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Watt, D.F. (2000). The Dialogue between Psychoanalysis and Neuroscience: Alienation and Reparation. Neuropsychoanalysis, 2(2):183-192.

(2000). Neuropsychoanalysis, 2(2):183-192

The Dialogue between Psychoanalysis and Neuroscience: Alienation and Reparation

Douglas F. Watt, Ph.D.

The irony regarding the historical alienation of psychoanalysis and neuroscience, of which virtually everyone is aware, is that Freud started out as a very competent neurologist who made several important contributions to the neurological literature of his time, including work on aphasia. His “Project for a Scientific Psychology(1895) was his attempt to give psychoanalytic metapsychology the firm grounding in neuroscience that Freud thought critical to its scientific validity. Virtually everyone is also aware that the Project failed simply because the neuroscience of Freud's day did not have the concepts to provide any such grounding. The Project ended up being a kind of backwards construction, speculating about largely undiscovered brain processes that would be isomorphic with the psychological principles of consciousness and unconsciousness that Freud was intuitively developing.

Despite this important starting point, psychoanalysis and neuroscience gradually became virtual adversaries during the second half of the twentieth century. This happened after decades of hegemony of psychoanalysis in American psychiatry departments, in the context of a fundamental conceptual split between psychiatry and neurology mostly organized around the now fortunately outdated distinction between “functional” and “organic.” Although psychiatry and neurology have finally moved into an increasingly productive dialogue over the last two decades, there has been a much more limited movement toward respectful dialogue between psychoanalysis and neuroscience, and precious few of those limited initiatives have come from the neuroscience side of the fence.

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