After Freud, psychoanalysis fractured into many schools of thought, but the idea of an inner world of unconscious conflict, and the notion that subjective experiences are meaningful and important, remain at the core of this view of human nature. Meanwhile, neurobiology — the scientific study of the physical brain — evolved in the other direction. Neuroscience focused on the nuts and bolts of the brain: how nerve cells communicate with electrical and chemical pulses, how brains learn and calculate and remember. But neuroscience avoided subjective experiences, sticking to what it could measure and observe.
By the end of the 20th century, the two disciplines, psychoanalysis and neuroscience, did not even seem to be talking about the same thing. Psychoanalysis was hostile to the idea of testing hypotheses through experiments. Neuroscience claimed to explain the brain but ignored its finest product: the dazzling, intimate sensations of human consciousness.
That is both a shame and an amazing intellectual opportunity, says the South African neuropsychologist and psychoanalyst Mark Solms, co-chair of the International Neuropsychoanalysis Society. Neuropsychoanalysis is his life’s project, and more than any other single person, this is his party tonight. He roams about the room, kissing women on both cheeks, bear-hugging old friends. If he seems a bit like an evangelist on the hunt for converts, it’s for good reason. Solms is convinced that reconnecting psychoanalysis and neuroscience is absolutely essential — the only way we will ever truly understand the brain.
The point is not to prove that Freud was right, but to apply the techniques of modern biology to explore some of his most enduring ideas. It’s to put the study of the mind back in the study of the brain, says Solms: “What neuropsychoanalysis is all about is this: How does the actual stuff of being a person relate to the tissue and physiology and anatomy and chemistry of the brain?” Psychoanalysis has insightful, provocative theories about emotions, unconscious thoughts and the nature of the mind. Neurobiology has the ability to test these ideas with powerful tools and experimental rigor. Together, the two fields might finally answer the most elusive question of them all: How is it that dreams, fantasies, memories and feelings — the subjective self — emerge from a hunk of flesh?
Solms’ intellectual crusade was launched by a childhood trauma. As a child, he loved and revered his older brother Lee. But when Solms was 4, Lee fell off the roof of the local yacht club and hit his head, seriously injuring his brain.
When Lee came home from the hospital, he had changed. He had no interest in the elaborate fantasy games that the brothers used to play. He was lethargic and slow, and he had to wear a helmet. He seemed like a different person.
Mark was devastated. He had lost his best friend. But his crisis was also existential. How could a person’s identity be snuffed out so easily, just by a blow to the head? The shock shaped Solms in ways he would not recognize for years to come. When he began college in 1980, he studied medicine and brain science, planning to help people like his brother. But he was also seeking answers to the question that haunted him: How can it be that a physical organ — a piece of meat — determines who we are?
He soon found out, to his dismay, that neuroscientists at that time did not probe the mystery of the self. Faced with the complexity of the brain, neuroscience focused on questions that could be subdivided into manageable units: How we see, how we move, how nerve cells work. The vivid experience of selfhood, the swirl of being, was not on the curriculum.
Yearning for answers, Solms wandered into a university philosophy seminar on Freudian dream theory. Our minds are divided, the lecturer explained. Roiling beneath the surface are the primal drives of the id — the mental force that Freud said generated unconscious lust, aggression, hidden fantasies and wishes. The mental mechanisms of the ego struggle to contain this mad turmoil. One result of this constant battle: the twisted, distorted narratives in dreams. The lecturer also described Freud’s abortive attempt to ground psychology in neurological observations about the brain.
It was an awakening. Finally, here was someone trying to think systematically and scientifically about the real matter of inner life. “Here was this philosopher talking about dreams, fantasies, wishes, sex,” says Solms. “I thought, ‘That’s life! This means me!’ ” Eagerly, he asked his neurobiology professors which scientists were studying these ideas now, in light of modern research. The answer: nobody. Such topics are not appropriate for science, the young Solms was told. “Don’t ask these questions,” a professor warned him, trying to be helpful. “It will damage your career.”
Solms had run headfirst into an ideological roadblock. At the time, psychoanalytic ideas still guided the treatment of the mentally ill. But lab scientists engaged in brain research — the neuroscientists — rejected psychoanalysis whole cloth. There were no experiments — no objective data — to show it made any sense at all.
By the 1980s, Freud-bashing was a well-established sport in neuroscience. Harvard neurobiologist J. Allan Hobson used recordings of brain activity from sleeping people to gleefully trash psychoanalytic dream theory, and by implication, the central Freudian ideas of censorship and repression. The nonsense in dreams is caused by random electrical noise in nerve cells, asserted Hobson, a kind of cellular static; repression had nothing to do with it. Psychoanalysis belonged “on the junk heap of speculative philosophy,” he wrote. He might as well have danced on Freud’s grave.
An Existential Mystery
Solms was undeterred. After he finished his doctorate degree in 1992, he was faced with being drafted into the white South African military. He left for a job as a neuropsychologist in the U.K., treating people with strokes and other brain injuries. By day, he was a conventional doctor in the neurosurgical rehab ward at the Royal London Hospital. By night, he studied to become a psychoanalyst. He thought that some of what he was being taught was speculative and dogmatic. But at least it recognized that the real mystery of the brain was an existential one. It posed the crucial question of what it means to be a mind that thinks. To disregard this problem, as neuroscience did, was a massive intellectual error, Solms believed. It would be like trying to study the solar system while pretending gravity doesn’t exist. Any answers you get are bound to be wrong.