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On the Brain and Behaviour, Part III

Monday Musings for Monday June 17, 2013

Volume III, No. 22/125


Brain  and  Behaviour,  Part   3

Thinking  About  Thinking,  Episteme,  Chrestomathy

Twenty  First  Century , The  Age  of  Mind

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

Editor’s Note: This is part III of a four part series on Brain and Behaviour. Part I, June 3, 2013, the general topography and physiology of the brain was discussed,  Monday June 10, the topic of Epigentics was explored.  Today we examine the relationship between psychoanalysis and biology.  Next week we will review some of the books about the subject to enhance our understanding of what lies in the future of neuroscience.

In preparing for this essay, obviously I was drawn to psychoanalytic literature of the late 19th and early 20th century. But the further I dug, the more it became obvious that psychoanalysis did NOT start with Freud. Many of Freud’s teachers and predecessors had expounded on the theory of unconscious. Plato, Shake­speare, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche have all dealt with and expounded on the possibility of the unconscious, the soul and metaphysics. Yes, I was taken all the way back to Aristotle, a student and rival of Plato, whose writings are so very organized and detailed, making the reader feel like they are biting into stone. Aristotle had a lot to say about psyche (soul), God, ether and metaphysical phenomena. Psychoanalysis thrived in the first 60-70 years of the 20th century, but experts fear the threatened demise of the field.  What is the answer? The answer lies with uniting psychoanalysis with biological sciences. Let me elaborate:

In a recent discussion with an academic colleague who was identifying the twentieth century’s greatest achievement as the discovery of the atomic bomb, I argued rather forcefully that the contribution of the twentieth century was advancement of Father Gregor Mendel’s genetics through the discovery and understanding of RNA and DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. They were awarded Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology in 1962. We celebrated at the University of North Carolina and Research Triangle Park, in 2003, the 50th anniversary of the discovery by having Dr. James Watson amongst us. The understanding of DNA and subsequent expansion of the knowledge and advancement of human genome project which was completed in 2003 by Dr. Craig Venter, Director, The Institute for Genomic Research, in my opinion, was the greatest achievement of the 20th century.

Now, facing the 21st century, with wars going on every corner of the globe, humans killing humans for a few pieces of mud prized as land, the need for understanding human behavior makes psychoanalytic research more urgent.  And I believe we have the opportunity to develop further understanding of ourselves, the new science, the science of mind, provides us with a powerful instrument for further development of the field. If the 20th century was known for the discovery of DNA, genomics and epigenetics, the 21st century will be known for the discovery and understanding of the science of mind. And the promise of establishing such a discipline rests with espousing psychoanalysis with biological sciences, neuroscience and neurobiology. Of course, the concept of scientific understanding of mind is not new. Sigmund Freud in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” wrote an increase in plasma ACTH and glucocorticoid is a response to stress as adults. Thus, differences in an infant’s interactions with his/her mother–differences that fall in the range of naturally occurring individual differences in maternal care– are crucial risk factors for an individual’s future response to stress. In the same book he further elaborated, “The deficiencies in our description would probably vanish if we were already in a position to replace the psychological terms with physiological or chemical ones….we may expect [physiology-and-chemistry] to give the most surprising information and we cannot guess what answers it will return in a few dozen years of questions we have put to it. They may be of a kind that will blow away the whole of our artificial structure of hypothesis…” Further reference: in his classic paper “On Narcissism” he wrote, “We must recollect that all of our provisional ideas in psychology will presumably one day be based on an organic substructure.” On the cusp of 21st century, we really need a contemporary Freud to orchestrate the disparate parts of the symphony of life, psychoanalysis, biological sciences, genomics, neurosciences and neurobiology to produce the rich symphony of better understanding mind and ultimately life.  Well, we do have a few contemporary Freuds, one is Eric R.Kandel whose most recent book, “The Science of the Mind”, we reviewed in this space. Dr. Kandel who is a Nobel Laureate psychiatrist and professor at Columbia University insists that to save psychoanalysis and pump vigorous life into this elegant field, we need to bring about fusion of the two disciplines of psychoanalysis and biology. Otherwise, there is a wide spread concern about viability of psychoanalysis as a scientific discipline. For example, Jonathan Lear. Others have argued that psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic literature from Freud to Hartmann to Erickson to Winnicott, will be read as a modern philosophical or poetic text alongside Plato, Aristotle, Shake­speare, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Proust (the literature I went through for preparation of this essay). On the other hand, if the field aspires, as I believe most psychoanalysts do aspire, to be an evolving, active contributor to an emerging science of the mind, then psychoanalysis will survive. There is no doubt that psychoanalysts could and did make many useful and original contributions to our understanding of the mind simply by listening to patients. We must at last acknowledge that at this point in the modern study of mind, clinical observation of individual patients, in a context like “the psychoanalytic situation that is so susceptible to observer bias is not a sufficient basis for a science of mind. Psychoanalysis research is depleted from opportunities to add more knowledge,” so say the late Kurt Robert Eissler (1908-1999) and Hartvig Dahl (1924-2007). Marshall Edelson in his book “Hypothesis and Evidence” offers a persuasive argument that the holy marriage between psychoanalysis and biology must take place: “we must bring psychoanalysis and biology together.”

