Clinicians Reading Research: Research + Psychoanalysis

Freud was the quintessential empiricist.  He was trained by the leading biological researchers of his day and he applied what he learned, which was largely about keenly observing the world as experienced, to understanding the people who presented to him with perplexing problems and, perhaps most prominently, to understanding the working of his own mind.  He used free association as the particular lens through which to view these various minds, and he drew conclusions from his observations that were wildly at odds with traditional notions of the human mind – especially controversial for him and his peers was the idea that the mind is a place that is dominated, from an early age, by sexual thoughts – thoughts that are suppressed by culture through the family – but thoughts that continued to exist despite suppression and continued to impact the functioning of the mind despite their disavowed/repressed/unconscious status.

Despite being widely hailed as an explorer of the previously unknown parts of the human mind, Freud was also pilloried by many – especially the medical and scientific establishment who claimed that they had no “evidence” for what he was proposing.  In reaction to this, Freud defensively maintained that, without the psychoanalytic situation, his observations could not be corroborated, and so he dismissed “research” as an invalid means of studying the human mind.  Indeed, the study of consciousness, much less unconscious processes, is something that has been a problematic area for psychologists since the dawn of psychology (a time close in proximity to when Freud started writing).  That said, tremendous strides have been made in the inference making process about the mind and its conscious and unconscious components.  Researchers in such areas as cognitive science and prejudice have made strides in making scientifically validated inferences about the functioning of the conscious and unconscious mind, respectively.  Research is also viewed as the friend of psychotherapists when it can, as it does, demonstrate positive treatment outcomes (see e.g. Shedler, 2010).

Freud’s repudiation of empirical science led to powerful identifications with his position by other psychoanalysts.  Aaron Beck, the founder of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and a trained analyst had his membership in the American Psychoanalytic Association revoked because he was engaging in empirical research.  Others among the psychoanalysts, including American Ego Psychologists (e.g. Hartman), tried to reconnect with the academic tradition by translating psychoanalytic principles into a language that was more closely connected to modern scientific perspectives on the mind.  Many academic clinical psychologists, frustrated by the complexities of the theory, by its long window of treatment which interfered with a publish or perish culture and perhaps angered at being excluded from the ranks of psychoanalysis proper by guild issues, increasingly moved towards presenting a caricatured view of psychoanalysis in text books and dismissing it as a crazy idea that early explorers of psychological functioning entertained.  Further, the research of the academic psychologists became focused on addressing narrow questions bound by local hypotheses rather than being united under an overarching theory of the mind like the psychoanalytic theory.

Now more than 100 years removed from Freud’s repudiation of the scientific procedure and after having seen the impact of that repudiation, we have the opportunity to reconsider the wisdom of his distance.  We also have increasingly sophisticated ways of describing and representing the characteristic functioning of the human mind as observed in the psychoanalytic consulting room.  There are a wealth of psychoanalytic theories about the mind that are useful within the consulting room and in understanding the human condition more generally.  The interaction between these ideas and ideas that are drawn from different traditions of observing the human condition can and should be an opportunity for us to engage in a fruitful dialogue – one that will move our clinical understanding forward and one that may inform others as they think about issues that are related to those that concern us.

Clinicians Reading Research is, then, a new feature of Division Review that endeavors to contribute interactive thought pieces about empirical papers in psychoanalysis proper and in other fields, to engage the reader in dialogic psychoanalytic research-reactive thought.  Enjoy!  And if you are interested in submitting a piece of 1000-1500 words for the series, please send it as an attachment to an email to Karl Stukenberg at stukenb@xavier.edu.

Shedler, J. (2010).  The efficacy of psychodynamic psychotherapy.  The American Psychologist, 65(2), 98–109.

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