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
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
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