Freud's Drawings, from Brain to Mind Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, started his career as a scientist, studying basic brain biology. Saturday is the 150th anniversary of Freud's birth. In honor of the occasion, the New York Academy of Medicine opens a new exhibit of Freud's scientific drawings.
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Freud's Drawings, from Brain to Mind

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Freud's Drawings, from Brain to Mind

Freud's Drawings, from Brain to Mind

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JOE PALCA, host:

Sigmund Freud started his scientific career not with a couch, but with a scalpel. He was dissecting eels in order to understand their reproductive system. From there, he moved onto studying the structure and function of the human brain. Years later, he turned to psychology for answers to questions about the human mind that biology, alone, couldn't provide.

It's here, of course, that Freud made his lasting mark. He believed that below the level of our conscious perception, our most primitive desires or drives, what he termed the id, are in constant conflict with our moral compass, the superego, and that both are kept in check by the ego, firmly based in reality. He believed that our dreams hold cues -- clues to the workings of our unconscious, and that many of the neuroses that plague us as adults can be traced back to a failure in childhood to resolve a basic sexual tension.

Tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of Freud's birth, and in honor of that occasion, a new exhibition opens at the New York Academy of Medicine. It's a collection of Freud's scientific illustrations that span his career from med student to psychoanalyst. The exhibition is being presented by the art museum at the State University of New York in Binghamton in cooperation with the American Psychoanalytic Association and the Arnold Pfeffer Center for Neuro-Psychoanalysis at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute.

We'll start the hour today with an audio tour of the exhibition, and it will be an interactive tour. So if you'd like to join us, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK. And if you need visual gratification, some of the pictures we'll be talking about are on our website

And, now, let me introduce my guests. Lynn Gamwell is the curator of the exhibition, From Neurology to Psychoanalysis: Sigmund Freud's Drawings and Diagrams of the Mind, at the New York Academy of Medicine and the director of the art museum at the State University of New York in Binghamton. She joins me today from our NPR studios in New York. Welcome to the program.

Ms. LYNN GAMWELL (Director, Art Museum at the State University of New York in Binghamton): It's wonderful to be here.

PALCA: Also with us--thanks--also with is Mark Solms. He is a psychiatrist. Mark Solms is a psychoanalyst. He's the director of the Neuro-Psychoanalysis Center at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and a professor of neuropsychology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He has provided commentary for the exhibition at the New York Academy of Medicine, and he joins me today at the NPR studios, also at the studios in New York. Welcome back to the program, Dr. Solms.

Dr. MARK SOLMS (Director, Neuro-Psychoanalysis Center; Professor of Neuropsychology, University of Cape Town, South Africa): Thanks very much.

PALCA: So, Lynn Gamwell, let's begin with you, if I may. When did Freud do these drawings?

Ms. GAMWELL: Well, he began doing them as a student in the 1870s and continued them until the last decade of his life. And so he began doing them looking through a microscope as an observational tool in his training and in his early professional career as a laboratory scientist; and then he continued, once he moved from the physiology laboratory to his consultation room being a laboratory, he continued doing diagrams throughout the rest of his career.

PALCA: And is there--is this a unique collection of his work that's being presented?

Ms. GAMWELL: Well, what I've done is assembled all of the images that he did that were related to the mind, and they're--yes, so in the public, in the exhibition in the publication, there're--the drawings and diagrams are assembled and put in order. You walk through the exhibit. You start in the late 1870s, and you walk through Freud's career and see the--his changing images of nerves and the mind, basically. And that's what's unique, is that you're seeing all the pictures together.

PALCA: If you'd like to ask questions about these pictures or, I suppose, we can even field questions about Freud's theories, we'd be happy to hear from you. Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK, and, Mark Solms, can I turn to you and say, what was Freud drawing at the start of his career?

Dr. SOLMS: At the start of his career, as you mentioned earlier, the very first paper that he ever published was a search for the missing testicles, of all things, of an eel. Nobody had ever been able to identify the male of the species, and Freud's task was to try to find those testicles, which is rather funny if you think about the fact that he later on discovered the castration complex in humans.

PALCA: Right. I mean, I--yes, but I'm sure people are wondering how did people lose the eel testicles?

