Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, revolutionised the field of psychology with his ground-breaking theories on the human mind. While some of his ideas have been met with scepticism and criticism, recent advancements in neuroscience have shed new light on Freud’s work, providing insights into the complex relationship between the brain and human behaviour. This article delves into the intersection of Freud’s theories and neuroscience research, exploring whether neuroscience is proving Freud’s theories correct and whether Freud can be considered one of the first neuroscientists who did not have neuroimaging to help establish his theories.

Understanding Freud’s Pleasure Principle and Drives

Freud proposed that the pleasure principle drives human behaviour, stating that individuals seek pleasure and avoid pain. He argued that the mind is motivated by a complex interplay of drives, which are powerful forces that influence our thoughts, emotions, and actions. While Freud initially focused on libido, the sexual drive, subsequent psychoanalytic developments have expanded the concept of drives to include other intrinsic motivations independent of libido.

Pleasure and Affects: A Neuroscience Perspective

Neuroscience research has provided valuable insights into the experience of pleasure and its effects. Pleasure is not simply a sensory event but a multifaceted experience involving memory, motivation, and homeostasis. The hedonic marking of impact, the quality that distinguishes emotions from other psychological processes, plays a crucial role in the brain’s regulation of pleasurable and unpleasant experiences. Neuroscientific findings have shed light on the neural circuits and neurotransmitter systems responsible for pleasure, such as the mesocorticolimbic system and dopamine release.

Neural Basis of Pleasure: Brain Hedonic Systems

Neuroimaging studies have identified specific cortical and subcortical regions activated by hedonic stimuli in humans. The critical brain areas involved in pleasure processing are the orbitofrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, insular cortex, nucleus accumbens, amygdala, and ventral pallidum. These regions play crucial roles in the subjective attribution of pleasure, monitoring reward value, and integrating perceptual stimuli with interoceptive states. Activating these brain regions is essential for the experience of pleasure and the reinforcement of adaptive behaviours.

Pleasure and Pain: Interactions in the Brain

Neuroscience research suggests a high degree of overlap between the brain areas and neurotransmitter systems that regulate pleasure and pain. Endogenous opioids and dopamine significantly modulate physical pain and affective states. The activity of µ and δ opioid receptors in the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex is associated with decreased subjective unpleasantness in response to nociceptive stimuli. Furthermore, the striatum’s dopaminergic system exhibits algesic and antinociceptive properties, depending on the activation level. These interactions between pleasure and pain regulation contribute to maintaining homeostatic equilibrium.

Exploring Freud’s Notion of Drives in Light of Neuroscience

Freud’s concept of drives, initially focused on libido, has evolved to include other intrinsic motivations observed in humans. Intrinsic motivation encompasses the inherent propensity to pursue choices, seek novelty and challenges, satisfy curiosity and competence, and extend one’s capacities and control over events. These motivations are distinct from libido and provide a neuropsychoanalytic understanding of mental functioning. Recent neuroscientific observations on self-related processes, agency, body ownership, and attachment have theoretical implications for understanding libido-independent intrinsic motivations and their relationship with the self.

The Role of Self in Pleasure and Affects

Neuroscientific research has shed light on the neural correlates of the self and its relationship to pleasure and effects. Subcortical-cortical midline structures (SCMS) are brain areas involved in self-related processing (SRP). These regions, including the right posterior insula, right inferior parietal cortex, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, enable the coordination of emotional, motivational, homeostatic, and bodily need states with exteroceptive stimuli. SRP involves the integration of interoceptive and exteroceptive stimuli and contributes to the sense of agency and body ownership. The subjective experience of the self, known as the “core self,” arises from the continuous interaction between these neural networks.

The Compulsion to Repeat and Motivational Drives

Freud’s concept of the compulsion to repeat, which precedes the pleasure principle, has important implications for understanding human behaviour. This compulsion, more primitive and instinctual than the pleasure principle, drives individuals to actively reproduce distressing events originally experienced passively. It suggests the existence of motivations beyond the gratification of drives, such as attachment and the pursuit of competence. Recent research in psychology has distinguished between extrinsic and intrinsic motivations, with intrinsic motivations driven by a sense of autonomy and personal agency. These motivations align with Freud’s observations on gratification in exerting control and dominance over reality.

Freud as a Neuroscientist: Exploring the Convergence

While Freud’s work predates the field of neuroscience, there are intriguing convergences between his theories and recent neuroscientific findings. Freud’s emphasis on the role of drives, affects, and the pleasure principle aligns with current research on the neural circuits and neurotransmitter systems involved in pleasure and motivation. However, it is essential to recognise that Freud’s theories were developed based on clinical observations rather than empirical neuroscience research. Integrating psychoanalysis and neuroscience, known as neuropsychoanalysis, offers a promising avenue for further exploration and understanding of the human mind.

Conclusion: The Intersection of Freud and Neuroscience

The intersection of Freud’s theories and neuroscience research provides valuable insights into the complex relationship between the brain and human behaviour. Recent neuroscientific findings support some aspects of Freud’s work, particularly in understanding pleasure, motivation, and the self. However, it is essential to approach this intersection cautiously, recognising both disciplines’ limitations and the need for further research and integration. The ongoing dialogue between psychoanalysis and neuroscience offers exciting opportunities for a more comprehensive understanding of the human mind and behaviour.

Liz McCaughey & AM Team

MsC, MoC. Member of: ACA, BACP

Please refer to the AM articles page to read more articles by Liz and the AM Team

Please complete the AMindset intake form if you want to start your therapy with an AM team member. Our therapists offer a FREE 20-minute introductory session for new clients.

If you are not quite ready, please click here to subscribe to the AMindset Newsletter with articles and podcasts to learn more about your mental health and how AM can help you.

Similar Articles

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is for educational and informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.