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Between Meanings

Grant Bartley investigates what psychoanalysis has to say about the relationship between mind and brain, and finds the importance of distinguishing our concepts.

The Institute of Psychoanalysis in London organised a series of events to coincide with an exhibition at the Science Museum called ‘Psychoanalysis: the unconscious in everyday life’. The launch event, ‘Between Mind and Brain’ featured psychoanalyst Dr Ronald Britton, author of The Oedipus Complex Today, in conversation with Peter Hobson, Professor of Psychopathology at University College London. The events will culminate in March with a discussion of the contemporary relevance of Civilization and its Discontents, Freud’s seminal magnum opus (so to speak), also at the Royal Geographical Society. (For information on the remaining events, please go to beyondthecouch.org.uk.) I went to this opening discussion because I was interested to hear what novel perspectives psychoanalysis might offer on the nature of the connection between the mind and the brain. The speakers didn’t talk about that: rather, they emphasised the difference between mind and brain, and the differences between the sciences dealing with them. For the speakers, those sciences were psychoanalysis and neuroscience respectively Yet from what they said, it became clear to me that the analysis necessary to understand reality is only partly done by conceptually separating mind and brain, as I hope to convince you.

A Model Doctor

Dr Britton started his talk by saying that our experience of reality is a model of it we use for dealing with the everyday world. (A ‘model’ is a description of reality; but there are many contrasting uses of the term ‘model’, as we’ll see.) How we experience has evolved so we can interact with the physical world as organisms of a certain size who need to eat and drink and otherwise act to survive. But, our everyday model of reality is not equivalent to the scientific models of it we’ve subsequently developed, such as relativity and quantum mechanics, since we did not evolve to see the world in terms of relativity and quantum mechanics. Our normal experience doesn’t involve the world outside the car slowing down when we hit the gas, or the car splitting in two every time we look at the speedo, for examples – which would be the sort of thing we’d see if relativity and quantum mechanics acted at our everyday scale. But the everyday and scientific models are not mutually exclusive. Dr Britton gave an illustration of travelling in an aeroplane. Our everyday experience ‘model of reality’ helps us act in human terms, such as ‘appreciating’ the in-flight meal, or strapping ourselves in to watch the movie; but in piloting the plane, relativity theory would be used in keeping track of the plane’s precise location. As Dr Britton said, “We calculate in one model, and live in the other.” Dr Britton also cited Hume’s distinguishing his skeptical metaphysical conclusions (‘you can’t get a cause from an observation’) from the ‘natural thinking’ Hume lived by, for example while fraternising in the inn playing billiards with his friends. Quantum mechanics provides precise mathematical descriptions of the physical world, but is scarcely understandable in terms of our everyday experience. So to Dr Britton the question arises, would a scientific model of mind be understandable in our everyday-experience terms?

Step in psychoanalysis. Unlike Sir Karl Popper, Dr Britton thinks that psychoanalysis is a science. Dr Britton said psychoanalysis is about “being objective about subjectivity.” Well, objectivity is a necessary element of science, but objectivity is not all that’s needed to make a theory scientific, as we’ll see. But for the sake of argument, let’s accept that psychoanalysis is a science.

According to Dr Britton, the theoretical model of mind which psychoanalysis has developed is beyond normal experience, but not incompatible with it. That is, psychoanalysis can explain our experience, without its explanations necessarily making sense in terms of our normal experience. One example Dr Britton gave to illustrate this idea was a patient rationalizing his behaviour by saying, “I needed to park my car again because it was too close to other cars,” when psychoanalysis revealed that the true psychological motivation for his reparking was an attempt to avoid physical contact with the analyst. This example was supposed to illustrate an analogy between the non-everyday-nature of quantum mechanics and the non-everyday-nature of psychoanalytic conclusions, but I think this is a very telling slip of meaning. Certainly, the specific diagnoses derived from undergoing psychoanalysis are not our normal understanding of our motivations – otherwise psychoanalysis would reveal nothing interesting. But this isn’t the same as saying that psychoanalytic theory is not how we normally think about the mind. This is using the idea of ‘psychoanalytical models’ in two importantly distinct senses. One is a model of an individual’s thinking, the other is the general model psychoanalysis has of the mind. Dr Britton seems to be inadvertently implying both types of comparison. So in Dr Britton’s way of talking, psychoanalysis is both about producing general models of mind applicable to all people, and also about producing models of individual minds – the personal diagnoses produced as a result of applying the general theory in personal analysis. You can see the confusion that could be produced by not distinguishing these uses of the term ‘model’. We could further say in ‘model’ terms that psychoanalysis tries to uncover the models of reality we (unconsciously) use to think with – particularly when these models cause us to act in unhealthy ways. (Psychoanalysis is not interested in the models we think by except insofar as these models deviate from what might be called healthy.) In this third use of ‘model’, our model consists of the ideas which have come to define our thinking. In this use, we’re talking about the models of reality we have which drive our thinking. Our own thought-models of the world are clearly distinct from any models of our mind psychoanalysis produces. So, in terms of these three uses of the term ‘model’, we could say that psychoanalysis uses a theoretical model to produce an individual model of how the individual uses models of the world in their thinking. These are very different applications of the concept, ‘description of reality’. Clearly it pays in clarity to be aware of these different senses of ‘model’.

