are finding that
their biological
of the brain may
fit together best
when integrated
by psychological
theories Freud
sketched a
century ago

eud s
F tur n
By M

circa 1891

By the 1980s the notions of ego and id
were considered hopelessly antiquated,
even in some psychoanalytical circles.
Freud was history. In the new psycholo-
gy, the updated thinking went, depressed
people do not feel so wretched because
something has undermined their earliest
attachments in infancy— rather their
brain chemicals are unbalanced. Psycho-
pharmacology, however, did not deliver
an alternative grand theory of personali-
ty, emotion and motivation— a new con-
ception of “what makes us tick.” With-
out this model, neuroscientists focused
their work narrowly and left the big pic-
ture alone.
F O R T H E F I RS T H A L F O F T H E 1900 S , Today that picture is coming back
into focus, and the surprise is this: it is
the ideas of Sigmund Freud dominated priving them of their compulsive power. not unlike the one that Freud outlined a
explanations of how the human mind As mind and brain research grew more century ago. We are still far from a con-
works. His basic proposition was that sophisticated from the 1950s onward, sensus, but an increasing number of di-
our motivations remain largely hidden in however, it became apparent to special- verse neuroscientists are reaching the
our unconscious minds. Moreover, they ists that the evidence Freud had provided same conclusion drawn by Eric R. Kan-
are actively withheld from consciousness for his theories was rather tenuous. His del of Columbia University, the 2000
by a repressive force. The executive ap- principal method of investigation was Nobel laureate in physiology or medi-
paratus of the mind (the ego) rejects any not controlled experimentation but sim- cine: that psychoanalysis is “still the most
unconscious drives (the id) that might ple observations of patients in clinical set- coherent and intellectually satisfying
prompt behavior that would be incom- tings, interwoven with theoretical infer- view of the mind.”
patible with our civilized conception of ences. Drug treatments gained ground, Freud is back, and not just in theory.
ourselves. This repression is necessary be- and biological approaches to mental ill- Interdisciplinary work groups uniting the
cause the drives express themselves in un- ness gradually overshadowed psycho- previously divided and often antagonis-
constrained passions, childish fantasies, analysis. Had Freud lived, he might even tic fields of neuroscience and psycho-
and sexual and aggressive urges. have welcomed this turn of events. A analysis have been formed in almost
Mental illness, Freud said until his highly regarded neuroscientist in his day, every major city of the world. These net-
death in 1939, results when repression he frequently made remarks such as “the works, in turn, have come together as the
fails. Phobias, panic attacks and obses- deficiencies in our description would pre- International Neuro-Psychoanalysis So-
sions are caused by intrusions of the hid- sumably vanish if we were already in a ciety, which organizes an annual con-
den drives into voluntary behavior. The position to replace the psychological terms gress and publishes the successful journal
aim of psychotherapy, then, was to trace by physiological and chemical ones.” But Neuro-Psychoanalysis. Testament to the
neurotic symptoms back to their uncon- Freud did not have the science or tech- renewed respect for Freud’s ideas is the
scious roots and expose these roots to nology to know how the brain of a normal journal’s editorial advisory board, popu-
mature, rational judgment, thereby de- or neurotic personality was organized. lated by a who’s who of experts in con-

temporary behavioral neuroscience, in-
Overview/Mind Models cluding Antonio R. Damasio, Kandel,
Joseph E. LeDoux, Benjamin Libet, Jaak
■ For decades, Freudian concepts such as ego, id and repressed desires Panksepp, Vilayanur S. Ramachandran,
dominated psychology and psychiatry’s attempts to cure mental illnesses. Daniel L. Schacter and Wolf Singer.
But better understanding of brain chemistry gradually replaced this model Together these researchers are forg-
with a biological explanation of how the mind arises from neuronal activity. ing what Kandel calls a “new intellectu-
■ The latest attempts to piece together diverse neurological findings, however, al framework for psychiatry.” Within
are leading to a chemical framework of the mind that validates the general this framework, it appears that Freud’s
sketch Freud made almost a century ago. A growing group of scientists are broad brushstroke organization of the
eager to reconcile neurology and psychiatry into a unified theory. mind is destined to play a role similar to
the one Darwin’s theory of evolution

