While we generally accept and understand that our life experiences help shape who we are, the fields of psychology and neuroscience have til now take rather separate paths in explaining how and why this happens. But at a recent conference in New York, Francois Ansermet, a psychoanalyst from Geneva university, and Pierre Magistretti, a neuroscientist from the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, jointly addressed an audience of psychoanalysts, doctors and scientists, providing fascinating insights on the links between psychoanalysis and neuroscience.
“These are disciplines that have been on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of understanding how the brain works,” Magistretti commented later. But research into neurogenesis and neuroplasticity shows that our experiences leave “impressions” on our brains, and these findings have attracted attention from both fields.
Neuroplasticity means that the connections between brain cells alter with experience, either growing stronger or weakening depending on the nature of the experience itself. This concept is mirrored in the ideas of psychoanalysis and the impact of life experiences on our psyche.
“The idea is that the trace for neuroscience and the trace for psychoanalysis are based on the biological facts, which are those of neural plasticity. These are a set of mechanisms by which our brain encodes experience – how we learn, how memory works and how life experience leaves traces in our brain,” Magistretti said.
On the most basic level, sensations of safety and happiness reinforce our awareness of and desire for circumstances that will repeat that experience. The experience stimulates the growth and connection of our brain cells so to preserve this association. Likewise when we are stressed or fearful we learn from the experience so that we can avoid it.
“Interestingly, many of these processes can happen outside of conscious awareness as our brains link our memories, feelings, expectations of the future, and current needs to determine what we are consciously feeling, thinking, and intending in a given moment,” commented Maggie Zellner, Executive Director of the New York-based Neuropsychoanalysis Foundation.
“What Magistretti and Ansermet are doing is something unusual – they are linking neuroplasticity with what psychoanalysis calls the dynamic unconscious, which is any mental activity that happens outside of awareness, like fears or wishes. These, in turn, influence our thoughts, feelings and behaviours,” said Zellner, conference moderator.
“Because our ever-changing brain is continually shaped by experience, this means that we all have the capacity to change dysfunctional or unhealthy patterns,” Zellner says.
“Over time, most of us tend to consistently have the same kinds of fears and desires, the same ways of having fun or making ourselves feel better during times of stress, the same ways of relating to others and thinking about ourselves.”
These insights may one day lead to improved treatments of psychological disorders.
Phillip Luloff, a psychiatrist and the associate director of the division of psychotherapy at Mount Sinai Hospital, found inspiration in their work.
“It talks to the hope that one has that there can be change, that the brain is flexible and plastic. And that by the induction of just talk [analysis] they seem to be able show that there is a modification in the structure of the brain, which causes an evolution in perhaps the way the person functions and may lead to the healing in the troubled people with whom we work, including ourselves.” he said.