Dr. SOLMS: It's not that they were lost. The gonads, which are the precursors of both the ovaries and the testicles, had been found, and also ovaries had been found. What hadn't been found was gonads which developed into testicles.

PALCA: I see. He moved from eels to the brain. Is that right?

Dr. SOLMS: Yes. He--that study on the eel was really a sort of an anomaly, because everything else from then onwards had to do, one way or another, with the nervous system. So he moved onto histological studies, that is to say studies on the structure of the nerve cell.

He was trying to describe--at that time, we still didn't--had not yet discovered the neuron, and so he was trying--he and others were trying to identify what the basic units of nervous tissue was. He moved on from those histological papers to anatomical papers, where he tried to trace the pathway that was followed by individual nerve tracks in the spinal cord and then later up into the brain proper.

PALCA: Maybe I could ask Lynn Gamwell now is--have you enough familiarity with the pictures of this era to say whether Freud was a particularly good draftsman or a particularly good drawer of these things?

Ms. GAMWELL: He was a very good draftsman, as far as drawing through a microscope. His drawing--he was proud of them. He--and they're well drawn. They're--the detail is captured where it needs to be. They're excellent simply as drawings--as drawings through a microscope, yeah.

PALCA: How long was it? I mean, was Freud overlapping at all with the early days of the photograph or was drawing the standard?

Ms. GAMWELL: Well, the--yes, he was overlapping with the microscope but, I mean, with the--with photography, but both photography and the microscope he used were developed in the 1830s, the achromatic microscope, and, but throughout the 19th century, scientists that worked with microscopes continued to draw rather than photograph through a microscope, even though it was possible, because they weren't after capturing everything as far as the appearance of what they saw; they wanted to selectively direct the viewer's attention to certain details, like a cell nucleus. And so, yes, he was--he's contemporary with the development of photography. But he, himself, and his colleagues in the laboratory didn't use photographs.

PALCA: Mm-hmm. Mark Solms, after his studies of the neuron, what came next?

Dr. SOLMS: The studies of the neuron were of very lowly creatures, the river crayfish and also an organism called the lamprey. What came next was the human brain. So, as he moved from the study of individual neurons and from the study of the spinal cord, and moved into the brain proper, he also moved from lower animals to human beings.

And the thing that interested him most initially about the human brain was trying, again, to trace the anatomical path followed by individual tracks. For example, he traced the origin of the acoustic nerve in the human brain stem.

But the interesting thing about those early studies of the human brain, as far as Freud's work is concerned, were the methods that he used. He developed a method or he adopted a method that had been developed by a colleague named Flexick(ph), whereby because the brain--the pathways in the brain, as Lynn was saying earlier, it's not a matter of just photographically depicting what's there, it's very difficult to see what's there. The artist tries to identify individual structures of importance. And what Freud did was to study fetal brains, human fetuses. The purpose of doing that was it's easier in a less-developed organism to be able to identify individual's fiber pathways. And then, once he'd found the pathway in the fetus, it was then easier to re-find it in the mature adult brain.

PALCA: Was there anything--I mean, if all you had to go on for predicting Freud's future were these first sets of drawings going up through the depiction of the fetal brain, was there anything in these early drawings that would predict the future course of his life and his research?

Dr. SOLMS: I think that there are continuities that you can find in retrospect, which, I suppose, one could easily overstate; like for example, the method that I just mentioned was a developmental method and Freud was, in his psychological work, also a very much developmentalist, always looking for how primitive structures developed into more mature, complex structures. Also his commitment to evolutionary theory, to dynamic ways of thinking, the tendency to look for new methods, to not be satisfied with doing things the way that we were conventionally done, but rather trying to find new approaches.

But all of those things I think are less important than a sort of sense of mission. Even in those early works, it was clear that Freud saw himself as somebody who had to make an important mark on science. And he tended to always go from the small, individual observation to grand theory.

PALCA: And what you're saying is his observation--the detail in his small work, was noteworthy.

Dr. SOLMS: The detail...

PALCA: Well, his ability to capture smaller things that later lead to some of these bigger ideas.

Dr. SOLMS: Yes. His ability to see the general in the particular.

PALCA: Yeah.

Dr. SOLMS: To generalize from a concrete observation to some general principle about the species.

PALCA: Okay. We're talking about a new exhibit of Freud's drawings that is going on display tomorrow in New York. We'd like to hear from you. Our number's 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. And you can see some of these pictures on our web site, They're quite remarkable. I encourage you to take a look.


