Geography of feeling

Will new scientific discoveries about our -----emotional life make Freud's unconscious obsolete?

Published April 7, 1999 7:00AM (EDT)

We interrupt this broadcast for a word from the unconscious ...

There's an old joke in which one psychoanalyst says to another: "Boy, I made the most embarrassing Freudian slip the other day." His colleague asks what happened, and the first explains that the awkward incident had occurred while having dinner with his mother. "What I meant to say, was, 'Mother, would you please pass the salt,'" he explains, "but what actually came out was, 'You bitch, you ruined my entire life.'"

It's easy to make fun of psychoanalysts and their earnest enthusiasm for hidden and not-so-hidden meanings. For Freud, as everyone knows, the unconscious had a way of breaking through the surface of consciousness in slips of the tongue, double-entendres, cigar jokes and so forth. At the time he came up with this notion, it seemed radical, but in our current, post-repressive society there's something quaintly Victorian about it. Who is shocked by unintended meanings nowadays?

In the '70s, a group of neuroscientists led by Roger Sperry conducted research on split-brain patients that suggested a simpler way of understanding the scenario described above. Working with patients whose two brain hemispheres had lost the ability to communicate with one another, this research demonstrated that the emotional meaning of the stimulus "mom" ("You bitch") can reside in a part of the brain completely separate from the perceptual awareness of "mom" ("Mother, please pass the salt"). Like Freud's binary theory of consciousness and unconsciousness, this neurological discovery suggested there were indeed two channels of human experience ... but it has also thrown the Fruedian worldview into question.

Since then, researchers in the field of cognitive neuroscience have continued recasting psychoanalytic ideas in anatomical terms. Slowly but surely these researchers are forcing their way into the stronghold of the Freudian worldview: the unconscious. What's at stake in this is nothing less than a revolution in the way we understand our emotions and psychological defense systems.

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I'm peering into a refrigerator whose shelves are lined with tubes containing rats' brains. These brains are about the size of macadamia nuts, their surfaces wrinkled and whitish, each with a large crevice running across the top dividing it into two halves. They occupy a corner in the laboratory of Joseph LeDoux, professor of neural science at New York University.

These brains contain the raw material for LeDoux's research into the neurophysiology of emotion. LeDoux is especially interested in one particular brain structure, the amygdala. This modest-looking, kidney-bean-shaped structure, roughly a couple of millimeters in diameter, is one of the newest frontiers in brain research, though it belongs to the oldest part of the brain

With his reddish goatee and piercing eyes, LeDoux could pass for a psychoanalyst himself. When I ask how he identifies himself, he laughs and shifts uncomfortably in his chair before responding: "I'm a behavioral neuroscientist with a psychological orientation." As this statement reveals, LeDoux wants to speak to different audiences, including experts in the neural sciences, behavioral psychologists and orthodox Freudians, as well as the general public. Originally from Louisiana, he participated in the aforementioned research on split-brain patients in the 1970s before becoming interested in the field of emotions, long a blind spot in the cognitive neurosciences. His pioneering work in this field was described in his 1997 book "The Emotional Brain." He's now a celebrity, with a recent article in the New York Times Magazine highlighting his contributions to the new field.

The particular emotion that interests LeDoux is fear. It is our most primitive emotion, and the one most closely identified with the amygdala, the least evolved structure in our brains. This makes it easy to reproduce and study in animals, through techniques of fear-conditioning. LeDoux explains to me that when we encounter something dangerous, such as a snake or a bear, the danger-stimulus is conveyed first to our amygdala, which initiates the proper sequence of responses: sweaty palms, adrenalin, pounding heart, flight. These are all automatic responses (as are about 90 percent of our responses). We don't need to be conscious of them; if we were our brains would rapidly be overwhelmed. It's a secondary set of networks activated by the amygdala that produces the conscious feelings we know as "fear." The awareness of fear only comes after the response, a paradox William James first noted in the 19th century.

