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Burying Freud

[ Burying Freud Homepage | Freud's Seduction Theory Homepage ]

I am hoping to publish this short paper in the New York Review of Books. I would appreciate any messages, public or private, contributing arguments or evidence.

Grünbaum Versus Crews

Frederick Crews has drawn attention to the dangers in our legal system of relying on evidence based on recovered "repressed" memories, especially when these emerge in the process of psychotherapy. No reliable method has yet been devised for distinguishing false memories from those that are veridical when the memories have been forgotten for a substantial period of time. Both may be equally vivid and persuasive to the person who experiences them. The very existence of repression is still highly controversial among psychologists.

However, this valuable contribution is only part of a broader campaign to discredit all of psychoanalysis. Crews denies that his attack is motivated by personal hostility toward Freud. He simply has no respect for Freud. Confusion results from confounding disputes over Freud's personal integrity and stature as a scientist with the value of psychoanalysis as it exists today. The scientific importance of psychoanalysis does not depend on whether Freud was a scientific genius or a charlatan.

In an exchange of Letters to the Editor in The New York Review of Books, Crews has responded to many of his detractors. But I don't believe he has answered the best arguments against his position. One of these is stated by Adolf Grünbaum, whose work has been championed by Crews. Crews's view of psychoanalysis is expressed by the Editor of Behavioral and Brain Sciences (1986) in an issue devoted to an exchange between Grünbaum and his critics:

There is still a point of inductive strategy in the face of Grünbaum's critique that no commentator appears to have raised. Even if one grants that, in principle, some of Freud's claims can be reformulated in such a way as to be testable ("extraclinically," let us say), is there still not a question as to whether or not it would be worthwhile to do so? As a scientific and therapeutic project, psychoanalysis has had enormous attention and influence for well over a century now, despite the fact that its scientific and therapeutic validity remain, if not entirely untestable, then largely untested. By way of analogy, one might ask whether we ought to assign a high priority to testing for possible "serendipitous" truths in some still more venerable theories, such as astrology or creationism, even if they can tortured into testability, rather than allowing our research to continue to be guided by more plausible rivals (p. 266).

Grünbaum replies:

The Editor's question about inductive strategy goes well beyond the confines of the current status of psychoanalytic theory: Just what is the connection between the evidential appraisal of a theory and heuristic advice concerning its investigative pursuit? Lakatos (1971), Quinn (1972), Giere (1975), and Laudan (1977) have argued that the construction of a suitable decision theory is much more complicated than the editorial commentary seems to allow. Indeed, as Popper (1962, p. 33) has emphasized: "Science often errs and . . . pseudoscience may happen to stumble on the truth."

. . . . Though I myself would not hazard a bet as to the value of the long-term explanatory residue from the Freudian legacy, I reject the Editor's comparison with the primitive fundamentalist doctrine of creationism, if only because I find some empirical plausibility in the psychoanalytic theory of defense mechanisms, e.g., denial, and rationalization, reaction-formation, projection, and identification (Fancher 1973, pp. 217-23).

Instead of presuming to offer heuristic advice on the basis of my evidential appraisal, I am content to leave the betting to those inside and outside the psychoanalytic community who forego immunizing strategies as regular tools of their trade, but whose expected utilities make them willing to run the pertinent risks (p. 281).

A frequent response of Crews to his detractors is that they misrepresent his position. It seems to me there is no doubt that Crews regards psychoanalysis as totally worthless. By contrast, Grünbaum is very explicit in denying this and insisting on the heuristic value of psychoanalysis. Both maintain there is no evidence for psychoanalytic theory that meets standard scientific criteria. Two highly respected psychoanalysts, Robert Wallerstein (1986) and and Marshall Edelson (1984, 1989), also agree on this point. They argue for the future testability of psychoanalysis in the clinical situation. My purpose here is to challenge Crews's uncompromising dismissal of psychoanalysis.

The logical difficulties of Crews's position are revealed in his response to Mathew Erdelyi (NYRB 3/23/95). He accuses Erdelyi of misrepresenting him and says, "What I actually wrote was that repression may conceivably occur but that it remains undemonstrated by controlled studies--a point that Erdelyi himself has often conceded. My full position, ignored by Erdelyi, is that the idea of repression is too speculative in the hands of impressionable patients, therapists, and juries."

