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Biology of Freedom

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This groundbreaking book delivers a much needed bridge between the neurosciences and psychoanalysis. Freud hoped that the neurosciences would offer support for his psychoanalysis theories at some point in the future: both disciplines, after all, agree that experience leaves traces in the mind. But even today, as we enter the twenty-first century, all too many scientists and analysts maintain that each side has wholly different models of the origin and nature of those traces. What constitutes human experience, how does this experience shape us, and how, if at all, do we change our lives? Psychoanalysis and the neurosciences have failed to communicate about these questions, when they have not been frankly antagonistic. But, in Biology of Freedom, Francois Ansermet and Pierre Magistretti are at last breaking new ground. This fully illustrated account, rigorous yet lucid and entirely accessible, shows how the plasticity of the brain's neural network allows for successive inscriptions, transcriptions, and retranscriptions of experience, leading to the constitution of an inner reality, an unconscious psychic life unique to each individual. In what amounts to a paradigm shift based on the concept of plasticity, this elegant, seamless collaboration of a psychoanalyst and a neuroscientist bridges the gap between disciplines formerly believed to be incompatible. Ansermet and Magistretti have opened up new areas of exploration of the mind/body connection and profoundly new ways in which to understand the bodily underpinnings of personal freedom, identity, and change.'Freedom of Biology came about through a meeting: a meeting of two domains, psychoanalysis and neurosciences. And a meeting of two people as well: a neurobiologist who had a personal psychoanalysis and a psychoanalyst open to what other fields can teach psychoanalysis. And, finally, a meeting based on a mutual observation, namely, that experience leaves a trace...This book will offer hypotheses for a model of the unconscious that integrates the recent findings of neurobiology with the foundational principles of psychoanalysis.'- From the Preface

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1 - The Polar Bear and the Whale: What Plasticity Entails

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The Polar Bear and the Whale: What Plasticity Entails

At the end of his life Freud made the following observation: “We know two kinds of things about what we call our psyche (or mental life): firstly, its bodily organ and scene of action, the brain (or nervous system), and, on the other hand, our acts of consciousness…. Everything that lies between is unknown to us” (1938, 144).

Here we have the two terms of a debate involving, on the one side, neurobiological reality, and, on the other, the productions of mental life. These two fields, it must be acknowledged, have incommensurate features. A psychoanalytic colleague ironically compared our attempt to relate neuroscience to psychoanalysis with the unlikely coupling of the polar bear and the whale. And indeed, making any bridge between them can seem like an impossible undertaking, at any rate a dangerous one giving rise to confusions and aberrations that can only lead to the loss of the logics specific to the approach of each domain. The study of the brain and that of mental facts lead to radically different questions, implying fields of exploration and methods with nothing in common. If we consider individually the neurosciences on the one hand and psychoanalysis on the other, we see the extent to which these two domains are incommensurate and have everything to lose by being united in a vague syncretism that would make them forget their foundations.

 

2 - Diego and Haydn: Perception and Memories

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Diego and Haydn: Perception and Memories

Imagine yourself on Christmas night, seated at the family table, admiring the decorated pine tree, savoring a turkey accompanied by a delicious 1990 Barolo. In the background the notes of a Haydn concerto are covered by affectionate conversations suited to the occasion. You are patting the soft fur of Diego, your Labrador retriever, who has come to beg for his unlikely part of the banquet. Your brain perceives all these pieces of information almost instantaneously via the different sensory modalities—touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste—that make possible the perception of stimuli coming from the external world. The nervous impulses gallop along your nerves at a speed of around two hundred miles an hour. From the retina, the tympanum, the skin, the tongue, and the mucous membranes of the nose, these highways of sensations that are the nervous fibers of the sensory systems convey to the brain in several tenths of a second the pieces of information from the external world. And there are many others: the decorations on the tree, the texture and pattern of the tablecloth, the taste and smells of the other dishes. Perceptions flood your brain.

 

3 - Inhibition on the Shore of Lake Trasimene: What Becomes of Perception

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Inhibition on the Shore of Lake Trasimene: What Becomes of Perception

In August 1897 Freud (1887–1902)* described to Wilhelm Fliess, his principal correspondent at the time, his tormenting doubts about his theory of the neuroses. Two years had passed since the publication, with his colleague Joseph Breuer, of the Studies on Hysteria (Breuer and Freud 1893–1895), a work that paved the way for psychoanalysis by assigning a traumatic etiology to this neurosis, most often the result of a seduction by a relative or close friend that took place in reality; its recollection was now kept out of awareness, repressed, even as it remained active deep inside, playing a role in symptom formation unbeknownst to the patient The symptoms thus took the place of what the subject could not remember.

