the Freud hangup

It continues to amaze me that there are still scientists who have very kind words to say about Freud’s theories. I tend to think that the leftovers of his ideas have a very negative effect on neuroscience.

Here the sort of thing I mean. Jonah Lehrer who is a great (I mean great) blogger, starts a recent posting (here) with this paragraph:

Sigmund Freud gets a bad rap from modern science. (The immunologist Peter Medawar summarized the feeling of many with his remark that psychoanalysis is the “most stupendous intellectual confidence trick of the twentieth century.”) Sure, Freud’s theories mangled a lot of details — we no longer worry about penis envy or the Oedipus complex — but he was shockingly prescient on the big themes. In recent years, it’s become clear that, as Freud always insisted, the unconscious is the dominant force in our mental life. (What Freud called the id is now a network of brain areas associated with emotion, such as the amygdala and nucleus accumbens.) He was mostly right about the logic of dreams, which often regurgitate those parts of experience we store in long-term memory. And he was basically correct to imagine the mind as a set of conflicted drives, with reason competing against the urges of the passions. We expend a lot of neurotic energy holding ourselves back.

The paper that Lehrer is reviewing does not mention Freud or Freudian theories. It discusses infant attachments to mothers, but in a modern not Freudian way. When I read this paper it did not remind me of Freud.

So Freud insisted that the unconscious is the dominant force. That seems to me to be a small positive compared to the large negative in the kind of dominance he gave it. He painted that dominant force as the dark side in opposition to consciousness. Freud’s picture is all conflict and sabotage; it is unrealistic and to me has always been unconvincing. This Freudian fear of the unconscious is actually holding back the recognition of its importance.

A reasonable picture is of parts of the brain cooperating most of the time to protect an individual’s well-being. Instead of artificial divisions, science is more and more finding that parts are working together or achieving balance rather than fighting.

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