Psychoanalysis on the couch: can neuroscience provide the answers?

Andrea Mechelli
Medical Hypotheses 2010, 75 (6): 594-9
Over a century after Freud's attempt to establish psychoanalysis as a natural science, there is renewed interest in the integration of psychoanalytic and neuroscientific findings within a single theoretical and experimental framework. However, it is important that any intellectual exchange is not motivated only by declining confidence in psychoanalytic theory and practice or awareness of the rising fortunes of the brain sciences. The present paper considers three possible ways in which psychoanalysis and neuroscience might be integrated. These include the investigation of the neurological organisation of psychoanalytically defined phenomena; the evaluation of psychoanalytic theories based on their neurobiological evidence; and the use of neuroimaging techniques to assess the progress and outcome of psychoanalytic treatment. The author argues that these exercises are unlikely to provide psychoanalysis with the "unlimited opportunities for overcoming its uncertainties and doubts" that some have anticipated. For instance, the argument that mapping psychoanalytically defined phenomena in the brain may provide biological validity to these phenomena should be considered an expression of logical confusion; the evaluation of psychoanalytic theories based on their biological evidence is critically dependent on speculative interpretation of what the theories predict at neuronal level; and the supposedly objective evaluation of the progress and outcome of psychoanalytic treatment on the basis of neurobiological data relies on the subjective reports of the patient and analyst. In light of this conclusion, there are a number of outstanding questions which remain to be addressed, including whether psychoanalysis should adhere to scientific canons and whether this would necessarily require an experimental methodology.

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