Freud counted on speech—the “talking cure,” as it was called by Anna O., a young hysteric who became his patient after being treated by Breuer—to bring the trauma into awareness and facilitate what he termed an abreaction, that is, an affective discharge through which the subject could be freed from the distress accumulated under the pressure of the forgotten event. Analytic work would bring the trauma to light, making it conscious and thereby releasing the patient from its constricting effects.

 

4 - Aplysia, Rat, Man: From Experience to the Trace

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Aplysia, Rat, Man: From Experience to the Trace

There is a simple organism, Aplysia californica, a sea snail that wades in the waters of California, to which we owe a great deal with regard to the understanding of the molecular mechanisms of synaptic plasticity linked with the processes of memory and learning (fig. 4.1.A).

The groundwork on synaptic plasticity in this simple biological specimen was laid forty years ago (Kandel 2001a, 1030–1038), but it provides an excellent illustration of the essential principles by which learning, even simple learning, leaves a trace in the synapses. It is a bit as though we were learning the alphabet of synaptic plasticity to which we have been constantly referring.

The nervous system of Aplysia has about a thousand large neurons, a windfall for neurobiologists who can easily implant electrodes there. Despite its limited number of neurons and a limited behavioral repertoire, Aplysia is capable of certain simple, quantifiable forms of learning shared with more evolved species, including man. Specifically, it is possible to demonstrate in Aplysia a form of associative learning.

 

5 - Forgetting the Name Signorelli: Synaptic Trace and Psychic Trace

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Forgetting the Name Signorelli: Synaptic Trace and Psychic Trace

It all seems simple: experience leaves a trace in the synaptic network. The mechanisms responsible for this synaptic trace are those of plasticity. To put it clearly, the transfer of pieces of information between neurons works more efficiently at facilitated synapses, either because a greater amount of neurotransmitters (glutamate) is released from the presynaptic terminals or because the mechanisms underlying the postsynaptic responses are more efficient, making the postsynaptic neurons more reactive. As we have seen, the mechanisms of postsynaptic facilitation are limited to one or several synapses at each neuron. This is not, in fact, the response of the ten thousand synapses found on a neuron potentiated by LTP. Only the few synapses where convergence and simultaneity of activation have engaged the mechanisms of plasticity and facilitation are affected.

But how do we move from several dozen, or several hundred, indeed thousands of facilitated synapses in the course of an experience to the representation of this experience? To go back to our example of Christmas in chapter 2, how does the representation of the Christmas tree get inscribed in the facilitated synaptic network? The answer to this question is far from obvious. The results allowing us to sketch out an answer are still fragmentary, and their integration into operational models are basically hypothetical in nature. But nevertheless let us try, perhaps more by way of analogy than as pure fact, to describe the models that could explain the neural bases of representations.

 

6 - Claire and the Pope: Perceptions and Emotions

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Claire and the Pope: Perceptions and Emotions

Let us imagine that you recall a landscape dear to you, one whose evocation puts you in a state of great serenity, for example the image of those beautiful, fertile Tuscan hills where cypresses, olive trees, and vineyards weave a supple green tapestry to the horizon. With this memory and the impressions it brings firmly to mind, we are going to try to relate the cerebral processes mentioned for the constitution of representations—whether they can be recalled to consciousness or are unconscious in the form of fantasies—with somatic states involved in the emotion linked to these representations. What does the body have to do with all this?, you ask. Much more than one might think.

At each instant our brain has various sources of information. First there is the perception of external reality activating the sensory systems (touch, sight, hearing, etc.) and hence conscious information. But this external stimulation can also activate the unconscious internal reality formed through the mechanisms of plasticity peculiar to each person, beyond the external reality the person has experienced. This unconscious internal reality, which may be organized into fantasy scenarios, rearranges in a different way the representations conserved from perception without direct relation to the stimuli of external reality. Thus these representations may also be recalled to awareness by a stimulus coming from the external world, experienced “live.” Finally, they may be reactivated by a voluntary or involuntary process with no relevant external stimulation.

 

7 - Milk and the Sound of the Door: Mental Traces and Somatic States

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Milk and the Sound of the Door: Psychic Traces and Somatic States

Let us go back to the process whereby a perception is inscribed. As we saw in chapter 5, a perception of the external world leaves a trace that we have called the sign of perception or the signifier. In a later process another perception can leave another trace and hence another sign of perception, that is, another signifier. Still later these two primary traces can become associated, leading to a new trace produced by the effect of this association. From this rearrangement a new signifier will result. To return to our diagram (see fig. 5.4 in chapter 5), a perception 1 leaves a trace 1 or signifier 1, perception 1 being the signified 1; a perception 2 (signified 2) leaves a trace 2 or signifier 2, and so forth. After this process an association may be established between trace 1 and trace 2, hence between two initial signifiers (signifiers 1 and 2), producing a new trace A, that is, a new signifier.