served for molecular genetics— a tem- would be hard-pressed to find a develop- tion. But case studies supporting that no-
plate on which emerging details can be mental neurobiologist who does not tion are beginning to accumulate. The
coherently arranged. At the same time, agree that early experiences, especially most famous one comes from a 1994
neuroscientists are uncovering proof for between mother and infant, influence the study of “anosognosic” patients by be-
some of Freud’s theories and are teasing pattern of brain connections in ways that havioral neurologist Ramachandran of
out the mechanisms behind the mental fundamentally shape our future person- the University of California at San Diego.
processes he described. ality and mental health. Yet none of these Damage to the right parietal region of
experiences can be consciously remem- these people’s brains makes them un-
Unconscious Motivation bered. It is becoming increasingly clear aware of gross physical defects, such as
W H E N F R E U D I N T R O D U C E D the cen- that a good deal of our mental activity is paralysis of a limb. After artificially acti-
tral notion that most mental processes unconsciously motivated. vating the right hemisphere of one such
that determine our everyday thoughts, patient, Ramachandran observed that
feelings and volitions occur unconscious- Repression Vindicated she suddenly became aware that her left
ly, his contemporaries rejected it as im- E V E N I F W E A R E M O S T L Y driven by arm was paralyzed— and that it had been
possible. But today’s findings are con- unconscious thoughts, this does not paralyzed continuously since she had suf-
firming the existence and pivotal role of prove anything about Freud’s claim that fered a stroke eight days before. This
unconscious mental processing. For ex- we actively repress unpalatable informa- showed that she was capable of recog-
ample, the behavior of patients who are
unable to consciously remember events
that occurred after damage to certain
memory-encoding structures of their
brains is clearly influenced by the “for- Freud drew his final model of the mind in 1933
(right; color has been added). Dotted lines
gotten” events. Cognitive neuroscientists
represented the threshold between unconscious
make sense of such cases by delineating
and conscious processing. The superego
different memory systems that process in-
repressed instinctual drives (the id), preventing
formation “explicitly” (consciously) and
them from disrupting rational thought. Most
“implicitly” (unconsciously). Freud split rational (ego) processes were automatic and

memory along just these lines. unconscious, too, so only a small part of the ego
Neuroscientists have also identified (bulb at top) was left to manage conscious
unconscious memory systems that medi- experience, which was closely tied to
ate emotional learning. In 1996 at New perception. The superego mediated the ongoing
York University, LeDoux demonstrated struggle between the ego and id for dominance.
the existence under the conscious cortex Recent neurological mapping (below) generally
of a neuronal pathway that connects per- correlates to Freud’s conception. The core brain
ceptual information with the primitive stem and limbic system— responsible for
brain structures responsible for generat- instincts and drives— roughly correspond to
ing fear responses. Because this pathway Freud’s id. The ventral frontal region, which
bypasses the hippocampus— which gen- controls selective inhibition, the dorsal frontal
erates conscious memories— current region, which controls self-conscious thought,
events routinely trigger unconscious re- and the posterior cortex, which represents
membrances of emotionally important the outside world, amount to
past events, causing conscious feelings the ego and the superego.
that seem irrational, such as “Men with
beards make me uneasy.”
Neuroscience has shown that the ma-
jor brain structures essential for forming
conscious (explicit) memories are not Dorsal
functional during the first two years of cortex Posterior
life, providing an elegant explanation of cortex
what Freud called infantile amnesia. As
Freud surmised, it is not that we forget
our earliest memories; we simply cannot
recall them to consciousness. But this in- Ventral
ability does not preclude them from af- frontal
cortex Brain stem
fecting adult feelings and behavior. One SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 85
nizing her deficits and that she had un- Like “split-brain” patients, whose Durham neuropsychologist Aikaterini
consciously registered these deficits for hemispheres become unlinked— made fa- Fotopoulou recently studied a patient of
the previous eight days, despite her con- mous in studies by the late Nobel laure- this type in my laboratory. The man failed
scious denials during that time that there ate Roger W. Sperry of the California In- to recall, in each 50-minute session held
was any problem. stitute of Technology in the 1960s and in my office on 12 consecutive days, that
Significantly, after the effects of the 1970s— anosognosic patients typically he had ever met me before or that he had
stimulation wore off, the woman not only rationalize away unwelcome facts, giving undergone an operation to remove a tu-
reverted to the belief that her arm was plausible but invented explanations of mor in his frontal lobes that caused his
normal, she also forgot the part of the in- their unconsciously motivated actions. In amnesia. As far as he was concerned,
terview in which she had acknowledged this way, Ramachandran says, the left there was nothing wrong with him. When
that the arm was paralyzed, even though hemisphere manifestly employs Freudian asked about the scar on his head, he con-
she remembered every other detail about “mechanisms of defense.” fabulated wholly implausible explana-