James' notion that civilization had freed us from the grip of fears that dominated the lives of our primitive ancestors has an anotomical correlative in the new neurological findings. The cortex, a more recently evolved brain structure, offers a distinct, more self-conscious line of defense against fear. Whereas it takes only 12 milliseconds for an auditory stimulus to reach the amygdala, it takes up to three times as long to reach the cortex. This is a significant lapse of time, one that allows certain conscious mechanisms to be activated and to impose control over our reactions. For obvious reasons, this is an advantage in the modern world, where fears may erupt but need more sophisticated responses than a club to the head.

In people suffering from fear disorders such as phobias, however, the neural links between cortex and amygdala seem to break down chronically, plunging the individual back into a world of archaic fears. In this state, the amygdala has essentially taken over the mind, like a parasite or an evil troll. Unfortunately, as LeDoux puts it, "Fear learning is forever." Once fears are learned they cannot be unlearned. Phobias are especially difficult to cure, but we all carry inside us fears we don't want. It's estimated that more 20 million Americans suffer from some form of anxiety disorder, including panic, social phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety.

Next page | Can my amygdala explain my failure in psychotherapy?

A couple of weeks after my meeting with LeDoux, I go to Washington for the weekend. On the train down I skim back issues of "Shadow of the Bat," a spinoff of the original Batman comic book series. In them, a mad scientist called Jonathan Crane (aka "Scarecrow") experiments on people's fear reactions, turning them, with the help of Pavlovian fear-conditioning methods, into puppets ready to carry out his scheme to take over the city of Gotham. By releasing fear-gas in the city, he intends to turn its inhabitants into a population of wildly hallucinating, panic-stricken people ready to worship him as the "God of Fear." It's an entertaining read, reminding me a bit of the paranoid scenarios Rudy Giuliani likes to peddle to the citizens of New York City.

It also reminds me of the reasons for my interest in LeDoux's work. Having just ended six years of psychotherapy, I'm intrigued by his theories for a number of reasons. The central conflict between my therapist and me concerned my resistance to her efforts to get me to verbalize my feelings. We talked about dreams, but my abysmal failure to free associate, my doubts about the existence of my unconscious, weighed heavily on me. I invented emotions just to cut short the awkward silences that ensued when she'd ask me, for the millionth time, "Do you remember how you felt when your mother insisted that your whole family sleep in one bed in that B&B in Ireland?" I felt like a failure as a patient and wished for a simpler explanation of my "blocked" relation to my feelings.

In this respect, the notion of the amygdala has a lot to recommend it. It provides a simple, tidy model of the brain's primitive, reptilian core, very different from the old Freudian unconscious, which has a certain messy, amorphous quality. Unlike the idea of amygdala, the idea of the unconscious also provides a social theory about how humans interact. It oozes over its boundaries, showing up like an uninvited guest at the dinner table or in more programmed ways in comic books. It helps explain who we are culturally as well as psychically.

While in Washington I check out the Freud exhibit at the Library of Congress. I'm particularly interested in Freud's favorite images of the unconscious: a print of an excavation site in Rome; a popular child's toy called the mystic writing-pad (waxy paper from which written words were erased while traces were left in the soft tablet underneath); a small, exquisite statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom and warfare. It's obvious why Freud treasured this last piece. It speaks to one of his strongest beliefs, if one that, later in life, he seems to have harbored doubts about: that self-knowledge frees us from the grip of archaic impulses.

Freud's "talking cure", as he conceived of it, released patients from their traumatic memories, creating insight and awareness where previously there had only been darkness. But Freud's work rests on certain postulates now widely under attack. Does psychoanalysis still have anything to teach us about the obstinate irrationality of our minds? Can it truly help us gain insight into our feelings? Are we better off looking elsewhere?

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Back in New York, I ask LeDoux about his views on Freud. "My work is quite compatible with Freud's," he claims. Both drugs and the talking cure, he suggests, are equally valid ways of "rewiring the brain." On the other hand, LeDoux feels that Freud's concepts of repression and the unconscious don't stand up to scientific scrutiny. Unconscious processes do dominate mental life, though not for the reasons Freud believed: "They're unconscious not because they're repressed, but simply because they're not conscious." Consciousness -- that 10 percent slice of the psychic pie -- is, in a word, "un-unconsciousness."

