Dec 07

Neuropsychoanalysis: Casey Schwartz Examines Emerging Field

Psychoanalysis looks at the brain from the inside out: What does it feel like to be this thing? Neuroscience looks at the brain from the outside in, measuring its behavior, investigating its physical mechanisms. Casey Schwartz, In the Mind Fields, introducing concept of neuropsychoanalysis

Casey Schwartz has studied both psychoanalysis and neuroscience, and in her new book In the Mind Fields: Exploring the New Science of Neuropsychoanalysis she investigates how these two fields might intersect effectively. Her publisher:

Schwartz discovered that neuroscience and psychoanalysis are engaged in a conflict almost as old as the disciplines themselves. Many neuroscientists, if they think about psychoanalysis at all, view it as outdated, arbitrary, and subjective, while many psychoanalysts decry neuroscience as lacking the true texture of human experience. With passion and humor, Schwartz explores the surprising efforts to find common ground.

Kirkus Reviews summarizes the author’s approach:

After a bow to Freud and his followers, Schwartz focuses on two men: Mark Solms, both a psychoanalyst and a neurosurgeon, coiner of the term ‘neuropsychoanalysis,’ translator of Freud, and founder of the International Neuropsychoanalysis Society; and David Silvers, not a psychiatrist but a practicing analyst, who has as a patient an aphasic stroke victim—i.e., a man who has lost the ability to speak. Schwartz follows Solms’ working and writing lives and includes some fascinating stories about his experiences and those of others working with brain-damaged men and women. She then connects with Silvers, who has been treating a man seemingly unreachable by psychoanalytic technique, a man whose case seems to offer the possibility of a bridge between psychoanalytic ideas and neuroscientific ones.

One of Schwartz’s main conclusions: “…(H)owever unlikely the idea, however unimaginable the design, neuropsychoanalysis may offer something valuable: a sketch of inner life where creativity isn’t simply explained as patterns of electrical waves, sadness as the number you circle between one and nine, and love confused with the mating habits of prairie voles.”

To read the excerpt from which this quote was taken, see this link at The Atlantic.

Selected Reviews

Andrew Solomon, author of Far from the Tree: “For too long, we’ve had to choose between the mind and the brain, between a psychodynamic vocabulary and a neuroscientific one. In this generous, insightful, witty book, Casey Schwartz looks at the steep cost of that dichotomous construct. Her meticulous reporting and lucid reasoning resolve seemingly intractable dialectics with the sheer grace of common sense.”

Publishers Weekly: “Though clearly knowledgeable, Schwartz is honest about her moments of indecision, further humanizing the narrative—indeed, the book ends with more questions yet to be answered rather than with concrete conclusions. Schwartz demonstrates the value of embracing confusion and the limitations of one’s knowledge while exploring the vast expanses of the mind.”

Scott Stossel, author of My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind: In the Mind Fields is a brilliant and enthralling exploration of a scientific and philosophical conundrum that has preoccupied thinkers from Descartes to Freud to Oliver Sacks: the relationship between brain and mind. Weaving together intellectual history, science reporting, bits of memoir, and a deep reservoir of humane sympathy, Casey Schwartz brings readers along with her on a bracing quest to bridge psychoanalysis and neuroscience. A work of remarkable brio, wisdom, and wit, with gems of insight shimmering on nearly every page.”

Sep 10

“The Organized Mind”: Daniel Levitin Tells You How to Get One

While our brains evolved to take on the daunting challenges of life in the Stone Age, they now have many redundant, maladaptive, and not quite finished features that clash with the huge demands placed on our attention by the modern world. Publishers Weekly, about The Organized Mind

For once and for all here’s one thing we should get into our disorganized minds: the notion of multitasking is a myth. So states, in so many words, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin in The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

What we think of as multitasking, Levitin says, is actually better viewed as “sequential tasking.” As Michael Andor Brodeur, Boston Globe, explains on his behalf, “you’re less doing a hundred things at once than breaking your cognitive potential into a hundred pieces, and wasting valuable oxygenated glucose in the process.”

Another point made by the author of The Organized Mind is that at any given time we have the capacity to be either focused or daydreaming—just one of these. “This two-part attentional system is one of the crowning achievements of the human brain…”

Yet, interestingly, it’s probably not the focused part that first absorbed this scientific fact but that other part, the mind-wandering one.

