Three Ways to Consider Psychoanalysis in Understanding of Science

Chris Holdgraf’s article “On being ‘right’ in science” addresses the importance of sacrificing the full truth (i.e. scientific jargon and acronyms) for understanding. This article will elaborate on the concept of how one “understands.” That is to say, we will understand understanding before trying to be understood. Research in psychoanalysis is contributing to how scientists communicate with the public on controversial topics like climate change, such as described here.

Instead of showing graphs and figures to convince the public of the existence of a problem, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek walks through consumers’ growing piles of garbage while he discusses the hidden reality of climate change in his documentary Examined Life. “Nature is not a balanced totality of which we humans disturb. Nature is a big series of unimaginable catastrophes. We profit from them. What is our main source of energy today? Oil.” Take a moment to reflect on how oil is formed. Instead of rejecting the existence of waste, we will have to accept that it is a part of how we live and collectively work with ways to minimize its impact on the environment. There are a few considerations to make with these regards in the context of psychoanalysis.

Christopher Shaver, graduate student from the computer science department and co-instructor of the Berkeley DeCal Altered States of the Brain, shares the top three reasons why psychoanalysis is an important consideration to make in scientific discourse:

 (1) The existence of an unconscious:

As Žižek frequently points out in his lectures, there are things that ‘we do not know that we know.’ The mind is full of information, patterns, ideas, and structures of reasoning that do not appear fully manifest before us when we engage them to develop our thoughts and make rational decisions. Moreover, reflecting on our thoughts is but a limited reconstruction of our thought process. Language may be the most ubiquitous example of these phenomena, since there are in any familiar language tremendous numbers of patterns, rules, schemas, and structures that go into expressing ourselves clearly and understandably. And yet, the typical child in school learns about these mechanisms in the form of grammar, syntax, and logic only long after they have been using these systems. In effect, something that was simply done unconsciously is made conscious.

There are many other familiar examples of the unconscious that one can find in their everyday life—i.e., complex activities in which one is able to engage in without being entirely conscious of all its details. As opposed to psychologists and philosophers who considered the unconscious mind to be a set of purely irrational impulses, the radical observation of Freud was that the unconscious mind is, in contrast, a highly structured seat of reasoning. Freud concluded that the very way we think—our reasoning process—is often invisible to our introspection and, in the case of repression, even inaccessible. Because our mind is not necessarily conscious, much of our cultural beliefs, our prejudgments, and our habits of thought can go unnoticed when we so fluidly pass through them to draw our conclusions and make our decisions.

The ramification of this picture of the unconscious mind in the context of science is that our biases may indeed be both unconscious and yet highly structured. A bias is not simply an error, fault, or a short circuit in an otherwise clear thought process. Rather, a bias, as part of the unconscious, is something we do without knowing that we do it. A bias can be a highly structured form of reasoning that, like language, we learned without realizing it, and use without knowing it. And to frame a bias as a simple mistake or error vastly oversimplifies how organized and internally consistent a bias can be.

 (2) The Repressed:

More than just ‘what we don’t know that we know’ being what we do not notice, the unconscious can also include things that we don’t want to know about . It can exclude actively from consciousness ideas, thoughts, information, and beliefs that create discomfort, tension, confusion, and emotional disturbance. Repression is for psychoanalysis the tactical exclusion of certain things from consciousness to the end of a compromise with oneself.

For instance, I might be angry at a friend for something said to me that made me feel insecure. However, this anger may be inconsistent with my belief that I am easy-going, relaxed, and secure with myself. In order to maintain this important belief about myself, the idea that I am angry at my friend doesn’t just entirely escape me but is actively hidden from my awareness. What then becomes of the emotion? The observation of psychoanalysis is that it is often rerouted to take on a more emotionally convenient form. The anger felt towards my friend becomes anger at my computer, or it becomes a paranoid belief that my friend is angry at me. Truth becomes less important than the emotional comfort achieved by maintaining consistency.

Science often socially fights an uphill battle against this unconscious personal prioritization of emotional comfort over truth, putting truth idealistically at the center of its discourse, even when the truth is discomforting or even disturbing. Scientific discoveries like those of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin presented challenges not just to other theories that were emotionally neutral artifices, disconnected from people’s lives, but also to identities, narratives, and cosmologies responsible for the emotional stability of people.

