The Psychoanalyst and the Neurobiologist:
A Conversation About Healing the Soul and Telling Stories of the Mind, Brain, Self, and Culture

Elio Frattaroli and Paul Grobstein

(see latest: 18 February 2006, 10 January 2006, 5 January 2006
and on-line forum
and related resource list )

Elio Frattaroli is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst on the faculty of the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia and author of "Healing the Soul in the Age of the Brain: Becoming Conscious in an Unconscious World". Paul Grobstein is a neurobiologist at Bryn Mawr College and Director of the College's Center for Science in Society whose published work includes "Revisiting Science in Culture: Science as Story Telling and Story Revising" and "Making the Unconscious Conscious, and Vice Vera: A Bi-directional Bridge Between Neuroscience/Cognitive Science and Psychotherapy".

The two have been sharing thoughts over monthly lunches since 2001-2003 when Grobstein was an academic fellow of the Psychoanalytic Center and Frattaroli was one of his mentors. The conversations have been generative for both, seem likely to continue to be so, and touch on a number of matters that may be of interest to others as well (see also Psychoanalysis and Neuroscience: Enemies, Acquaintances, Bedfellows?).

With the thought that their conversation might usefully be broadened, Frattaroli and Grobstein decided in the fall of 2005 to add the on-line component of their conversations provided here and an on-line forum for contributions by others interested. The exchange begins with brief reflections by both Frattaroli and Grobstein about where the conversations between them have been, what has been productive about them so far, and where there seem to be disagreements that are likely to be generative in the future, and will be updated monthly.

Join the conversation yourself in the On-line forum or email us.

Reflections
January 2006
From Paul to Elio -

It HAS been quite a while since we first started talking together. I've learned a lot from and thought a lot about our conversations over the years since. Partly that has to do with your clinical experiences and expertise, neither of which I have. You've given me a window into what I think of as "applied neurobiology" for which I have been and continue to be very grateful. But there is much more to it than that: your inclination to reflect critically on your own experiences and to share that kind of metathinking, your curiosity about ways other people make other kinds of stories about similar things, and your willingness to test different stories by bumping them up against one another. That I think is a major part of what has made these such good conversations, with the promise they will continue to be so.

We've found lots of common so far, including a mutual dissatisfaction with "quick fix" approaches to mental health problems, a common belief in the value of "talk therapy" as an important component of mental health care, and a shared sense that the underlying issues are as much matters of social and cultural as they are of individual well being. Having gotten to those similar places via very different routes (science/biology/academia as opposed to literature/medicine/clinical practice) encourages me to believe there is a there there, and I hope it does for you as well.

We've also, I think, been developing together some conceptual tools to help in addressing these sorts of issues, deriving in large part from your inclination to try and get beyond some of the older formalisms of psychoanalysis and my own to try and move neurobiology in some more expansive directions. A recognition of important distinctions between the conscious and the unconscious is one part of this, as is an understanding that conflict (both interpsychic and interpersonal) is a central part of human experience, one needing to be better understood and not always to be done away with. Another useful direction we've been developing, I think, has to do with efforts to make sense of what you call the "repetition compulsion", the tendency of humans to repeat actions that any outside observer would say make no sense. And then, perhaps, there is a developing common recognition of the importance of "story" as a distinctive feature of human behavior and experience, a feature that, among other things, helps to make sense (for me at least) of transference as an important construct?

There is, I think, great promise in what we've been able to develop that we agree on, but at least as much as well in the places we've been to again and again without (yet?) finding a common vocabulary. Can one make sense of all that we are trying to make sense of in terms of a material object, the brain, as I am inclined to do? Does one instead need, as you prefer, terms like "soul" and an independent "higher consciousness"? One might for matters like these simply agree to disagree, but that's not your style or mine. The game instead is to presume that there is in each of us something for the other to learn from and to keep working at discovering what it is. If psychoanalysis and neurobiology can learn from each other and find shared ways to think about the brain/mind/self, maybe dualists and materialists can as well? (Hmmmm, maybe there's something common to both conflicts?)

