Unconscious Inhibition: Brain evidence favoring a psychoanalytic understanding

Objective experimental evidence is accruing in support of fundamental psychoanalytic propositions: (1) Evidence from our own lab and from others shows that unconscious mental processes exist and are instantiated in the brain. (2) Evidence provides support for the proposition that at least some unconscious processes are subject to unconscious inhibition. These effects occur at a deeply unconscious level and are mediated by individual differences; defense, then, is a higher level psychological instance of inhibition. (3) Steps have been taken toward establishing the existence of unconscious motivation: there is sleep-dream evidence for the operation of disguise in REM dreams; in a clinical study on social phobia, time-frequency feature results were gathered which suggest that conflict between unconscious motives must be instantiated in the brain. (4) In a study on spider phobia, a greater fear of spiders is associated with unconscious inhibition of attention to spiders and of spider detection. Alpha synchronization appears to be associated with these inhibitory responses and might be a brain marker for primary process thinking.

Conversations with Howard Shevrin III, Ghent, December 1st, 2005

Howard Shevrin’s interest in neuroscience was first methodological: it provided independent evidence on what goes on unconsciously. The foundation of the mind needs not to be entirely neurophysiological: it is possible to describe the mechanisms in psychological terms. However, we aren’t anywhere near a unified theory of the brain and mind. When one goes into analysis, the theory is no longer simply about ideas, one’s life almost hangs in the balance. There is an enormous disparity between the neuroscientist publishing his findings and the analyst who is treating patients, but not publishing. If neuro-psychoanalysis is only going to rely on the neuroscience part, it’s really not going to achieve its important objective. People into psychoanalysis should be trained in “the basic science of psychoanalysis”, which should not be limited to neuroscience, but should include a really important training in psychology, sociology, etc.

Conversations with Howard Shevrin II, Ann Arbor, June 17th, 2005

According to Howard Shevrin, psychoanalysis is first and foremost due to Freud’s creation of a new method: the patients have to say anything that comes into their minds. For the first time, it became possible to be in touch with the full extent of human experience. The two fundamental pillars of psychoanalysis are (1) the dynamic unconscious and (2) the primary process nature of that psychological unconscious. The psychoanalytic method is based on assumptions for which the evidence can only be provided from a more basic science. Psychoanalysis is over rich in theory, while psychology has empirical generalizations but no real overarching theories. As a result, researchers in psychology come up with a lot of usually trivial findings, but these findings get lost, because there is no context in which they can remain, so the same things are discovered over and over again. While psychoanalysis as a treatment has come under attack, psychoanalysis as an understanding of the mind has been doing much better. However, unless that theory is presented in a coherent way and takes into account recent scientific developments, it will simply fall and its bones will be picked.

Conversations with Howard Shevrin I, Ann Arbor, December 8th, 2004

Howard Shevrin is born in 1926 in New York. During World War 2, he is a front line soldier in Germany from December 1944 till February 1945. After the war, he obtains his PhD in psychology and child development at the New York Cornell University. In 1954 he joins the Menninger Foundation in Texas, where he starts doing subliminal research with Lester Luborsky and Charles Fischer. He also completes his analytic training there. In 1973, he joins the University of Michigan as a professor of psychology and as chief psychologist at the Department of Psychiatry. With the help of Bob Berry, he founds the Ormond and Hazel Hunt Laboratory and starts doing research with Bill Williams, head of the neurology EEG lab. In the following years , a number of post-docs join him, among whom Linda Brakel, Edward Bernat, Phil Wong and Michael Snodgrass. In one of their major studies, Shevrin and colleagues show that psychoanalytic clinicians are able to derive the unconscious conflict rationale from the subject’s accounts, which is consciously unrecognized by the subjects themselves, but nevertheless recognised by the brain EEG characteristics.

Howard Shevrin and the Shevrin Lab

Prof. Howard Shevrin is both a renowned psychoanalyst and a distinguished scientist with hundreds of scientific publications covering both (neuro-) scientific and psychoanalytic journals. He received the Sigourney Award in recognition of his achievements in applied psychoanalysis and research (2003) and the Pfeffer Prize for the best paper in the field of neuropsychoanalysis (2004). He has founded the Ormond and Hazel Hunt Laboratory for the study of Conscious and Unconscious Processes at the University of Michigan. His research has lead to empirical support for two fundamental propositions: the existence of (1) a psychological unconscious having cognitive, affective, and motivational properties (see also Snodgrass’ “non-monotonic model” of unconscious processing) and of (2) a qualitatively different organization of these properties from most conscious mental processes, namely following the logic of the primary process (see also Brakel’s empirical test, called GeoCat for “Geometrical Categorization”).