Localization and its Discontents: A Genealogy of Psychoanalysis and the Neuro Disciplines, by Katja Guenther

Janet Sayers on an engaging work taking in Freud, Meynert and Penfield

March 10, 2016
Young man being prepared for brain experiment

How did we get from phrenology’s localisation of psychological functions in different areas of the brain to the emphasis by today’s neuroscientists on the brain’s neural circuits and connections? In answering this question, historian of science Katja Guenther zeroes in on the work of several 19th- and 20th-century doctors.

Her focus includes Theodor Meynert, who illustrated connectionism with a bleating lamb. Why? Because, he said, the bleating lamb fires auditory and visual nerve cells in the observer’s brain, thereby connecting these cells so that hearing this animal evokes its visual image even when it cannot be seen.

Guenther contrasts this with the anatomist Carl Wernicke’s argument that, since an area of the temporal lobe of the brain is found to be damaged in patients with sensory aphasia involving the inability to understand sounds, this understanding must be localised in this area of the brain. By contrast, Sigmund Freud, working at the time as a neurologist, maintained that sensory aphasia is due to damage to connections of this area with auditory, motor and other areas of the brain.

Such neurological observations are usually divorced from Freud’s subsequent achievement in founding psychoanalysis, but not by Guenther. She maintains that Freud carried over his connectionist perspective from neurology into his achievements as the father of psychoanalysis. After all, the latter involved highlighting the role of damaging trauma repressed into unconsciousness in causing his patients’ psychological ills.

Examples include Freud’s account of a patient, Ernst Lanzer, who suffered a crippling obsession with a punishment involving a pot of rats inverted on the victim’s buttocks so that they bite into his anus. Helping Lanzer overcome his resistance to connecting this obsession with more or less repressed memories, Freud enabled him to recall being beaten as a very young child by his father, and memory of his mother attributing this punishment to his having bitten someone, probably his nursemaid.

Guenther likens Freud’s connectionist approach in treating his psychoanalytic patients, Lanzer included, to the neurologist Ostrid Foerster’s treatment of brain-damaged First World War soldiers. In the process, it seems from Guenther’s account, Foerster surgically treated faulty neurological connections in his patients so as to enable them to form new and more adaptive connections for themselves.

Despite the connectionist approaches of Freud and Foerster, some of their followers opted for localisation rather than connectionism. One such was the psychoanalyst Paul Schilder, who, Guenther tells us, failed to consider connections between what his patients told him and what might be going on in their unconscious in his separate assessment of their sensations and bodily movements.

Guenther links Schilder’s work in this respect with that of the pioneering 20th-century brain surgeon Wilder Penfield, who used electrical stimulation to map the localisation of sensory and movement functions in separate areas of the brain; and with Penfield’s lack of interest in any connection of what his brain-stimulated patients told him with what might be going on in their unconscious. A case in point was a patient who responded to Penfield stimulating her brain by saying, “That man’s voice again! The only thing I know is that my father frightens me a lot.”

This example is intriguing, as are others Guenther recounts in developing her thesis regarding localisation and connectionism in the work of the forebears of today’s neuroscience and psychoanalysis. The result is an engaging read.

Janet Sayers is emeritus professor of psychoanalytic psychology, University of Kent.


Localization and its Discontents: A Genealogy of Psychoanalysis and the Neuro Disciplines
By Katja Guenther
University of Chicago Press, 296pp, £24.50
ISBN 9780226288208 and 8345 (e-book)
Published 15 January 2016

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