Freud himself anticipated the day
when neurological data
would round out his psychological ideas.
the interview. Ramachandran concluded: Analogous phenomena have now tions: he had undergone dental surgery or
“The remarkable theoretical implication been demonstrated in people with intact a coronary bypass operation. In reality,
of these observations is that memories can brains, too. As neuropsychologist Martin he had indeed experienced these proce-
indeed be selectively repressed…. Seeing A. Conway of Durham University in En- dures—years before—and unlike his brain
[this patient] convinced me, for the first gland pointed out in a 2001 commentary operation, they had successful outcomes.
time, of the reality of the repression phe- in Nature, if significant repression effects Similarly, when asked who I was and
nomena that form the cornerstone of clas- can be generated in average people in an what he was doing in my lab, he vari-
sical psychoanalytical theory.” innocuous laboratory setting, then far ously said that I was a colleague, a drink-
greater effects are likely in real-life trau- ing partner, a client consulting him about
matic situations. his area of professional expertise, a team-
mate in a sport that he had not partici-
The Pleasure Principle pated in since he was in college decades
FREUD WENT EVEN further, though. earlier, or a mechanic repairing one of his
He said that not only is much of our men- numerous sports cars (which he did not
tal life unconscious and withheld but that possess). His behavior was consistent
the repressed part of the unconscious with these false beliefs, too: he would
mind operates according to a different look around the room for his beer or out
principle than the “reality principle” that the window for his car.
governs the conscious ego. This type of What strikes the casual observer is
unconscious thinking is “wishful”— and the wishful quality of these false notions,
it blithely disregards the rules of logic and an impression that Fotopoulou con-
the arrow of time. firmed objectively through quantitative
If Freud was right, then damage to the analysis of a consecutive series of 155 of
inhibitory structures of the brain (the seat his confabulations. The patient’s false be-
of the “repressing” ego) should release liefs were not random noise— they were
BRAIN SCANS show the damage that causes wishful, irrational modes of mental func- generated by the “pleasure principle”
disorders of psychological function, which tioning. This is precisely what has been that Freud maintained was central to un-
Freud could study only clinically. A recent observed in patients with damage to the conscious thought. The man simply re-

MRI image of a patient who confabulates
frontal limbic region, which controls crit- cast reality as he wanted it to be. Similar
grandiose stories of his life reveals a lesion
(arrow) in the cingulate gyrus— part of
ical aspects of self-awareness. Subjects observations have been reported by oth-
the medial frontal lobe that serves display a striking syndrome known as ers, such as Martin Conway of Durham
functions Freud posited would normally Korsakoff’s psychosis: they are unaware and Oliver Turnbull of the University of
prevent unconscious wishes from altering that they are amnesic and therefore fill the Wales. These investigators are cognitive
a person’s rational self-image. gaps in their memory with fabricated sto- neuroscientists, not psychoanalysts, yet
ries known as confabulations. they interpret their findings in Freudian

terms, claiming in essence that damage to
the frontal limbic region that produces
confabulations impairs cognitive control
mechanisms that underpin normal reali-
ty monitoring and releases from inhibi-
tion the implicit wishful influences on
perception, memory and judgment.

