You are on page 1of 4

W.M.

Bernstein explains why it is impossible


to reduce psychology to biology
Posted on May 26, 2015 by karnacology
Objective Subjectivity: A Basic Theory of Neuropsychoanalysis

Freuds ideas about the mind, evolution, and culture were revolutionary. Psychoanalytic theory
was brought into service to treat mental illness because it was developed in a medical context.
But the methods of psychoanalytic investigation, especially free association and dream
analysis, were most suited for learning about the mind, not fixing the mind. The theory
involved thinking objectively and scientifically about normal and pathological subjective
experiences such as feeling anxious and feeling depressed. Psychoanalytic therapy involves
largely telling a patient this is how your mind works and this is why it works this way.
But interpretations of subjective experience, regardless of their validity, do not work
necessarily to change the way a person thinks, feels or behaves. Accordingly, medicine got more
or less fed-up with psychoanalysis as a treatment and threw the baby out with the bath. What
went wrong?
The justified enthusiasm about Freuds ideas resulted in the sort of wishful thinking that
usually accompanies new, deep insights. But devising potential applications of new, basic theory
takes time and effort. For example, numerous applications of the Germ Theory of Disease have
emerged from 1890 to the present. Antibiotics, vaccines, diagnostic tests and other medically
useful technologies did not just appear like Athena, fully formed, out of the heads of Koch and
Lister. The followers are, of course, impatient. The new ideas are so promising, the needs are so
great. But the applied work has to be done.

This phenomenon might be called Symbolic Completion (cf. Wicklund & Gollwitzer,
1982: Symbolic Self-Completion Theory). Any new, valid theory immediately suggests a range of
wonderful, useful applications. Psychoanalytic descriptions of mental processes indicated that we
might be able to predict and control many aspects of mental life. The theory was quickly rushed
into service before fully effective applications had been developed.
Using half-baked ideas works to reduce the tension associated with the incomplete achievement
of a theorys potential. This sort of symbolic activity may be seen variously as creative play,
placebo effect, impatience and wishful thinking. Some of the symbolic operations are
useful. Some of it stands in the way of making true progress. Part of our behavior in working
with an original theory is driven by the Pleasure Principle, and part is motivated by the Reality
Principle. Gratification is usually deeper if delayed somewhat.

The Alchemist discovering Phosphorus by Joseph Wright (1771)


The tendency to apply new ideas with primitive methods was exemplified by Alchemy, which
took centuries to evolve into the modern science of Chemistry. It also describes the history of
Christianity and other religions. New, powerful ways to think about life implicit in the Christ
Story have been operationalized in some less than optimal ways by followers anxious to see
Christian Theory in action. The religious followers of Freud too have behaved as if the story
is already complete. This sort of assumption is explicit in the small, Hermeneutical branch of the
Psychoanalytic School. But it also operates implicitly in the field at large. For example, most
Psychoanalytic Literature does not cite work outside of the analytic canon.
Psychoanalytic Theory is valid, but it has not been amenable to integrating advances from
cognitive-social theory nor biological theory. In part, this is because many people seem to
assume that there are zero-sum or mutually exclusive relations between psychological and
biological hypotheses; or between ideas studied in the laboratory and those developed in the
clinic. This is expressed by those who say, we dont want to reduce psychology to biology.

The fact is that it is impossible to reduce psychology to biology because there are no theoretical
terms in biology for subjective experiences of thought or feeling. In the formal
sense, Reduction involves defining terms in the to be reduced theory in terms of the reducing
theory (cf. Kemeny and Oppenheim, 1967). The best example of reduction is how terms in
Mendelian Genetics, e.g. gene, have been defined in terms of Molecular Biology, e.g. strands
of DNA. Maybe its possible, but most people do not have direct sensory experiences of genes
nor DNA molecules themselves. They do have subjective experiences of joy, anxiety,
depression and so on. Neuropsychoanalytic Theory involves study of the systematic relations
between subjectively experienced mental states and contemporaneous, objectively measurable
brain phenomena which support them. The biology is in addition to the psychology. It does not
do away with it nor reduce it.
My recent book, A Basic Theory of Neuropsychoanalysis, involves a consolidation of ideas
from the relevant fields, not a reduction of psychology to biology. And, the book tries to
illustrate applications of the basic theory to diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.
On a personal level, I wrote the book because I have knowledge of basic theory and applied
methods in psychoanalysis, social psychology, medical psychology and psychopharmacology.
Having various explanatory systems in mind creates a tendency to relate them, to organize a
single system that can hold them all. One wishes to build a new house so that you can put all
your stuff in one place. The house would be bigger than any of the separate systems but might
use less space than the constituent systems considered separately. In my mind (and surely in the
minds of others), aspects of the various theories were attempting to find their connections to each
other. Such conceptual connections are made implicitly by a process something like spreading
activation (Collins & Loftus, 1975), as well as conscious deliberation. The book was my
attempt to spell-out explicitly important connections between the various schools. This would
allow me to throw out junk I didnt need, and build an effective and efficient, conceptual house
that might be expanded sensibly over time.
This involved considering the most robust, non-controversial assumptions from the various fields
together on the same page. Theoretical paths were followed that were at least consistent with
central tenets in psychology and neurobiology. Some new assumptions are added to link the
basic ideas. Many of the integrating ideas seem logically obvious when the various fields are
considered together rather than in isolation.
Not everyone will buy my system, but the goal was not to have the last word. Rather, the
aim was to produce a framework that could contain comfortably advances made in psychology
and neurobiology since psychoanalytic theory first emerged. The primitive wish to have the
perfect, complete, last word operates to inhibit theoretical integration, but it is also essential
for motivating theoretical work. At some level, no one can get rid of this wish. It is akin to the
desire to find the Logos. The best one can do is see it for what it is, and remain open to new
points of view.
W.M. Bernstein

W.M. Bernstein trained in Biology, Social Psychology, Psychoanalysis and


Psychopharmacology. He is a Diplomate of the American Board of Medical Psychology; and,
was one of the first psychochologists in the US authorized to prescribe psychotropic
medicines. He is the author of A Basic Theory of Neuropsychoanalysis and The Realisation of
Concepts: Infinity, Cognition, and Health