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Neuropsychoanalysis #1: A Brief History of Neuroscience...

Updated: Oct 9, 2019

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending a three day workshop with Mark Solms.

His project is a re harmonisation of the psychoanalytic schools and it's cohesion with modern neuroscience. So quite a small task then. He looks a bit like Tommy Lee Jones (this is not an important detail). What is important is that the man is an intellectual juggernaut. He spoke without notes for two hour long chunks with 15 minute breaks before resuming for another onslaught. He quoted regularly from memory, fired out citations and studies. He changed gears between detailed neurological information, biology and psychoanalysis. It was a whirlwind of information. The group for the workshop was pretty small and was made up of neurologists, psychoanalysts and neuroscientists. Questions were pitched constantly during his presentations and he fired comprehensive responses to issues ranging from current neuro science research to psychoanalytic object relation theory. It was a sight to behold - he's a rare breed: a cutting edge scientist, incredibly emotionally intelligent, sociable, unpretentious and a great communicator with boundless energy.


It was an infectious event, I could barely sleep after each day and found myself scribbling questions, re reading papers and talking to anyone who would listen about affective and relational neuroscience.


I'm going to try and truncate some of the workshop over a series of blog posts.


So to start with we are going to look at a brief history of the scientific discoveries of the brain...


Common sense suggests consciousness comes from senses… And like good common sense people the British empiricists like (Locke and Hume) said that senses leave an imprint on the mind as memory traces, something later referred to as 'qualia'. In the 19th century this was mapped onto the body by german anatomists. They put forward that senses are transmitted to the cortex as memory traces.


Around 1949 it was assumed if you disconnect the brain from the outside world you will induce a loss of consciousness. However during experiments upon an unfortunate cat it was discovered when it was disconnected from it's senses it was still conscious. To restate this even minus a cortex the cat was still conscious.


The confusion for this prevailed for 40 years


Enter the brainstem.


In the 1990’s it was discovered that our sensory organs send impulses to the cortex but they also send nerve impulses to the brain stem. This is a deeper layer of the brain. This information is processed unconsciously. In the brain stem we get information from our senses (ears, eyes ect). We have something of the outside world processed unconsciously, though these stimulus can’t form a conscious picture of the world for us instead we respond emotionally.


Take for example blind sight. People with frontal cortex damage can still see unconsciously. The visual information is not rendered in the cortex but in the brain stem unconsciously. You can ask people with blind sight the location of an object and they might say 'mate I can't see anything i'm blind this is a terrible test, why are you even asking that's kind of rude...' but some people say they have a 'gut feeling' about an objects location and can guess where it is correctly. This is them 'seeing' something through the information sent to the brain stem.


So they can see the object unconsciously...

and here's a big one...


...the brain stem does not just generate a background level of consciousness..

....IT IS CONSCIOUSNESS.


What are you talking about I hear you say!


Let's back up a little bit.

The Brain is archaeological. The deepest parts are the most ancient. The cortex is the most recent layer. The deepest layers are the core of the brain stem. This part of the brain is over 12 million years old. These deep brain stem structures we share with all vertebrates. We share them with fishes. So the most ancient form of consciousness is feeling. For example if you make a cut at the mid brain, you lose consciousness of the upper type but you maintain feelings. If you stimulate the brainstem with electrodes you stimulate emotions.


Our cortical consciousness depends on brain stem consciousness.


The brain stem modulator contains dopamine. You know that good stuff that makes you high? A loss of it means depression. Serotonin is also in there. Anxiety, mania, depression, psychosis, orgasms... all these intense emotional states are activated in the brain stem and in the limbic circuit. None of it is in the cortex.

The brain stem is the feels.

The brain stem generates affect (the feels). It gets stimulation from body monitoring nuclei - from the interior of the body. From the visceral body. This is what feeling is all about. It is the original source of the upper type of consciousness. Feeling is the foundation of consciousness. Secondarily those raw feels go up to the cortex.

So to recap we have three levels of mental functioning:

  • Raw Feels (brain stem)

  • Then what are those feelings about (cortex)

  • Then the reflection on what those feelings are about (cortex)

Here's another big one...


The cortex can process the external world without consciousness.


This includes high level processing like reading. The cortex can work without consciousness. The cortex can do all the high level processing without consciousness.

So there are two aspects to consciousness:

  1. The level of conscious produced by the brain stem (the feels)

  2. The Contents - the qualia, the bits of the world that we are imaging.

Mark Solms made an analogy which helps with this... think of it like a TV set, you can unplug it and it wont display pictures or sounds, but that doesn’t mean the socket in the wall ceases producing the contents. There is a level of consciousness in the background supply (brain stem). Then when the TV is plugged in (cortex) it can produce the complicated qualities of the external world (the qualia)


Now let's go back to the story of the scientific history of the brain...


In 2010 Antonio De Massio discovered that the reticular activating system monitors if things are going well or badly for us biologically speaking. What does that mean? Well in biology there is a scale of values. They are simply:

  • It is good to survive

  • It is good to produce

Obviously these are not ethical values but values of the organism on a genetic level, though of course their bearing out in cortex construction has ethical implications and an impact on the material world. Just to state though this is not some kind of biological reductionism: it is simply the evolutionary values that our genes carry at the brain stem.


So these values underpin the values of feelings. Good feelings means something is good for you biologically, whereas bad feelings mean the opposite. The qualia, the value stuff of feeling, is tethered to the value of biology. Its monitoring the state of the body ie. I do this because it feels good. Feelings determine what is better or worse biologically. All voluntary action is governed by feelings.


The reason why feelings extend onto the outside world is so we can know what our feelings are about.


We imbue the world with value.


We bestow meaning onto the world due to feeling.

Now a word about homeostasis.


Living things resist entropy unlike hot water turning cold. When we are in a hot room we perspire. We have a multiple bodily requirements which are regulated automatically.


So we have automatic homeostasis (like perspiration) but there are times when you move into an unknown predicated condition. When we reach these limits we have to arouse our forebrain to action. We have to feel our way through the world - this is what consciousness is for. For example when we are hungry we cant regulate this automatically so our cortex is employed to search for food in the world.

Feelings guide voluntary action. This gives us an adaptive advantage.


Freud thought there was a pleasure principle which he saw as working on a continuum. In beyond the pleasure principle he spoke of what he called the 'Nirvana Principle' which is a kind of seeking of the organism towards nothingness. A desireless state.

He ended up calling this the death drive. We can understand this now not as a drive for death but rather a drive for homeostasis. Not a state of death, just an ideal homeostatic state, similar to what Freud said of a mindless state. So we do not aspire to more pleasure as he wondered in the pleasure principle but rather we aspire to be sated, to be static. So we can consider this not as parallel lines of drives between live and death but rather like a dial of struggle between pleasure and unpleasure and the striving for homeostasis (see the diagram above).


When you are in homeostasis then the body autonomically regulates, so when the need arises then the reticular structure activates in order to make action in the world. Ie. Find food!


Every one of our feeling states (affects) are flavoured differently.

There are different categories for each one of our needs in the brain stem which I will get to in a later post - these are really important and have (what I think) the greatest implication for working clinically.


So in the next post I'm going to explain how this coincides with Freud's model of the mind and we are going to explore what a new formulation of the unconscious looks like in light of recent neuro scientific work.

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