The Return of the Repressed: Freud Sneaks Back into Neuroscience

by Joan Harvey

Our expectations sculpt neural activity, causing our brains to represent the outcomes of our actions as we expect them to unfold. This is consistent with a growing psychological literature suggesting that our experience of our actions is biased towards what we expect. —Daniel Yon

Because consciousness is something common to all of us, it is also interesting to many of us, though we may lack both philosophical and scientific backgrounds. And while many regular people are interested to some degree in the workings of their mind, those who have experimented with drugs and meditation may be even more curious about the latest research. From a fairly young age I’ve had a fair amount of experience with both psychedelics and meditation, though certainly not consistently through my life. And, for a while, I had separate conversations with two different persons—one heavily into psychedelics and one a longtime Zen practitioner—about some of the general books on consciousness.

Among the three of us, our biases sometimes came to the fore. Andy Clark’s book on predictive processing has a very sexy title—Surfing Uncertainty–and some very difficult, academic text—my Zen friend found it unreadable, and attributed this to the fact that Clark is not a meditator. My friend, in turn, had me read some recent books on consciousness with a Buddhist bias, which I disliked for their slanted view (though I have had a regular meditation practice at times). Of course the psychedelic expert liked Michael Pollen’s book How to Change your Mind, as did we all. And we all particularly liked Thomas Metzinger’s The Ego Tunnel. Though not much discussed in the book, perhaps Metzinger’s background in both meditation and psychedelics unconsciously played into our appreciation. We could relate to his ideas of conscious experience as a process and a tunnel through reality, as well as his discussion of transparency, the name he gives for the way we are unaware of the medium through which information reaches us. All of us were (the Zen practitioner has since died) atheist materialists (though also all familiar with plenty of ecstatic, mystical, and irrational states which we felt had a purely physical basis), and intuitively Metzinger’s position made sense to us. The “ego tunnel,” as Metzinger says, is a complex property of the neural correlates of consciousness, the “neurofunctional properties in your brain sufficient to bring about a conscious experience.” He also locates out-of-body experiences and other related phenomena squarely in the physical, as opposed to metaphysical, world.

But my beloved grandmother was a Freudian psychoanalyst, and due to her (and alone in my family, and among most of my friends) I became interested in Freud.

One of my first feelings of confirmation of a Freudian theory came not from a human but from the animal world. We had a lovely rescue dog, a few years old, who had clearly been kicked before we got him and was very wary of people’s feet. But he also managed to always inadvertently be underfoot, so that people who loved him dearly would accidentally hurt him in spite of their best intentions. And this made me think, yes, even animals can recreate, unconsciously, the patterns they are used to from a youthful age.

Still, in my reading, for quite a while I was content to compartmentalize and didn’t look for Freud in the books on consciousness I read. Even dedicated Freudians believe he got many things wrong, and some of my favorite psychoanalytic writers, such as Adam Phillips, put Freud squarely on the side of art rather than science. So in my reading I easily put the newer theories on consciousness on one side, and some of the psychological truths (and errors) Freud developed on the other.

The Ego Tunnel did not seem to need any kind of Freudian reference and I didn’t look for one[i]. But then I read Metzinger’s interesting paper on mind wandering. This was the first place where my Freudian bias or radar kicked in, for it was an absence of any mention of Freud in this paper that stood out. Not that Metzinger’s concepts necessarily map perfectly or even imperfectly onto Freud’s, but it seemed odd that, with his discussion of how “human beings, though phenomenally conscious, are not autonomous mental subjects for roughly two thirds of their lifetime,” followed by his wish to know more about what happens when we’re in a state of mind wandering, that really made me wonder why a German speaking philosopher would not mention (or debate or compare or dismiss) Freud’s model of the unconscious. The paper is even titled “The Myth of Cognitive Agency,” certainly something Freud addressed years ago. Even more, it made me wonder why Metzinger didn’t consider Freud’s technique of free association. Metzinger’s paper is primarily about the times when our minds take off on their own, without our cognitive agency or what he calls mental autonomy. And certainly, right or wrong, Freud had something to say about this. Although in this paper Metzinger is primarily interested in the transitions back and forth between mind wandering and mental autonomy, and the neural correlates of mind wandering, to which Freud’s theories are probably not applicable, he also discusses unconscious behaviors, how successful inhibition of activity may be subpersonal and unconscious.

Metzinger’s own interest in and bias toward meditation—a means of awareness, but also mind control (the word control appears many time in the paper; lucid dreaming, another of Metzinger’s interests, is also a way of controlling dreams)—leads him to a number of valid questions about how meditation can help understand mind wandering. But, he also remarks, “introspective attention is much more subtle and nuanced than the type of conceptually mediated cognitive access leading to verbal report.” Which no doubt is true, but unlike in meditation, which is completely subjective, there is a method in which there is at least one external recorder of mind wandering thoughts, and that is Freud’s method of free association. In free association a person describes to another their free moving thoughts and feelings without censorship, allowing the witness to see patterns and thoughts not normally conscious to the observed. “Psychoanalysis,” Adam Phillips writes, “tracks what attention wants and doesn’t want to omit. Freud is wondering what we might attend to, and how we might attend, when and if the censorship is lifted. And this means, paradoxically, what we might be attending to if we stopped paying attention.[ii]” So my bias led me to wonder why this wasn’t even mentioned, while Metzinger’s own bias led him to looking at meditation, relevant, but so far still subjective. And perhaps it was this absence of mention of Freud that attuned me next to neuroscientists who were paying attention to Freud’s theories.

