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Robert Langs, M.D.

Fueled by disputes about the validity of recovered early memories and by recent idealizations of Freud and his psychoanalysis, the long simmering Sigmund Freud wars have escalated into a seemingly unresolveable battle of accusation and counter-accusation.  With academics and anti-analytic therapists on one side and classical psychoanalysts on the other, the arguments on both sides are so radically stated, so closed to empirical test, and so emotionally charged that there seems to be no possibility for peace.  Given that the world needs a sound, basic theory of the emotional and emotion-processing minds, we need to find a way to settle these acrimonious disputes. 

            Is Freudian psychoanalysis a viable theory and form of therapy?  Is there convincing evidence for a realm of unconscious effects, and if so, what are their nature?  Is there sufficient reason to accept the core concepts of Freud's psychoanalysis -- "the unconscious," transference, resistance, repression, and infantile sexuality?  And is psychoanalysis a science, a quasi-science, a quasi-religion, a form of brain washing, and/or a hoax?

            Whatever the answers to these questions, it is well at the outset to acknowledge Freud's genius in, at the very least, making the studying of the unconscious side of mental life a world-wide concern.  Because the remainder of his thinking is a matter of debate, let's look now at the issues and their possible resolution.

A New Paradigm of Psychoanalysis

            Oddly, both sides of the Freud battles are entrenched in the classical Freudian position, essentially arguing pro or con in respect to its basic ideas and methods.  It appears, then, that only a new paradigm of psychoanalysis -- a revised view of the emotional domain -- can intercede by disposing of those aspects of the Freudian position that have evoked the most valid objections from its nay-sayers.  In so doing, we can expect that, in time, after the expected resistances against change, the paradigm also will find acceptance by the practitioners of psychoanalysis.  It should, then, sufficiently satisfy both parties to the Freud wars as to render them moot.

            In point of fact, we have in our midst such a paradigm of psychoanalysis and it is some twenty-five years old (and buttressed by over fifty books and two hundred papers -- talk about trying to move mountains).  It began with the creation of new instrumentation -- a so-called psychoscope -- that provides a view of psychotherapy and emotional life that goes unseen with the Freudian psychoscope.  Emerging from the Freudian corpus, yet radically departing from it as well, the new paradigm is known as the adaptational-interactional or the communicative approach; here I will refer to it as the strong adaptive approach.  Its development was driven by repetitive clinical observations, of the following kind:

            A male therapist misses an in-hospital session with his young woman patient.  In the next hour, she manifestly (directly and consciously) excuses his lapse.  But she then tells a story about her boyfriend who's an idiot -- he failed to show up as promised for visiting hours the day before.  She's quite sure he wants to keep her sick. 

            A private therapist arbitrarily and without warning announces an increase in his fee to his female patient.  The patient says that she understands her therapist's need to do this in light of recent increases in the cost of living.  But she then tells a story about her butcher who sneaks his finger onto the scale when weighing the meat he's selling her -- he's an irresponsible thief. 

            Incidents of this kind, which consistently involved the ground rules of therapy -- an aspect of treatment seldom addressed in Freudian psychoanalysis, pro or con -- led to a new way of organizing the data of psychotherapy (the behaviors and verbal communications of both parties to treatment).  While supporting the existence of unconscious mental processes, these observations challenged the prized Freudian concept of transference and with it the prime importance of inner fantasies and memories in emotional life and psychotherapy.  That is, it seemed clear that the stories these patients told were disguised or encoded, valid (nondistorted) responses to their therapists' behaviors.  The absence of one therapist was encoded via the absence of the patient's boyfriend, and the sudden increase in his fee by the other therapist was represented by the butcher's overcharge.  And the encoded views that one therapist wanted to keep his patient ill and the other was taking money dishonestly appear to have been unconsciously experienced; they also appear to be insightful and correct.

            Now, transferences are said to reflect patients' misperceptions and distortions of what their therapists' say and do.  They supposedly arise repeatedly in psychotherapy because of the disruptive influence of memories of harmful experiences with early childhood figures.  But there was no indication of patient-distortion in these and countless other similar situations -- certainly not on the unconscious level.  These patients encoded a triggering event and their valid unconscious perceptions of the implications of that event.  In fact, on the conscious level, there seems to have been a denial of the harm the therapist had done, while on the unconscious level, the behavior was seen for what it was -- a hurtful, crazy-making action in one case, and an exploitative, dishonest act in the other.