PALCA: We're talking this hour about Sigmund Freud's illustrations. My guests are Mark Solms, psychoanalyst and director of the Neuro-Psychoanalysis Center at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and professor of neuropsychology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. And Lynn Gamwell; she's the curator of the exhibition, From Neurology to Psychoanalysis: Sigmund Freud's Drawings and Diagrams of the Mind, at the New York Academy of Medicine and director of the Art Museum at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

And Lynn Gamwell, I suppose, can you just tell us a little bit more about the exhibit, where it is and how long it will be up for, and well, how long it will be around? And does it travel?

Dr. GAMWELL: It's, as you said, at the Academy of Medicine and it will be up through the summer. And then it travels to the State University of New York at Binghamton, to the museum there, in the early fall.

PALCA: And the New York Academy of Medicine in New York City?

Dr. GAMWELL: Mm-hmm. Yes.

PALCA: Oh, all right. So what do these drawings tell us about, Lynn Gamwell--what do these drawings tell us about Freud's training and how he processed information? Hello?

Dr. GAMWELL: Well, he--yes. Well, he--well he began as an observational laboratory worker. And so we see him beginning--drawing through a microscope and drawing what he saw. And then we see him--there's a clear progression as you walk through of going from things he actually saw to more abstract diagrams as his work developed.

So there's--that is a pretty clear evolution that you see. And he's--you asked before about photography and there was a place where photography was used in psychiatry, which was in diagnosing patients in the 19th century. Then you wanted to see exactly what a patient looked like. And once psychoanalysis begins in the early 20th century, you don't see pictures of patients anymore. Because it--the diagnosis is by talking to the patient; it's by case study. And Freud--and so most psychoanalytic texts in the early 20th century aren't illustrated at all. But Freud continues drawing and he's diagramming them, not what he's--he's diagramming what he's imagining on the inside, or he's doing theoretical diagrams of a presumed neurological substrate in some cases, or simply his hypothesis about the organization of the psyche of the patient.

PALCA: Well, we'd like to hear from you. If you have a question about these pictures, our number is 800-989-8255, that's 1-800-989-TALK. And let's take a call now from Matt(ph) in, well, Binghamton, New York, of all places. Matt, welcome to the program.

MATT (Caller): Why thank you. Thank you very much. I enjoy the program every week.

PALCA: Great.

MATT: My question is that--how did Freud go from developing--from drawing these pictures to developing his theories. I mean, it seems like a long step of looking at the physical to looking at the--how the diseases develop throughout a lifetime, from childhood.

PALCA: Yeah, interesting. Mark Solms, maybe you can shed some light on that.

Dr. SOLMS: Well, that's the, I think, most interesting thing about seeing all of these drawings together in one progression, is that you're sort of forced to recognize that there's not a absolute break or even any obvious moment at which suddenly Freud is no longer doing neuroscience.

I think from his point of view, he was doing exactly the same thing. It's just that he moved on to more and more complex aspects of the nervous system. So starting with an individual cell, then tracing the paths--the pathways, you know, groups of cells, what sort of pathways they form, the point of tracing those pathways is in order to understand something of the function. And if you can see how one part connects to another, it tells you something about what that part does. And that's one small step towards what he ultimately becomes interested in, which is how does this whole thing work. And how does it work at its highest levels of complexity?

So you see him moving from tracing pathways in the brainstem of relatively simple functions like how sound gets from the ear into the brainstem, and then, step by step, going through more and more complex things.

An important milestone along the way was trying to understand the neurological organization of our language function. Now language, of course, is a psychological thing. But Freud's approach was the approach of a neurologist and of a neuro-anatomist, what's more. He's interested in trying to identify where in the brain language is organized. And, in doing that, he was forced to recognize that these higher orders of--higher principles of organization start to govern the functioning of the apparatus.

So that it's no longer simply a matter of that language is made up of auditory components, motor components, and kinesthetic components when it comes to written language and so on; but that it has principles of grammar, of syntax, of phonology, which are no longer anatomical concepts. And so he was sort of forced, in order to understand the principles that govern the apparatus at these higher levels of complexity, to start using categories, which now one is compelled to call psychological.