Dr Britton’s model of how mental illness is caused when not arising from problems with the brain, is apparently that our personal models of the world can produce such distorted ways of thinking about life that they induce destructive responses to it. People repeat detrimental mental behaviours such as transference (projecting feelings onto others) because they use familiar but unhealthy mental models, perhaps because they don’t know they’re doing so. The task of psychoanalysis is to uncover these distorted personal models and expose their destructive uses. It does so through the analysis of metaphors, dreams, mistakes, jokes; anything which might display the prerepressed workings of the subconscious – that is, the malign models of the world used by our non-conscious brain processes. (The use of phrases synonymous with ‘thought process’ also cries out from the textbooks for more insight, since ‘the conscious deliberations of a mind’ is clearly a different concept from ‘the brain’s activity prior to consciousness’; but these mutually-exclusive ideas can confusingly both be thought of (sic) as ‘thought processes’ or ‘ways of thinking’.)

Hobson’s Distinction

In his talk Professor Hobson affirmed Dr Britton’s distinction between mind science and brain science, saying that the question of how aspects of the mind relate to each other “may not only be a brain question”, and that psychological talk (“I feel sad,” “I believe x” etc) is tellingly not ‘brain talk’ – we don’t say “my brain feels sad.” As Prof Hobson also pointed out, we’re social beings, so our understanding of our mental life can’t be confined to our understanding of individual brains in any case. What goes on between minds, and brains, matters just as much.

The importance of the conceptual difference between ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ is indicated by the question ‘Does the brain’s condition underlie mental illness, or is it in contrast affected by the illness?’ It means we must acknowledge the distinction between mind and brain when considering the most effective treatment for mental illness. So the mind/brain distinction is at least as important as the recognition that psychopathology is not the same as neuropathology – that, for instance, the mind can be going wrong even when the brain is functioning the way a normal healthy brain does. An analogy is with an otherwise well-functioning computer being subject to bad programming – catching a virus, for instance. We should also be wary of claims by, for instance, lawyers, of “invisible brain pathology” as Dr Britton called it. In his own illustration of the neuropathology/psychopathology distinction, Dr Britton gave the example of a patient whose stammer was purely psychologically caused; whether he stammered or not was dependent on the circumstances and his learnt mental associations with them. The patient had built up a ‘moral map’ which distorted his thinking. There was nothing wrong with his brain as such (although brain dysfunction could have been the cause). Prof Hobson gave the example of depersonalisation, which is a clinically-significant experience of detachment or alienation. There have been explanations of depersonalisation in terms of brain function, and explanations in terms of adolescent experience (experience is archetypally mental). Both explanations may be true, as they complement rather than contradict each other. As Prof Hobson reminded us, what influences mental function can thereby also influence brain function, and vice versa. I think the best way to understand the situation is to say there’s a continuing two-way interaction between the mental and physical domains, that is, between mind and brain. (It would be interesting to know the limits to which mental dysfunction could change brain function, and vice versa.)

Again, the difference between mind and brain shows how vital it is to understand the distinct meanings of our core concepts. To Prof Hobson, the danger of confusion and error comes from “moving backwards and forwards between different types of explanation when one feels like it.” This danger is demonstrated when ‘neurospeak’ (‘brainspeak’ if you prefer) is authoritative in explaining states of mind, even though the cause may be experiential, that is, purely psychological. A good question to ask here (as always) is “Precisely what type of explanation am I looking for?”