            These incidents capture the essence of the new paradigm.  In respect to its psychoscope, it distinguishes two types of communicative vehicles: intellectualizations -- analyzing, excusing, rationalizing, and the like -- and narratives or stories.  And it's been discovered that the latter are the carriers of two messages or two levels of meaning -- manifest and conscious (e.g., the hurts by the boyfriend and butcher) and encoded and unconscious (e.g., the hurts by the two therapists).  Both day and night dreams carry such dual messages because they almost always are storied in nature. 

            Rather than focusing first and foremost on past figures and events, as happens with the Freudian psychoscope, the strong adaptive psychoscope focuses first on contemporary figures and events, and only secondarily on the past.  Patients, as is true of all living organisms, adaptively are concerned with their immediate situations, which in therapy involve the conditions and ground rules of their therapies and the most recent and telling interventions by their therapists -- aspects that are, with few exceptions, generally ignored in Freudian observing and formulating.  And it sees these interventions as the prime activators of, or triggers for, patients' encoded, unconscious experiences and adaptive responses. 

            Among the many consequences of this shift in primacy from the past to the present, and from internal fantasies and memories to current external realities, the new approach offers a means of limiting the conceivable number of interpretations that can be made on the basis of patients' so-called free associations.  Where the Freudian approach allows for an uncountable number of interpretations, the strong adaptive approach limits them to those that are related to an activating triggering event.  In addition, the latter approach offers a method of validation that is unavailable in the Freudian method: the requisite that the patient respond to an intervention with an encoded narrative that conveys unconscious support, without which the interpretation is considered to be incorrect.  A common form of unconscious confirmations conveyed through disguised stories of wise and well functioning individuals outside of the therapy. 

            In stressing immediate adaptation, the new paradigm proposes that coping with external realities rather than with internal fantasies and memories is the primary task of the emotional mind.  Reality, especially as it is experienced unconsciously, is rightfully afforded more power over emotional life than fantasy.  This position is in keeping with the finding that living organisms through the ages have evolved and been designed primarily to adapt to their external environments -- inanimate and animate (for humans, this includes the words and actions of other humans).  Despite humans' unique inner mental lives, there is no known reason to exempt, as Freud did, our own species, homo sapiens sapiens, from this rule.  Indeed, because evolution -- the study of the long term history of living entities and the investigation of their immediate adaptations -- is the fundamental subscience of biology, psychoanalytic theory should not contradict any of its basic propositions.  This means that, for patients in therapy, coping with what their therapists do and do not do is of prime concern, even though important aspects of these coping efforts operate outside of awareness -- unconsciously.  Dealing with their inner emotional lives, past and present, is a secondary task of far less import than dealing with the outer world and especially its traumas. 

            Another critical feature of the strong adaptive approach is the recognition to the role played by unconscious perception in emotional life, one that is far stronger than the role played by unconscious fantasy as stressed by Freud.  In principle, many of the most disturbing emotional events that we experience and many of their most anxiety-provoking meanings are perceived subliminally and are then registered in the mind unconsciously.  This spares the conscious mind many potentially disruptive inputs and allows for more effective conscious functioning, but it does so at great cost -- there is an enormous loss of conscious knowledge regarding important features of the external world and its impingements. 

            The psychoscope used by the strong adaptive appraoch reveals that unconscious perceptions are received and processed unconsciously, and that the results of these processes reach awareness solely through encoded narratives.  Studies of storied responses to emotionally-charged triggering events also indicate that these unconscious processes utilize a remarkably adaptive emotional intelligence that is far wiser than conscious intelligence.  And accessing this encoded wisdom can be done solely through a process called trigger decoding -- deciphering the encoded meanings of narratives in light of their evocative triggers.  It is entirely on this basis that all strong adaptive interpretations are made -- and then tested for encoded validation.

            The strong adaptive approach also provides a useful and clear definition of the unconscious realm, a domain that has, as noted by Freud's critics, lost any consistent sense of meaning.  In addition, it has generated strong evidence for two distinctive and relatively independent systems of the emotion-processing mind (a brilliant, early realization that Freud eventually discarded).  Thus, the emotion-processing mind is designed with a conscious system that is protected from disturbing inputs by the extensive use of obliterating and denial-based defenses -- the cause of its severely restricted knowledge base.  In addition, it has a deep unconscious system that is unencumbered by defenses and therefore highly perceptive and intelligent, but restricted to communicating its insights through encoded narratives. 

