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Psychoanalysis: So Bad It's Good?

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Jan 17, 2011 10:20 AMNov 5, 2019 12:17 AM


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Many of the best things in life are terrible.

We all know about the fun to be found in failure, as exemplified by Judge A Book By Its Cover and of course FailBlog. The whole genre of B-movie appreciation is based on the maxim of: so bad, it's good.

But could the same thing apply to psychotherapies?

Here's the argument. Freudian psychoanalysis is a bit silly. Freud had pretensions to scientific respectability, but never really achieved it, and with good reason. You can believe Freud, and if you do, it kind of make sense. But to anyone else, it's a bit weird. If psychoanalysis were a person, it would be the Pope.

By contrast, cognitive-behavioural therapy is eminently reasonable. It relies on straightforward empirical observations of the patient's symptoms, and on trying to change people's beliefs by rational arguments and real-life examples ("behavioural experiments"). CBT practitioners are always keen to do randomized controlled trials to provide hard evidence for their success. CBT is Richard Dawkins.

But what if the very irrationality of psychoanalysis is its strength? Mental illness is irrational. So's life, right? So maybe you need an irrational kind of therapy to deal with it.

This is almost the argument advanced by

Robert Rowland Smith in a short piece In Defence of Psychoanalysis:

...The irony is that in becoming more “scientific”, CBT becomes less therapeutic. Now, Freud himself liked to be thought of as a scientist (he began his career in neurology, working on the spinal ganglia), but it’s the non-scientific features that make psychoanalysis the more, not the less, powerful.

I’m referring to the therapeutic relationship itself. Although like psychoanalysis largely a talking cure, CBT prefers to set aside the emotions in play between doctor and patient. Psychoanalysis does the reverse. To the annoyance no doubt of many a psychoanalytic patient, the very interaction between the two becomes the subject-matter of the therapy.

The respected therapist and writer Irvin Yalom, among others, argues that depression and associated forms of sadness stem from an inability to make good contact with others. Relationships are fundamental to happiness. And so a science that has the courage to include the doctor’s relationship with the patient within the treatment itself, and to work with it, is a science already modelling the solution it prescribes. What psychoanalysis loses in scientific stature, it gains in humanity.Rowland Smith's argument is that psychoanalysis offers a genuine therapeutic relationship complete with transference and countertransference, while CBT doesn't. He also suggests that analysis is able to offer this relationship precisely because it's unscientific.

Human relationships aren't built on rational, scientific foundations. They can be based on lots of stuff, but reason and evidence ain't high on the list. Someone who agrees with you on everything, or helps you to discover things, is a colleague, but not yet a friend unless you also get along with them personally. Working too closely together on some technical problem can indeed prevent friendships forming, because you never have time to get to know each other personally.

Maybe CBT is just too sensible: too good at making therapists and patients into colleagues in the therapeutic process. It provides the therapist with a powerful tool for understanding and treating the patient's symptoms, at least on a surface level, and involving the patient in that process. But could this very rationality make a truly human relationship impossible?

I'm not convinced. For one thing, there can be no guarantee that psychoanalysis does generate a genuine relationship in any particular case. But you might say that you can never guarantee that, so that's a general problem with all such therapy.

More seriously, psychoanalysis still

tries to be

scientific, or at least technical, in that it makes use of a specialist vocabulary and ideas ultimately derived from Sigmund Freud. Few psychoanalysts today agree with Freud on everything, but, by definition, they agree with him on some things. That's why they're called "psychoanalysts".

But if psychoanalysis works because of the therapeutic relationship, despite, or even because, Freud was wrong about most things... why not just chat about the patient's problems with the minimum of theoretical baggage? Broadly speaking, counselling is just that. Rowland Smith makes an interesting point, but it's far from clear that it's an argument for psychoanalysis per se.Note: A truncated version of this post briefly appeared earlier because I was a wrong-button-clicking klutz this morning. Please ignore that if you saw it.

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