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On first flush the fields of neuroscience and psychoanalysis would seem to have little in common. They differ in epistemology and purpose. Neurobiologists are primarily devotees of the laboratory who enthusiastically embrace the natural science model; hence they focus heavily on basic research, and its guiding ethos of creating control. Psychoanalysts are almost all practitioners; they often harbor considerable skepticism about the natural science model; and they insist on creating meaning.
Though neurobiology and psychoanalysis are frequently viewed as being worlds apart, the (purported) chasm is actually less pronounced than appears. Both lean towards determinism. Conventional psychoanalytic and neurophysiology literatures acknowledge the anatomical and functional reality of human development. Further, both psychoanalysts and neuroscientists seek causal links between anomalous structure (often arising during the developmental period) and pathological function (e.g., adult symptoms). Freud adhered to his medical roots by emphasizing that drives are biological in nature, and posited that neuroscience would eventually lend support to his psychoanalytic theory.
Biology of Freedom epitomizes the growing interface of neuroscience with psychoanalysis. This text, authored by Francois Ansermet, a psychoanalyst, and Pierre Magistretti, a neuroscientist, opens with a broad overview of the book’s thesis: that experience leaves a trace, an inscription, that results in neurophysiological modifications. The authors explain how such inscriptions have an impact on the neuronal level. Though experiential processes result in physiological alterations, the trace effects are not static. Neuronal plasticity underlies the basis for one’s internal reality, or unconscious. Plasticity also forms the ability for an external-based reality via memories of tangible, objective (i.e., non-ideational) experiences. Ongoing experiences and their subsequent physiological inscriptions, the authors report, are simultaneously deterministic and freeing. Specifically, such synaptic modifications impact a person’s internal and external perceptions.
Following the introduction the authors describe the concept of plasticity vis-à-vis neuroscience and psychoanalysis. Anserment and Magistretti explain how the traditionally reductionistic qualities of each field are limited in their understanding of human functioning. Experience creates structural and functional modifications. Neuronal plasticity shifts our understandings of neurological and psychological functioning beyond a fixed entity—it now allows us to comprehensively view humans and human functioning as fluid. This makes it easier to account for idiography. Plasticity suggests that the bifurcational methods of searching for constitutional or psychological etiologies are insufficient. The concept of neuronal plasticity means the putative delineation between genetic or environment (or phenotypical vs. genotypical) expressions of humanity are less distinct, and that they are actually mutually facilitative. This scientifically grounded approach demonstrates the interactive processes between genetics and the environment. Perhaps the most significant implication of plasticity is that the fields of neuroscience and psychoanalysis share significant overlapping principles.
Another early focus of Biology of Freedom is providing a concise overview of neurophysiological principles. The authors cover the structure, functions, and the communication of neurons. Following basic neuron descriptions (complete with easy-to-read diagrams and illustrations) Ansermet and Magistretti focus sharply on the mechanism of plasticity: synaptic transmission. They devote substantial attention explaining the functionality of neuronal communication and the ways in which this allows for plasticity. This is followed by a discussion of the neurobiological underpinnings of learning (and learning theory) and memory. The authors contend that the neurophysiological concepts of associative learning, long-term potentiation, and the effects of experiential traces within the hippocampus form the basis for neuronal plasticity. Ansermet and Magistretti further state that such concepts relate to psychodynamics. The authors reason the existence of a reciprocal relationship between neurobiology (and neuronal plasticity) and the unconscious, and demonstrate how this colors the lens through which we interpret our external world. For some this section is a necessary revisiting of basic neurophysiology, while for others it is a review and extension of biological principles. Regardless of one’s familiarity with psychobiology, this part will serve as an informative section upon which the thesis of the psychoanalysis–neuroscience relationship is built.
Whereas the beginning chapters focus on neuroscience, the middle sections address the neurobiological aspects of psychoanalytic drive theory, somatic experiences, and interpretations of the external world.
Ansermet and Magistretti apply the groundbreaking neurobiological works of Damasio (1994) and LeDoux (1996) to psychodynamic concepts. Specifically, the authors demonstrate how psychosomatic reactions (e.g., agitation, blushing) have not only the commonly accepted psychodynamic etiology, but that they are further linked to a neurophysiologic factor (e.g., somatic marker), thus establishing the existence of biological substrates for psychological phenomena. They demonstrate how fantasies are firmly linked to unconscious bodily experiences, also known as somatic markers. Furthermore, this section addresses the neurobiological aspects of psychic tension, drive theory, and the mechanisms by which homeostasis are maintained.
Ansermet and Magistretti later parse the complexities of violence. They first explain the fantasy-driven impetuses of behavioral acts of violence. The authors then distinguish proactive, life-striving forms of violence (e.g., potency, self-protecting) from destructive types of violence (e.g., murder, domination, rape). Though each has a different individual and societal impact, the origins of these two behaviorally different methods of violence are more similar than unique. They explicate how the confluence of soma and psyche result in the manifestation of aggressive actions. This intriguing discussion of violence is followed by a discussion of the external–internal reality relationship. Ansermet and Magistretti provide everyday examples which highlight the overshadowing influence of one’s internal word. They provide information on how the unconscious—not bound to reality, temporal limits, or parameters—expands an individual’s range of behavioral and psychological reactions. The authors cogently report on the somatic foundations of psychoanalytic concepts of instincts and drives, and how these internal phenomena are more figural than internal stimuli in generating actions. They also explain how neurosis develops via stymied internal discharges, not the inaccessibility of external objects. The notion that unconscious, internal factors outweigh external and conscious factors in generating psychological and behavioral reactions is nothing new to psychoanalysts.
What is new to many is the association with a psychobiological explanation. The authors, complete with diagrams, provide numerous examples highlighting the biological–psychological–behavioral relationship.
