Organized Session

Cultures of Observation and Experiment in Psychoanalysis

Organizer

Andreas Mayer

French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS)

Chair

Andreas Mayer

French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS)

Metadata

Session Abstract

Freudian psychoanalysis, since its foundation at the beginning of the 20th century, has laid claim to the mantle of science, provoking sharp and enduring criticism and controversy in a variety of social and therapeutic arenas. Historians have written extensively about psychoanalysis, its rise and fall, its theories and exemplary theoreticians, and its mixed fortunes in the larger cultural surround. Yet the concrete sites, practices, and technologies that are implicated in these fortunes have been, until recently, largely overlooked and thus hidden from historical view. In this panel, we explore some of the configurations in which techniques of observations and experimental set-ups were designed to support or to challenge psychoanalytic practice and theorizing. Andreas Mayer argues that psychoanalytic and psychophysiological dream studies, despite entertaining conflicting ideals of objectivity, were not necessarily opposed approaches; they also gave rise to eclectic experimental cultures dealing with evanescent and recalcitrant objects. Leah Xue focuses on the case of Martin Mayman's psychological experiments on 'autokinesis' in the visual field in the late 1950s, revealing the complex history of the concept of the "ego" that came to dominate psychoanalysis in the US in this period. Elizabeth Lunbeck, finally, turns to the variety of technologies that were developed to assess therapeutic outcomes throughout the twentieth century in order to bring out the challenges they pose in the current therapeutic landscape.

Presenter 1

Sciences and Techniques of the Dreaming Body in the Twentieth Century

Andreas Mayer

French Centre for National Scientific Research (CNRS)

Abstract

Scientists aiming to develop a psychology of dreams based on physiological foundations tend to put the dreaming body at the centre of their experimental setups. They differ significantly from the classical setting of psychoanalysis, which tends to treat the dreamer's actual situation and his bodily state during sleep not as a scientific problem. Although the theoretical conception of the unconscious presented in The Interpretation of Dreams keeps the traces of a neurophysiology from which Freud partly developed it, psychoanalytic practice addresses the dreaming body mostly through symbolic interpretation in order to retrieve the dreamer's infantile history. In marked contrast, the beginning of experimental research on dream phenomena (in the work of the Italian psychiatrist and experimental psychologist Sante de Sanctis or the Norvegian scholar John Mourly Vold) favored direct observation and experimental interventions directed at the dreaming body. Although psychoanalysis and experimental dream studies are commonly understood as separate and even opposed approaches, this paper will argue for a different historical and theoretical perspective that starts from the morphology of dreams as evanescent and recalcitrant objects of knowledge. By adopting such a perspective, it argues that ideals of objectivity and the quest for stabilizing and making sense of a fleeting and incoherent phenomenon like the dream lead to eclectic experimental practices and setups that would also have an impact on literary and artistic representations of subjectivity in the Western world.

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Presenter 2

The Ego in the Psychological Laboratory: Martin Mayman’s Experiments at the Menninger Clinic

Leah Xue

Harvard University

Abstract

This paper examines psychoanalyst Martin Mayman's experiments on 'autokinesis' in the visual field, conducted at the Menninger Clinic from the late 1950s to 1965. Mayman, a noted ego psychologist, attempted to quantify structural qualities of the ego by subjecting individual experimental subjects to a single bright source of light and "capturing" the subjects perception of the light's apparent movement. I look at Mayman's experiment in relation to his more celebrated and well-known work with the Rorschach form-level response, against the background of his unusual access to analytic training in a time when psychologists were excluded from the discipline as well as the general cultural ascendency of ego psychology in his era. I suggest that ego psychology was not only a set of conservative guidelines for the practice of analysis ('analytic technique') or a peculiarly mechanistic reading of Freud. By looking at Mayman in his context, I portray psychoanalysis at the moment before the onset of its two most troubling contemporary crises: first, its continued decline in American culture, enabled by its failure to adjust to the institutionalization of psychoanalysts as 'self-employed', 'neo-liberal' subjects disciplined by arbitrary and political training institutions; and, second, the discipline's troubled claim to science and the contemporary institution of science, the research university. Martin Mayman worked as a clinician and a scientist, a psychoanalyst and a psychiatrist, in an institution, that for a time at least, could lay claim to having had the same campus life (power, knowledge, sources of funding) as the university.

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Presenter 3

Science and Psyche: Assessing Therapeutic Outcomes from Freud to AI

Elizabeth Lunbeck

Harvard University

Abstract

How, and for whom, does psychotherapy work? In what does its efficacy consist? How might its effects best be measured? These questions have shadowed therapists from Freud to the present, producing (and reproducing) a field split between those arguing, on the one hand, that the therapeutic relationship itself is curative and, on the other, that factors specific to different forms of treatment are what matter-roughly, between psychodynamic and behavioral therapies. Researchers have devised large-scale studies and a range of technologies to assess outcomes, with an emerging line of argument asserting that these have unwittingly favored manualized, readily measured, and behaviorally based modalities over the messiness of more dynamically oriented systems. A countervailing trend favors the adoption of online therapies-some involving actual therapists, others powered by AI-as a way to address the demand for affordable and accessible psychotherapy as well as to allow clients to regulate closeness and distance, attachment and separation, the personal and the impersonal. This paper homes in on these and other tensions animating the current therapeutic landscape, arguing that these were points of contention from the time of Freud, that they have taken different forms during the century-long history of therapy since, and that they pose challenges to the still-emerging business of providing low-cost but still profitable treatment to the world.

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Commentator

John Carson

University of Michigan