Who's afraid of Emily Dickinson?
Or . . .
How I learned to stop worrying and love the brain

Paul Grobstein
Department of Biology, Bryn Mawr College
Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania 19010
pgrobste@brynmawr.edu, 610 526-5098

Draft of an article for the Newsletter of the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia .... January 2002

The Brain - is wider than the Sky -

For - put them side by side -

The one the other will contain

With ease - and You - beside-

Ever since a student showed me the poem from which the stanza above is taken, I've wondered what was happening a hundred and fifty years or so ago that would have inclined Emily Dickinson to write those lines. Freud, William James, Broca, Charcot,, Pavlov, Cajal, Sherrington were all well in the future …. and the "Decade of the Brain" was of course even more remote. What particularly intrigues me is not just that Dickinson neatly put the self in the brain but that she did it happily, "with ease".

Not everyone, of course, is happy to do so today. Being, among other things, a neurobiologist, that puzzles me. The past century has witnessed a steadily, even explosively, increasing body of observations relating the brain to a rapidly expanding realm of human behaviors and experiences. Why should there now be skepticism, even antipathy, toward the idea that the brain might indeed prove to be the repository of all aspects of human behavior and experience, up to and including the self?

One possible reason emerged in a recent class I was teaching at Bryn Mawr College. We were reading an essay by the neurologist Oliver Sacks, about a young man whose personality and behavior changed dramatically as a result of an untreated brain tumor. Several of the students were made uncomfortable by the story. They didn't like the idea that they and others were that "vulnerable", that "self", rather than being safely housed in some form resistant to physical disturbance, might actually itself be a material thing and hence subject to all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to which flesh is heir.

Psychoanalysts, of course, are used to the idea that the self is vulnerable; so am I, for perhaps different reasons. Moreover, psychoanalysts, are interested, as I am, in encouraging thoughtful change in the self. So one might think that psychoanalysts would be as attracted to Emily's idea as I am. They might even share my excitement at the possibility that those who work on the brain could become working colleagues with those in the psychoanalytic community, both in the future evolution of therapeutics and in a broader shared inquiry into the nature of self. Some psychoanalysts, I think, are. But others seem less enthusiastic. So there must be more to the story of what is disturbing in Emily's putting the self in the brain. Let's explore some of the possibilities.

I can easily imagine that psychoanalysts, familiar with the complexities, potentialities, and vagaries of selves, might well be skeptical of the idea that they could be embodied in something as "simple" as brains. This problem, I think, has mostly to do with how familiar one is with the brain. To a neurobiologist, the brain is indeed "matter", but it is matter organized into interconnected, relatively simple cells ("neurons"), with these in turn organized into successive interconnected assemblies of rapidly increasing complexity. When one adds some familiarity with the properties of neurons, the nature of their interconnections, the extraordinary generative power of such interactions of relatively simple building blocks, and the numbers involved one gets … something no less remarkable than the self by any of the measures mentioned.

The brain has sometimes been likened to a computer, but that's very misleading. Somewhat more accurately, each of the thousand billion or so neurons of the brain should itself be regarded as a computer. Each of the computers in turn receives input from a thousand or so others, and sends output to a thousand others, sometimes reciprocally. The real life internet is (as yet) only the palest reflection of the nearly inconceivable complexity of an individual brain. Moreover, many neurons do something computers are rarely designed to do: generate signals on their own with some degree of randomness. To a neurobiologist, a perception/ /thought/idea/experience corresponds to a pattern of activity across millions of neurons (at least), yielding an array of possibilities genuinely beyond human cataloguing. So the brain is not only complex, but has no shortage of potential or vagaries either.

Perhaps most importantly, the assembly of neurons that is the brain is constantly changing, due to its own activity. Assemblies of elements much simpler than neurons (bricks for example) can make an astounding array of different things, including quite complex ones such as the Taj Mahal. Now imagine that each Taj Mahal is actually itself a continually evolving structure, one constantly being reshaped both by its surroundings and by its own internal and somewhat unpredictable dynamics. That begins to give some sense of what neurobiologists currently understand the brain to be. It is not, it seems to me, so different from how psychoanalysts (or most other people) would characterize the self, at least not in terms of complexity, potential, and vagary.

So, maybe the brain is big enough to contain the self. But psychoanalysts (and others) have been dealing with the self for generations without knowing anything about neurons. They might well be skeptical of the worth of Emily's suggestion even if they accept it on face value, on the grounds that work on the brain is irrelevant. Some certainly is. But some, on the other hand,, is highly relevant to thinking about the self, both conceptually and therapeutically, and there is, I think, much more of this sort to come from what is, at the moment, still a quite young field of inquiry.

Perhaps the most important and general relevance to date is the very idea that indeed the self MIGHT have a material basis and so MIGHT BE subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. We all (psychoanalysts included) are comfortable with this idea for measles, traumatic loss of limbs, and the like. These are things that happen to and affect people for reasons that are beyond their own control. Behavior and the self seem to many to be different in some fundamental way which makes people personally responsible for any disturbances in them. I have no quarrel at all with the idea that individuals (perhaps with the aid of others) may be able to alter their own behavior and selves; indeed I think that's a very important central discovery and significant lesson of psychoanalysis. I do think, though, that some humility in this regard, some recognition of the limitations of personal abilities and of therapeutic procedures that depend on such abilities, is equally important. Thinking about the brain in the context of Emily's suggestion can be helpful in this regard.

