The Therapist as Scientist; before Inventing Psychoanalysis, Freud Dissected Fish and Studied the Anatomy of the Human Brainstem

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Byline: Claudia Kalb

The year is 1876 and Sigmund Freud's scientific career is about to begin. The id, the ego, the superego? Nowhere to be found. When he travels to the University of Vienna's zoological station in Trieste, Italy, sometime around his 20th birthday, the young med student embarks on a far less esoteric task: hunting for the testicles of the eel. For millennia, the animal's mating habits had confounded scientists, including Aristotle. Could Freud solve the mystery? Not exactly. Four hundred dissected eels later, the organs remained elusive. But Freud did acquire enough material to write his first scientific paper. Title: "Observations on the Form and the Finer Structure of the Lobular Organs of the Eel, Organs Considered to be Testes."

Long before the Oedipus complex, Sigmund Freud was a hard-core scientist. Early on, it was eel gonads; later, he studied the cellular underpinnings of the human brain. There were limits, however, to Freud's scientific pursuits--brain scans hadn't been invented yet, DNA wouldn't be discovered until after his death and, eventually, Freud abandoned biology for psychology. But today, as neuroscientists unravel the molecular pathways that make us think and feel and dream, the seeds of Freud's ideas are finding their way into the lab. Researchers are tapping into the chemistry of the unconscious, exploring the theory of repression, even testing ways to block traumatic memories.

What they are finding does not necessarily prove Freud right or wrong--MRIs cannot begin to measure the subtleties of human emotion--and the work is still in its infancy. But after decades of polarization between neuroscience (the study of the brain) and psychoanalysis (exploration of the mind), the two fields are beginning to find common ground. Freud, says Dr. Jack Gorman, president of Harvard's McLean Hospital, would have approved: "I think he'd be right there with us in the lab."

It was in the lab that Freud's interest in science exploded. After the eel, he studied the nervous system of the lamprey and the crayfish, even devising his own novel staining method so he could see the details of living cells more clearly under the micro-scope. By the early 1880s he had moved on to the human brainstem. In elegant drawings, which will be exhibited by the New York Academy of Medicine in May, Freud sketched spinal neurons and fiber pathways in meticulous detail. Science became Freud's mistress. "Precious darling ... I am at the moment tempted by the desire to solve the riddle of the structure of the brain," he wrote in a letter to his fiancA[c]e, Martha Bernays, in May 1885. "I think brain anatomy is the only legitimate rival you have or will ever have."

But brain anatomy alone could not earn Freud the money he needed to marry and start a family. So "very begrudgingly," says Mark Solms, director of the International Neuro-Psychoanalysis Centre in London, Freud began to study live patients, too. He diagnosed cases of cerebral hemorrhage and spinal inflammation. He published volumes on cerebral palsy and aphasia, a loss of language due to brain injury. And, after studying with the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot in Paris, he began treating adults with "hysteria," a catch-all diagnosis for symptoms which had no clear physical explanation, like hallucinations and temporary blindness. "This is when Freud began to realize that the study of the mind was important," says Dr. Regina Pally, a psychoanalyst at UC Los Angeles. "He discovered when he talked to patients that there were emotional conflicts going on that were being expressed in symptoms." Something bigger--the unconscious--Freud posited, must be at work.

At the time, brain science was relatively primitive and matters of the mind were largely the province of philosophers. …