Psychoanalysis is based on the concept that individuals are unaware of the many factors that cause their behaviors and emotions. These unconscious factors have the potential to produce unhappiness, which in turn is expressed through a score of distinguishable symptoms including disturbing personality traits, difficulty in relating to others, or disturbances in self-esteem or general disposition. As I have suggested earlier, most biologists believe that the mind will be to the twenty-first century what the gene was to the twentieth century. I have briefly discussed how the biological sciences in general and cognitive neuroscience in particular may contribute to a deeper understanding of a number of key issues in psychoanalysis.

As things stand now, psychoanalysis is falling behind biology. Psychoanalysis and biology must marry to reinvigorate the exploration of the mind. I should say at the outset that although we have the outlines of what could evolve into a meaningful biological foundation for psychoanalysis, we are very much at the beginning. We do not yet have an intellectually satisfactory biological understanding of any complex mental processes. In the next century, biology is likely to make deep contributions to the understanding of mental processes by delineating the biological basis for the various unconscious mental processes, for psychic determinism, for the role of unconscious mental processes in psychopathology, and for the therapeutic effect of psychoanalysis.  Biology has the potential to enlighten these deep mysteries at their core.

We have seen that one point of convergence between biology and psychoanalysis is the relevance of procedural memory for early moral development, for aspects of transference, and for moments of meaning in psychoanalytic therapy. We have considered a second point of convergence in examining the relationship between the associative characteristic of classical conditioning and psychological determinacy. Here, I want to illustrate a third point of convergence: that between Pavlovian fear conditioning, a form of procedural memory mediated by the amygdala, signal anxiety, and post-traumatic stress syndrome. Psychoanalysis and cognitive neuroscience would accomplish two goals, one conceptual and the other experimental. We must recollect that all of our provisional ideas in psychology will presumably one day be based on an organic substructure.

The American psychologist best known for his maternal-separation and social isolation experiments on rhesus monkeys, Abraham Maslow, demonstrated the importance of care-giving and companionship in social and cognitive development. He conducted most of his research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As an aside, the etymology of the word companionship comes from Latin for bread—PAIN—nutrition.  Another psychologist, Hans Selye, had pointed out as early as 1936 that humans and experimental animals respond to stressful experiences by activating their hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The end product of the HPA system is the release of glucocorticoid hormones by the adrenal gland.

The prefrontal association cortex has two major functions: it integrates sensory information, and it links it to planned movement. Because the prefrontal cortex mediates these two functions, it is thought to be one of the anatomical substrates of goal-directed action in long-term planning and judgment. Patients with damaged prefrontal association areas have difficulty in achieving realistic goals. As a result, they often achieve little in life, and their behavior suggests that their ability to plan and organize everyday activities is diminished.

What To Do?  What is Next?

For one thing, we must transcend territorial imperative, and learn to speak each other’s language– neuroscientists the language of psychoanalysts, and psychoanalysts the language of neuroscience. For many years both the Association for Psychoanalytic Medicine at Columbia and the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, to use but two examples, have instituted neuropsychoanalytic centers that address interests common to psychoanalysis and neuroscience, including consciousness, unconscious processing, autobiographical memory, dreaming, affect, motivation, infantile mental development, psychopharmacology, and the etiology and treatment of mental illness. The prospectus of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute now reads as follows: “The explosion of new insights into numerous problems of vital interest to psychoanalysis needs to be integrated in meaningful ways with the older concepts and methods as do the burgeoning research technologies and pharmacological treatments. Similarly neuroscientists exploring the complex problems of human subjectivity for the first time have much to learn from a century of analytic inquiry make a significant fraction of psychoanalysts technically competent in cognitive neuroscience and eager to test their own ideas with new methods.” The challenge for psychoanalysts is to become active participants in the difficult joint attempt of biology and psychology, including psychoanalysis, to understand the mind. If this transformation in the intellectual climate of psychoanalysis is to occur, as I believe it must, the psychoanalytic institutes themselves must change from being vocational schools- guilds, as it were- to being centers of research and scholarship.

