Unconscious and brain plasticity: neuroscience meets psychoanalysis

  • Elias D. Kouvelas


I present some thoughts, hopefully useful for the progress of the dialogue between psychoanalysis and neuroscience. When Sigmund Freud first explored the implications of the unconscious mental processes to behaviour, he tried to adopt a neural model of behaviour in an attempt to develop a scientific psychology. About hundred years later, Eric Kandel suggested a part of unconscious ego, the procedural unconscious, while Mauro Mancia suggested that the establishment of inter-subjectivity between the mother and the infant during the pre-verbal stages of life depends on the mechanisms of implicit memory. Francois Ansermet and Pierre Magistretti, in agreement with Eric Kandel and the results of recent neurobiological research, support the notion that through the mechanisms of synaptic plasticity experience leaves a trace in the neuronal network, although some traces are not conscious. From trace to trace, from inscription to re-inscription and to the re-association of traces, the link and connection between the initial experience and the traces is somehow lost, even though the initial traces maintain a direct link with experience. Thus one could say that, as far as the establishment of the unconscious is concerned, inscription of experience separates from experience. In addition, neuroscientists suggest that effective amygdala-prefrontal connectivity predicts individual differences in successful emotion regulation. These results are very compatible with the Freudian notions on the regulation of “id” by the “ego” and with his suggestion that specific neurons of the “ψ” system, related with the “ego” functions, are located in the frontal cortex.