Neurontic

In Search of Synergy

Charlie Rose recently ran a show billed as “A discussion about the legacy of Sigmund Freud.” I’d urge anyone interested in the impact of neuroscience on psychotherapeutic practice to take the time to watch it.

The title is a bit misleading. It’s less a discussion of Freud’s contributions than it is a free wheeling conversation about how the fields of neuroscience and psychotherapy are beginning to overlap–and, perhaps more importantly, how understanding the biology of the brain promises to revolutionize the practice of psychotherapy.

The participants are seriously heavy hitters: There’s Nobel prize winning neurologist Eric Kandel, Aaron Beck, the inventor of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Steven Roose, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia (who is valiantly trying bring our increased biological knowledge of the brain to bear in the actual treatment of patients), and Peter Fonagy, Freud Memorial Professor of Psychoanalysis at University College London.

Those familiar with Kandel’s work know him as a pioneer in the physiological study of memory. What you may not know is that Kandel started his career as a psychoanalyst and didn’t find his way into a lab until he grew interested in locating “the id, ego, and super ego” in the brain. Once there, he discovered just how far away science was from achieving this goal, but it didn’t matter. He was already hooked.

These days, Kandel is a scientist through and through, and is quick to dismiss his credentials as a psychoanalyst. None the less, he is one of the few neuroscientists I know of whose journey began in the therapeutic arena, and he has a high regard for its practitioners–having once been one himself.

Nearing the end of a very productive career, Kandel has found a new mission. He wants to promote cross-disciplinary collaboration between neuroscientists and therapists. And he appears to have assembled this group of thinkers (and instigated the show) in order to diffuse his message.

Here are some of the questions they explore:

*How has psychoanalytic theory held up? How has it changed? How has it evolved?

*How did Freud revolutionize our understanding of the human brain? And what did he get flat out wrong?

*Can neuroscience allow therapeutic practitioners to sort through the competing “psychoanalytic theories of mind,” throw out the trash, and determine empirically what works?

*What makes cognitive behavioral therapy so different?

*How long will we have to wait for the psychoanalytic gatekeepers to embrace the idea that the scientific method can help them achieve better results?

If you, like me, came to the study of neuroscience only after becoming frustrated with the fuzzy thinking behind many therapeutic models, you’re bound to enjoy this program.

I, for one, fully support Kandel’s vision. I’d love to live long enough to see the “marriage of psychoanalysis and neuroscience.” But I realize that it’s a long way off. At the moment, the two fields are just “dating,” as Fonagy says. Here’s hoping they find true love.

(Hat tip to Mind Hacks.)