Anyhow, very much looking forward to this new phase of our conversations.

From Elio to Paul -

What I have most appreciated about our conversations has been that you are trying to grapple with the same phenomena and the same problems of human nature that I am, specifically self-reflective consciousness, inner conflict, and free will/intentionality. These phenomena/problems are at the center of psychoanalysis but neuroscientists feel entitled to have strong opinions about them - and they assume their opinion should take precedence over those of psychoanalysts - even though the phenomena/problems in question are being observed every day by psychoanalysts and are strictly speaking NEVER observed by neuroscientists (simply because they are outside the domain of what can be studied using the methods of neurobiological research).

Here's what most neuroscientists would say about self-reflective consciousness, inner conflict and free will: "Current neuroscience can't explain them but they are obviously products of neurobiological activity because everything mental is a product of neurobiological activity and we are confident that eventually this will be proven by neuroscience research. Therefore, psychoanalysis should use neuroscience research to guide its theorizing; otherwise it won't be scientific." (The logic here is specious but that is the way most neuroscientists think.)

Here's what I like to think you would say: "Neuroscience will probably never be able to prove that self-reflective consciousness, inner conflict, and free will are products of neurobiological activity but I personally (along with most other scientists) believe that they are. On the other hand it is obvious that psychoanalysts have a whole lot more information and ask much more interesting questions about these phenomena/problems than neuroscientists do, because they actually observe these phenomena/problems every day while neurobiologists never observe them directly, only their correlates in the brain. Furthermore, it is obvious that self-reflective consciousness, inner conflict, and free will are of overriding importance in human nature, so neurobiology should use what psychoanalysis is learning about them to guide its research program; otherwise it runs the risk of being largely irrelevant to what really matters."

The only catch is that you really really want to believe that self-reflective consciousness, inner conflict, and free will are entirely products of brain activity, properties of a highly evolved nervous system, even if you know that is an article of faith that it will never be possible to prove (which on a good day, you acknowledge).

I, on the other hand really really want to believe that there is something beyond neurobiology --- something spiritual is probably the best way of describing it --- that is absolutely necessary to account for self-reflective consciousness, inner conflict, and free will/intentionality.

In other words, you and I tend to agree on the facts but our emotional needs compel us to think about those facts in different philosophical frameworks, materialism versus dualism. You can justify your position by saying that, as far as we know, brain activity is a necessary condition (although not necessarily a sufficient condition -- that's the unknowable part) for self-reflective consciousness, inner conflict, and free will, so a materialist explanation for these phenomena is plausible. I can justify my position by saying that there is no way of avoiding epistemological dualism (different and incompatible ways of knowing and different incompatible languages to describe the external world studied by the physical sciences and the inner world of conscious experiences studied by psychoanalysis) so ontological dualism is plausible.

With this background, you and I agree that it can be potentially quite interesting and fruitful for people like us - of incompatible belief systems who prefer incompatible ways of knowing --- to try to study and think about the same phenomena from our mutually exclusive perspectives, and then try to use the other person's ideas/observations to stretch and illuminate our own perspectives.

PG to EF - 5 January 2006

Rich conversation yesterday, as always. I was intrigued particularly by our ability to acknowledge to each other that we each have a preference for how to try and understand things that goes beyond what can be definitively validated: me for trying to make sense of everything in terms of the brain, you for prefering to use as well more "spiritual" notions. And by our shared sense that for each of us part of the enjoyment of these conversations is the opportunity, in a supportive but critical context, to see how far we can push one or the other approach.

Along these lines, I think it interesting and significant that we both, independently, have been intrigued by Freud's denial, at the beginning of Civilization and Its Discontents, of ever having had an "oceanic feeling", one that a correspondent of his suggested was the basis of religious experience. One can, of course, read that, as perhaps you do?, as an explanation of Freud's failure to give significant attention to more "spiritual" dimensions of psychotherapy. Alternatively, one can read Freud's denial, as I do, as a way of better understanding why the early development of psychoanalysis paid less attention than it might have to interpersonal and social issues (cf Cassandra's Daughter by Joseph Schwartz). It was fun talking about this together and led in some directions worth exploring further, so let me briefly sketch the alternative interpretation here.

