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Examining the new brain science

Casey Schwartzhandout

For two disciplines with a shared devotion to understanding the human mind, neuroscience and psychoanalysis have something of an awkward relationship. From within the booming field of neuroscience, which aims to locate mental life in the structures and functioning of the brain, Sigmund Freud's century-old vision of human psychology as a product of deep and unconscious patterns of experience, traceable through extensive talk therapy, can seem like a relic. Psychoanalysts, meanwhile, though often enthusiastic about the new brain science, worry that both scientists and insurers can be too quick to embrace physical explanations — and cheaper, one-size-fits-all medical solutions — for any psychological difficulty.

"Psychoanalysis is a little bit beleaguered right now," said Casey Schwartz, a science writer whose new book, "In the Mind Fields: Exploring the New Science of Neuropsychoanalysis," examines some of the people trying to bridge this gap. "Fewer and fewer patients seek out that treatment; we've come to think of it as slightly passé, not of our current moment."


But Schwartz, who studied literature at Brown University, came to believe that the psychoanalytic approach offered something too often ignored today — what she calls "an absolutely incomparable depth and attention to the specifics of each individual person and their reality. This is exactly what's disappearing in neuroscience: the quirks, the particularities, the subtleties of the individual."

In her book, she follows such characters as Mark Solms, a South African neuropsychologist who has been a leader in examining brain-injured patients through a psychoanalytic lens, and a New York psychoanalyst who spent years treating a middle-aged man, known as Harry, who had lost much of his language after suffering a stroke. Despite the difficulty for therapist and patient in communicating, Schwartz said, it was for Harry "an absolute saving grace to have recourse to the psychoanalytic technique, which brings to bear such a humanizing attention."


Schwartz weaves in the story of some personal catalysts for her quest, including her journey through an unusual graduate program combining psychoanalysis and neuroscience, and a depressive episode for her father, the radio personality Jonathan Schwartz. Ultimately, she leaves little doubt that neuroscience will continue its ascendency. But she finds some arenas in which the two traditions are deepening their engagement — particularly in cities like New York and Boston, leading centers for brain science that also have strong psychoanalytic communities. With experts in both fields in proximity, Schwartz said, "I think it's easier for the conversations to begin."


Amanda Katz can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @katzish.