The Frontal Cortex

Was Freud a Prophet?

Mixing Memory posted an interesting reply to my “Gladwell is the New Freud” post. He argued that my “Freud bashing was just wrong”:

For one, while Jonah attempts to criticize Gladwell for being too Freud-like in his discussion of the “adaptive unconscious” (another term for the “cognitive unconscious”), the very fact that contemporary psychologists have begun to show just how important unconscious processes are is, in a way, a vindication of Freud. As is the fact that we are just now beginning to understsand the interplay of affect, motivation, and cognition — the very focus of Freudian psychoanalysis! And it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that our contemporary scientific understanding of this interplay looks pretty damn Freudian…It’s undeniable that many of Freud’s ideas are unusable in today’s scientific psychology, but can you think of any psychologists writing at the turn of the last century about whom you could not say that?

First of all, I never meant to insult Freud. I love Freud and, like Harold Bloom, consider him one of the great artists of the 20th century. Nevertheless, I don’t entirely agree with Mixing Memory. For one thing, Freud didn’t invent the unconscious. He sexualized it, and made it synonymous with eros, Oedipus, and sin. Personally, I consider Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s version of the unconscious to be much closer to the current views of neuroscience. Coleridge was an opium addict, and even though the “sweet poison” destroyed his life, it did, he said, “reveal to me the mind’s self-experience in the act of thinking.” Strung out on purple smoke, “in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses,” Coleridge would compose line after surreal line, none of which he was able to consciously understand. He discovered that his own mind was as “deep as the sea,” guarded by a “deep romantic chasm.” What Coleridge called the imagination we now call unconscious processing: “It [the imagination] dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate,” Coleridge wrote. “It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.” Like Freud a century later, Coleridge insisted that our perceptions and poetry emerged from a place we couldn’t know. And while neuroscience has lost interest in Freud’s seminal insight, which is that the id was full of devious energy and had to be constrained by the super-ego, scientists are discovering the anatomy behind the Coleridgean imagination, a network of sensory areas in which reality is secretly “recreated”.

So was Freud just a quack? Not at all. As Mixing Memory notes, neuroscience now knows that our decisions and choices are motivated by a stew of conflicting desires, feelings and intuitions, just as Freud anticipated. And while these emotions aren’t quite as lascivious as Freud theorized…well, nobody’s perfect. But Freud was absolutely right to emphasize the innate irrationality of man. Long before it became chic and post-modern, Freud was trying to dismantle the Enlightenment’s musty view of the mind. In place of pure reason, his case studies revealed a brain riven by conflicting desires, an idea which it took fMRI studies another century to confirm. As McClure, recently observed in Science, “Human behavior is often governed by a competition between lower level, automatic processes that may reflect evolutionary adaptations to particular environments, and the more recently evolved, uniquely human capacity for abstract, domain-general reasoning and future planning.”

But one could easily argue that many other thinkers, long before Freud, had also stressed similar ideas. David Hume famously claimed that “reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions.” In “The Will to Believe,” William James remarked that “These feelings of our duty about either truth or error are in any case only expressions of our passional life…Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?” Nietzsche was an even more cynical: “There is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom.” The list goes on and on. In other words, it’s always been cool to invoke the irrational and mock Descartes.

So what was Freud’s big contribution? I believe that Freud was right about sleep. The Intrepretation of Dreams is, I think, his masterpiece. Furthermore, it’s basically right. Our dreams really are structured narratives that recapitulate the day’s events. REM is probably an essential part of the learning-reconsolidation process. One of the leading theories of sleep argues that dreams are just imaginary scenarios that help us test out our new knowledge and form new mental connections. While we are sleeping, our brain is figuring out what knowledge we might need, and what knowledge is just a waste of neuronal space. So, at least in theory, dreams can be vehicles for interpretation. Rather than just being a montage of cortical detritus – as Francis Crick argued – dreams really are useful narratives, which can be analyzed and deciphered. Of course, not every dream is really about your mother.


  1. #1 Lin
    December 22, 2008

    If I may use frank language, Bloom’s comment about Freud was among the most asinine he has made, and he had made many. (I am a former student, Yale English major.)

    Freud WAS a neuroscientist, and continued to be one when he changed his methodology. Over and over we find neuroscience supports his findings: to give a few examples,sexulality and urinary and anal functions are mixed up in the hypothalamus, as Freud found in dreams; role of oxytocin in both orgasm and maternal and other bonding; “mirror cells” role of identification with others; sheer amount of the brain that is not under conscious control; unconscious nature of decision-making; close relationship between memory and fantasy (in fact, goes through same brain circuits); importance of early childhood experience (plasticity/experience-dependent post-natal wiring of the brain is much-confirmed in neuroscience

    Among Freud’s greatest contributions: laying the groundwork for object relations; exploration of defense mechanisms; narcissism; role of the unconscious mind;infantile sexuality,role instinct as worked out in the environment.

    You clearly know little about Freud and his methodology, so I don’t know how you can compare him to Coleridge.

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    October 17, 2011

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