But it's not a different type of task. He's still trying to understand how the thing works. And I think that that's the continuity right from the start through to his last psychoanalytical diagrams.

PALCA: Does that make it clear, Matt?

MATT: As clear as mud.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MATT: One more quick question.

PALCA: Sure.

MATT: And I'm in Binghamton. I'm wondering where is this display at?

PALCA: Well, Lynn Gamwell, I think we've said it's at the New York Academy of Medicine in New York City?

Dr. GAMWELL: In Binghamton. It's on the campus of SUNY, on the campus of the University, the State University of New York.

PALCA: So you don't even have to come to New York City for that one, Matt.

MATT: Right.

PALCA: Okay, thanks very much for the call.

Dr. GAMWELL: In the fall.

MATT: front of the University right now.

PALCA: Okay, great. Thank you for calling.

I wonder, Mark Solms, if I could just ask you: How old was Freud when he began to make this turn and--this turn away from the brain and into the mind? Was that later in his--I guess how old was he?

Dr. SOLMS: It depends where you want to situate that turn. Because, as I was saying a few minutes ago, and I regret to hear it was as clear as mud, but...

PALCA: Well...

Dr. SOLMS: There isn't one particular moment at which the turn is made. You know, he was in his early 20s when he did his first anatomical and histological drawings. That was in the late 1870s. By the late 1880s, in other words, by his early 30s, he was beginning to work on problems of language, how language is organized in the brain. And then by the late 1890s, his main interest was in the neuroses, that is to say, functional disorders of the nervous system.

His first purely psychological drawing, in the sense that he makes no attempt whatsoever to identify what the brain structures are that perform the functions that he's diagramming, is 1899. So by then he's--he's in his early 40s. That gives hope to some of us to recognize that Freud's magnum opus came in his 40s already.

PALCA: Right. And, you know, eventually Freud began to study what you call the meta-psychology which was even more difficult. How did that work?

Dr. SOLMS: Well, the word meta-psychology was a neologism of Freud's. He invented the word trying to find a way of describing what he had to do. If he was going to have a theory about how the mind or the brain produces these complex functions that he was observing in his clinical work and limited, as he was, by having no instruments to--no scientific techniques to be able to visualize what the brain processes were that underlay them; rather than just say, well, these complex things can't be studied by science, we'd better abandon them, he used purely psychological methods of observation and tried to infer what the underlying functional principles were; what the organizing, lawful arrangement was of the nervous system to produce these psychological processes that he was observing.

But because he couldn't draw the anatomy, because we didn't know what the anatomy was, he drew it in purely abstract ways, calling the systems of neurons mental systems or mental agencies. And it was this transition from neurons to abstract systems, to functional entities, that required a new word. So he no longer spoke of neuropsychology, but rather of meta-psychology, something that goes beyond what can be perceived.

PALCA: Okay. Let's take another call now and go to Brian(ph) in Cincinnati. Brian, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY.

BRIAN (Caller): Yeah, hi. Thanks for taking my call.

PALCA: Sure.

BRIAN: I've always been kind of troubled by Freud's--how he came--how he actually came upon the data that he used to develop his theories on--his psychoanalytic theories--the whole Oedipal complex has always--I've never, for example, felt--I know he said it was all subconscious that, you know, boys are attracted to their mothers, but I never understood that. It never made sense to me. I'm wondering how he actually obtained his data. Has it been questioned in the past? I suspect it's been questioned quite a bit.

PALCA: Mark Solms.

Dr. SOLMS: It's been questioned all along, and I think that the limitations of the methods that Freud was compelled to use is the basis for the doubt that attaches to his conclusions. It's very easy to convince people of something concrete that you can show them. You can say, look, here's the neuron. You see the cell body's connected to the fiber there; and we can all look at it and we can all agree.

When you start trying to understand how the thing works and how it works, in terms of the complex interactions between millions of neurons, it's not so easy and simple to show visually what your conclusions are, and I think, likewise, your conclusions are less secure. They're more far removed from what's observable.

So, how Freud arrived at his conclusions was to listen to his patients telling him what they felt, what they remembered, and what the stories of their lives were, where the symptoms arose in this fabric of a lived life. And doing so with, literally, countless patients, he eventually started to see certain organizing principles. There were certain general features that seemed to apply to all people, in the sense that he could infer underlying laws--underlying commonalities.