Animal Within
FREUD ARGUED THAT the pleasure
principle gave expression to primitive, FREUD SKETCHED a neuronal mechanism for
animal drives. To his Victorian contem- repression (above) in 1895, as part of his hope
poraries, the implication that human be- that biological explanations of the mind would
one day replace psychological ones. In his
havior was at bottom governed by urges
scheme, an unpleasant memory would normally
that served no higher purpose than car- be activated by a stimulus (“Qn,” far left) heading
nal self-fulfillment was downright scan- from neuron “a” toward neuron “b” (bottom). But
dalous. The moral outrage waned during neuron “alpha” (to right of “a”) could divert the
subsequent decades, but Freud’s concept signal and thus prevent the activation if other
neurons (top right) exerted a “repressing”
of man-as-animal was pretty much side-
influence. Note that Freud (shown later in life)
lined by cognitive scientists. drew gaps between neurons that he predicted
Now it has returned. Neuroscientists would act as “contact barriers.” Two years later
such as Donald W. Pfaff of the Rocke- English physiologist Charles Sherrington
feller University and Jaak Panksepp of discovered such gaps and named them synapses.

Bowling Green State University believe
that the instinctual mechanisms that gov-
ern human motivation are even more tems are modulated by specific neuro- “id energies” would be controlled direct-
primitive than Freud imagined. We share transmitters, chemicals that carry mes- ly by “particular chemical substances.”
basic emotional-control systems with sages between the brain’s neurons. Today treatments that integrate psy-
our primate relatives and with all mam- The seeking system, regulated by the chotherapy with psychoactive medica-
mals. At the deep level of mental organi- neurotransmitter dopamine, bears a re- tions are widely recognized as the best ap-
zation that Freud called the id, the func- markable resemblance to the Freudian proach for many disorders. And brain
tional anatomy and chemistry of our “libido.” According to Freud, the libid- imaging shows that talk therapy affects
brains is not much different from that of inal or sexual drive is a pleasure-seeking the brain in similar ways to such drugs.
our favorite barnyard animals and house- system that energizes most of our goal-
hold pets. directed interactions with the world. Dreams Have Meaning
Modern neuroscientists do not ac- Modern research shows that its neural F R E U D ’ S I D E A S A R E also reawaken-
cept Freud’s classification of human in- equivalent is heavily implicated in almost ing in sleep and dream science. His dream
stinctual life as a simple dichotomy be- all forms of craving and addiction. It is in- theory— that nighttime visions are partial
tween sexuality and aggression, howev- teresting to note that Freud’s early exper- glimpses of unconscious wishes— was
er. Instead, through studies of lesions iments with cocaine— mainly on him- discredited when rapid-eye-movement
and the effects of drugs and artificial self— convinced him that the libido must (REM) sleep and its strong correlation
stimulation on the brain, they have iden- have a specific neurochemical foundation. with dreaming were discovered in the
tified at least four basic mammalian in- Unlike his successors, Freud saw no rea- 1950s. Freud’s view appeared to lose all
stinctual circuits, some of which overlap. son for antagonism between psycho- credibility when investigators in the
They are the “seeking” or “reward” sys- analysis and psychopharmacology. He 1970s showed that the dream cycle was
tem (which motivates the pursuit of plea- enthusiastically anticipated the day when regulated by the pervasive brain chemi-
sure); the “anger-rage” system (which
governs angry aggression but not preda-

