Friday, March 12, 2010

Friston is Freudian

Professor Karl Friston is one of the most prominent (and prolific) researchers in the field of neuroimaging. His contributions to methodological development in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) are immense:
He invented statistical parametric mapping; SPM is an international standard for analysing imaging data and rests on the general linear model and random field theory (developed with Keith Worsley). In 1994, his group developed voxel-based morphometry. VBM detects differences in neuroanatomy and is used clinically and as a surrogate in genetic studies... In 2003, he invented dynamic causal modelling (DCM), which is used to infer the architecture of distributed systems like the brain. Mathematical contributions include variational filtering and dynamic expectation maximization (DEM) for Bayesian model inversion and time-series analysis.
Dr Robin Carhart-Harris and Professor Friston have a new article in the Occasional Papers section of the journal Brain that might raise a few eyebrows. Its title? The default-mode, ego-functions and free-energy: a neurobiological account of Freudian ideas. What might cause the raising of eyebrows? Well, Freudian ideas have been largely rejected by mainstream neuroscience, although there have been some notable exceptions (Turnbull & Solms, 2007):
Psychoanalysis has had a turbulent and complex relationship with neuropsychology for the century in which the two fields have existed – largely side by side. Some within the neuroscientific community have found much of value in Freudian ideas – Paul Schilder springs to mind as an early example, with Eric Kandel as the most prominent recent advocate (Kandel, 1999). However, for most neuropsychologists, indeed for most scientists, the obvious response to the mention of psychoanalysis has been one of blanket rejection.
The renowned sleep and dreaming expert J. Allan Hobson (2007) has been a particularly harsh critic:
With respect to dreams, Sigmund Freud was not only not right. He was dead wrong. And so are Turnbull and Solms (2007) in their desperate effort to save Freudian psychoanalysis from the junk heap of speculative philosophy. Neuroscientists, psychologists, and psychiatrists beware: you are being led down the garden path by this pair of misguided neo-Freudians.
It is with this stormy background in mind that one should embark on reading the Brain paper. Mercifully, for those lacking the mathematical background to understand even the most rudimentary quantitative formulation of Friston's free-energy principle (2009, 2006), the paper is free of equations. No matter what you think of the final result, it's an intellectual tour de force with 493 quotes from Freud in 70 pages of Supplementary Data. Essentially, the approach is to take a collection of cutting-edge and trendy ideas in neuroscience and map them onto Freud's id and ego. For your convenience, here is a list of the main neuroscientific concepts:
  • Bayesian Brain
  • Default Mode Network
  • Free Energy
  • Gamma Oscillations
  • Prediction
  • Prediction Error
  • Theta Oscillations
  • Top-Down Control
You might be saddened by the lack of mirror neurons, social cognition, and empathy in the current conceptualization. But it should be all about sex, right? Well, actually, Carhart-Harris and Friston are much more chaste in their mapping of Freudian ideas onto neurobiology and default mode function. The words sex, sexual, sexuality (and any variants) appear zero times in the Brain article, but 18 times in the collection of Freud quotes. The word libido was mentioned 112 times in the Freud quotes but only 4 times by the present authors [excluding reproduction of Freud quotes in the main text].

For "accessibility" cathexis was interpreted in a generic (not specifically sexual) sense to mean activation or energy. But according to Freud, mental energy is the id, the psychic energy that powers the mind:
Freud defined Libido as the instinct energy or force. Freud later added the Death drive (also contained in the id) as a second source of mental energy.
Next time we'll take a closer look at this ambitious synthesis of psychoanalysis and neuroimaging.

Arrangement for psychotherapy fMRI studies using the couch of Sigmund Freud. See Psychodynamic Psychotherapy in the Scanner?


Carhart-Harris, R., & Friston, K. (2010). The default-mode, ego-functions and free-energy: a neurobiological account of Freudian ideas Brain DOI: 10.1093/brain/awq010

Friston K. (2009) The free-energy principle: a rough guide to the brain? Trends Cog Sci. 13:293-301. [PDF]

Friston K, Kilner J, Harrison L. (2006). A free energy principle for the brain. J Physiol Paris 100:70-87. [PDF]

Kandel ER. (1999). Biology and the future of psychoanalysis: A new intellectual framework for psychiatry revisited. Am J Psychiatry 156: 505-524.

Hobson JA. (2007). Wake up or dream on? Six questions for Turnbull and Solms. Cortex 43:1113-5; discussion 1116-21.

Turnbull OH, Solms M. (2007). Awareness, desire, and false beliefs: Freud in the light of modern neuropsychology. Cortex 43:1083-90.

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At March 12, 2010 12:31 AM, Blogger Chris said...

very good, thanks, will definitely read the paper

At March 12, 2010 12:38 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks! I'll be curious to hear what you think.

At March 12, 2010 9:30 AM, Anonymous Giuseppe said...

Dear Neurocritic,
do you think that psychoanalysis can escape from the mirror neurons (that can be called the Supertheory of Supereverything)?
Absolutely not!!
Look here!

Gallese V.
We-ness. Embodied simulation and Psychoanalysis. Reply to commentaries.
Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 19: 580-584, 2009.

