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Freudian Unconscious and Cognitive Neuroscience

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The aim of "Freudian Unconscious and Cognitive Neuroscience" is to create a conception of the Freudian things around the unconscious that takes seriously both the clinical data gathered in the scope of psychoanalytic clinical practice during the past 110 years, and the empirical and theoretical achievements of cognitive science and evolutionary theory. Tensions between the psychoanalytic and other views give a hint that the task is anything but easy.

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CHAPTER ONE: The unconscious and the mysteries of human life

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“What, in fact, is this ‘unconscious’ but a high-sounding name to veil our own ignorance?”

(Sully, 1878, cited in Claxton, 2005, p. 217)

I s Freud’s view on the unconscious, “the cornerstone” of psychoanalysis, correct? This question, and various popular and more general alternatives (“Is Freud dead?”; “Was Freud, after all, right?”), attracts short answers, but from the scientific perspective it is misleading in at least two ways. In the first place, it is trivial, because serious scientists are seldom either completely right or completely misled, and in the second, apart from the perspective of the history of ideas, the issue of who is wrong and who is right is a minor one: the fundamental aim of science is to develop the explanations and models that best suit the phenomena under scrutiny.

Nevertheless, it is common knowledge that, in the case of psychoanalysis, it is difficult to avoid polarizations and personification: Freud was suggestive by nature and in his writings, and discussions easily slip from the factual to debate on what he really said/meant, and whether or not present-day studies support or contradict his ideas. In order not to reproduce the age-old fronts of the Freud wars, one should focus the phenomena that Freud and other psychoanalysts have discovered, or the observations and notions that have come to light in the context of psychoanalysis. The next step would be to create the (best possible) explanations, reflecting the current state of the art in the relevant domains of study.

 

CHAPTER TWO: Historical context of the tension between the cognitive and the psychoanalytic unconscious

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W hen trying to reach what Freud meant by claiming that the unconscious is mental, and that the mind contains an unconscious part, the contents of which might be prevented from being brought into the domain of consciousness, the first task is to study the references of those mental terms. However, it has to be remembered that Freud wrote in German, and thus never used those terms—he talked about Bewusstheit, Psyche, and Seele, and the latter terms have both been translated into English as mind.

The layman’s intuition concerning words (concepts) and their translation from one language to another goes something like this: in the world there are definable matters, and each language contains names for these matters; ideas presented in language A can be translated into language B by simply searching for the corresponding words. This intuition is misleading, however. The best known attack against it was made by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his works after Tractatus Logico-philosophicus (especially Wittgenstein, 1953).

 

CHAPTER THREE: The mind and the unconscious of the post-Freudian era

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H istories of science used to focus on Ancient Greece and the seventeenth century, and those periods possessed the key role when the unconscious was studied from the perspective of history of ideas in the previous chapter. At the beginning of the chapter I cited Paul Macdonald stating the core problem with the history of the concept “mind”: there is no consensus on what the concept of mind picks out or to what it makes reference. When seen from the historical perspective, mental concepts appear to have been connected to, first, mysteries, which later have been withdrawn due to the development of science. Second, they are intimately related to certain religious and theological ideas and ideals. According to present-day layman intuition, possessing a mind means simply that there are feelings and mental images in the scope of one’s consciousness (perhaps some people might also mention matters like the ability to feel guilty).

That intuition reflects the era we live in: the mystery of the mind has narrowed, its supernatural resonance has abated, and the reference of mental terms has become focused on the phenomenal qualities of experience. To put this in philosophical jargon, in the core of mind–body problem there is the problem of qualia.

 

CHAPTER FOUR: On the competencies of the neural unconscious

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T he preceding chapters have circulated between three entangled topics: phenomena that have been thought to be caused by unconscious matters; the essence of the unconscious; and how those phenomena could and should be explained. Below, the circulation will continue, although this chapter also has a specific subject: it begins with the study of how psychoanalytic notions could be presented in terms of the two-sphere view.

When such a challenge is faced, the first thing that comes to mind is that perhaps the (psychoanalysts’) “mental unconscious” could be simply replaced by (cognitivists’) “neural unconscious”. This general idea can be divided into more specific ones: the intrinsic intentionality of the mental unconscious might be replaced by the as-if intentionality of the neural unconscious, and instead of thinking that repressed ideas were stored in the unconscious mind, it might be thought that they are stored by the brain.

This line of thought implies that this chapter is focused on the competencies of the neural unconscious. Intentionality is a philosophical term, which is intimately connected to the psychological terms “representation”, “desire”, “motive”, “wish”, and “goal directed behaviour”. Thus, it is not a surprise that the competencies are studied through them.

 

CHAPTER FIVE: Repression and becoming conscious of the repressed reframed: the four-level model

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I n psychoanalytic communities there are surely ideological reasons for tending towards the three-sphere view. There is also a practical reason: the cornerstone provides guidelines for psychoanalysts’ work. The aim of psychoanalysis and psychody-namic therapies has been seen as making the repressed conscious— bringing repressed contents from the unconscious part of the mind into the scope of consciousness. If there is no mental unconscious, that rationale collapses.

Chapter Three pinpointed the problems of the three-sphere view: no one has ever said what those unconscious contents are actually like, and where and how they exist. In Chapter Four we examined the possibility that repressed memories and desires were stored by the brain. That line of thought was demonstrated to be a dead-end. The obvious logical conclusion is that when ideas are missing from consciousness, they are not “hiding” anywhere, but are prevented from being formed in the domain of consciousness.

According to my knowledge, no one has ever spelled out this “third way” in detail. This is related to a common failure to make the distinction between data (clinical observations; explanadum) on one hand, and the theories aiming at explain the data (explanada) on the other. It is rarely noted that the following three claims are not observations: (a) there are repressed ideas, (b) in the beginning of psychotherapy certain ideas are repressed, and (c) towards the end of psychotherapy a therapist can often notice that some repressed ideas have become conscious. Instead, they are theory-laden descriptions on the process of psychotherapy.

 

CHAPTER SIX: Psychotherapy, neuroscience, and the levels of explanation

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O xford Moral Sciences Club assembled on 25 October 1946, and during the gathering the only meeting of two giants of science took place. The encounter of those famous critics of psychoanalysis ended in a baleful atmosphere: Ludwig Wittgenstein, the chairman, threatened Sir Karl Popper, the lecturer, with a red-hot poker.

Wittgenstein, Popper, and Freud were all Vienna-born Jews. They are also closely connected to positivism: although Wittgenstein never participated in the meetings of the Vienna Circle, under the aegis of which positivism emerged, his early masterpiece Trac-tatus Logico-Philosophicus (Wittgenstein, 1922) was one of the core texts of it; Popper was a critic of positivism, who was never party to those meetings; together with Ernst Mach, Albert Einstein, and many others, Freud signed the call for the foundation of a “Society for Positivist Philosophy” in 1912, that was published also in Zentralblatt für Psychoanalyse (Vol. 3, 1912–1913, p. 56) (Fulgencio, 2005).

At the time of the meeting, Wittgenstein had already abandoned the ideas of the Tractatus. He had ended up thinking that philosophical problems are just puzzles that could be solved through a kind of philosophical therapy, comparable to psychoanalytic technique. Popper was prepared to challenge Wittgenstein’s view— he argued that there are real philosophical problems, not just “puzzles”. According to Popper, Wittgenstein challenged him to give an example of a moral rule, and at the same time handled a poker in a threatening manner. Popper’s clever example was “not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers”. Furious, Wittgenstein reacted by throwing the poker down and storming out of the room, banging the door behind him.

 

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