Ansermet and Magistretti later shift their focus to the experience of pleasure and unpleasure. They explain how ruptures in physical and/or psychological homeostasis create the experience of unpleasure. Psychic tension, which develops via the fantasy–somatic marker relationship, initiates the drive. The subsequent motive of the drive is discharge, which reduces unpleasure and reestablishes homeostasis. This is the pleasure principle rooted in both biology and psychology, just as Freud suggested, with one difference: the pleasure principle aims to reduce unpleasure, not to seek pleasure. Though the individual believes the motive of the drive is to obtain external objects (to seek pleasure), the actual sources are the somatic and psychic need to eliminate tension (to reduce displeasure).
In other words, conscious cognitive processes in concert with the more potent unconscious fantasies fuel somatic experiences (which stimulate the need for drive discharge) with the external object as the supposed trigger for discharge. However, the actual somatic marker is the true source. Ansermet and Magistretti lend biological (not to mention scientific) support to these classical psychoanalytic tenets.
The later focus of the text works to securely connect the concept of plasticity with psychoanalysis. Ansermet and Magistretti explain how experience modifies synapses. Such transcriptions impact (and modify) somatic markers, which influence the ways in which external reality is viewed while simultaneously modifying one’s internal reality. In other words, experience modifies the internal while the internal modifies our experience of the external. Neuronal plasticity (via experience), therefore, alters our neurobiology and our unconscious. This concept of inscription, however, marks a modification of another kind: determinism. From this perspective, neurobiological and psychological determinism is not fatalistic. Quite the contrary, experience produces functional and structural changes. Therefore, people are not narrowly confined to their psychology or biology. Though deterministic factors exist, experience breeds possibilities. The more one experiences, the more expansive parameters become. A person’s subjective perceptions and ever-changing internal word is born out of neuronal plasticity. This lends scientific support to the adage “existence proceeds essence.”
Ansermet and Magistretti discuss how, through the mechanisms of plasticity, experience inscribes traces on the neuronal circuits on the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious levels. The authors reference research demonstrating that certain sensory stimuli bypass the primary cortical areas and ascend directly from the thalamus to the amygdala. The amygdala is associated with the endocrine and autonomic systems. Ansermet and Magistretti provide procedural information indicating that stimuli going directly to the amygdala are unconscious from the outset, and that these inscriptions are related to somatic states (e.g., somatic markers). Such experiences remain unconscious, that is, unless psychoanalytic treatment occurs. This explains how a presumably innocuous external stimulus can trigger strong somatic and psychologically evocative reactions, often without the individual knowing why. The authors state this neurophysiological–psychological concept accounts for psychophysiological reactions experienced by people with drug addictions and sexual fetishes when exposed to certain external stimuli. This underscores the notion that motivations are to be found within internal reality, not external stimuli.
The central theme of Biology of Freedom is the provision of a neurophysiological foundation to psychoanalytic theory. The text closes by attempting to link theory with psychoanalytic practice. The goal of psychodynamic therapy is to access a patient’s unconscious and to work through his/her fantasies. This information is not noteworthy. What is noteworthy in this section is what that authors claim insight–oriented treatment does on a neuronal level. Ansermet and Magistretti highlight how the working through of analytic therapy creates new traces via the treatment experience. Specifically, plasticity modifies synapses, which facilitates the alteration of internal reality. This provides new traces, which create a new window through which a patient interprets his or her world. By addressing a patient’s fantasies, associations, and somatic reactions, plasticity provides a modification, or freedom, from historical patterns and penchants. As the authors state:
In short, we can define the psychoanalyst in a new way as a practitioner of plasticity, that is, someone who is counting on the potentialities of plasticity to reopen the field of possibilities, not by rejecting what came before, but on the contrary by using what came before to enable the patient to do something else with it (p. 240).
Biology of Freedom represents an important movement in psychoanalysis. It offers a fresh outlook. Over the last 100 years, psychoanalysis has experienced a diversification of theoretical approaches (e.g., object relations, self psychology, and relational analysis). Integrating neuroscience with psychoanalysis allows for proactive expansion of our field. Buttressing psychoanalytic thought with psychoneurology enables psychoanalysis to advance via the incorporation of the broad psychophysiological literature.
Ansermet and Magistretti provide a successful bridging of two academic worlds. More rooted in neurobiology than psychology, some practitioners may feel intimated by the biological focus. This is unnecessary. The authors’ clear writing style makes often dense material easily accessible to those psychologists without a solid understanding of neuroscience. Another significant strength in exploring the biology–psychoanalysis relationship is linking psychoanalysis with science. Much to the chagrin of scientifically oriented psychodynamic clinicians (not to mention the detriment of the field), psychoanalysis has often sidestepped controlled empirical examination. Neurobiology’s scientific foundation provides a much needed scientific approach to how we conceptualize psychoanalysis. Therefore, it behooves the psychodynamic practitioner to embrace the endeavors of Ansermet and Magistretti (and others).
A possible shortcoming of Biology of Freedom is its limited applicability to the consulting room. This book’s focus is on metapsychology, not technique. Also, the authors emphasize drive theory (i.e., pleasure principle, secondary principle) in addition to more controversial concepts like the death instinct. Therefore, those psychoanalytically oriented psychologists exclusively looking for neurology savvy treatment of non-drive theory approaches and/or for a practice-oriented text might find this book disappointing. However, the advantages far outweigh any shortcomings. Biology of Freedom: Neuronal Plasticity, Experience, and the Unconscious is a worthy read for any psychologist wishing to broaden his/her psychoanalytic thinking.
Damasio, A.R. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Putnam.
LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Anthony F. Tasso
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