Brain and Psyche by Jonathan Winson (Anchor/Doubleday: $16.95, illustrated)
Poor Papa Sigmund. What a time he has had of it over the years. The father of psychoanalysis has bred a prolific clan of expressive individualists who will not let his theories rest. Adoring sons and daughters once treated him as a god; then rebellious descendants began to espouse newer theories meant to desecrate his shrine.
In the last few years, irreverent offspring have been particularly harsh on Sigmund Freud. Some distant cousins have even questioned the very existence of the unconscious mind, which is the cornerstone upon which all of Freud's theories were based.
But now comes a neuroscientist whose hypothesis affirms that the unconscious does indeed exist and is, in fact, "a product of evolution and the biology of the brain." Jonathon Winson, associate professor of neuroscience at Rockefeller University in New York City, attempts to prove the biological basis for the Freudian unconscious by using the combined tools of neuroscience and psychoanalysis.
Winson instructs the reader in the long, arduous efforts of scientists to comprehend the function of the brain and its relationship to the psyche. He begins with an epigraph from Hippocrates who, in the 5th Century BC, clearly saw the effect of the physiology of the brain on knowledge, emotions, dreams and sensory experience. Tracking the history of neurology and psychiatry to the frontiers of modern brain research, Winson reveals a fascinating bridge between these two disciplines.
His objectives are ambitious to say the least: While trying to show how the nature of man can be understood by studying the evolutionary changes in mammalian neurobiology, Winson also suggests new insights into our understanding of dreams, memory, perception and emotion. The section of "Brain and Psyche" that deals with neural mechanisms may seem intimidating to lay readers, but his work on the psyche is clear, succinct and fascinating.
According to Winson, the biology of the unconscious can be tested by neuroscientific methods and is therefore subject to correction or refutation by future researchers. If indeed his hypothesis is true, Freud will have been venerated for "discovering" the unconscious. But he's not out of the woods yet: Winson believes that while Freud was right about the existence of the unconscious, he was wrong about the primary interpretation of its function.
"Freud saw the unconscious as containing the id, a caldron of untamed passions and destructive instincts held in check by repression," Winson wrote. His own opinion, however, is that repression is not inherent in the unconscious, which he sees as "a cohesive, continually active mental structure which takes note of life's experiences and reacts according to its own scheme of interpretation and responses." If Winson is right, "The Interpretation of Dreams" (Freud's most significant work, according to many psychoanalysts) was based on an incorrect theory. Now Freud's admirer and defender has become his challenger as well.
Even so, Winson has written an enticing book that invites the intelligent and interested lay reader to speculate along with scientists about the unfolding story of the brain and its functions.
Zdenek's latest book is "The Right-Brain Experience," published by McGraw-Hill.