We have precedence, the Carnegie Foundation commissioned Abraham Flexner to study medical education in the United States. The Flexner Report, which was completed in 1910, emphasized that medicine is a science- based profession and requires a structure education in both basic science and its application to clinical medicine. To promote a quality education, the Flexner Report recommended limiting the medical schools in this country to those that were integral to a university. As a consequence of this report, many inadequate schools were closed, and credentialed standards for the training and practice of medicine were established. To return to its former vigor and contribute importantly to our future understanding of mind, psychoanalysis needs to examine and restructure the intellectual context in which its scholarly work is done and to develop a more critical way of training the psychoanalysts of the future. Thus, what psychoanalysis may need, if it is to survive as an intellectual force into the twenty- first century, is something akin to a Flexner Report for the psychoanalytic institutes.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine(1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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On the Brain and Behavior

“Monday Musings” for Monday June 3, 2013

Volume III, No. 20/123


Brain and Behavior

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

“As humans we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than the atom, but we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears,” President Obama said at the White House in a recent press conference. Obama announced that he will seek $100 million for brain research in the budget he is presenting to the Congress. The research proposal includes approximately $40 million for research at the National Institutes of Health, $50 million at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and $20 million for the National Science Foundation. We have precedence. Scholarship and literature about the brain expanded rapidly, thanks to a federally funded $2 billion-per-year research effort organized by Congress in 1990 dubbed “The Decade of the Brain.” Mind/brain” exploration has also been driven by advances in basic knowledge and by new imaging and biochemical technology. This knowledge and technology allow scientists to watch the brain as it orchestrates the functions of life. Here are a few considerations:

Brain is not just as an organ of mentation, perception, cognition, and memory, but is a marvelous, even mysterious, complex structure. This structure is responsible for our rich repertoire of feelings, such as anger, jealousy, hatred, love, fear, hostility, sadness, compassion, generosity, kindness, guilt, pleasure, altruism, peace and joy. Traditionally, science has been more concerned with understanding mechanisms than with appreciating personal meanings. However, to understand the brain in totality, we must pay attention to both. As a consequence of this attention, we have learned that the brain is also responsible for our complex spiritual and cosmological pursuits. When an outfielder leaps up to snag a fly ball, we admire the ballet-like performance and ponder it. The moment the ball is hit, the outfielder’s brain begins to receive visual inputs. The eye tracks the ball; the brain computes its trajectory. Within milliseconds, millions of instructions are flashed to hundreds of muscles, telling each the exact degree of tension or relaxation required to move the body to the spot where the ball will descend. A flood of signals feeds back to the brain indicating whether each muscle is responding correctly. Finally, in a flurry of rapid-fire calculations that would outstrip the most powerful computer, the brain orders muscles to propel the body upward and extend the arm. Gloved hand and baseball arrive at exactly the same point at the same time.  On the other hand, take the case of Rajang Srinivasen Mahadevan, a native of Mangalore, India, who manages to remember the first 31,811 digits of the number pi. This feat is achieved through the function of hippocampus and amygdala (please see my review of the book by psychiatrist and Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel which appeared in this space two years ago), two anatomically small portions of the limbic system and nucleus ceruleus.

What part of the brain is responsible for the sudden and overwhelming feelings of warmth and spirituality that sweep one’s soul when listening to a favorite composer? Does the brain contain the soul? What goes wrong with the dopamine and acetylcholine neurotransmitting systems in the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient with no memory, feelings, or personality, producing the unwelcome transformation of a person into a human object? What happens to the brain’s indoleamine and serotonin system in clinically depressed patients whose pain of living is so great that death becomes welcome? What about the ascetic dervish who fasts for 40 days and finds ecstasy in solitude and meditation? And what goes on in the brain of the violinist Medori (she last performed in Meymandi Concert Hall of Raleigh on January 16 and 17, 2009), who at age six was able to play classical music without looking at the notes?

These are but a few examples of the myriad secrets of this three-pound organ we call the “brain.” The spin-off of the “Decade of the Brain” is a better understanding of its role in healing, spirituality, and wellness. For example, meditation has been shown to enhance healing.  It is hoped that our knowledge of the brain will continue to expand and cure for Brain diseases, such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, autism, and other neurologic diseases will be achieved.

The neurophysiology of meditation has been worked out since in studies from London’s Maudsley Hospital, Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, New York’s Columbia Hospital, and the National Institute of Mental Health. Those studies have demonstrated that meditating for 20 minutes, morning and night, decreases oxygen consumption and the heart rate below the heart rate found in sleep. It also increases the blood flow to muscles and organs, decreasing the level of lactic acid and low-density lipoproteins.

The brain—containing 100 billion neurons, 900 billion glial cells, 100 trillion branches, and 1,000 trillion receptors—reacts to stimuli in a series of electrical bursts, spanning a complex map of connections. To keep this fascinating machine functioning and intact, it must be constantly stimulated and exercised. Whether it is calculating an algorithm or memorizing Lorenzo De Ponte’s libretto for Mozart operas, the poetry of Wordsworth, or the prose of Ibn Khaldoun, the brain must keep working to stay alert and fresh.

As physicians, we are blessed with the gifts of intellect and compassion. Our patients are getting grayer. We must encourage them to continue to exercise their brains, and, as their role models, we physicians should continue to be avid “memorizers” ourselves.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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