I believe Crews is correct in pointing to the dangers of an uncritical acceptance of memories recovered in therapy, but it is a serious error to confound this with the issue of the heuristic value of the theory of repression. As in most of his replies to critics, Crews muddles the issue of the value of psychoanalysis with comments on Freud's character and behavior as a scientist.

Crews never addresses the logical criteria that should rationally influence scientists in their choice of what theories are worthy of empirical investigation. Although Grünbaum cites Popper's claim that "pseudoscience may happen to stumble on the truth," there is no justification for dubbing psychoanalysis a "pseudoscience." Both Crews and Grünbaum make what seem to me warranted criticisms of the scientific behavior of Freud and some psychoanalysts. But psychoanalysis can also be defined as a set of questions which Freud and subsequent analysts have attempted to answer. These questions remain even if all of Freud's beliefs prove false.

Is there a rational justification for abandoning Freud's theory of repression as unworthy of further empirical investigation? An obvious consideration is the availability of other more persuasive hypotheses accounting for the same phenomena. However, Crews appears to believe that the difficulty of testing psychoanalytic theory is in itself a decisive argument in favor of discarding it. Perhaps the major argument presented by Crews for the worthlessness of psychoanalysis is the failure to come up with solid supporting evidence after more than 100 years of existence. He ignores the fact that powerful evidence for the existence of atoms was not discovered for 2000 years after the initial hypothesis was created. It is not the number of years required to confirm or disconfirm a theory that counts but rather the availability of alternatives and consideration of the difficulty of testing a plausible theory. Lack of evidence for a theory that is easily tested counts more for its dismissal than is the case for a theory that is very difficult to test. Plausibility of a theory is judged on the basis of background beliefs. It is obvious that persons often make conscious efforts to avoid stimuli provoking dysphoric affect. This observable fact lends plausibility to the hypothesis that unconscious mechanisms might operate for the same purpose.

According to psychoanalytic theory, repression is not exclusively directed at memories for events. It also prevents certain unacceptable wishes from reaching consciousness and may divert a train of thought that threatens to generate painful affect. But let us focus on the repression of memory for an event. If repression were an invariable response to painful memories, the hypothesis would be much easier to test. However, it is clear that intense emotional experiences, both painful and pleasurable, are more likely to be remembered than emotionally neutral experiences. Most investigators believe that individuals vary in their propensity to use repression. It is more likely to occur in response to unusually traumatic experiences. Although it is not a plausible explanation for normal childhood amnesia, most claims for repressed memory involve traumatic childhood experiences.

A therapist told me of a patient who mentioned the name of a former neighbor in the presence of his sister. With some embarrassment, he suddenly remembered that this neighbor as a boy had raped his sister when she was 6 years old and he was 8. But it became apparent she had no memory of the event. Why does this anecdote lend plausibility to the repression hypothesis? We would expect a 6-year old girl to remember such a major event in her life. What we intuitively think of as "normal forgetting" would not explain her amnesia. But there are many pitfalls in relying upon this kind of anecdotal evidence. To establish the phenomenon of repressed memory, it is necessary to verify both the occurrence of the forgotten event as well as showing that repression was the cause of the forgetting. However, the difficulty of testing a hypothesis does not make it less plausible.

In Jerome Singer's edited book, Repression and Dissociation (1990) Erdelyi proposes the hypothesis that repression may start out as a conscious act that with repetition becomes automatic and, hence, unconscious. According to Crews, Erdelyi "salvages repression by radically trivializing its function in Freud's psychodynamic system." Most contributors to Singer's book regard repression as an unconscious mechanism, and it is clear in the conclusion that most of them believe that the repression hypothesis merits further investigation. The definition of repression is ambiguous and may refer to several different mechanisms. Crews presents no argument to show that such a concept of repression must necessarily be psychodynamically trivial.

In a footnote Crews says that the notion of unconscious repression is incoherent on the following grounds: "Since the subject subsequently fails to perceive that he is repressing, he must also have repressed the memory of his decision to repress. So, too, this latter conscious choice must have undergone repression, and so on ad infinitum, with increasingly implausible homunculi effacing their predecessors' work within the psyche" (5/23/95, p. 66). Crews's conclusion only follows on the assumption that the unconscious status of the decision to repress is explained by repression. Using the same infinite regress argument, I (1987) have argued that the "decision" to repress is unconscious in the nonFreudian sense explained by Daniel Dennett and others in Jonathan Miller's book, States of Mind (1983). This nonFreudian concept of the unconscious, often attributed to Karl Lashley, is widely accepted by cognitive psychologists.