Giuseppe from Italy

At March 12, 2010 9:41 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks for the reference, Giuseppe. Clearly, Carhart-Harris and Friston's Grand Unifying Theory of Neuropsychoanalysis will be incomplete without mirror neurons. Perhaps they can hire Professor Vittorio Gallese as a consultant.

At March 12, 2010 10:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is no different from mapping scientific principles onto verses or words of religious writings to demonstrate the (highly selective) insights and (assumed) legitimacy of superstition.

At March 12, 2010 11:29 AM, Blogger Chris said...

I disagree completely with David K

At March 13, 2010 7:09 AM, Anonymous Allison said...

Thank you - I can't wait to read this. If you've ever met Karl, he's a force of nature. I'd love to see someone take him head-on with this. Just the thought of explaining the default mode in terms of Freudian principles seems completely and utterly speculative. I suppose if your paper is full of non-provable concepts, however, no one can say that you are wrong...

At March 14, 2010 2:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess you've seen this?

(Is there some better way to send you a note, not as a comment to an unrelated matter?)

At March 14, 2010 4:55 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Anonymous - Thanks for the link, I hadn't seen that paper yet. What's your e-mail address? (I don't need to publish it here)

At March 16, 2010 6:01 PM, Anonymous Jim Hopkins said...

Dear Neurocritic,

Those interested in Friston and Carhart-Harris on Freud -- or in the relation between psychoanalysis and neuroscience more generally -- might also like to check out the Neuropsychoanalysis centre (and journal) via The journal has articles by Damasio, Panksepp, and many others.

I look forward to your discussion.

At March 17, 2010 5:39 PM, Anonymous Thomas said...

I wanted to ask you something about music and memory. Have you an email ?

Thanks. Great blog.

At March 17, 2010 6:05 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks, Thomas. What's your e-mail address? (I don't need to publish it here)

At March 19, 2010 9:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I was disappointed by this post. Given Friston's immense contributions to the field of neuroimaging, and his wildly analytical and imaginative mind, I'd expect there to be something of merit, or at least interest, in the article (which I will now read and probably get back to you with thoughts on later). Instead of engaging with the text, though, it seems that you have written a rather dismissive and surface-level pan based on your opinion of the article's premise. For instance, the figures you produce give the impression that you explored the text more with CTRL-F than with your mind. Since I often find your mind's work to be intriguing and soundly reasoned, it was a let-down not to see the fruits of its efforts on this unexpected article from a curiously credible source.

At March 19, 2010 11:16 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Is - There is another post coming that will attempt to examine some of the Freudian --> brain mappings, and attempt to critique some of their choices in terms of what was included/excluded from their formulation. If you've tried to read their paper yet, you'll realize this is a non-trivial task.

At March 19, 2010 11:38 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Awesome! Thanks for your reply, nc. I have read the paper since posting the last comment, and I look forward to reading your thoughts on it!
I was most surprised by the association of the primary process with altered states of cognition. It was an interesting departure from the top down-bottom up / mammal brain- reptilian brain / sensory-cognitive dichotomies that are more commonly modeled.
That sort of traditional hierarchy was there, of course, nested within the secondary process, but the idea of a second interplay between normal and aberrant states of consciousness was something I'd never heard or thought of before.
I found the whole thing quite fascinating, ridiculously well-researched (the mid-century literature was particularly rich) and, unsurprisingly from Friston, the hot-button topics were thoughtfully, necessarily, and concretely integrated into his concepts (rather than sprinkled on top of the abstract and discussion, as 'trendy' topics unfortunately tend to be). Whether I "buy" it is up to further reading, discussion, and reflection, but I certainly think it is a worthwhile read and a great conversation starter.

Thanks for bringing our attention to this article!


At March 20, 2010 3:23 AM, Blogger Neuroskeptic said...

I must admit that I've never quite understood Friston's free energy theory, despite reading most of his recent papers on it. Does anyone know of a good overview?

At March 21, 2010 7:58 AM, Anonymous umuts said...

Thanks for sharing

At May 20, 2010 3:54 AM, Blogger Micah said...

Disappointing and shallow post. Where's the content? This paper is a massive theoretical work, with many many implications. The quality of the review of DMN stuff alone merits serious attention. Can a neuroskeptic not do other than drive by something sensational? Hur hur mirror neurons are popular. I like this blog but recent posts have been of this vein.

At May 20, 2010 9:13 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Sorry to disappoint you, Micah. However, this post was not meant to give exhaustive coverage of the paper. Did you read the next one in the series, A Bayesian Brain is a Freudian Brain?

At May 26, 2010 7:05 AM, Blogger Micah said...

Thanks for your response. I did not have a chance to see your follow up. Sorry if I was a bit harsh. I work in a neuroimaging lab were just about everyone but me has given up on fMRI and moved on to EEG. So I hear endless boilerplate anti-fmri, localization, voodoo, etc etc. I think this is all very healthy for the industry but I can't stand seeing good scientists or good work ignored for the sake of trendy skepticism. You've got a great blog here though, thanks. I wish I could find the time/energy/bravery to post as often as you do.


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