Wednesday, 28 February 2007

A hot potato?

A theme is beginning to emerge. Whenever I mention the topic of my essay to people, they frequently respond, "Ooooh no, I don't like Freud." When I ask for reasons, they range from, "his theory is way too far-fetched," to, "He was completely unscientific." On one memorable occasion, a psychology lecturer of my acquaintance decried Freud in terms usually reserved for the more ethically questionable kind of tele-evangelist.

The content of the usual criticism often seems superficially reasonable to me. Much of Freud does sound pretty wacky. And yes, the source from which he derived his theory was small and particular and decidedly abnormal. And there are definitely limitations to his work. But surely these things are the norm rather than the exception for scientific theory? For example, physics offers us wave-particle duality, which I find mind-bogglingly peculiar. How can something be both a wave and a particle? Gerraway. Fact is, only mathematics (a language completely alien to many of us) can give a full account of this phenomenon.

Travelling further down the route of wacky-sounding stuff, Prof Vilyanur Ramachandran is a cognitive neuroscientist whose work has revealed some bizarre and icky phenomena. For example, a patient suffering significant physical disability as a result of (I think) a stroke not only appeared to be unaware of their own disability, but also of their neighbour's impairment! Plus, Prof Ramachandran aims to study those with abnormal cognitive functioning (a necessarily and mercifully small sample, often a single individual) in order to build an understanding of normal cognition. Does this aim sound familiar? It should by now - Freud expressed a similar sentiment.

By the way, Click here if you would like to hear the man himself give the 2003 Reith lectures on the theme The Emerging Mind - you'll need to suspend your disbelief to get the full benefit.

On the topic of limitations, another example from science pops into my head. When I did O level physics - back when they still had O levels and national insurance numbers printed on bits of cardboard - we learned about Rutherford's model of atomic structure. The following year, in A level chemistry, we were informed that this model was already very out of date. Although it had significant limitations, its merits were such that it still helped us advance our understanding concerning the mysteries of the physical world.

When we criticise Freud, I notice a certain tone which also characterises discussions of highly emotive topics like intelligent design and evolutionary psychology. It's also present during discussions of touchy topics such as sexual perversion (a few years ago I saw a play on the subject of bestiality, and this tone was present during the conversations in the theatre bar afterwards). Surely its our responsibility to use the tools at our disposal to test scientific theory to destruction? Yet from certain quarters, and on the subject of Freud, I sense a certain whiff of, "Pshaw, let's not bother." Why? Why, darnit?

I think that Freud makes us queasy. I wonder why this should be, exactly? Am I wrong? I'd really love to know what everone else thinks.

10 comments:

David said...

Ramachandran has a very interesting popular book, called Phantoms in the Brain. He talks about the phenomenon you refer to, as well as other unusual stuff.

A stroke in the right hemisphere of the brain can lead to paralysis of the left side of the body. However, some of these patients deny their paralysis. Others - when asked to perform a task such as clapping hands - claim that they ARE clapping their hands, or alternatively might say that they are bored with taking part in the researcher's studies so can't be bothered to clap hands. This and other research indicates that the left hemisphere is responsible for interpreting and maintaining a constant "model" of the world. The right hemisphere appears more attuned to anomalies. Ramachandran compares his patients denials and confabulations to Freud's ideas.

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