Crews refers to "implausible homunculi" implied by the notion of an unconscious "decision" to repress, but any process of causal interaction can be metaphorically described as a "decision." A thermostat "decides" to turn on the furnace when the temperature falls below a certain threshold. In numerous publications, Dennett has argued for the heuristic value of homunculi in psychological theories which must ultimately be eliminated when the theory is complete. Consequently, there is no decisive objection to the concept of an unconscious decision to activate repression against a given mental content because of its potential to generate painful emotion.

The psychodynamic significance of repression is more likely to manifest itself in the phenomenon of self deception that is acknowledged by many to exist despite the absence of controlled scientific evidence. Freud attributed the pathogenicity of repression to its preventing the adequate satisfaction of instinctual drives which are forced to seek disguised partial gratification in the form of neurotic symptoms. Perhaps he was mistaken. Repression may play a pathogenic role in other ways such as preventing a full awareness of the ways we interact with significant others. Maladaptive repetitive interpersonal patterns of behavior as described by Mardi Horowitz (1988) may be altered in long-term intensive psychotherapy.

Of course, claims for the benefits of psychotherapy compared to other treatment modalities require empirical evidence. My objection is to Crews's dismissive attitude that does not consider the difficulties faced by such research. Improved interpersonal relationships that few would doubt are crucial for individual happiness are not easy to measure quantitatively. Adequate control groups are not easy to find. False negatives can arise from various combinations of inadequate therapists performing the wrong kind of therapy on the wrong patients. I realize that this line of reasoning can be used to immunize claims for psychotherapy benefits against almost any research, but the difficulties are genuine and should be taken into account.

Scientific evidence is always interpreted against a background of other beliefs which vary in their empirical support. There is evidence for emotional learning which suggests that benefit might be derived from a therapeutic process involving emotional relearning or unlearning. It is a matter of common sense that bad habits which are under voluntary control can be altered by a conscious effort. Consequently, it is plausible to hypothesize that an awareness of maladaptive ways of dealing with interpersonal relationships can be altered by psychotherapy.

Eric Gillett, M.D.

 


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

US -
 Search:
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 Search:
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 | Human Nature | The Human Nature Daily Review | Psychiatry Research Online |

Burying Freud

[ Burying Freud Homepage | Freud's Seduction Theory Homepage ]

I am hoping to publish this short paper in the New York Review of Books. I would appreciate any messages, public or private, contributing arguments or evidence.

Grünbaum Versus Crews

Frederick Crews has drawn attention to the dangers in our legal system of relying on evidence based on recovered "repressed" memories, especially when these emerge in the process of psychotherapy. No reliable method has yet been devised for distinguishing false memories from those that are veridical when the memories have been forgotten for a substantial period of time. Both may be equally vivid and persuasive to the person who experiences them. The very existence of repression is still highly controversial among psychologists.

However, this valuable contribution is only part of a broader campaign to discredit all of psychoanalysis. Crews denies that his attack is motivated by personal hostility toward Freud. He simply has no respect for Freud. Confusion results from confounding disputes over Freud's personal integrity and stature as a scientist with the value of psychoanalysis as it exists today. The scientific importance of psychoanalysis does not depend on whether Freud was a scientific genius or a charlatan.

In an exchange of Letters to the Editor in The New York Review of Books, Crews has responded to many of his detractors. But I don't believe he has answered the best arguments against his position. One of these is stated by Adolf Grünbaum, whose work has been championed by Crews. Crews's view of psychoanalysis is expressed by the Editor of Behavioral and Brain Sciences (1986) in an issue devoted to an exchange between Grünbaum and his critics:

There is still a point of inductive strategy in the face of Grünbaum's critique that no commentator appears to have raised. Even if one grants that, in principle, some of Freud's claims can be reformulated in such a way as to be testable ("extraclinically," let us say), is there still not a question as to whether or not it would be worthwhile to do so? As a scientific and therapeutic project, psychoanalysis has had enormous attention and influence for well over a century now, despite the fact that its scientific and therapeutic validity remain, if not entirely untestable, then largely untested. By way of analogy, one might ask whether we ought to assign a high priority to testing for possible "serendipitous" truths in some still more venerable theories, such as astrology or creationism, even if they can tortured into testability, rather than allowing our research to continue to be guided by more plausible rivals (p. 266).

