Psychoanalysis in the age of neuroscience - Who's Who


Vilanayanur S. Ramachandran
One of the 100 more influential people in the world, according to Time Magazine (2011), Vilanayanur S. Ramachandran is an eclectic, original and fascinating neurologist and neuroscientist. His origins from Southern India, his impressive scientific background and his vast cultural experience are the foundation of his open- minded, thought -expanding work. He completed his medical studies in Chennai and his postgraduate studies in Cambridge, where he obtained a Ph.D. He is currently Director of the Center of Brain and Cognition in the University of California- San Diego as well as Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute.  His titles and awards are too many to list, but it needs to be mentioned that he has been honoured by the most prestigious institutions, from Great Britain to the United States, from Europe to India. World -renowned for his studies on the phantom limb, Ramachandran demonstrated that the persistence of the brain representation of the missing limb underpins the perceptions and the pain linked to the lost limb. Moreover, he proposed a simple and innovative method - the mirror box - to reduce the pain of the phantom limb through the visual stimulation of the contralateral limb, in order to reorganize the neural maps. His research is also related to a vast physio-pathologic brain-mind area, including synesthesia, Capgras syndrome, the relationship between brain and language, consciousness, the neural basis of religious phenomena, and many other topics. With more than 180 publications, Ramachandran is considered one of the most eminent neuroscientists in the world. Ramachandran has never hidden his ambivalence toward psychoanalysis, that is, a profound fascination and simultaneously a distance from aspects that he considers lacking scientific grounding. However, together with the Copernican and Darwinian revolution, Ramachandran values Freud’s conceptualization of the unconscious as one of the three pivotal revolutions in the history of scientific thinking.  Freudian psychodynamics are correlated to neurologic basis in some of Ramachandran’s work, and he shows a particular interest in defence mechanisms. The neurologic grounding sometimes conflicts with the psychodynamic understanding of certain pathology. For example, for psychoanalysis, fetishism has a well-known psychogenic origin as evidenced in the writings of Freud himself and post Freudian authors. According to Ramachandran, the brain representation of the genitals is very close to the representation of the foot, and in some subjects there is a kind of overlapping which explains the sexual arousal due to the foot stimulation of the partner- via the mirror neurons, the stimulation excites the subject. A similar situation occurs in a rare syndrome, apotemnophilia: the patient does not recognize a limb, and feels the irrepressible need to amputate it. According to Ramachandran, a lack of representation of that limb causes the disturbance of perceiving a limb which does not belong- neurologically- to the patient. The desire- or need- to eliminate it is caused by this wrong perception. A psychodynamic explanation of the syndrome is, according to Ramachandran incorrect. But, one may ask, could a certain psychic constellation, during early infancy, or even during prenatal life, induce this particular neurological alteration and consequent lack of rapresentation , which lead to apotemnophilia? According to Ramachandran, some gender disorders can be related to similar forms of brain alterations. In the last years, in continuity with Semir Zekis’s conceptualization of neuroaesthetics, Ramachandran has researched this fascinating area, proposing (along with W. Hirstein), an original understanding of “ beauty”  that is evolutionarily- oriented. Ramachandran’s interests cover numerous areas of different disciplines, from poetry to music, from paleontology (a dinosaur has been named after him, Minotaurasaurus Ramachandri) to archaeology (he published an article on the similarity of Indus and Easter Island scripts). His visionary attitude explains why Richard Dawkins defined him “a latter day Marco Polo, journeying the Silk Road of science to strange and exotic Cathays of the mind”.  

Claudia Spadazzi, M.D. Full Member, Italian Psychoanalytical Society (SPI)

Joseph Le Doux
Joseph Le Doux is the  leader and songwriter of the rock band “The Amygdaloids” - a surprising side of one of the most famous and eminent neuroscientists of the world. Born in Louisiana, Le Doux lives and works in New York City, where he is director of the Emotional Brain Institute and a Faculty Member of the Center For Neural Science, New York University. He is also a member of the National Academy of Science. His pivotal studies about neuronal circuitries, and in particular about the defensive survival circuit underpinning  emotions such as fear and anxiety, are well known since the eighties, when his research highlighted the importance of the limbic system and in particular the role of amygdala.  LeDoux points out the importance of cortical circuitries in the experience and understanding of fear and anxiety disorders. He recently reframed his theory as a “two system” conceptual division corresponding to two classes of responses to a threat: a) changes in brain and body response b)  conscious feeling states of fear and anxiety. In contrast with the mainstream of current neuroscientific theory, which relate fear to the subcortical brainstem neuronal activity, LeDoux focuses on the multicomponent language system as an indispensable cortical function of the mind that is necessary to assess and recognize emotions. The extremely complex concept of consciousness, with its triple levels i.e. first-order, higher-order representation (HOR) and higher-order representation of a representation (HOROR), is  another area of his research, interwoven with emotions and memory.  For psychoanalysts, Ledoux ’s thinking is highly relevant from a theoretical point of view in fundamental ways:  because of its implications about the synaptic plasticity of the neuronal system, and the consequent effectiveness of psychotherapy; regarding  the understanding  of emotions and the importance of language; with respect to his studies on consciousness and its relation with the unconscious and  defensive mechanisms. Moreover, from a clinical point of view, the neuronal dynamics of anxiety, fear, panic attacks and phobias are extremely useful in regard to diagnosis and treatment.  

by Claudia Spadazzi