In her piece on Andy Clark, New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar puts some of the latest thinking in the clearest terms for the lay reader. Freud and a number of contemporary neuroscientists, prominent among them Karl Friston, were influenced by the Prussian physicist Hermann von Helmholz, writing in the 1860s. Helmholz saw the brain as in “inference machine,” an idea which is now translated into different concepts in neurobiology—the Bayesian brain, predictive coding, and the free energy principle. Freud, a century before, was also influenced by Helmholz, and from this he developed the concept of primary and secondary processes, “where the secondary process provides top-down predictions to reduce free-energy associated with the primary process.”

MacFarquhar writes:

Friston’s version of free energy—prediction error—could sound at first as if it were all about cognition, just as Freud’s version could sound at first as if it were all about sex, but at root they were both about survival. Minimizing prediction error, in other words, was much bigger than it sounded. When the brain strove to minimize prediction error, it was not just trying to reduce its uncertainty about what was going on in the world; it was struggling to resolve the contradictions between fantasy and reality—ideally by making reality more like fantasy. The brain had to do two things in order to survive: it had to impel its body to get what it needed, and it had to form an understanding of the world that was realistic enough to guide it in doing so. Free energy was the force that drove both.

Philosopher Jim Hopkins discusses how the “Freudian unconscious may be understood as realized in what is now described as the Bayesian brain.” Hopkins describes the experiment in which right and left eyes are given different visual input at the same time, say a house and a face, and how the subject sees first one, than the other, but not both. The brain, unused to seeing both in the same place, will inhibit vision of one or the other, showing how easily the brain can “alter consciousness so as to remove the effects of ongoing and veridical sensory input.” Hopkins ties this in with Freud’s notion of the ego, “continually repressing and keeping unconscious both veridical neural input and veridical models of ourselves which accommodate this input, but which are in conflict with the dominant model.” I was struck by a footnote “that on a Bayesian model these ‘earliest parental images’ may also constitute assignments of prior probabilities which make certain kinds of thinking impossible, as seen in the face/house example.” There seemed to be much to consider in this idea: how we literally cannot think in certain ways due to the fact that from infancy our neural connections have formed in a certain way, blocking out areas in a top-down way.

Hopkins addresses a recent trend in developmental psychology, known as attachment theory, first developed by the psychoanalyst John Bowlby. Earliest childhood experiences can result in internal conflict and shape life-long behavior. “The observations of attachment theorists also coincide with current hypotheses in developmental neuroscience, which stress how representations of self and other in the infant’s relatively unformed cortex are structured under the impact of emotion by interaction with parents and carers over the first year of life.”

Interest in Freud is at the moment only the work of a small subset of neuroscientists, and is often ignored, as in a recent Aeon article by cognitive neuroscientist Daniel Yon, whom I quote in the opening of this column. Yon’s essay mentions Friston and Helmholz, but does not mention that Friston has written about Freud’s ideas and that Freud was influenced by Helmholz. Nor is the Freudian angle necessary for Yon’s points, but certainly what he writes ties in with much of what Freud discovered:

In the end, it seems that there is an emerging view from psychology and neuroscience that our expectations play a key role in shaping how we experience our actions and their outcomes. While integrating predictions into what we perceive could be a powerful way to monitor our actions in an inherently ambiguous sensory world, this process can cause us to misrepresent the consequences of our behaviour when our expectations don’t come true…. When it comes to our actions, we might see what we believe, and on occasion, we too might know not what we do.

At times our own biases for and against a theory may focus us in a way that we miss other aspects. I’m certainly not qualified to determine whether Freud was right or wrong, or right and wrong; but with my own subjective perceptual slant, I am pleased to notice that once more he is being given some attention.

I’ll let Karl Friston and Robin Carhart-Harris have the last word:

Freud’s writings contain many useful heuristics for exploring global brain function, especially in non-ordinary states of consciousness. Indeed, the Freudian model owes its origins to inferences based on unconstrained states, whereas the cognitive-behavioural approach is uncertain in this domain (Morcom and Fletcher, 2007). Science usually analyzes phenomena extrospectively but in the mind-sciences especially, certain phenomena demand that we look both inwards and outwards – even if introspection entails some compromise and a confrontation with our ‘it’. Freud’s theories were conceived through a study of non-ordinary states, his schooling in neurology and a readiness to introspect. If they were built on false inference and loose philosophy, it is unlikely they would have endured in the way that they have. For those opposed to Freud, who would rather see his constructs dissolved into pure phenomenology and neurobiology, we put up little resistance (e.g. Q176). Phenomenology and neurobiology can stand alone. The Freudian model adds a framework for an integrated understanding of psychopathological phenomena. Once the full-character of non-ordinary states and cognition are understood, this framework may dissolve naturally.


[i] The Ego Tunnel does contain a reference to Freud in an interview in the middle with Allan Hobson. Hobson is extremely dismissive of Freud and of South African Mark Solms who has started a group of people interested in “neuropsychoanalysis.” Solms has written an extremely ambitious and interesting paper “The Hard Problem of Consciousness and the Free Energy Principle” that addresses the hard problem in terms of the functioning of deep brainstem nuclei toward homeostasis (free-energy minimization) and error correction. He does not mention Freud in the body of the text but he cross references Freud’s views in his footnotes.


[ii] Adam Phillips, Attention Seeking, (UK, Penguin Books, 2019) 96