Grünbaum replies:

The Editor's question about inductive strategy goes well beyond the confines of the current status of psychoanalytic theory: Just what is the connection between the evidential appraisal of a theory and heuristic advice concerning its investigative pursuit? Lakatos (1971), Quinn (1972), Giere (1975), and Laudan (1977) have argued that the construction of a suitable decision theory is much more complicated than the editorial commentary seems to allow. Indeed, as Popper (1962, p. 33) has emphasized: "Science often errs and . . . pseudoscience may happen to stumble on the truth."

. . . . Though I myself would not hazard a bet as to the value of the long-term explanatory residue from the Freudian legacy, I reject the Editor's comparison with the primitive fundamentalist doctrine of creationism, if only because I find some empirical plausibility in the psychoanalytic theory of defense mechanisms, e.g., denial, and rationalization, reaction-formation, projection, and identification (Fancher 1973, pp. 217-23).

Instead of presuming to offer heuristic advice on the basis of my evidential appraisal, I am content to leave the betting to those inside and outside the psychoanalytic community who forego immunizing strategies as regular tools of their trade, but whose expected utilities make them willing to run the pertinent risks (p. 281).

A frequent response of Crews to his detractors is that they misrepresent his position. It seems to me there is no doubt that Crews regards psychoanalysis as totally worthless. By contrast, Grünbaum is very explicit in denying this and insisting on the heuristic value of psychoanalysis. Both maintain there is no evidence for psychoanalytic theory that meets standard scientific criteria. Two highly respected psychoanalysts, Robert Wallerstein (1986) and and Marshall Edelson (1984, 1989), also agree on this point. They argue for the future testability of psychoanalysis in the clinical situation. My purpose here is to challenge Crews's uncompromising dismissal of psychoanalysis.

The logical difficulties of Crews's position are revealed in his response to Mathew Erdelyi (NYRB 3/23/95). He accuses Erdelyi of misrepresenting him and says, "What I actually wrote was that repression may conceivably occur but that it remains undemonstrated by controlled studies--a point that Erdelyi himself has often conceded. My full position, ignored by Erdelyi, is that the idea of repression is too speculative in the hands of impressionable patients, therapists, and juries."

I believe Crews is correct in pointing to the dangers of an uncritical acceptance of memories recovered in therapy, but it is a serious error to confound this with the issue of the heuristic value of the theory of repression. As in most of his replies to critics, Crews muddles the issue of the value of psychoanalysis with comments on Freud's character and behavior as a scientist.

Crews never addresses the logical criteria that should rationally influence scientists in their choice of what theories are worthy of empirical investigation. Although Grünbaum cites Popper's claim that "pseudoscience may happen to stumble on the truth," there is no justification for dubbing psychoanalysis a "pseudoscience." Both Crews and Grünbaum make what seem to me warranted criticisms of the scientific behavior of Freud and some psychoanalysts. But psychoanalysis can also be defined as a set of questions which Freud and subsequent analysts have attempted to answer. These questions remain even if all of Freud's beliefs prove false.

Is there a rational justification for abandoning Freud's theory of repression as unworthy of further empirical investigation? An obvious consideration is the availability of other more persuasive hypotheses accounting for the same phenomena. However, Crews appears to believe that the difficulty of testing psychoanalytic theory is in itself a decisive argument in favor of discarding it. Perhaps the major argument presented by Crews for the worthlessness of psychoanalysis is the failure to come up with solid supporting evidence after more than 100 years of existence. He ignores the fact that powerful evidence for the existence of atoms was not discovered for 2000 years after the initial hypothesis was created. It is not the number of years required to confirm or disconfirm a theory that counts but rather the availability of alternatives and consideration of the difficulty of testing a plausible theory. Lack of evidence for a theory that is easily tested counts more for its dismissal than is the case for a theory that is very difficult to test. Plausibility of a theory is judged on the basis of background beliefs. It is obvious that persons often make conscious efforts to avoid stimuli provoking dysphoric affect. This observable fact lends plausibility to the hypothesis that unconscious mechanisms might operate for the same purpose.

According to psychoanalytic theory, repression is not exclusively directed at memories for events. It also prevents certain unacceptable wishes from reaching consciousness and may divert a train of thought that threatens to generate painful affect. But let us focus on the repression of memory for an event. If repression were an invariable response to painful memories, the hypothesis would be much easier to test. However, it is clear that intense emotional experiences, both painful and pleasurable, are more likely to be remembered than emotionally neutral experiences. Most investigators believe that individuals vary in their propensity to use repression. It is more likely to occur in response to unusually traumatic experiences. Although it is not a plausible explanation for normal childhood amnesia, most claims for repressed memory involve traumatic childhood experiences.

