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  • Commentary on "Freud's 'Project for a Scientific Psychology' after 100 Years"
  • Paul C. Mohl

It would be an oversimplification, though not entirely off the mark, to say that the current project in clinical psychiatry is to find an appropriate integration of the neurobiological and the psychological that can provide a coherent intellectual basis for future clinical practice. Woody and Phillips' paper represents a valuable contribution to this process. I find myself agreeing with their conclusions, although not necessarily with all of their arguments.

Their ultimate conclusion, that among current neurobiological models, Edelman's (1987) Neural Darwinism is perhaps most promising, is very much on target. However, the concept of primary process, which remains a controversial hypothesis of psychoanalysis, is not necessarily the best route to this point.

There are several reasons for this. In the first place, primary process itself may be no more than folk psychology. Although they do not focus directly on the language and labeling problems of consciousness, conscious thought, awareness, the unconscious, and so forth, their comments about the nonconscious nature of neurobiological processes suggest a sensitivity to this issue. Gardner (1993) has argued that psychoanalytic theories are none the worse for being extensions of folk psychology, that indeed in some respects they have to be. But as Patricia Churchland (1986) has reminded us, the variables that seem most self-evident now may turn out to be products of other, less obvious, but more basic variables. This is certainly true for psychoanalytic variables, at least the concept of the unconscious. I speak of this although I consider myself primarily a psychodynamic psychiatrist and use the concept of the unconscious daily.

Second, it is true that Penrose (1989) and Edelman (1989) have provided some important arguments against the notion that brain and consciousness are Turing machines. Yet many cognitive neuroscientists, not to mention psychoanalysts, surely would argue that their approaches have more to offer a reconsideration of Freud's project, as the Woody and Phillips paper suggests here. In the first issue of this journal, Park and Young (1994) reviewed the growing importance of connectionism in psychiatry, and Lloyd (1994) provided a fascinating neural net model of hysteria. Similarly, Andrew Schwartz (1987) is an example of a psychoanalyst who believes that relatively simple associationism at a neurobiological level can help us understand such phenomena as unconscious conflict, empathy, and countertransference.

Third, it seems to me that we now know enough neurobiology to be able to see at least the outlines of a neurobiology of meaning. Both [End Page 135] Edelman (1989) and Mesulam (1990) emphasize the well-recognized role of the limbic system in attention and memory, with "hedonic values" being the driving force behind the creation and transformation of associations and memory (and therefore global mappings, categories, concepts, etc.). Both of them imply or directly argue that mental phenomena evolved in the service of making the limbic system ever more effective in selecting behavior that promotes individual and/or species survival. The associations need not necessarily follow any rules of logic, only limbic "logic," hence primary process and symbolic logic both may be seen as additional forms of evolutionary adaptation. Meaning then becomes the chain of associations through all primitive and higher associative areas of the brain that are linked together in global mappings and charged with some important hedonic value. There is no requirement here for the hermeneutics the authors advocate. Yet hermeneutics are what the psychotherapist constantly is trying to decipher.

With respect to the dynamic unconscious, the question becomes which of these associations enter awareness. The question "why?" may not be so important. The authors seem to accept Freud's original model, which he borrowed, and then elaborated on, from Janet. This assumes that everything is at some point conscious with only certain items being pushed into, and then locked away in, the unconscious. A different model (which I first heard described in a seminar 25 years ago by John Schlein) is more like a dark attic in which a flashlight may be shone in one of several different directions, illuminating only a small fraction of what is present at any one time. Mort Reiser (1984) flirted with yet another possible model...


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