No-man’s-land: On the legacy of the Project

Image by WindwalkerNld via Flickr

Between psychoanalysis and neuroscience a war torn field exists with all the hallmarks of a no-man’s-land. At the centre of this field however there is a fabulous prize, an objective initially pointed to by Freud (1895) as the natural basis for the Project for a Scientific Psychology. That is, a prize in the form of a naturalised, integrated protocol to human emotion and cognition, mind and brain. In what follows I will very briefly discuss and then conclude by proposing that the legacy of the Project (not the actual contents) might be both the right move at the right time and that the time might be closer to fruit now than has been possible to envision to date.

Exactly one hundred years after the publication of the Project the much respected Otto Kernberg’s (1995) conference address to the 39th IPA was, in actuality, not at all disguised as a unequivocal call for a broader bandwidth of dialogue between researchers and clinicians, a clear vision of an integrationist future where tolerance of the field of neurobiology by the field of contemporary psychoanalysis, and vice versa, could be within touching distance.

It appeared that Kernberg’s intuitive sensibility urgently required of his colleagues their collective leaving the old ways behind and actively engaging with an opportunity for a lasting cessation of hostilities. Sandler, Michels & Fonagy (2000) refer to the possibility of what has been called a rapprochement  – in terms not dissimilar to those approaching a foreshadowing of a necessary paradigm shift.

For Nagel (2000) a grip on the actual concept at stake – the concept of some greater understanding of the psychophysical nexus of inner phenomena – obtains directly from a diminution of importance attached to any one particular discipline or single interpretive base in favour of the primacy of the outcome as an outcome for all to share.

Shevrin (2002) and Kandel (1999) also share in the belief in a new intellectual framework for what might be termed integrationist protocols between stakeholders in their ongoing research. For Solms (1998; 2002) a reinstatement of contact between the psychoanalytic and the biological paradigms is absolutely necessary to unveil the deep structures of neurological dysfunction across the specturm of imaging to relationship with the patient. Here the notion of contact, for Solms, finds correspondences and resonances with participation in and the sharing of the lived-experience of observable clinical data.

Nonetheless for each of these proponents for a paradigm shift in interdisciplinary thought concerning emotion and cognizance there are an equal number of radical neurobiologists chanting Crick’s (1995) radical materialist mantra:

“You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

Indeed the so-named Decade of the Brain, as it came to be dubbed, brought with it a huge rise in further bio-materialist speculations. Notwithstanding, it would be a glaring oversimplification to suggest that, whilst Crick was without doubt what might be called a logical behaviourist and an ardent secular rationalist, he was also a robust advocate in the promotion of a greater degree of constructive interaction between specialists from the many different disciplines involved in the neurobiology of consciousness.

More recently Vaslamatzis (2007) has pointed up sophisticated epistemological confluences found in analytical and biological narratives alike through recourse to an interesting exploration of: dualism as an inadequate solution and an insufficient explanation; cautioning against the privileging of a single interpretation from a hermeneutic perspective; and, criticisms obtaining from neuroscientists themselves as to the uniqueness of the subjective experience of qualia. Though, it ought to be pointed out that, in this paper Vaslamatzis (2007) appears to overstate the actual location of both Kandel (1999) and Shevrin’s (2002) thoughts as opposed, if not contradistinctive, to those found in psychoanalysis. Indeed, in this regard there is no hiding from the evidence that the Nobel laureate, Kandel, remains to this time avowedly sympathetic to the cause for affective neuroscience. Whilst emeritus professor, Shevrin, continues to push the envelope of analytical and neurobiological thought alike from the inside out, as he has done for the majority of his long and highly distinguished career.

So whilst it is common to both disciplines to speak of the plasticity of the neural substrate and the comorbidity of complex relational factors (i.e. cortico-thalamo-cortico connectivity and the facilitating environment), that is, as working together in combination to set the stage for the conditions of the inner world of mental phenomena, it is also the case that neurobiology and analytical thought might in a sense mirror this plasticity (perhaps, in a similarly successful way as that seen in the now-common combination of medico-psychiatry and psychotherapy).

What is clear is that the traditional conceptual notion of natural science as a purely material and reductionist narrative, on the one hand, and analytical thought and practice as merely concerned with the interpretation of meaning, on the other, is, I would suggest, too oversimplified an explanation to serve any proper purpose. It is perhaps no longer a sustaining or sustainable bifurcation of materialist and interpretive narratives set in concrete isolation. Rather, the integrative view of and belonging to practitioner scientists of the future seems to involve a knowing commitment to the primacy of complexity and subtlety of the nature of the subject of cognizance, conscious or unconscious.

The determination of unconscious/non-conscious processes ought no longer to be a matter of more novel significance than those points of order made apparent by the study of semantics demand (i.e. lexicalisation). And, whilst there may continue to be those few zealous reductionist followers popping up spouting Crick’s materialist dogma, or, equally, Melanie Klein’s concretised metaphysical navel-gazing, one can only hope that, speaking as a much-invested onlooker and participant in the next few decades (hopefully), the numbers of orthodox isolationists settles to a lower level in favour of a new, less confrontational, more constructive frame for dialogues on research concerning the future of the field that once appeared to be a no-man’s-land.


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