A therapist told me of a patient who mentioned the name of a former neighbor in the presence of his sister. With some embarrassment, he suddenly remembered that this neighbor as a boy had raped his sister when she was 6 years old and he was 8. But it became apparent she had no memory of the event. Why does this anecdote lend plausibility to the repression hypothesis? We would expect a 6-year old girl to remember such a major event in her life. What we intuitively think of as "normal forgetting" would not explain her amnesia. But there are many pitfalls in relying upon this kind of anecdotal evidence. To establish the phenomenon of repressed memory, it is necessary to verify both the occurrence of the forgotten event as well as showing that repression was the cause of the forgetting. However, the difficulty of testing a hypothesis does not make it less plausible.

In Jerome Singer's edited book, Repression and Dissociation (1990) Erdelyi proposes the hypothesis that repression may start out as a conscious act that with repetition becomes automatic and, hence, unconscious. According to Crews, Erdelyi "salvages repression by radically trivializing its function in Freud's psychodynamic system." Most contributors to Singer's book regard repression as an unconscious mechanism, and it is clear in the conclusion that most of them believe that the repression hypothesis merits further investigation. The definition of repression is ambiguous and may refer to several different mechanisms. Crews presents no argument to show that such a concept of repression must necessarily be psychodynamically trivial.

In a footnote Crews says that the notion of unconscious repression is incoherent on the following grounds: "Since the subject subsequently fails to perceive that he is repressing, he must also have repressed the memory of his decision to repress. So, too, this latter conscious choice must have undergone repression, and so on ad infinitum, with increasingly implausible homunculi effacing their predecessors' work within the psyche" (5/23/95, p. 66). Crews's conclusion only follows on the assumption that the unconscious status of the decision to repress is explained by repression. Using the same infinite regress argument, I (1987) have argued that the "decision" to repress is unconscious in the nonFreudian sense explained by Daniel Dennett and others in Jonathan Miller's book, States of Mind (1983). This nonFreudian concept of the unconscious, often attributed to Karl Lashley, is widely accepted by cognitive psychologists.

Crews refers to "implausible homunculi" implied by the notion of an unconscious "decision" to repress, but any process of causal interaction can be metaphorically described as a "decision." A thermostat "decides" to turn on the furnace when the temperature falls below a certain threshold. In numerous publications, Dennett has argued for the heuristic value of homunculi in psychological theories which must ultimately be eliminated when the theory is complete. Consequently, there is no decisive objection to the concept of an unconscious decision to activate repression against a given mental content because of its potential to generate painful emotion.

The psychodynamic significance of repression is more likely to manifest itself in the phenomenon of self deception that is acknowledged by many to exist despite the absence of controlled scientific evidence. Freud attributed the pathogenicity of repression to its preventing the adequate satisfaction of instinctual drives which are forced to seek disguised partial gratification in the form of neurotic symptoms. Perhaps he was mistaken. Repression may play a pathogenic role in other ways such as preventing a full awareness of the ways we interact with significant others. Maladaptive repetitive interpersonal patterns of behavior as described by Mardi Horowitz (1988) may be altered in long-term intensive psychotherapy.

Of course, claims for the benefits of psychotherapy compared to other treatment modalities require empirical evidence. My objection is to Crews's dismissive attitude that does not consider the difficulties faced by such research. Improved interpersonal relationships that few would doubt are crucial for individual happiness are not easy to measure quantitatively. Adequate control groups are not easy to find. False negatives can arise from various combinations of inadequate therapists performing the wrong kind of therapy on the wrong patients. I realize that this line of reasoning can be used to immunize claims for psychotherapy benefits against almost any research, but the difficulties are genuine and should be taken into account.

Scientific evidence is always interpreted against a background of other beliefs which vary in their empirical support. There is evidence for emotional learning which suggests that benefit might be derived from a therapeutic process involving emotional relearning or unlearning. It is a matter of common sense that bad habits which are under voluntary control can be altered by a conscious effort. Consequently, it is plausible to hypothesize that an awareness of maladaptive ways of dealing with interpersonal relationships can be altered by psychotherapy.

Eric Gillett, M.D.

 


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

US -
 Search:
Keywords:  

Amazon.com logo

UK -
 Search:
Keywords:  

Amazon.co.uk logo

 | Human Nature | The Human Nature Daily Review | Psychiatry Research Online |