What we are suggesting is that this new trace resulting from the association of the two initial traces creates distance from the initial perception (of the signified) and that, by this process of transcription, the signifier newly constituted from the two initial signifiers is no longer in direct relation with the signified corresponding to external reality. This process would continue, from association to association, to form, for example, trace X or signifier X.

 

8 - Man and Wolf: Fantasy, Object, and Action

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Man and Wolf: Fantasy, Object, and Action

Let us imagine a given somatic state that, in the past, was associated with a rather unpleasant situation. The activation of this somatic state induces an unpleasant internal perception that makes the person try to produce strategies to get free of it, or, to remain with our original module, to reestablish a homeostasis. The unpleasure induced by the somatic state leads to a discharge.

In the case of the infant, this discharge comes about through the specific action of the other. In the case of the adult, it can come from the person himself. Still remaining with the logic of the original module, we see that the action discharging the state of distress involves the outer world; the discharge does not occur in a vacuum but requires an object from external reality, the object being considered in the broadest sense of the term. The goal that consists in producing a discharge is predominant. In contrast, the nature of the object is more or less indifferent as long as it can function to permit the discharge of excitation. Discussion of this point calls for reference to Freud's drive theory, and this will be the focus of the following chapter. For the moment let us be content to recall that the object is what is most variable in the drive1: it may be any object whatsoever on condition that it can serve to bring about discharge and produce satisfaction. Fantasy is precisely a setup that binds the person to the misrecognized object of the drive2 and can place any other object in series with this enigmatic object through a specific unconscious scenario.

 

9 - An Unexpected Phone Call: How Drives Originate and what Becomes of them

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An Unexpected Phone Call: How Drives Originate and What Becomes of Them

To simplify, we can say that if unconscious internal reality and its fantasy scenarios did not exist, a stimulus coming from the external world would lead to an action in direct relation to it (Action 1, fig. 9.1). Let us take an example drawn from the arsenal of neuropsychological testing. The instruction is to recognize in a series of images those that represent animals. Intermixed with the series of animal images are images having nothing to do with the animal world. The subject has to press a button when an animal is present. With a normal subject there will be conformity between the instruction and the response; that is, when an animal is presented the subject will press the button.

This test actually explores a whole range of levels in the treatment of the external stimulus, from visual recognition to the executive functions resulting in action, passing through the activation of associative regions and the correlation of the perception with the images stored in the memory systems. Thus there is conformity between perception and response in this specific context.

 

10 - Incest and the Refrigerator: Pleasure and Unpleasure

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Incest and the Refrigerator: Pleasure and Unpleasure

We have seen how the disturbance of the physiological state is a fundamental aspect in the production of the drive. From the physiological perspective, it is legitimate to suppose that the break in homeostasis is perceived as unpleasant. And indeed, this rupture represents a potential danger to the integrity of the organism and must therefore be signaled in such a way as to mobilize mechanisms for reestablishing homeostasis. Hence it is reasonable to posit that the signal of the rupture of homeostasis is perceived as unpleasant rather than pleasant.

An analogy could be made with the systems of pain perception, which are activated by irruptions into somatic integrity (for example, a wound) or by pathological processes active at a precise place in the body. No one will challenge the statement that pain is an unpleasant sensation but one that has a protective function. The same would be true of the perception of the rupture of homeostasis, experienced as unpleasant, that is, felt as a state of unpleasure. It is interesting to note that the nerve fibers transmitting information on the somatic state, the interoceptive pathways mentioned in chapter 6, have the same electrophysiological properties (speed and mode of conduction of the nervous signal) as the fibers conducting pain, fibers of the type Aδ and C (Craig 2002).

 

11 - Freud and James: Let's be Synthetic

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Freud and James: Let's Be Synthetic

Every organism—and man is no exception to the rule—is from the physiological standpoint an entity responding to stimuli with motor acts.1 In other words, to put it simply, external reality is perceived by the sensory systems, which trigger the appropriate motor response. This is, ultimately, the model of the reflex arc; it calls for no further elaboration.

But the discharge of the reflex arc is not all there is. External perceptions can also leave synaptic traces that are inscribed in the neural network by the mechanisms of plasticity. These synaptic traces are the neurobiological correlates of what, following Freud, we have called signs of perception. Yet this sequence of very simple events, which we could liken, for example, to the reflexive retraction of the siphon in Aplysia (Kandel 2001a), is insufficient to account for more complex aspects of human behavior.