They were--the emphasis has to fall on the word inferred--they were constructions. They were models. They were theoretical explanations for what was observable, and such things are always subject to error. But, Freud, I'm sure, didn't start out with the preconception of a thing called an Oedipus complex. It's a rather strange and counterintuitive notion. But, I assure you, that that was the best explanation that he could come up with for the clinical phenomena that he observed in his daily work over many, many years.

PALCA: Brian, thanks very much for that call. Lynn Gamwell, you wanted to add something.

Ms. GAMWELL: Yeah, I would add that, as Mark has described, Freud's method, that his early training in the laboratory--it shows, in that once he is observing patients, that he's always looking for the data as--gathering as much data and as--and being as objective as he can, given the elusive nature of the unobservable phenomenon that he's dealing with. But, he's always--throughout his life, he fought for--and I think that you can use a strong word like that--to insist that psychoanalysis was a science, and as based on observation as is possible, given the nature of the subject matter.

PALCA: We're talking about a new exhibit of drawings by Sigmund Freud that's opening tomorrow at the New York Academy of Medicine in honor of the fact that tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of Freud's birth.

I'm Joe Palca and this TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Lynn Gamwell, let me ask you, now, do you have a favorite among these pictures in the exhibition?

Ms. GAMWELL: Yes, I do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: Good.

Ms. GAMWELL: There's this one in the Project for a Scientific Psychology that Freud--for, I'm sure, for physiological psychological, that Freud, in the late 1890s, in which he's doing a diagram that's showing association of ideas in a dream. And, it's those...

PALCA: Which plate--do you remember which plate number that is, because we can tell people. In the catalog--there's a link to the catalog on our website, and also, there are some of the pictures there. Do you recall which number it is?

Ms. GAMWELL: No, I don't have those numbers memorized.

PALCA: Oh, too bad. Okay.

Ms. GAMWELL: I'm sorry. It--there's an A,B,C,D in it and it shows these four ideas and it shows the association of the ideas in the dream. And what I like about it is, you--it can have a neurological interpretation or he's thinking of the neurological substrate, but it's also linking it to a dream. And, so it's both--for me, it's also a transitional image.

PALCA: Mark Solms, do you have a favorite?

Dr. SOLMS: Yes, funnily enough, I have a favorite, which has the same importance that Lynn attached to the diagram of that dream in the Project for a Scientific Psychology, but it's a different drawing that I would identify as the, sort of, pivotal, transitional drawing.

It's actually, from an aesthetic point of view, one of the ugliest. It was drawn in 1886, or thereabouts. We don't know precisely when it was drawn because it was never published, and, as far as I'm aware, it's being exhibited, now, for the first time. It's a drawing in which Freud shows that the relationship between the body periphery and the central organ of the brain, especially the cortex of the brain, is a very complicated relationship.

One of Freud's professors, Theodore Meinert(ph), had taught that the body periphery is literally projected onto the cortex, so the cortex contains a sort of map of the body periphery. And Freud showed in that drawing that the relationship is much more complex than that--that the body periphery--the nerves going from, say, your hands or your feet, arrive at spinal nuclei where they're subtly reordered and then projected onto thalamic nuclei deep in the brain, where they're reordered again, and joined with other inputs, and then projected onto the cortex, where they're reordered again, and joined with, yet, other inputs, and then re-represented in various iterations in the cortex.

And, why that's important, as Freud said in the accompanying text, is that, as we move deeper into the system--as we go from the concrete sensory motor level of the body periphery to the higher levels of the cortex, so we have different principles organizing the representation of the body. It's not a literal, physical representation of the body, but rather an increasingly abstracted depiction--performing different functions. It's not the function merely of projecting the surface, but rather of re-representing that surface in relation to other things. And I think that that drawing, in this sense, introduces what will later become the mind in Freud's theorizing--something which symbolically represents, rather than concretely represents.

PALCA: Mark Solms, I'm afraid we've run out of time, but I'd like to thank my guests. Mark Solms is a psychoanalyst and director of the Neuro-Psychoanalysis Center at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and Lynn Gamwell is the curator of this new exhibit, From Neurology to Psychoanalysis: Sigmund Freud's Drawings and Diagrams of the Mind.

When we come back, a new study of the brain. Stay with us.

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