            In this light, we can see that denial (which is directed against reality), rather than repression (which is directed against fantasy and memory), is the basic human psychological defense -- dealing with and defending against unbearable, traumatic realities is the prime adaptive function of the emotion-processing mind.  Paradoxically, then, we humans know the most about our emotional lives when we have no direct idea of what it is that we know. 

            The strong adaptive approach has obtained extensive clinical validation and has generated many useful ideas and developments.  High among these is the accomplishment of a feat thought to be impossible by both Freudians and their critics -- the creation of a formal (quantitative, mathematically grounded, predictive) science of psychoanalysis replete with laws of communication and of the mind -- including what appear to be the first identified biological laws.

            In brief, this science was first forged by measuring the changes in people's use of communicative vehicles -- narratives or intellectualizations -- in the course of dialogues between patients and therapists, as well as couples in everyday life.  The results revealed four laws of communication and each law, universally obeyed although in individually distinctive ways, differentiated the efforts of psychoanalysts to an extent that suggested that they could serve as quantitative markers of helpful and harmful interventions. 

            To cite one such law: In any extended series of communications, the complexity of the use of communicative vehicles unfolds as a logarithmic function of elapsed time.  That is, in lawful fashion, over the course of a dialogue or monologue, humans vary their use of narratives and intellectualizations to an ever-decreasing, but lawfully configured extent.  The law is followed by everyone, though people do differ in the rate at which the curve ascends -- essentially, in the amount of total complexity in their speech sample.  In psychotherapy, as you would expect, patients tend to show more total complexity than their therapists.  And it was found that those therapists who reversed this trend had been independently judged through other means to have been relatively dysfunctional. 

            Here then is a science awaiting further development, and fraught with useful applications and extensive theoretical implications.  This latter is seen in the fact that the same laws of complexity were found in simpler studies of individual word usage.  In addition, the identical law of cumulative complexity was found to apply equally well to chimpanzees who use lexical boards with which to communicate with their trainers.

            The viability of the strong adaptive approach has been supported, then, in a variety of ways, including the results of the science it forged and the extent to which its interpretations are validated unconsciously by patients (while those offered on the basis of Freudian theory are not).  Before we make us of the approach as a peacemaker, however, we need two more sets of unprecedented insights.

Motives for Adhering to Freudian Misconceptions

            The Freudian analysts' denial of their patients' accurate unconscious perceptions of the deeper meanings of their interventions -- the claim for the pervasiveness of distorting transferences -- protects them from their patients' valid, albeit usually unconscious, appropriate accusations of error and harm.  But there is a more fundamental reason for this denial and for Freud's failure to deal first and foremost with external reality.  It entails a motive in analysts that is shared with all humans -- the need to make use of pervasive amounts of denial in response to the universal and neglected adaptive challenges of death and its inevitability -- and the death anxieties this evokes. 

            Freud claimed that "the unconscious" has no conception of death because death has no prototype, while castration does.  At first, he avoided the problem of aggression and then, after he addressed it, he continued to claim that sexual conflicts are the main source of neuroses -- not violence or mortality.  He also neglected the fear of death by focusing on an instinct for aggression, using it to account for why humans harm and kill others.  When this idea needed buttressing, he postulated the existence of a death instinct -- a wish for death instead of its dread.  With that, he turned reality on its head: we do not fear dying, but want to die. 

            Adaptation is about reality and survival, and emotionally, they both revolve around the problem of death and dying.  There is nothing of import about human mortality in either the Freudian corpus or its criticisms, even though this reality is the ultimate and deepest source of all human conflicts and anxieties.  Indeed, it appears that the entire psychoanalytic edifice is, on one level, a denial-based, sexually grounded defense against existential death anxiety, much as the Jungian corpus is a religiously grounded system with a similar purpose. 

            These realizations explain why so many people, unable to cope with the inevitability of death other than with the aid of endless forms of denial in both thought and action (both are helpful only within strict limits), have accepted the Freudian system -- it is one of the most elegant and appealing way to deny the centrality of death and death anxiety in emotional life.  Sexuality, which speaks for procreation and life, is substituted for death and its devastations as the central issue in emotional life.  Who among us would not wish that it were so?


            There are three forms of death anxiety: predatory, which is as old as organisms who competed for nutrients, and is defined as the fear of being harmed or killed by others or by natural disasters.  This form of death anxiety sharpens our perceptual skills and activates our coping capabilities in an effort to survive the disaster if at all possible.