Categorisation Pathology

To end his speech, Dr Britton suggested that the distinction between psychoanalysis’s explanation of the mind and our everyday understanding of ourselves is analogous to the distinction between science and art, comparing Newton’s description of the rainbow with Wordsworth’s. (Curiously, Freud bridged the gap by being awarded both Fellowship of the Royal Society, thus prestigious scientific recognition, and the Goethe Prize for Literature, thus artistic acclaim.) Now neurology and psychoanalysis are both scientific in as much as they’re both systematic explanations of observable behaviour justified by evidence gained through observation. For instance, Freud collected case data to support his theories, although psychoanalytic data certainly works differently from brain scan data, both in what it tells us about individuals, and in how it informs our general theories. Before he concentrated on analysing the mental side, Freud started his career interested in brain functions and the observation of neurons. His later explorations of the workings of the mind took him to psychologically-sophisticated writers such as Goethe and Shakespeare. Freud used their artistic representations of human behaviour as data about the mind, and therefore scientifically, in some sense – although perhaps not ‘fully’ scientifically, as such data is not measurable, or perhaps even objective, in the sense of being incontrovertably evident to other experiencers; or even valid.

It’s often said (as I said earlier) that science is objective. But, to further muddy the waters, what does ‘objective’ mean here? Perhaps it does mean ‘jointly observable’. Yet this is certainly not the same as saying that objective means ‘this is what x would look like independent of the specifically-human terms of our experience’ – if indeed it could then look like anything. Or, a psychoanalyst may instead claim that psychoanalysis is objective inasmuch as it gives a viewpoint on someone’s mind guided by a systematic theory of the nature of the workings of the mind. By contrast, asking, ‘Is the mind a subjective or an objective phenomenon?’ seems to be asking if the mind is known directly in experience, as opposed to being thought of as existing independent of our experience – as physical objects are assumed to ‘objectively exist’. ‘Objective’ cannot be the same as ‘observable’, because some things are only observable because of a subjective bias, such as mirages and hallucinations. Evidently ‘objective’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘correct’, either, or good science method could never derive false conclusions.

All these points are meant to show that how we conceive of concepts and their distinctions does not always indicate the distinctions we would make through more precise understandings. I think people often bunch concepts together in the following manner, wrongly assuming that the concepts in each set all apply at the same time, or to the same things:

Set 1 Set 2

These set divisions are false, but I think they’re often assumed to be true. That is, I’m not saying that the opposing idea-pairs are not valid oppositions. I think they are. Instead, I’m saying that the concepts in each set don’t necessarily all apply together (in philosophical jargon, they’re wrongly assumed to be ‘necessarily co-extensive’ rather than just ‘partially co-extensive’). For instance, just because psychoanalysis is concerned with the subjective mind, this doesn’t mean it can’t make observations. Equally, psychoanalytic phenomena may be observable, but not measurable – or even objective, in some of the stricter definitions of ‘objective’. So I must agree with Prof Hobson’s dismissal of Dr Britton’s concept of an axis (line) with mind on one end and brain on the other, accompanied by art at the mind end and science at the brain end, and so on. The aesthetic experience of seeing Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (art) is not connected to the chemical composition of the paints (science) in the way the mind is connected to the brain, for instance. To express the same idea, we could also say the experience is not caused by the paint in the same way that it’s caused by the brain. This mistaken mutual categorisation is again due to a lack of clarity about the meanings and uses of the concepts involved, I think.

For a better idea of the nature of the relationship between these concepts, in place of the above bad sets, imagine, if you can, a multidimensional Venn diagram, where each concept’s applications forms a set. Here each set overlaps many others, but overwhelms none (no concept is completely co-extensive). Thus the grouped concepts overlap in their uses often, in many ways, but without ever being synonymous. I think this ‘overlapping individual concepts model’ is a more realistic, if more abstract, way of modelling the relationships between closely-connected concepts such as those psychoanalysis uses. But who said that the way words and meanings work must be simple?

© Grant Bartley 2011

Grant Bartley is Assistant Editor of Philosophy Now. His book The Metarevolution is available as a free download from philosophynow.org (go to About Us) or for only 99p on Kindle. You can also order it in physical form from Amazon for only £8.99, or $17.99.

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