Saturday, 15 July 2006

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Psychoanalysis Is Dead! Long Live—Wait, Nevermind. As a science, psychoanalysis is dead. It does not model cognition, nor does it account for individual or group behaviors it has no hand in creating. (About which, more tomorrow.) You can't read Timothy D. Wilson's egregiously judicious Strangers to Ourselves and come to any other conclusion. All the bulwarks Norman Holland built to prevent its obsolescence have failed. Spectacularly. Unlike Frederick Crews or Ernest Gellner, Wilson "attacks" psychoanalysis by recognizing its importance to the field of psychology and citing it accordingly. (Vicious, he is.) While that move may not appear spectacular on its face, it's crucial to undermining the special disciplinary status psychoanalysis acquired by evolving alongside psychology. Fancying themselves scientists, psychologists distanced themselves from psychoanalysis, which they considered Homo neanderthalensis to their Homo sapiens. With H. neanderthalensis evolving alongside them, they could point and laugh at its crudities but they couldn't deny its existence. There it was, matching their pace, refusing to wither under the derisive hail of H. sapiens. Because Wilson apportions psychoanalysis its proper place in the history of psychology—accepting his discipline's unscientific origins instead of shying away—he can christen psychoanalysis Homo habilis and be done with it. He can afford it the same respect granted all other progenitors: a necessary, but from the present perspective, unsophisticated version of the current model. Just as we outstrip our "handy" forefathers, so too does contemporary psychology outstrip psychoanalysis. I realize how strange that argument sounds, what with evolutionary psychology and its reductive models garnering more attention than their cognitive counterparts. That impression owes more to the inflated rhetoric I discussed yesterday than the current state of the field. Given the evidence Wilson marshals, the discipline cares more about how the brain works than how it evolved, thus relegating those objectionable just-so stories to the status of window-dressing on the mansion currently under construction. (While it may be best-selling window-dressing, no one in the profession mistakes it for it a structural element.) The genius of Wilson's decision becomes obvious when defenders of psychoanalysis argue for its contemporary currency. Like Norman Holland. Holland, in an essay someone assured would accurately present "the actual scientific status of psychoanalysis," moves through a series of arguments which Wilson's method renders moot. (Although, in citing patient responses to Rorschach blots, it teeters on the verge of being hilariously moot.) Why? Because all of the psychoanalytic categories which still have purchase do so at the expense of their interpretive uniqueness. Contemporary cognitive science still believes that "much mental life, including thoughts, feelings, and motives is unconscious," but they now have empirical evidence for doing so. Moreover, the evidence gathered shares neither characteristics nor origins with its psychoanalytic correlate—unless by "origins" you mean the equally generic "stable personality patterns form in childhood and shape later relationships." By acknowledging its place in the genealogy of cognitive science, Wilson diffuses debate over whether it constitutes a viable alternative to it. It does ... to the same extent alchemy constitutes a viable alternative to chemistry. Its assumptions have not...
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On the Power of Psychoanalytic Theory. No, Really. forgottenboy's version of my feelings about Gladwell's Blink sounds overly sanguine to these ears. Wilson's Strangers to Ourselves may lack the narrative drive of Gladwell's books, but it is a far better introduction to the field. His narrative may stutter through the disciplinary history case-study-by-case-study, but even a shot transmission can push the needle above 55 on occasion. But I want to talk argument, not ornament. Wilson cites the articles being summarized or criticized, and his assessments are responsible and generous. Perhaps too generous. So far, I've found Wilson to be a serial under-exaggerator (even in reference to his own work) who steps delicately to avoid tripping any bullshit detectors. Still, he compels readers to connect the dots he lines up. (In Blink, those debates are obscured by the litany of experts he interviews, none of whom think it's a bad idea to present radical positions as if they were the disciplinary norm.) The most salient and alluring undotted line suggests, forcefully if not persuasively, that a person can acquire a Freudian or Lacanian unconscious by sheer force of belief. Not an actual one, mind you, since it would still reside "above" the adaptive unconscious; and not a truly "unconscious" unconscious, since it would be the product of conscious deliberation; but it could be there. In chapter four, he delves into the research into constitution of "personality," and presents the consensus opinion that people's conscious beliefs and unconscious behavior are at odds. He cites numerous studies which demonstrate, for example, that when a person and all her friends are asked to rate her on character traits like "conscientiousness" and "temper," there is almost no correlation between the person's self-evaluation and her friends' evaluations; however, there's a significant correlation, damn near a consensus, among her friends. What this speaks to, Wilson argues, is the fact that the adaptive unconscious manifests its "personality" more forcefully in social situations, in moments when reactions are instant, or almost so, and thus rely not on conscious deliberation but on the unconscious modules. Their contours are clearly visible to everyone except the person who must infer the disposition of implicit processes they can only access indirectly. We can't control those processes despite the fact that they constitute the bulk of our personality. We are what we do, not how we rationalize it. (On its face, this is a familiar model. Keep in mind, however, that the processes involved work in no way like their psychoanalytic counterparts. No family romance and all it entails.) How does Wilson know this? Like anyone interested in human cognition, he studies people with unique and/or extensive brain damage. He cites the Gazzaniga and LeDoux's famous study of the lobotomized patient whose right hemisphere (controlling the left side of his body) is flashed a picture of a snow scene on it and asked to pick the card which corresponds to it: a shovel, a can opener, a screwdriver and a saw. With his left hand he picks the shovel every time; with...

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