Snails on the Couch

Brain and Psyche: The Biology of the Unconscious

by Jonathan Winson
Anchor/Doubleday, 300 pp., $16.95

Mind, Brain, Body: Toward a Convergence of Psychoanalysis and Neurobiology

by Morton F. Reiser
Basic Books, 228 pp., $19.95


We have a good idea today of how the body enables us to digest our food, or to run a mile in four minutes, but matters are very different when we turn to our mental life. Of course, we know that it is dependent in all sorts of intimate ways on the working of our body and in particular of our nervous system. When, for example, a man sees a physical object we have good reason to believe that certain events have taken place in certain parts of his brain. If he suffers from a head injury that affects the occipital area, we have good reason to expect that his vision will be disturbed in characteristic ways.

However, this growing accumulation of knowledge is still very restricted in its scope. Any item or collection of items from this accumulation tells us only about conditions in the body and nervous system that are necessary for us to see, hear, feel pain, remember things, and so on. It does not tell us what neural and bodily function is sufficient for these purposes. For example, in order for us to see, say, a chair in the way we do under normal conditions, it is necessary for the striate area in the occipital cortex to be present and functioning normally. But its presence and normal functioning are not themselves sufficient to explain the experience we have when we see a chair. Moreover, our knowledge of necessary conditions amounts to very little. While, therefore, we know enough about the digestive system to be able to give a very good account of how the body enables us to take in nourishment, we simply do not know anything like enough to be able to offer a good account of how the body and, in particular, the nervous system enable us to live our mental lives.

Nevertheless, the growth of our knowledge about the body and the nervous system, in spite of its severely restricted scope, has been so great and influential as to give rise to a widely accepted presumption both among the educated public and among scientists. This is the presumption that all our mental life can be explained as the manifestation “somehow” of the structure and functioning of the biological material making up the body and especially the nervous system. Of course, many scientists are not interested in this presumption. A psychologist working on cognition, or learning, or skills, or in social psychology can get along quite well without bothering about it. So can the many psychiatrists who are not concerned with the biological aspects of their subjects. But matters are very different with those in science who are concerned with the biology of human functioning. For, with them, this presumption is apt to regulate and even dominate their professional work and thought.

What about those specialists inside psychiatry known as psychoanalysts? How do they view this presumption? They seem to be as divided about it as they are about many other matters.…

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