My sense is that you and I (unlike Freud) both recognize the "oceanic feeling" and identify it with something like "the experience of being an integrated part of something larger than oneself". The question, of course, is what the larger thing is and how engagement with it gives rise to the feeling. A parallel, for me, is occasional feelings of very deep interpersonal connectedness, what I have called "interconnected vastness" or "ivy" for short. In these states, "one experiences 'fit' in the sense that ... issues of power and control disappear because power and control are rapidly and unconsciously passed back and forth ... fears of loss or inadequacy disappear, as do concerns about the past and the future, because the current activity is completely satisfying all current wants/needs ...".

Among the things that makes ivy interesting in this context is that there is nothing fundamentally mysterious or "mystic" involved. One can readily point to a well-defined "something larger than onself". It is an interpersonal assembly (a dyad, a family, a basketball team, etc) of which one is an interdependent element. Moreover, one can perhaps account for the feeling itself in a relevant and extendable way: it is the state of the nervous system in the absence of any experience of conflict. It is what one experiences when there are no signals of mismatch.

The intriguing extension, of course, is the idea that the presence or absence of conflict can exist on the interpersonal level (at scales ranging from the dyad all the way up to societies/cultures) but can also exist in terms of interactions between the self and the non-human world (so that one might have "oceanic feelings" when one is alone and, for example, gazing at a star filled sky). Perhaps most importantly, the presence or absence of conflict can exist simply within oneself, independent of who or what is around one.

Freud may have lacked openness to some supernatural entity or "higher consciousness". Alternatively, he may have been largely unable to resolve conflicts, interpersonal or otherwise. Either might, in different ways, shed new light on the history of psychoanalysis. Leaving Freud aside, the more general question, of course, is what use we can each make of the fruits of the other's approaches. What use can be made of thinking of "oceanic experiences" as fundamentally rooted in the brain as opposed to being indicative of an opening to something else?

Looking forward to further conversations on this theme and others that we touched on to which I think it relates. I'm very much intrigued by your bringing "nonviolent communication" to the table; it connects not only to psychoanalytic practice but to some thinking I've been doing about Serendip and to something a colleague recently mentioned to me about the improv "rule of agreement" as described in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. The rule might be more aptly described as "non-denial of possibility" and could, I think, operate both in intrapsychic and interpersonal situations to make conflict less troublesome/more generative. Interested as well in your distinction between two ways of dealing with emotion: "expressing" it as a way of avoiding feeling it as opposed to "being fully conscious". Lots (more) to talk about, as usual.

EF to PG - 10 January 2006

About Freud never having had the oceanic feeling and yet feeling compelled to develop a theory that reduces other people's experience to something he himself has had (feelings about his father): My sense is that Freud was very anxious about the possibility -- indeed the need -- within himself of having the "oceanic feeling" and really getting it, in all its mystical splendor. So, in order to allay his anxiety he reduced the experience to one he wasn't afraid to have. In doing so he did violence to any pretense that his theorizing about it could be scientific. After all, how can you develop a reasonable theory about something you have never observed for yourself but have only heard about from people whose testimony you don't trust? Plus, if Freud had been consistent in believing that his psychoanalytic theory of inner conflict applied to himself as well as to others, he would have noticed that he was intensely ambivalent about all matters mystical -- both fascinated and repelled -- and would have been curious what it was about mystical experience that provoked such mixed feelings in him. Had he done that wholeheartedly he would almost certainly have fallen into an oceanic feeling sooner or later.

I agree that the "oceanic feeling" involves an awareness of connectedness with something larger than myself and that a deep connectedness with another person or a group of people is one avenue into it. But it is also an awareness of the interconnectedness of all things, and at that level there are other avenues into it beside the interpersonal one. You could reduce this other level of the experience to an interpersonal one, but then you would be doing just what Freud did, rendering the experience more compliant with your need that it not be mystical. It isn't clear to me whether you are trying to do that or not, given your acknowledging that you can get there alone on a starry night.

