Friday, February 19, 2010

Neuroscience in Psychoanalysis?

I think so, for to truly think and work contextually (Orange, Atwood, & Stolorow, 1997), and not diminish the experience of the inescapable embodiment of our non-corporeal being, it helps to have a working knowledge of our physiological functioning, as we tussle with the marvel that the interrelatedness of body and spirit is.

It seems that Freud was grappling with these issues for he published closely together (1893-1895) Studies in Hysteria which launched the talking cure, and The Project for a Scientific Psychology. The latter reflects Freud’s abiding interest in understanding the biological foundations of the psychological processes and phenomena with which psychoanalysis is concerned. But, as Gallese (2007b) points out, given the limited state of knowledge and technologies at the time, the Project could not be carried very far.

In his illuminating discourse on empathy last weekend, Frank Lachmann alerted us to several of its components which he calls procedural precursors and describes as nonconscious automatic processes: cross-modal transfer, vocal rhythm coordination, affective state sharing, and entering the behavioral, affective, and proprioceptive streams of another person. These processes are subsets of neurophysiological functioning and Lachmann mentioned in passing the mirror neuron system (“...everything seems to be mirror neurons these days...”).

This evoked for me the neuroscientific and psychoanalytic work of Vittorio Gallese which is summarized in a number of papers published in psychoanalytic periodicals
(2003, 2006, 2007, 2007a, 2007b, 2008, 2009, 2009a, 2009b). This body of knowledge points to the Mirror Neuron System as the network in the Central Nervous System that coordinates, mediates, Lachmann’s precursors of empathy, as well as a number of other important functions. I find the details of Gallese’s discoveries and formulations endlessly fascinating. But here (Gallese et al., 2007b) he conveys the idea pithily:

“The neural circuits activated in a person carrying out actions, expressing emotions, and experiencing sensations are activated also, automatically via a mirror neuron system, in the observer of those actions, emotions, and sensations...
this finding of shared activation suggests a functional mechanism of “embodied simulation” that consists of the automatic, unconscious, and non-inferential simulation in the observer of actions, emotions, and sensations carried out and experienced by the observed...
the shared neural activation pattern and the accompanying embodied simulation constitute a fundamental biological basis for understanding another’s mind
The implications of this perspective for psychoanalysis are discussed, particularly regarding unconscious communication, projective identification, attunement, empathy, autism, therapeutic action, and transference-countertransference interactions.” (emphasis added).

With Orange, Atwood, and Stolorow (1997), I believe that the central domain of psychoanalytic inquiry is subjective experience and its vicissitudes, and that each psychoanalytic process is concerned with the emergence of understanding, of relatedness, of stable and positive self-experience. I am not proposing here that neural mechanisms become a central concern. I am suggesting that taking into account biological factors (the embodiment of our existence) provides a fuller context for our theorizing and for our work.

Ernesto Vasquez, MD
February 18, 2009.

Gallese V. The roots of empathy: The shared manifold hypothesis and the neural basis of intersubjectivity. Psychopatology, Vol. 36, No. 4, 171-180, 2003.
— (2006), Mirror neurons and intentional attunement: A commentary on David Olds. J Am Psychoanal Assoc, 54:46-57.
— (2007), Empathy, embodied simulation and mirroring mechanisms. Commentary on “Towards a neuroscience of empathy” by Doug Watt. Neuropsychoanalysis, 9, vol 2: 146-151.
—, Eagle M.E., and Migone P. (2007a), Intentional attunement: Mirror neurons and the neural underpinnings of interpersonal relations. J Am Psychoanal Assoc, 2007a, 55: 131-176.
— (2007b), Dai neuroni specchio alla consonanza intenzionale. Meccanismi neurofisiologici dell’intersoggettivitĂ . Rivista di Psicoanalisi, LIII, 1: 197-208.
— (2008), Empathy, embodied simulation and the brain. J Am Psychoanal Assoc, 56:769-781.
— (2009), Mirror neurons, embodied simulation, and the neural basis of social identification. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 19:519-536.
— (2009a), We-ness. Embodied simulation and Psychoanalysis. Reply to commentaries. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 19: 580-584.
Eagle M.E., Gallese V., Migone P. (2009b), Mirror neurons and mind; Commentary on Vivona. J Am Psychoanal Assoc, 57(3): 559-68.
Orange, D., Atwood, G., Stolorow, R. (1997), Working Intersubjectively. Contextualism in Psychoanalytic Practice. Hillsdale, NJ, The Analytic Press.

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