            The second form is predator death anxiety, which is aroused whenever we harm others.  These acts and the anxieties they cause evoke guilt and the need for punishment.  And among their many consequences, this type of death anxiety motivates patients to seek and stay with harmful therapists who unconsciously punish them for their misdeeds.  After enough suffering, some patients actually feel better emotionally -- another, among many, unrecognized means that Freudian therapists effect their "cures."

            The third form of death anxiety is existential death anxiety.  This type of anxiety, from which all humans suffer, evokes only one class of reactions -- the invocation of denial mechanisms in their many guises.  This use of denial may be innocuous and even provide a sense of relief, but most often its invocation causes considerable harm to oneself and others.  Celebrations, sporting events, mild manic states, and some driven accomplishments serve to deny the inevitability of death with little cost involved.  But violating rules, laws, and boundaries (including the ideal or secured ground rules of therapy), harming others without due cause, inappropriate sexual liaisons, engaging in ruthless actions like the accumulation of wealth at the expense of others -- these and countless other types of denial-of-death behaviors are the source of much harm to all concerned.

            Secured frames and a sound set of ground rules create safety and promote mental and physical health on the one hand, but on the other, they evoke exceedingly dreaded, entrapping existential death anxieties.  This is why so many people consciously favor or sanction ruleless and poorly structured forms of therapy and in their personal lives, bend rules and avoid making lasting commitments to others.  Nevertheless, with utmost consistency, the deep unconscious preference is for secured frames and this is reflected in positive encoded messages generated in response to adherence to the ground rules and in messages with a negative cast when ground rules are violated.


Evolutionary Considerations

            The strong adaptive approach also has engaged in extensive explorations of the evolution of the human emotion-processing mind.  This effort indicates that the key event in the development of the two-system emotion-processing mind and in the excessive defensiveness of the conscious system was the acquisition of language about 150,000 to 200,000 years ago.  With language came the clear recognition of oneself as distinct from others, a well articulated self-image, the ability to anticipate the future, and the explicitly recognized, conscious awareness of the inevitability of death for all humans, oneself and loved ones included.  This realization is unique to humans and is of such recent origin, as measured on the evolutionary clock, that we have been able to mobilize but one defense against the existential death anxieties that arose with our use of language -- the previously mentioned use of denial in its many incarnations.


Making Peace

            How then can the strong adaptive paradigm of psychoanalysis bring an end to the Freud wars?  The answer lies in the fact the approach changes the theory and practice of psychoanalysis in ways that eliminate the main criticisms of Freud's edifice.  This new version of psychoanalysis is strongly adaptive and therefore adheres to sound biological principles.  It has generated a science that can be used to explore the nature and validity of psychoanalytic interventions and the theories on which they are based, and through experimental efforts quantitatively identify those that are valid.  The repetitive criticisms of psychoanalysis as a pseudoscience and as lacking a scientific foundation no longer hold.

            The new paradigm also offers a way of organizing and limiting the possible number interpretations of patients' material and proposes an entirely unconscious means of validating all such interventions.  This does away with claims that psychoanalysis is arbitrary and without a sound means of confirming its interventions. 

            The objections to Freud's seemingly arbitrary claim that sexual memories and fantasies are the source of all neuroses are settled by affording this role to reality and death anxiety -- and viewing both sexuality and aggression as, among their many functions, ways of denying these concerns. 

            By offering a clear definition of unconscious processing and communication, and recognizing the two levels of meaning in all narratives, the strong adaptive approach clears up the claims that messages are meaningful only on the surface and that their latent contents are products of Freud's imagination.  Both manifest and encoded (latent) meanings are to be found in all storied communications, and both must be formulated in order to understand human emotional life.  And by providing a new and validated picture of the architecture and evolutionary history of the emotion processing mind, the strong adaptive approach offers models and insights that should evoke little disagreement from either side of the Freud controversy. 

            Lastly and more broadly, the new paradigm offers fresh hope for truly understanding human nature in ways that are less flawed than the supposed insights offered by Freud and his followers.  In so doing, Freud's contributions are not diminished because they served as the root source of the very insights that overthrew many of his doctrines.  In its search for individual and world peace and for ways of eliminating the violence that threatens to destroy our species, the world needs a viable theory of the emotional realm that soundly takes into account both conscious and unconscious processes.  The strong adaptive approach, as a new and generally applicable paradigm of psychoanalysis, effectively can move us toward that desperately needed goal. 


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Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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