This brain state, marked by the flow of connections among disparate ideas and thoughts, is responsible for our moments of greatest creativity and insight, when we’re able to solve problems that previously seemed unsolvable. You might be going for a walk or grocery shopping or doing something that doesn’t require sustained attention and suddenly — boom — the answer to a problem that had been vexing you suddenly appears. This is the mind-wandering mode, making connections among things that we didn’t previously see as connected.

What other interesting things does Levitin say in his new book? Take a real vacation. Not the kind where you go somewhere and continue to plug into all sorts of info sources at all hours of the day. The unplugging kind.

Why is this necessary? In a nutshell, “…The processing capacity of the conscious mind is limited,” he wrote recently in The New York Times. We need to regularly “hit the reset button” in our brains. Not just on vacations, actually, but continuously. Take regular mental staycations, in other words.

Lucy Feldman, Wall Street Journal, breaks down Levitin’s advice into a handy list of 10 items:

1. Take breaks. 15 minutes every hour or so!

2. Set up different computer monitors for different activities. (Something about making effective use of spatial memory.)

3. Embrace a (modified) paper to-do list. A key part of this is that “(y)our eyes have to pass ones in the beginning to get to the ones in the middle,” says Levitin.

4. File correspondence in multiple ways. “If your inbox sometimes feels like the Times Square of the Internet, it can help to file each thread of correspondence in more than one category,” Feldman reports.

5. Purge, when needed. An example from Feldman: “Some people declare ’email bankruptcy,’ delete everything and write to all their contacts asking to please try again if whatever they sent is still important.”

6. Designate time for short tasks and longer projects. Feldman: “Some tasks take weeks, and some only a few minutes, and you shouldn’t switch back and forth between them all day long.”

7. Don’t spend more time on a decision than it’s worth. (I couldn’t decide whether to quote someone or explain this one further or what—and then decided on neither. It didn’t take long.)

8. Sleep, and nap on the job. Levitin: “If you don’t get a good night’s sleep, the events of the day are not properly encoded in memory.”

9. Don’t over-organize. Feldman quotes Levitin: “The obvious rule of efficiency is you don’t want to spend more time organizing than it’s worth. If you’re finding things quickly enough as it is, then don’t go to all the trouble.”

10. Leave work at work. Simply put, work is for work; leisure time is for leisure.

Jul 26

Interpersonal Neurobiology Humor–“I’m Triggered: Neuroscience”

The video posted below basically poses the question, What if the budding field of interpersonal neurobiology becomes so popular and prescribed that we all start to communicate with each other accordingly?

Thankfully, it’s a question unlikely ever to be taken seriously, at least not in my lifetime.

Donna and Leslie are roommates who trigger each other. Now they have neuroscience terms to help them communicate and resolve their issues. They also have a facebook fan page to boost their self esteem: (from Funny or Die website)

As “special thanks” is given in the closing credits to Dr. Dan Siegel, the jargon explanations should come from him—his material, that is. A psychiatrist and educator, Siegel’s 1999 The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are is fundamental to the field of interpersonal neurobiology. An updated second edition came out last year. (He’s also written much more of relevance.)

Implicit memory is the first layering of memory, explicit the second. What does this mean? Well, you can either read something heady by Siegel, such as an article titled “An Interpersonal Neurobiology Approach to Psychotherapy: Awareness, Mirror Neurons, and Neural Plasticity in the Development of Well-Being” or, thanks to Kendra Cherry (, you can have it whittled down to this: “Information that you have to consciously work to remember is known as explicit memory, while information that you remember unconsciously and effortlessly is known as implicit memory.”

Fight flight or freeze. As described at (link no longer active): “THE FIGHT OR FLIGHT RESPONSE has got a new name. It’s now called the fight, flight or freeze response. Stress experts around the world are adding the word freeze to the name in deference to the fact that instead of fighting or fleeing, sometimes we tend to freeze (like a deer in the headlights) in traumatic situations.”

Accessing my prefrontal cortex. In Siegel’s article (see above) he explains (in more detail than I’m going to) that parts of the middle prefrontal cortex of the brain “are crucial for generating nine aspects of life”:

  1. Body regulation
  2. Attuned communication
  3. Emotional balance
  4. Response flexibility
  5. Empathy
  6. Insight
  7. Fear extinction
  8. Intuition
  9. Morality

Automaticity is in MacMillan as “the ability to perform tasks automatically.”

