'ego'- the manager negotiating between the id and the superego. Ego is the aspect of ourselves,
part conscious - part unconscious, that regulates the rest of us, and is the seat of rational thought
and our sense of who we are.
The goal of the analytic cure was "Where id was, there shall ego be," i.e. to learn to consciously
reclaim and regulate those unconscious parts of ourselves that seemed like alien, driven urges.
Scans show that the prefrontal lobes are the part of the brain that performs ego functions of
regulation. During post-traumatic states, when people have flashbacks and emotional control is
lost, blood flow to the prefrontal lobes decreases.
A 2001 brain scan study from UCLA of depressed patients treated with interpersonal
psychotherapy -- a treatment Kandel's Columbia colleague Myrna Weissman developed by taking
some key features from psychoanalytic approaches -- showed that prefrontal brain activity
normalizes with treatment. Kandel is now on the board of the Ellison Medical Foundation, which is
looking into developing routine ways of using fMRI scans to evaluate psychotherapy outcomes,
and his institution, Columbia University, just received the largest-ever grant to a single university
faculty, $200 million, for a neuroscience research program called "Mind, Brain and Behavior,"
which Kandel will co-direct. This will help realize Freud's "project" of developing a picture of
humanity in which mind and brain are not kept separate, but are seen as two sides of the same