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Professional News
Scientists Search Brains for Evidence of Transference
Psychiatric News
Volume 42 Number 5 page 14-14

As brain imagers explore those murky alcoves where thoughts and emotions arise, why not make a foray into the recesses that are involved in psychoanalysis as well?

Andrew Gerber, M.D., Ph.D., and his mentor Bradley Peterson, M.D., are launching research to do just that. Both Gerber and Peterson are members of the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research. Other scientists are collaborating in these inquiries as well.

When neuroscientists used to model how the human brain processes information from the outside world, they essentially focused on the senses, learning, and memory, Gerber explained at the winter meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association in New York City. But now the model includes affect and the unconscious as well and beckons one into a new field of exploration called "social cognitive neuroscience."

Scientists in this field are trying to understand social behavior from the perspective of the brain. For example, they might try to find out which parts of the brain are activated when people feel empathy or imitate others. Gerber and his team, however, would like to find out which brain areas are involved in "transference," with the goal of developing a neurobiologically based tool for clarifying and testing psychoanalytic hypotheses.

One reason why they are zeroing in on transference, he explained, is that many think it to be the cornerstone of the psychoanalytic process. Another reason is that a validated behavioral measure of transference has already been developed.

The validation was achieved by one of Gerber's colleagues—Susan Andersen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and social psychology researcher at New York University. In her experiments, healthy college students were asked to describe significant others in their lives. About a month later the students participated in what they believed to be an unrelated experiment about how people relate to individuals they are meeting for the first time. The students were then exposed to verbal descriptions of strangers—some of whom resembled their significant others and some who did not. The students were assumed to be unaware of the resemblances. The students were then tested to see whether their memories of, and feelings about, the strangers were significantly influenced by whether the strangers resembled their significant others (that is, their "transference figures"). Andersen found that they were. In other words, the students' impressions of strangers were more likely to match their reactions toward people they knew if the strangers were similar in description.

Gerber and his coworkers plan to repeat Andersen's experiment while imaging subjects' brains with fMRI. Specifically, subjects will be placed inside an fMRI machine and asked to read information from a computer describing various people. Some of the people will resemble their significant others, while others will not. Gerber and his team will snap pictures of their brains while they are thinking about people who were described as resembling their significant others and while they are thinking about people who were described as not resembling their significant others. The areas of their brain that are activated while they are thinking about people who resemble their significant others will be assumed to mirror the areas that are activated when analysands experience transference.

If the researchers manage to identify some of the brain areas involved in transference, it may then be possible to identify brain areas involved in some other aspects of analysis, to track brain changes in subjects over the course of analysis, and even to compare brain changes resulting from analysis to brain changes resulting from some other kinds of psychotherapies.

"This is painstaking work," Gerber said. "It has taken years to get here," but "it is an example of psychoanalysis developing neurobiological methods to examine its basic premises."

This "cutting-edge" work is also crucial for keeping analysis alive, Glenn Gabbard, M.D., chair of psychoanalysis and professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and session discussant, stressed." We have to legitimatize what we are doing for the skeptics [which include many psychiatrists]....We have to impress on legislators in Washington that analysis is a legitimate treatment, not just handholding or babysitting." ▪

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