Emer Rutledge – The Possibilities of Psychoanalysis in Psychiatry

THE LETTER 38 (Autumn 2006) pages 45-48

In the year 1917 Freud gave a lecture on the topic of psycho­analysis and psychiatry. On that occasion he asked his listeners to ‘endeavour to allow the psycho-analytic view to grow up quietly in you alongside of the popular or psychiatric one, till opportunities arise for the two to influence each other, to compete with each other and to unite in leading to a conclusion.’

During the first half of the twentieth century, psychoanalysis revolutionized our understanding of mental life. It provided a remarkable set of new insights about unconscious mental processes. However at the beginning of the twenty-first century the influence of psychoanalysis is somewhat in decline. In the same paper in 1917 Freud anticipated that ‘in the not too distant future it will be realized that a scientifically based psychiatry is not possible without a sound knowledge of the deeper-lying unconscious processes in mental life.’ Yet there is a difficulty in accommodating the evidence- based, scientific, biological discipline of psychiatry with the insights of psychoanalysis.

Biology has made remarkable progress in the last fifty years. Just as the gene was central to biology of the twentieth century, it is anticipated by many that the mind is to be the central focus of the twenty-first. To paraphrase the opinion of François Jacob ‘The century that has ended has been preoccupied with nucleic acids and proteins. The next one will concentrate on memory and desire. Will it be able to answer the questions they pose?’

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