LeDoux's model places powerful biological forces at the center of mental life. Indeed, his book makes it sound as though consciousness is little more than an appendage to these forces. It's somewhat incongruous, therefore, that he frequently illustrates his views with references -- as though this were unusual -- to the problems of the "neurotic" who suffers from "poor insight" into his feelings; to the poor soul who has a difficult time verbalizing his emotions, or who finds himself in a condition of emotional arousal without knowing why. These references seem ironic, given the powerful role he ascribes to the amygdala. A further incongruity comes in the closing pages of his book when he optimistically depicts a future of greater cortical control over amygdala-driven behavior. Hints of what this might mean come when he cites research suggesting that using drugs to block the production of adrenalin might help prevent the creation of traumatic memories among soldiers.

The therapeutic implications of LeDoux's work have already been explored by David Goldman, a Manhattan psychiatrist. Told that I'm writing an article for Salon, he enthusiastically endorses it as the "magazine of cortically active-amygdala-modifying progressives." Goldman has recommended LeDoux's book to some of his patients. Learning about the amygdala seems to help them objectify their anxieties and fears. By clueing patients in to the automatic nature of much of their mental life, it allows them to think about their problems in physical terms rather than as products of a runaway mind. Paradoxically, this discovery seems to ease their sense of hopelessness and guilt. "It helps them to think of automatic behavior in a more relative way," he explains. This is the first step toward insight.

All this makes sense to me. By physicalizing our mental life, LeDoux's work lifts some of the stigma of personal responsibility often associated with debilitating fears. Yet I can't help wondering about another aspect of LeDoux's work: its appeal to my desire for easier, simpler explanations. The danger of a certain reductivism seems to lurk within his model, especially insofar as it provides support for the new psycho-pharmaceutical contract between us and our feelings: We let medication take care of the dirty work, meanwhile cultivating that 10 percent of the mind accessible to consciousness.

Moreover, how realistic are the possibilities he envisions? It's nice to think of a world in which amygdala-driven behavior is controlled. But in a book otherwise dedicated to a hard-nosed view of the ineradicable forces dominating mental life, LeDoux's optimism seems like a false note, a sop to human vanity. If Freud has taught us nothing else, it's that our mental life is stubbornly irrational. The evidence of this is all around us, in the fear-gas scenarios of "Shadow of the Bat" and in the increasingly whacked out rhetoric of New York's mayor, to cite just two examples.

William James, that great 19th century spokesman for the civilizing process, probably never envisioned the possibilities of "Shadow of the Bat." This is where Freud comes in. For there can be no doubt about it, fear has become a strange thing in our modern world, severed from any simple evolutionary narrative. If evolution has freed most of us from an existence filled with real danger, it's delivered us into a world in which primitive impulses are kept on permanent overdrive by the fear-programming of mass culture or by fear-mongering politicians. We may well have more fears than we know what to do with, and medication may indeed help to control fear on an individual level. But fear proliferates in the cultural and political landscape; it's become ubiquitous, with entire industries devoted both to controlling it and to therapeutically detonating it.

Strangely, while I went to LeDoux looking for some sort of reassurance that my alienation from my feelings was not at all a sign of failure but rather perfectly normal, I now find myself worrying about what is lost and what gained in the paradigm shift from the unconscious to the amygdala. Ultimately, the price seems to be a kind of flattened mental landscape, in which fear is either the pathology of maladapted individuals or a condition that civilized society subjects to increasingly precise forms of prediction, control and exploitation. In either case, there seems to me to be little ground for optimism. On the other hand, I have to admit that I still like the idea of a pill that would make it possible for me to ask my mother for the salt without fear of interruption from my unconscious.

By Andreas Killen

Andreas Killen is a happily underemployed historian and new father living in New York. Any job offers should be forwarded to him care of Salon.

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