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From neuroscience to neuropsychoanalysis - Mission impossible?

The Letter, Issue 21, Spring 2001, Pages  106 - 112


Aisling Campbell

Having been dispatched by Cormac Gallagher to a conference on Neuroscientific and Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Emotion this summer, I concluded that to bring together neuroscience and psychoanalysis is a challenge to say the least and that Cormac, by sponsoring this trip had set me - should I choose to accept it - a 'Mission Impossible'. For many psychoanalysts, neuroscience is imbued with all the imaginary enmity associated with the other; for neuroscientists, psychoanalysis is generally treated with disdain, provoked by the lack of certainty that is crucial to psychoanalysis. Dialogue between the two fields is, when it does occur, hostile in the main. The relationship between psychoanalysis and neuroscience is like that of the subject and his counterpart; each sees in the other unforgivable faults and failures. I hope to move the context of this debate from the 'other' to the 'Other' and to shift the potential dialogue from the imaginary to something more fruitful.

It is a commonplace that this has been the decade of the brain. While we cannot be too concerned with fashion, the existence of neuroscientific knowledge is a real problem for psychoanalysis. If the material reality of the brain has little to do with the specifics of the speaking subject, clinical experience shows that brain abnormalities can be associated with psychopathologies familiar to psychoanalysts. For example, certain types of temporal lobe epilepsy are associated with psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations, hippocampal damage gives rise to dramatic abnormalities in memory, and so on. Prolonged psychosis over many years is associated with tangible deterioration in cognitive function and a decrease in cerebral volume. Furthermore, clinical experience shows that psychotic symptoms do improve with antipsychotic medication and this effect is not simply the result of sedation. In other words, the drugs do work.

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