Hub. Siegel’s Wheel of Awareness is a metaphor using a bicycle wheel, in which the hub represents mindful awareness—comprised of openness, clarity, curiosity, and calm.

Open plane of possibility is explained by Michael Perkola:

Energy is described (in scientific terms) as degrees of probability. If matter is energy, then the whole universe is really the manifestation of possibilities. Siegel uses a model called ‘The Plane of Possibility.’ From the open plane of possibility, something moves from >0% probability to 100%  probability or a peak of manifestation. From there, a precedent has been set and a plane of probability has been established. For example, if someone first brings up politics at a dinner party, there is a high level of probability that further topics will be connected to politics.

Developing new linkages in the brain. From Siegel’s website:

Integration is at the heart of both interpersonal neurobiology and Dr. Siegel’s mindsight approach. Defined as the linkage of differentiated components of a system, integration is viewed as the core mechanism in the cultivation of well-being. In an individual’s mind, integration involves the linkage of separate aspects of mental processes to each other, such as thought with feeling, bodily sensation with logic. In a relationship, integration entails each person’s being respected for his or her autonomy and differentiated self while at the same time being linked to others in empathic communication.

Integration. Again, Siegel’s site gives us the needed info:

For the brain, integration means that separated areas with their unique functions, in the skull and throughout the body, become linked to each other through synaptic connections. These integrated linkages enable more intricate functions to emerge—such as insight, empathy, intuition, and morality. A result of integration is kindness, resilience, and health. Terms for these three forms of integration are a coherent mind, empathic relationships, and an integrated brain.

River of balanced consciousness. Excerpted from the Siegel video below: “These two banks, if you will, outside of a river, of rigidity on the one hand, and chaos on the other, help us know when something is missing. And that something is called integration. And when we’re integrated, when we link different parts of our internal world and our relationships, we’re in the flow of a river that has the sense of harmony, it’s flexible, it’s adaptive, it has a coherence to it that holds together, and that’s energized and stable.”

Well, that definitely does it for me. “Achieve a cold state?” “Be in a faceless flow with you?” For those and more, you’re now on your own—something about my synapses stopping doing that thing they’re supposed to do.

Dec 15

Understanding the Brain: It’s Harder For Some of Us

I’ve been wanting to write about the brain for a while—but my brain keeps getting in the way. I mean, it’s The Brain. Understanding the brain is hard. And what can you say about it that people with better brains haven’t already said?

The thing is, it’s important as a therapist to understand how the brain works and how it affects mental health issues and treatment. More and more professional workshops have been offered recently on this very topic. I’ve been attending some of them.

The two most recent:

  • Brain-Based Therapy: Evidence-Based Mental Health Treatment from Neuroscience and Attachment Theory (John Arden, Ph.D.)
  • How the Brain Forms New Habits: Why Willpower Isn’t Enough (Bill M. Kelley, Ph.D.)

Even workshops I’ve attended that haven’t specifically been about understanding the brain—for example, on the topics of ADHD, PTSD, Severe Psychiatric Disorders, etc.—have involved significant lessons regarding the brain’s involvement in these conditions.

All good, interesting topics. Then, why oh why, when focusing so much of my therapist-like attention on these informative speakers, is something like this John Cleese lecture the only thing I tend to hear?

In all fairness, Dr. Kelley, the presenter of one of the aforementioned workshops on understanding the brain, told us right off the bat—before starting in on the parts of the brain and what they do—that we didn’t really have to get it. Or even try to get it. Get what all the parts are, that is, and what they’re responsible for. I appreciated that he got that we don’t tend to get it. Something about the way his brain works.

He wanted us to learn other things about brain functioning, like “why willpower isn’t enough to form new habits.” And I did learn some stuff. Like the answer, by the way, to that specific question, which was…

Well, I’m pretty sure it had something to do with neurotransmitters, and the basal ganglia, and the frontal lobes, and…you know—stuff like that. Because I learned about those things. And there were a lot of those things.

And one other of those things that I think I definitely now know for sure—I didn’t really get it.