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Why the brain is the new black, and the unconscious the new orange

In conversation with Professor Kate Harper

Despite many of Sigmund Freud’s ideas having been famously debunked, it seems one of his models is making a comeback, carrying with it a new field bursting with almost as much controversy and debate as psychology’s most notable figure himself.

UofGH professor Kate Harper’s latest research asks questions about Freud’s most recent return to the hot seat, and answers some of ours in the meantime.

Photo of Katherine Harper, Faculty - Psychology

Why the renewed interest in Freud?

Psychology has gone through multiple paradigm shifts over the years. It was psychoanalytic for a while, then moved into behaviourism, then into cognition and information processing – today, we’re really interested in the brain. Specifically, the unconscious is now popular. It’s like your new pair of jeans.

Freud created a neural network model back in 1895 in his Project for a Scientific Psychology that theorized on the so-called psychoanalytic – objects of pleasure and pain, unconscious motivation, emotion, and cognition – the same things that are being investigated today.

To see him explain 20 different aspects of our behaviour in one model is quite something. This is partly why it wasn’t successful at the time, along with the criticism that it wasn’t scientific due to a lack of supporting empirical data.

But he obviously didn’t have the technology to answer all of these questions about how neurons functioned or how their groupings were crucial to the development of cognition, thought and memory. But that’s now changed.

He was hypothetically theorizing – but he was right about quite a few things.

Like what?

There’s now support for his unconscious motivation theory; researchers have shown that patients with brain injuries can have “implicit” memories that affect their behaviours, despite not being able to consciously remember. Parts of his dream theory and pleasure principle now have some support.

We’re still in the process of adding this empirical basis to Freud’s theories to see whether this scientific foundation can increase the credibility of psychoanalysis.

But this integration of quantitative with qualitative methodologies – examining patients under FMRI machines and talking to them – has likewise integrated both neuroscientists with psychoanalysts.

This relatively new interdisciplinary field of neuropsychoanalysis has brought together researchers asking the same questions: How do we get from neurons in our brains firing, and chemicals being released, to actually having thought? Can we understand conscious and unconscious processes? Unconscious memory? Unconscious emotion? What are the pathways that allow some people to make good decisions?

Not everyone is as excited about this new field. What’s surprised you about the debate that’s occurring?

Some are writing about the irrelevance of the neuroscience foundation for clinical psychology or psychotherapy. I’m surprised that people don’t see the relevance. Understanding the foundations of the brain and how the brain changes – knowing how psychotherapy causes neurological changes. This isn’t just airy-fairy stuff. These are important things to consider from a clinical standpoint.

There are important questions yet to be answered. Can we help people with disorders or brain injuries by integrating neuroscience with psychoanalysis? I’m hoping my research will help to support the fact that some of Freud’s theories are still relevant and useful, now that we can put them under a microscope.