Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Alpha Synchronization as a Brain Model for Unconscious Defense: An Overview of the Work of Howard Shevrin and His Team

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Alpha Synchronization as a Brain Model for Unconscious Defense: An Overview of the Work of Howard Shevrin and His Team

Article excerpt

This paper proposes an overview of a series of four studies, all originating from the 'Ormond and Hazel Hunt Laboratory for the Study of Conscious and Unconscious Processes', directed by the psychoanalyst and neuroscience researcher, Howard Shevrin at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.1 With the help of his collaborators, Michael Snodgrass, Linda Brakel, Ramesh Kushwaha, and others, Howard Shevrin has developed a unique experimental paradigm, called 'subliminal priming at the objective detection threshold' (see below), which involves a very stringent form of subliminal priming, whereby visual stimuli are presented for ultra-short durations - namely, one millisecond, that is, one thousandth of a second. The idea is that at this short duration the stimulus is not recognized as coming from outside and, therefore, a situation of an internal activation of defenses is approximated experimentally. The purpose of this review then is (1) to give experimental arguments for the existence of unconscious defense initiated internally (i.e. independent of external perception); and (2) to propose a model for a neuroscientific understanding of this unconscious defense - namely the synchronization of a brain wave called 'alpha' which is also involved in conscious avoidance.2

Subliminal priming research

The priming paradigm presents a first stimulus, the prime, and measures its influence on a second stimulus, the target (Segal and Cofer, 1960). When the prime is shown below a certain threshold - or limen - related to consciousness, the priming is said to be subliminal. Subliminality for visual stimuli is obtained by reducing the presentation time.

There is subliminal perception when a stimulus is demonstrated to be invisible while still influencing thoughts, feelings, actions, learning or memory. A body of research with the subliminal priming technique has been done both in psychodynamic and in cognitive laboratories (for an overview, see Kouider and Dehaene, 2007). These researches yield the most convincing results up to now inducing even the most severe critics of psychoanalysis to admit to the existence of unconscious processes (e.g. Kihlstrom, 1987; Greenwald, 1992; Kihlstrom et al, 1992; Rofe, 2008), which, albeit not qualified as psychodynamic, are nevertheless surprisingly intelligent, active and dynamic, displaying affective (e.g. Banse, 1999), lexical/semantic (Marcel, 1983a, 1983b; Cheesman and Merikle, 1984; Dell'Acqua and Grainger, 1999; Dehaene et al., 2001; Devlin et al., 2004; Nakamura et al., 2005; Naccache et al., 2005; Kiefer and Brendel, 2006), arithmetic (Dehaene et al., 1998; Naccache and Dehaene, 2001) and decisional abilities (Custers and Aarts, 2010) among others (cf. the 'New Unconscious', Hassin et al., 2005).

The subliminal priming research, which more directly pertains to psychoanalysis, mainly concerns two domains, in addition to the Shevrin research, namely subliminal psychodynamic activation (SPA) and mindset priming. We will first briefly summarize this body of research in light of its similarities and differences with the Shevrin lab research. In the SPA method (Silverman, 1967, 1976, 1983), subjects are exposed to repeated presentations of subliminal stimuli designed to either intensify unconscious conflicts or to gratify unconscious fantasies and wishes. In typical SPA experiments, the sentence 'MOMMY AND I ARE ONE' is presented repeatedly for 4 ms during one or several therapeutic sessions. The priming effects are assessed on clinical and non-clinical populations using pre-post treatment difference scores. In 1990, Hardaway reviewed 56 SPA studies to the conclusion of a moderate but significant positive effect of the 'MOTHER AND I ARE ONE'-primes on therapeutic and educational outcomes; virtually identical results were reported in published and unpublished studies (see Weinberger, 1992). Banse and Imhoff (2011, p. 258) calculated that "2,237 more unpublished studies with zeroeffects would be needed to attribute the overall effect to a publication bias for significant results". …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.