MARK SOLMS holds the chair in neuropsychology at the University of Cape Town in South
tory aggression); the “fear-anxiety” sys- Africa and an honorary lectureship in neurosurgery at St. Bartholomew’s and the Royal Lon-
tem; and the “panic” system (which in- don School of Medicine and Dentistry. He is also director of the Arnold Pfeffer Center for Neu-
cludes complex instincts such as those ro-Psychoanalysis of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, a consultant neuropsycholo-
that govern social bonding). Whether gist to the Anna Freud Center in London and a very frequent flier. Solms is editor and trans-
other instinctual forces exist, such as a lator of the forthcoming four-volume series The Complete Neuroscientific Works of Sigmund
rough-and-tumble “play” system, is also Freud (Karnac Books). Solms thanks Oliver Turnbull, a senior lecturer at the University of
being investigated. All these brain sys- Wales Center for Cognitive Neuroscience in Bangor, for assisting with this article. SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 87
cal acetylcholine, produced in a “mind- with impunity— that dream content has zine, for neuroscientists who are enthusi-
less” part of the brain stem. REM sleep no primary emotional mechanism. astic about the reconciliation of neurolo-
occurred automatically, every 90 minutes gy and psychiatry, “it is not a matter of
or so, and was driven by brain chemicals Finishing the Job proving Freud right or wrong, but of fin-
and structures that had nothing to do NOT EVERYONE IS enthusiastic about ishing the job.”
with emotion or motivation. This dis- the reappearance of Freudian concepts in If that job can be finished— if Kan-
covery implied that dreams had no mean- the mainstream of mental science. It is not del’s “new intellectual framework for
ing; they were simply stories concocted easy for the older generation of psycho- psychiatry” can be established— then the
by the higher brain to try to reflect the analysts, for example, to accept that their time will pass when people with emo-
random cortical activity caused by REM. junior colleagues and students now can tional difficulties have to choose between
But more recent work has revealed and must subject conventional wisdom to the talk therapy of psychoanalysis, which

If scientists can reconcile neurology
and psychology, then patients could
receive more integrated treatment.
that dreaming and REM sleep are disso- an entirely new level of biological scruti- may be out of touch with modern evi-
ciable states, controlled by distinct, ny. But an encouraging number of elders dence-based medicine, and the drugs pre-
though interactive, mechanisms. Dream- on both sides of the Atlantic are at least scribed by psychopharmacology, which
ing turns out to be generated by a net- committed to keeping an open mind, as may lack regard for the relation between
work of structures centered on the fore- evidenced by the aforementioned eminent the brain chemistries it manipulates and
brain’s instinctual-motivational circuit- psychoanalysts on the advisory board of the complex real-life trajectories that cul-
ry. This discovery has given rise to a host Neuro-Psychoanalysis and by the many minate in emotional distress. The psychi-
of theories about the dreaming brain, graying participants in the International atry of tomorrow promises to provide
many strongly reminiscent of Freud’s. Neuro-Psychoanalysis Society. patients with help that is grounded in a
Most intriguing is the observation that For older neuroscientists, resistance deeply integrated understanding of how
others and I have made that dreaming to the return of psychoanalytical ideas the human mind operates.
stops completely when certain fibers comes from the specter of the seemingly Whatever undreamed-of therapies
deep in the frontal lobe have been sev- indestructible edifice of Freudian theory the future might bring, patients can only
ered— a symptom that coincides with in the early years of their careers. They benefit from better knowledge of how the
a general reduction in motivated behav- cannot acknowledge even partial confir- brain really works. As modern neurosci-
ior. The lesion is exactly the same as the mation of Freud’s fundamental insights; entists tackle once more the profound
damage that was deliberately produced they demand a complete purge [see box questions of human psychology that so
in prefrontal leukotomy, an outmoded on opposite page]. In the words of J. Al- preoccupied Freud, it is gratifying to find
surgical procedure that was once used lan Hobson, a renowned sleep researcher that we can build on the foundations he
to control hallucinations and delusions. and Harvard Medical School psychia- laid, instead of having to start all over
This operation was replaced in the trist, the renewed interest in Freud is lit- again. Even as we identify the weak
1960s by drugs that dampen dopamine’s tle more than unhelpful “retrofitting” of points in Freud’s far-reaching theories,
activity in the same brain systems. The modern data into an antiquated theoret- and thereby correct, revise and supple-
seeking system, then, might be the pri- ical framework. But as Panksepp said in ment his work, we are excited to have the
mary generator of dreams. This possi- a 2002 interview with Newsweek maga- privilege of finishing the job.
bility has become a major focus of cur-
rent research. MORE TO E XPLORE
If the hypothesis is confirmed, then The Neuropsychology of Dreams. Mark Solms. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997.
the wish-fulfillment theory of dreams Dreaming and REM Sleep Are Controlled by Different Brain Mechanisms. Mark Solms
could once again set the agenda for sleep in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 23, No. 6, pages 843–850; December 2000.
research. But even if other interpretations Freudian Dream Theory Today. Mark Solms in Psychologist, Vol. 13, No. 12, pages 618–619;
of the new neurological data prevail, all December 2000.
of them demonstrate that “psychologi- Clinical Studies in Neuro-Psychoanalysis. K. Kaplan-Solms and M. Solms. Karnac Books, 2000.
cal” conceptualizations of dreaming are The Brain and the Inner World. Mark Solms and Oliver Turnbull. Other Press, 2002.
scientifically respectable again. Few neu- The International Neuro-Psychoanalysis Society and the journal Neuro-Psychoanalysis:
roscientists still claim— as they once did

