Mixing Memory

In Defense of Freud

A couple Science Bloggers have been giving Freud a hard time lately. In a post on Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, Jonah Lehrer of The Frontal Cortex wrote:

So why was Blink less than satisfying for me? Becase Gladwell ended up lumping together all sorts of research, from Damasio’s Iowa Gambling Task to Ekman’s cartography of facial muscles to brain scans of autistic people, that, at least from a neurological perspective, were totally unrelated. They all involved different brain regions that are activated by different stimuli. Gladwell got around this slight problem by never discussing the actual details. Instead, he wrapped this unrelated research in a neat bow of readable anecdotes, all of which revolved around a nebulous entity called the “unconscious”.

Does this approach sound familiar? It should. Sigmund Freud was also a master prose stylist, wasn’t particularly interested in the neurological foundations of his theories, and loved theorizing about the all powerful unconscious.

Later in the post, he describes Freud’s theories as “oversimplified stories about the subterranean self we don’t know.” Then Dave Munger of Cognitive Daily, in a post titled “A guarded defense of Malcolm Gladwell” calls this comparison to Freud “the ultimate slam.”

This sort of Freud-bashing is 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. A reader acquainted with the works of Freud would be hard pressed not to notice ideas similar to his in the work of people like John Bargh on unconscious social attitudes, Antonio Damasio on the role of emotion in reasoning, or George Loewenstein on goals, motivations, and needs. 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?

On top of that, the substance of Jonah’s comparison is unfair. I haven’t read Gladwell’s book, so I can’t say how good or bad it is, but Jonah’s descriptions of Freud are based on misconceptions. Freud’s discussions of case studies and other “anecdotes” were highly systematic (and not always all that readable!), and his resulting theories were anything but “oversimplified” (sure, they were “simple,” in a philosophical sense, but that’s usually considered a good thing). And it’s definitely not true that he “wasn’t particularly interested in the neurological foundations of his theories.” First, there was Freud’s famous 1895 “Project for a Scientific Psychology,” which actually laid out the beginning of a neurobiological theory of many of the targets of his later psychoanalytic inquiries. Granted, Freud abandoned the “Project,” as it’s often called, and it is now generally considered to be part of the “pre-psychonanalytic” stage of his career, but he never lost sight of the necessity of integrating his observations with the brain, writing of his work in psychoanalysis that “we shall have to find a contact point with biology”1. It is true that after his early work in neurobiology, he didn’t place an emphasis on neuroscience, but neither do most cognitive psychologists today, and I don’t think that’s a valid criticism of their work (I know, of course, that many neuroscientists disagree). Freud, like cognitive psychologists today, recognized that there’s work to be done before we get to the neuroscience, and in place of a neuroscience that hadn’t (and hasn’t), as of yet, reached a point technologically where it can catch up with psychology either theoretically or empirically.

But Jonah and Dave’s attitudes towards Freud are not unusual. I probably don’t have to tell you that Freud gets a bad rap in contemporary scientific psychology. Freud’s reputation in the brain and behavioral sciences is so bad that authors often go out of their way to distance themselves from him. Hell, cognitive psychologists even coined the term “cognitive unconscious” to make sure that no one would associate it with Freud. But this reputation is completely undeserved.

Honestly, I think Freud’s bad reputation is largely a result of the fact that most scientific psychologists have never read a single word of Freud’s (I don’t mean to imply that either Jonah and Dave have never read any Freud, of course). Instead, most psychologists today get their Freud from kooky modern-day psychoanalysts who probably haven’t read all that much Freud either. Combine this with the extremely bitter fighting for control of psychology in the 1950s and 60s between psychoanalysists in the Freudian tradition and scientific psychologists just beginning to emerge from the iron grip of behaviorism, and you get a culture of Freud bashing.

I hope that someday in the near future we’ll be able to let go of our collective animosity towards Freud, and begin to take him seriously enough to use him for inspiration in the way that many psychologists today use James or Lewin. I’d be willing to bet that as cognitive science continues to grow, and as affect and cognition are unified more and more in our theoretical and empirical work, Freud will have many insights to offer us, even if they are in a “primitive” form.

1As quoted in Schore, A.N. (1997). A century after Freud’s Project: Is a rapprochment between psychoanalysis and neurobiology at hand? Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 45, 807-840.

UPDATE: I meant to include a link to this 1998 Psychologial Bulletin paper by Drew Westen, which provides an extensive review of the connections between Freud and contemporary psychological science.