The Mind-Brain Relationship

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This book is a review of aspects of neuroscience literature relevant to psychoanalysis. It provides an accessible route into the overwhelming profusion of literature in this area for the uninitiated psychoanalytic reader.

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1: How brain development is shaped by genetic and environmental factors

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We have entered an era of extraordinary discovery about the human brain. Old notions of dichotomy between mind versus brain, nature versus nurture, have been supplanted by a rich web of synergistic relations between mind and brain, nature and nurture. Specifically, according to modern neuroscience, mis means that all mental phenomena are assumed to be the result of biological activity of neuronal circuits in the brain. The development of these circuits relies in part on genetic programmes, but is also heavily dependent on the individual’s experiences within the environment.

Recognition of the remarkable degree to which brain development is experience-dependent is a striking example of how neuroscience can be integrated with psychoanalysis. These ideas can be considered to lend support to analytic assumptions that early developmental experiences shape subsequent psychological functioning. The overall aim of this book is to integrate the two fields by providing a schematic overview of neuroscience topics that are relevant to the theory and practice of psychoanalysis. In this way the reader will not only know facts about brain functions, but be able to think conceptually about how these functions operate with one another and how they may inform us about our analytic work.

 

2: How the brain actively constructs perceptions

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Although subjectively it seems that we simply ‘take in’ the world as it exists, each and every perception is in fact actively constructed by the brain from the building blocks of individual sensory cues under the guidance and influence of emotion, motivation and prior experience (Gazzaniga, 1995).

Contrary to popular belief, the brain does not operate like a camera taking in a whole scene, but operates more like a feature detector. The brain detects the individual stimulus features of the environment such as edges, contour, line orientation, colour, form, pitch, volume and movement and processes them in separate regions of the cortex. There is no place in the brain ‘where it all comes together’ as a whole image. To create a perception, the brain takes the pattern of neuronal activity created by the simultaneous processing of all these individual environmental features and compares it with patterns stored in memory. When a match for the current pattern is found, perception occurs. The vast majority of perception occurs non-consciously. Only for the purpose of consciousness does the brain bind together the separate stimulus cues into coherent objects that pass our awareness in a continuous stream of experience (Edelman, 1992; Crick, 1994).

 

3: Memory: brain systems that link past, present and future

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‘Memory is the capacity to look from the present to the past and at the same time witness the passing of the present into the future.’

H. J. Markowitsch (1995, p. 767).

INTRODUCTION

There are many kinds of memory. One is the memory for what you did last night. Other types of memory are for how to tie your shoes, or who William the Conqueror was, or how you felt when your grandmother died, or for remembering a seven-digit telephone number while dialling it. All of these are different still from the kind of memory you use when you go back to what you were doing before being interrupted by a telephone call. Memory is the umbrella rubric under which each of these diverse phenomena can be classified. What unites them under the term ‘memory’ is that all involve the neural representation of information to which a person was previously exposed and which can be reactivated for use in the present (Badde-ley, 1995; Schacter, 1995; Shimamura, 1995; Tulving, 1995). Memory is closely allied with learning, whether learning facts, or learning relationships between events; ‘when I cry, mommy comes and picks me up’ (Alkon, 1992). Memory, then is about the past, but it also helps to anticipate the future. Neuroscientists generally agree that there are a number of kinds of memory, each processed in a different brain system (Schacter & Tulving, 1994). Typically these systems interact, but they can at times operate independently of one another.

 

4: Emotional processing—the mind-body connection

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INTRODUCTION

From the evolutionary perspective first proposed by Darwin, emotions evolved to enhance survival by providing more adaptive solutions to problems that animals commonly encounter, such as maintaining body homeostasis, finding food, defending against danger, reproducing, caring for offspring and sustaining social relationships (Darwin, 1872; Pinker, 1997; LeDoux, 1996). Put in the simplest neuroscientific terms, emotions organise an animal’s sustained responses to rewarding and aversive stimuli. The aim of this discussion is to illuminate the brain circuitry of emotion and show how these circuits apply to a wide variety of clinically relevant issues; anxiety, psychosomatic conditions, attachment and non-verbal communication.

The function of emotion is to co-ordinate the mind and body. Emotion organises perception, thought, memory, physiology, behaviour and social interaction so as to provide an optimal means for coping with the particular situation that is generating the emotion. Under the sway of fear, we are more likely to interpret stimuli as dangerous, have frightening thoughts, remember frightening things, show increased metabolic readiness to deal with danger, and to undertake behaviours such as ‘freezing’, fleeing or fighting to help avoid the threat. Infant emotions of separation distress organise the infant’s bio-behavioural state so as to trigger comforting reunion responses in the care-taker. These examples illustrate a central thesis of this paper. Emotion connects not only the mind and body of one individual but minds and bodies between individuals.

 

5: Bilaterality: hemispheric specialisation and integration

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INTRODUCTION

The two cerebral hemispheres are identical in appearance. However, ever since Broca discovered in 1861 that left hemisphere damage results in ‘expressive’ aphasia, neuroscientists have realised that the brain is functionally asymmetrical (Ornstein, 1997). A few years later, Wernicke identified that left hemisphere damage leads to ‘receptive’ aphasia. As a result, neuroscientists held the belief that the left hemisphere was superior to the right because it was the language centre, and thus the seat of reason and intellect. Eventually, however, Hughlings-Jackson, in the 1870s, realised that the right hemisphere plays a central role in comprehension of the world together with the left. During this same period, many neuroscientists were influenced by popular notions regarding the essential nature of man, such as those depicted in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 story of Dr Jekyll andMr Hyde. For these neuroscientists, it was as if humans had two separate minds, even two ‘consciousnesses’, a ‘cultivated’ left one and a ‘primitive’ right one.

 

6: Consciousness: a neuroscience perspective (with David Olds)

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‘Plato said we are trapped inside a cave and know the world only through the shadows it casts on the wall … The skull is our cave and mental representations the shadows’ (Pinker, 1997, p. 84).

INTRODUCTION: BASIC ASSUMPTIONS OF CONSCIOUSNESS RESEARCH

The majority of consciousness research is steeped in an evolutionary perspective and a fundamental assumption of ‘mind-brain unity’. Single-cell organisms do not need brains, because they interface directly with their environment through chemo-tactic receptors. The brain evolved as an information processor, to bring the ‘outside inside’ so that the whole organism is privy to environmental stimuli. Primitive brains react reflexively. The higher vertebrate brain emerged because natural selection favours brains that respond rapidly, yet are flexible enough to adapt to changing environments.

For neuroscientists, ‘mind-brain unity’ refers to the way in which the brain encodes information as configurations of electrically activated neural networks. Network patterns function as a kind of Morse code that can represent the world. Networks are built up from individual neurons or groups of neurons (neuronal groups) by the intrinsic properties of nerve tissue. All nerve cells intrinsically generate electrical oscillations, independent of external and internal sensory input, and signal their excitement to neighbouring cells through synaptic connections (Hobson, 1994; Llinas, 1990). Because neurons have so many synaptic connections to other neurons, even small variations of firing in local neuronal groups lead to significant variations of firing within the widely distributed neural networks that underlie complex brain functions.

 

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