By J. Allan Hobson
Sigmund Freud’s views on the meaning of chase method of free association, in during non-REM sleep, but nothing in the
dreams formed the core of his theory of which the subject relates anything and chemical activation model precludes this
mental functioning. Mark Solms and everything that comes to mind in hopes case; the frequency of dreams is simply
others assert that brain imaging and of stumbling across a crucial connection. exponentially higher during REM sleep.
lesion studies are now validating Freud’s But this effort is unnecessary, because Psychoanalysis is in big trouble, and
conception of the mind. But similar no such concealment occurs. In dreams, no amount of neurobiological tinkering
scientific investigations show that major
aspects of Freud’s thinking are probably
For Freud, the bizarre nature of
dreams resulted from an elaborate effort
of the mind to conceal, by symbolic
disguise and censorship, the unacceptable
instinctual wishes welling up from the
unconscious when the ego relaxes its
prohibition of the id in sleep. But most
neurobiological evidence supports the
alternative view that dream bizarreness
stems from normal changes in brain
state. Chemical mechanisms in the brain
stem, which shift the activation of various
regions of the cortex, generate these
changes. Many studies have indicated
that the chemical changes determine the
quality and quantity of dream visions,
emotions and thoughts. Freud’s disguise-
and-censorship notion must be discarded;
no one believes that the ego-id struggle, if
it exists, controls brain chemistry. Most
psychoanalysts no longer hold that the
disguise-censorship theory is valid.
Without disguise and censorship,
what is left of Freud’s dream theory? Not
much—only that instinctual drives could what you see is what you get. Dream can fix it. So radical an overhaul is
impel dream formation. Evidence does content is emotionally salient on its face, necessary that many neuroscientists
indicate that activating the parts of the and the close attention of dreamers and would prefer to start over and create a
limbic system that produce anxiety, anger their therapists is all that is needed to neurocognitive model of the mind.
and elation shapes dreams. But these see the feelings they represent. Psychoanalytic theory is indeed
influences are not “wishes.” Dream Solms and other Freudians intimate comprehensive, but if it is terribly in error,
analyses show that the emotions in that ascribing dreams to brain chemistry then its comprehensiveness is hardly a
dreams are as often negative as they are is the same as saying that dreams have virtue. The scientists who share this view
positive, which would mean that half our no emotional messages. But the stump for more biologically based models
“wishes” for ourselves are negative. And as statements are not equivalent. The of dreams, of mental illness, and of
all dreamers know, the emotions in dreams chemical activation-synthesis theory of normal conscious experience than those
are hardly disguised. They enter into dreaming, put forth by Robert W. offered by psychoanalysis.
dream plots clearly, frequently bringing McCarley of Harvard Medical School and
unpleasant effects such as nightmares. me in 1977, maintained only that the J. Allan Hobson, professor of psychiatry
Freud was never able to account for why psychoanalytic explanation of dream at Harvard Medical School, has written
so many dream emotions are negative. bizarreness as concealed meaning was extensively on the brain basis of the mind

Another pillar of Freud’s model is that wrong. We have always argued that and its implications for psychiatry. For
because the true meaning of dreams is dreams are emotionally salient and more, see Hobson’s book Dreaming: An
hidden, the emotions they reflect can be meaningful. And what about REM sleep? Introduction to the Science of Sleep
revealed only through his wild-goose- New studies reveal that dreams can occur (Oxford University Press, 2003). SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 89