Both the experimental literature of neurobiology and the clinical literatures of neurology and neuropsychology are rich with illustrations of the notion that traumatic physical disturbances of a material structure, the brain, can indeed produce disturbances of behavior at a variety of levels of sophistication up to and clearly including disturbances of the "self". Both normal human experience with drugs (including caffeine and alcohol) and the psychopharmacological literature similarly indicate that material substances acting on material substrates (the brain again) can produce a wide-ranging array of effects on behavior at quite sophisticated levels. So it is not unreasonable to think that various therapies might be effective (and limited) precisely insofar as they produce (or fail to produce) needed material alterations in the brain.

This perspective begins to provide a rationale for the use of psychopharmacological adjuncts to the psychoanalytic process, a practice which I understand is already increasingly accepted in the psychoanalytic community. Beyond this, it raises the useful question of whether some disturbances in behavior/self may in fact result from brain disturbances which themselves render ineffective psychoanalytic therapies as they are currently practiced. My guess is that psychoanalysts, individually and collectively, have (at least privately) a sense that some people can be effectively treated and others not. A closer inquiry into this might well help to better understand what one means by self, in the brain and otherwise, and perhaps yield further useful evolution of psychoanalytic practice.

Another potentially useful outcome of being open to the possibility of a material basis for self might well be to create a productive bridge between the legacies of the two great intellectual pioneers of the nineteenth century: Freud and Darwin. Both recognized and taught the importance of historical explanation, of inquiring into the past to provide understanding of the present. Freud made it clear that the prior experiences in one's own life might, without one being aware of it, affect one's current behavior. Darwin made it apparent that the experiences of one's ancestors might do so as well. Subsequent to Darwin, it became understood that there was a clear material basis for the latter, the transmission of information from generation to generation via genes, information rich DNA molecules whose expression in turn influences other matter, including the brain. If the self is indeed in the brain, then inquiries into it (both conceptual and practical) should entertain the possibility that it reflects not only personal experiences but genetic information as well.

So … maybe inquiries into the brain are relevant, in the present and the future, for psychoanalysis? This, oddly enough, brings up the opposite problem. Might studies of the brain be SO relevant that things psychoanalysts think critically important would disappear, be washed away by the power of the new, emerging field of neuroscience? What about psychoanalysis itself? As an intellectual tradition? As a useful therapeutic expertise? Is psychoanalysis itself under attack because of Emily's suggestion?

I share with many psychoanalysts very serious concerns about the prevalence of purely psychopharmacological approaches to mental health problems and about mental health policies generally in an era of managed care and the search for quick fix solutions. I think these problems, however, reflect social forces quite different from those related to Emily's suggestion that the self is in the brain. Moreover, I think they are best dealt with in the context of an alliance between psychoanalysts and those studying the brain rather than in a state of disconnection or antagonism between the two communities.

The very complexity of the brain as it is currently understood by neurobiologists, provides, as far as I'm concerned, the strongest arguments against current naive approaches to the self and its problems. Thoughts/ideas/experiences are neither neurons nor the chemicals that carry signals among them. They are instead patterns of activity across millions and millions of neurons. There are many, many fewer neurons and chemicals than there are thoughts/ideas/experiences, so the manipulation of either of the former provides at best a very coarse tool for influencing the latter… and the self. The most precise ways to affect thoughts/ideas/experiences will always be at the level of complexity at which they exist, by the having and sharing of thoughts/ideas/experiences, which is the core of the psychoanalytic process.

Finally, what about the "self" itself? I suspect some psychoanalysts (along with many others) have a secret (or not so secret) fear that an exploration of the brain might somehow lead to the disappearance of the very concept of "self", perhaps even of the thing itself. It might simply disappear among the neurons, being replaced with the unpleasant and dispiriting revelation that we are all in fact no more than machines. What particularly interests me about Emily is that she seemed totally unconcerned with this possibility, comfortably putting the self within the brain with no fear that it would get lost there. Studies of the brain are beginning to suggest that she was right, and that Freud's suggestion that there was an important distinction between unconscious and conscious processing was as well, and that there is an important relationship between the two insights.

Studies of the brain are increasingly suggesting that the brain is not only "wider than the Sky" but also wider than the "self", at least in the sense of one's experience of oneself and of its elaboration. Much (perhaps most) of what goes on in the brain occurs with no experience of oneself at all, despite its enormous impact on one's behavior. This, of course, parallel's Freud's seminal insight. It can also usefully extend that insight. The neurobiological "unconscious" is not simply the repressed detritus of consciousness; it is instead a rich, generative, and highly adaptive system in its own right, one which almost certainly predates consciousness both phylogenetically and ontogenetically, and one which has a variety of skills and abilities superior to those of consciousness.

This perspective in turn poses some new questions about both consciousness and the interactions between the conscious and the unconscious. What is consciousness for? What distinctive attributes does it have, and how are unconscious and conscious processes related to one another? An intriguing possibility, currently emerging in neurobiology, is that consciousness bears the same relation to the unconscious that the unconscious bears to the outside world: the unconscious is constantly constructing and reconstructing models to account for interactions between the organism and the world outside, and conscious processing is similarly constantly building models to account for the unconscious. Perhaps there is in the latter an insight into what "self" is in brain terms, and also a basis in normal brain function for the interrogation of the unconscious by consciousness which is at the core of psychoanalysis. If so, Emily's thought that the brain is THAT big is even more impressive as a prediction of understandings to come.

Was Emily right? Perhaps, and perhaps not. Only time will tell. But there is, it seems to me, nothing whatsoever to fear in her suggestion that the brain could indeed be the repository of all that it is to be, and to experience being, human. And there is potentially a great deal to gain, for both psychoanalysis and neurobiology, by sharing the exploration of that possibility. New insights into the nature of the self, and perhaps new directions in therapeutic practice as well, are not inconceivable outcomes of such a collaboration. Neither all psychoanalysts nor all neurobiologists will find it worthwhile to explore this turf, but I'm excited about doing so, and pleased to share the exploration with others. With ease.