One thing I do find intriguing is your idea that "...one can perhaps account for the feeling itself...(as) the state of the nervous system in the absence of any experience of conflict. It is what one experiences when there are no signals of mismatch." The issue is, why insist that the oceanic feeling IS a state of the nervous system, when it clearly is not. It is a subjective experience. Subjective experiences (private first-person observations) are both experientially and definitionally completely different from neurological systems (public third-person observations). To equate the two is philosophical cheating. Like cheating on income taxes, almost everybody does it, but that doesn't make it valid.

On the other hand I find it a very compelling hypothesis that the oceanic feeling would correlate with a state of the nervous system in which the neurological-correlate indicators of inner and interpersonal conflict (supposing we could nail those down to make them measurable somehow) were mostly or completely absent.

The opening paragraphs of Chapter 1 of my book capture a lot of what I have to say about the "oceanic feeling" and might be useful as a basis for further discussion of it.

PG to EF - 18 February 2006

I'm not sure whether you were suggesting that my "trying to do that" involved me "rendering the [oceanic] experience more compliant with [my] need" or me denying the possibility of "avenues into [the oceanic] beside the interpersonal one", and we didn't get back to it at lunch last week, so here's the quick answer: I agree that the oceanic feeling does not depend on interpersonal interaction. Whether that means that the feeling translates into "an awareness of connectedness with something larger than myself" is ... something to explore further (as is, of course, the question of whether making things "compliant with my need" is for me, Freud, or anyone else a good/bad/avoidable/unavoidable thing).

Some thoughts first about what we were talking about over lunch last week. I'm glad you found the notion of the oceanic feeling as an absence of conflict interesting and potentially useful (leaving aside the questions of where this is occurring and how). And I'm intrigued by the connections you made between that and some of the work that Andrew Newberg writes about in Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. It could well be so that the oceanic feeling is related to states that meditative disciplines provide access to, and, if so, one might learn some more about it by recent and ongoing work on brain activity associated with meditation.

One needs to exercise a little skeptical caution here since, as I wrote in the forum, there is rarely or never a close correspondence between a particular brain region and a particular behavioral function. That said, its interesting (to me at least) that meditative states may involve a reduction in activity in areas of the brain that other studies suggest are more active when self/other distinctions are being made. One might interpret this as indicating that a self/other distinction is inherently conflictual and goes away when one achieves "connectedness with something larger than oneself". Alternatively, one might suggest that it's ALL in the head (or brain): that an active self/other distinction within oneself is an indication of conflict, and that the oceanic feeling (and the reduction in brain activity) reflects a lessening, for any of a variety of reasons, of an INTERNAL conflict.

Notice that the distinction here (perhaps relevant elsewhere in our conversations) is not whether there exists distinct matter and spirit (the traditional dualist position) or not (the materialist one) but rather whether there is something "out there" (outside of brain and/or mind, as one prefers) which, if found, would reliably and always resolve conflict, or whether instead, the conflict resolution is inevitably and necessarily "in here". The latter position (my own) does not at all preclude the possibility that input from something "out there" may contribute to conflict resolution "in here" but does assert that conflict is not the consequence, for all people, of a similar failure to be aware of a given and fixed thing "out there". Different things "out there" may in different people contribute in different ways to conflict resolution "in here", and for at least some people, what is "out there" may be pretty much irrelevant to conflict resolution "in here". The dualist/materialist distinction may perhaps be irrelevant for clinical practice, but whether or not one sees conflict as in principle resolvable by recognition of a fixed "connectedness to something larger than oneself" seems to me to clinically important.

My guess is that you and I would agree that an effective therapist needs to be open to a variety of possible routes to conflict resolution. And we certainly agreed over lunch that both conflict resolution and the oceanic state should be regarded as "not in fact stablely and/or permanently achievable". That in turn raises some interesting issues about both therapy and neurobiology (whether they are or are not about the same thing).