Just as a person will repress certain personal beliefs, thought habits, or ideas to maintain self-consistency, a scientist can cherry-pick data and only become selectively aware of observation, not necessarily as a result of a pathologically conscious decision, but by unconsciously barring certain material from even entering into awareness. Likewise, the public can be selectively aware of science itself, only noticing those discoveries and conclusions that support a belief while overlooking ones that challenge it.

What is repressed here is not simply the inconsistent information, but even more importantly the very unconsciously held belief that is responsible for the selective awareness. This point is precisely where psychoanalysis differs from what today is the common sense around this problem of unconsciously filtering out information. A person does not always know why they are ignoring information, even when they become aware that they are doing it. It is not enough to demand that people pay more attention or resist their biases more willfully, but more, it is important to try and understand how these biases function unconsciously. As much as a person can stoically exclaim their willingness to suffer the humiliation of being wrong or forego the vindication of being right in pursuit of the truth, these emotional dimensions determine the way people process information without them knowing it and in ways that people cannot easily recognize in themselves.

 (3) Resistances and Defense Mechanisms:

Beyond the ideas of the unconscious passing by unnoticed, or even hidden by repression, psychoanalysis further discovered that people actively and unconsciously resist becoming aware of repressed ideas, thoughts, and fantasies. These resistances take the form of defense mechanisms, which protect oneself against the emotional conflict that might arise from confronting the repressed. As a result of these defenses, a person can even become intellectually aware of something that they have repressed, but nevertheless maintain an unconscious distance from it and a barrier to accepting it.

Awareness therefore is not always the solution to developing in people a true acceptance of something powerfully resisted. If a person is confronted about their repressed anger towards their friend, they may very likely deny it emphatically, or project their anger on the one confronting them, accusing them of projection. Even if this is accepted intellectually, and the person admits to harboring unconscious anger, deep down this notion could still be rejected, while the admission remains something segregated from reality.

Likewise, on the social level there can be resistances to the acceptance of an idea that reveals something disturbing about the reality people are collectively engaged in. Climate change, for instance, confronts humanity with scientific evidence that points to the serious possibility of imminent ecological catastrophes that would disrupt our lives significantly. Worse, the science suggests that our very way of modern life is the cause of this serious problem. Faced with the disturbing conflict between preserving our familiar lifestyle and saving our future, a series of defenses spring into action to save us from the crushing realization of this situation.

One such defense is denial, finding every rationalization possible to allow us to reject the idea and keep it as far away as possible. This however is only the most obvious defense. Another more complex defense is that we intellectually accept this conflict while separating it from our reality. In the context of political discussions, hypotheticals, and science itself, we accept that this is indeed happening. But in our everyday lives we simply drive an energy efficient car, consume “green” products, or fastidiously save electricity, and consequently we can go on with our lives as though we have paid the penance to keep the problem distant and intellectualized. If we look at these lifestyle habits, they rarely amount to the significant infrastructural changes that would have to occur to have a significant impact on the problem.

It is for these reasons that accepting scientific discoveries that shake the foundations of truth, and potentially destabilize the sense of self people rely on, can be a difficult and disruptive process. It is naive to think that in the face of a disturbing truth a person’s emotions, sense of stability, and sense of self-consistency can simply be thrown out the window because they are in inconsistent with evidence. It may be far better in the long run, given a person’s own aims and interests, that they accept such a discovery and integrate what it reveals into how they reason about their lifestyle, habits, policy positions, and beliefs. However, one can no more simply demand people accept such a blow to their egos than they can demand a rock roll uphill. The psychoanalytic dimension of the unconscious and the role it plays in beliefs, ideas, and thought must be taken into account when addressing the issue of the public understanding of science.

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  1. Simply and elegantly written account of some basic psychoanalytic tenets making resistance to changing scuentific ideas understandable and all this by a graduate student in integrative biology. Remarkable!

  2. Kristina Kangas

    Your compliments should be directed towards Chris Shaver of the CS department. Thank you for your comment!

  3. my weight loss tips

    It is a fact that people tends to select what we want to believe without knowing it. Thanks for a great discussion about the basic tenets of psychoanalysis and its significance in making a scientific discourse. I’m looking forward for more great articles in this website.