Remembering Freud's legacy


Centennial: On the anniversary of its publication, a group of psychoanalysts takes a fresh look at his research on dreams.

October 29, 1999|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

In the fall of 1899, Sigmund Freud published a book scientists reviled.

"The Interpretation of Dreams" sold poorly. It was, as his biographer Peter Jay has noted, an "indefinable masterpiece" cobbling odd elements: dream analysis with the author's story, an untestable theory about the mind's mechanics with a history of contemporary Vienna, Austria.

But even in the absence of a true science about the mind, Freud offered a set of lenses that allowed practically anyone the hope of peering into the self's murky inner sanctum. Dreams, he suggested, cracked the doorway to repressed desires, irrational behaviors and unexamined traumas. With analysis, dreams could unmask underlying afflictions and lead to an effective treatment of mental illness.

Since the book's publication, Freud's ideas have, at times, saturated the arts, shaped psychology, and influenced culture. The poet W. H. Auden once said Freud was not merely human, but was "a climate of opinion."

Today, however, the book is an artifact, and Freud's influence has faded. Since the 1960s, as science has steadily revealed the biological basis for behaviors, many of his ideas have been discounted. Advances in neurophysiology have allowed critics to pummel Freudian theories. Scholarly detractors have declared Freud an anachronism at best -- a fraud, at worst.

"If you named the three most awful intellectual events of the 20th century, they would be Marxism, Freudianism and eugenics," says Paul McHugh, director of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. "I'm all in favor of psychotherapy, but I no longer feel the Freudian message is in the primary sourcebook."

So why, in this contentious milieu has the American Psychoanalytic Association made a fuss over the centennial of the "Interpretation of Dreams"? Why is it promoting lectures, exhibits and symposia from New York to Frankfurt, Germany, and celebrations around the world?

To begin, psychoanalysts feel besieged. The remarkable success of psychopharmacology, with the introduction of drugs such as Prozac, has done much to undermine the Viennese doctor's once supreme authority. Managed health care has also gained by his falling star and severely restricted access to the long-term therapies that Freudians require.

"One thing that is happening in mental-health care is the loss of the sense of individual treatment," says Dottie Jeffries, a spokeswoman for the APA's centenary events. "The other thing often overlooked is that most psychotherapies have evolved from Freud's analytic principles."

But despite the association's defensive response to insurance company regulations or debates that erode the master's influence, the celebratory mood rises from glimmers in neuroscience suggesting that Freud was not the bamboozler critics contend.

"There are imaging techniques that show us there are really things going on inside the mind that we can measure," says James H. Schwartz, professor of neurobiology at Columbia University. "So there are now neuroscientists and analysts interested in bridging the gap between science and Freudian theory."

At places such as Columbia's Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, which Schwartz helped found, psychologists design experiments that probe the unconscious mental activity of the mind -- memory, dreams and emotions.

Within this Freudian territory, scientists use brain-imaging technology to track emotional states to specific neural pathways. Their precision maps are making paths into the mystery of dreams.

Some day neuroscience may be an aid to typical Freudian patients, the "worried well," as they have been described -- people who might feel inexplicably anxious or who are undone by their impulses. For instance, some scientists hypothesize that formative memories are directly encoded in the brain at an early age and that the brain, given a certain stimulus in later life, directly activates those memories without conscious effort.

Voila! Freudian theory rises from the ashes.

Studies of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep also lead neuroscience deeper into the Freudian landscape. Research is showing that dreaming is not just a biological event -- the secretion of a chemical known as acetylcholine in the brain stem -- as was once thought, said Mark Solms of the department of neurosurgery at Royal London School of Medicine.

An emerging defender of Freud, Solms argues that dreams arise when a part of the brain that normally converts concrete perceptions to abstract thinking when a person is awake reverses itself during sleep.

Take, for example, a young boy who sees his father beat his mother -- a disturbing scene from which the boy withdraws.

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