Why should an absence of conflict (and the oceanic feeling?) NOT be stable or permanently achievable? One general class of explanations is that humans are imperfect or the world is imperfect or both, and hence something we wish to have is simply not attainable other than transiently. I'm inclined to put on the table an alternate perspective: that conflict (and hence the transiency of the oceanic feeling) is not a bug (an imperfection in ourselves or the world) but rather a feature (a reflection and outcome of an evolutionary process that has adaptive value). Conflict, I suggest, is a necessary and desirable aspect of the human condition; it is that which frees us from being simply reflections of what has been and is and gives us the capacity to conceive and potentially bring into existence that which has not yet been.

Perhaps then the oceanic feeling is transient not because of imperfections that make it difficult to achieve but rather because transiency is the norm? If so, then the very notion of "perfection" as a fixed and achievable state is a human (brain?) construct, one that we can and should learn to do without? Aspiring instead to valuing conflict and the valuable role it plays in allowing us to be creative agents in our own lives (and in the world around us)?

I'm intrigued by the challenges such a perspective provides for studies of the nervous system. How does one characterize "conflict" in neural terms? How can the brain come up with the idea of "perfection" if it isn't "out there" somewhere? And so forth. But I'm equally intrigued by some of the implications of this perspective for psychotherapy. Many people would, I think, contend that conflict reduction is the primary objective of psychotherapy. What this alternate perspective suggests is that the principle objective of psychotherapy ought not to be to reduce conflict but rather to give people tools that allow them to make more productive use of conflict ... to see it as in fact a feature rather than a bug.

My sense from our conversation is that we are pretty much in the same place on this. And that it provides, in fact, one perhaps useful way (maybe more so than uncovering the past?) to distinguish between psychoanalysis (in principle) and (at least some) other forms of psychotherapy: psychoanalysis presumes some capacity for self-responsibility and transmits a skill whose function is to enhance that capacity rather than being primarily a method to treat a symptom (conflict or otherwise).

The other, I think related, direction our conversation took was posing the question of how and why psychoanalysis could be an effective therapy under some circumstances and not others. In the extreme, one would one not undertake psychoanalysis with an amoeba (or a tree) but would with humans (at least some of them). The difference would seem to be the existence in some humans (and not in amoebae or trees) of something "psychoanalytically manipulatable". There is a challenge there, both (for you) to say what this actually is in clinical terms and (for me) to see whether it can be made sense of neurobiologically.

Our discussion of anxiety seemed to me to be open some interesting possibilities, perhaps for both of us. Perhaps anxiety is the converse of the "oceanic feeling", ie a state (a brain state?) that corresponds to conflict, as opposed to absence of conflict. Conflict between? Perhaps something one is aware of (a "story") and something one is not aware of (an aspect of the unconscious, something going on in the amoeba-like/tree-like part of oneself). If so, its the existence of the "aware of" that, in combination with the amoeba/tree like, provides the sine qua non for both anxiety and conflict, and perhaps its the existence of the "aware of" that makes something "psychoanalytically manipulatable".

Your thought that there were two ways to deal with anxiety seems to me interesting in this regard. One is to treat it as a problem in its own right, and hence to focus primarily on making it go away, by "repression", by exhibiting some "defensive" or masking behavior, or by drug treatment. An alternative would be to think of anxiety as as indicator of conflict, and hence as something positive, something suggesting the "possibility of possibility". In this case, the task of the therapeutic interaction isn't in fact to make anxiety go away but rather to make the conflict a sufficiently clear part of awareness so that its potential to create something new and different can be realized (and, in so doing, to further develop a skill at achieving this onself).

There's an interesting tension there, of course, between an interest in relieving human suffering, on the one hand, and an interest in helping people become more active shapers of their own lives. It is, perhaps, the same tension reflected in the myth of Icarus and Daedalus, an interest is stability as opposed to newness. And the one that Ken Fogel raised in the forum. THAT conflict, as I said in the forum, isn't between the unconscious and what one is aware of but rather inherent in life itself. Amoebae and trees may not experience it, but they act it out all the time.

Interesting resonances in all of this to our earlier conversation ("make conflicts less troublesome/more generative"). Curious, of course, to hear your memories of/reactions to our last one. And looking forward to future ones.

To be continued ...

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