As we saw in the preceding chapter, the theory of somatic markers suggests that a given perception is associated with a somatic state. This is the basis of the theory of the emotions and the mechanisms of decision-making that lead to action.

 

12 - Redibis Non Morieris: The Plasticity of Becoming and the Becoming of Plasticity

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Redibis Non Morieris: The Plasticity of Becoming and the Becoming of Plasticity

A person's development is most often examined retrospectively, giving the impression that a history unfolds continuously in a series of causal concatenations. Yet the person's reality is different. At each moment it potentially remains subject to radical unexpectedness in its development.

This is especially true for mental development, which cannot be reduced either to the idea of a preprogrammed course or to that of direct mental causality. For we cannot simply connect a lived experience with its subjective effect without taking into account the ways in which the person may respond. On the psychic level, we may say that the combination of multiple determinants leads to effects that are not predictable a priori.

The same is true on the organic level through the phenomenon of plasticity, in which multiple epigenetic factors influencing the organization of the neural network beyond all genetic determination lead to a fundamentally unpredictable course of development. Experience is inscribed. It leaves a trace, and this trace is determinative. Thus determination is based on synchrony, that is, in the simultaneous instant of the event, by the reworking of the neural network corresponding to the establishment of a trace.

 

13 - The Couple at a Red Light: The Influences of Internal Reality

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The Couple at a Red Light: The Influences of Internal Reality

The main argument we have been developing up to now is simple to summarize. Through the mechanisms of plasticity, experience inscribes traces in the neural circuits. Certain of these traces, which can be directly recalled to awareness, underlie memory and learning. Others can be rearranged, enter into association among themselves, and produce new traces that, in turn, are no longer in direct connection with the initial perception and can escape awareness. Finally, we might posit that certain perceptual traces are inscribed from the outset in systems that are inaccessible to awareness.

In this view, therefore, there are three kinds of traces: those that are directly conscious or able to be recalled to consciousness, those that escape consciousness secondarily through mechanisms of reassociation leading to a discontinuity between perception and trace, and those that are unconscious from the beginning.

For the conscious level, we can take the example of cognitive learning, motor learning, or even certain forms of emotional learning that make us consciously avoid situations we know are unpleasant or seek those that are pleasant. For example, we learn that not doing our homework involves punishment and doing it may lead to a reward. Such a view, however, does not take into account what clinical psychoanalysis teaches us, namely that a person does not necessarily want what is good for him,1 and that, among several possibilities, in dealing with failure he will sometimes first aim at the one that leads to unpleasure. In so doing he is responding to strategies it is hard to explain solely in terms of identifiable conscious processes.

 

14 - The Hour of the Traces: The Unconscious, Memory, and Repression

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The Hour of the Traces: The Unconscious, Memory, and Repression

If unconscious internal reality is constituted by an association among primary traces (see chapter 5), leading to new traces that remain unconscious; if the connection with the initial experiences gets lost throughout these processes of inscription, reinscription, and association; if there is no simple, direct link between the signified of the external world and the signified produced in unconscious internal reality, must we conclude that the unconscious cannot be put in direct relation to one or the other form of memory: explicit, implicit, procedural, or others as defined in the lexicon of neuropsychology (Bear, Connors, and Paradiso 2001)?

The traces constituting the fantasy scenario of unconscious internal reality are in fact very different from a given memory system. What we must do is speak properly of new mnemic traces peculiar to the unconscious and not necessarily reducible to one or the other structure dedicated to memory as defined and localized by the approach of cognitive neuropsychology. The unconscious, then, is not a memory but a system of rearranged mnemic traces that are not a reflection of the external reality that produced them. In that regard the irruptions of the unconscious are instead a disturbance of memory.

 

15 - The Ferrari and the Trailer: Beyond the Fantasy Scenario

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The Ferrari and the Trailer: Beyond the Fantasy Scenario

What determines the associations among the primary traces so as to generate these new traces constituting unconscious internal reality? This process remains mysterious. We might hypothesize that it is random, that by sheer chance two primary traces become associated and produce a new trace. We might also imagine a dynamic that orients the associations of traces, leading to the formation of a fantasy scenario. And does the fantasy scenario have a function? Does it correspond to a mental, or indeed a neurobiological, need?

Fantasy is a solution created to deal with a complex situation that poses many questions. It enables us to conceptualize the impossible, to integrate what Lacan described as the order of the real.1 In the face of the real, the child constructs all sorts of fictions. Hence the very early sexual theories existing in the unconscious: the child imagines himself impregnated through the ear and born through the navel or some other orifice. The child has countless sexual theories of this kind (Freud 1908, Ansermet 1999). As a little scientist (Freud 1910), he finds a solution in fantasy, thinking in terms of his surroundings, of his body, of what is mysterious for him.

 

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