Each period of history has its own ‘Theory of Everything’. Psychoanalysis occupied that space for a long time in the West. It was 1890 in Vienna, and Sigmund Freud had lots of things to say. The psychoanalytic approach developed further as a true social and cultural movement. It provided a view of the human being, a language, a set of explanations for human behaviour (initially only accessible to those who undertook psychoanalytic training) and a Theory of Everything about the Mind. This movement soon became fragmented and more diverse interpretations, less and less narrow, together with ‘applications’, started to spread. Whilst the Psychoanalysis in its original form became progressively diluted, the societal impact was vast. Its language penetrated not just the ‘domains of the mind’, but also literature, cinema, theatre, even political science and of course, the organizational arena as well.
But things have changed. Last week was the 75th anniversary of Freud’s death. As pointed out in a recent edition of The Guardian, it was remembered in the UK, where he died, by one single tweet from the Freud Museum.
Organizational and business life had been caught up in Big Psychological Explanations that Psychoanalysis had triggered. Relationships between individuals, groups and team dynamics, leadership styles, even a ‘pathology’ of the organization, found a home here with answers first from Psychoanalysis itself then from some of its children. The Mind, not The Brain, was the celebrity. Why?
Well, it was not until very recently that our knowledge of the functioning of the brain was well developed. Freud was a neurologist who did not need the brain to explain anything. After all, Freud created Psycho-analysis, not Neuro-analysis. Even the language of ‘neurosis’ and ‘psychosis’ (the former now buried by modern Psychiatry) was just that, a language and a narrative, not a neurological explanation of any kind.
After’ Psychoanalysis, all sorts of tribes of broader Psychology were subsequently born. Some were direct descendants of Psychoanalysis, others not. Some tribes, such as the Behavioural ones (I use here the term in a broad way), did not care about the brain either, although in very different ways to Freud and Psychoanalysis. ‘Inside the head, it’s a black box’, was the position. ‘Behaviours – this approach says – can be changed and shaped without the need to explain what happens inside the black box’. Meet B.F Skinner.
For other tribes, of course, this approach was, and is, unthinkable. ‘We need- they say – an explanation for cognition, language, emotions, memory, personality, knowledge etc. ‘The box may be dark but we need to dig!’
Although Freud was the Master Digger, the great Archaeologist of the Mind, he stayed at a level of the archaeology that he invented. He had full control of the contents of his dig. The Id, the Ego, the Super-Ego, the Edipo complex and a whole anthropological system (a true Theory of the Human Being) would have to be interpreted with the tools of this school of archaeology, or you would never find anything. Psychoanalysis controlled the whole system: the archaeological site (the mind), the ‘findings’ and the Museum.
But diggers dig at different levels. You can still open the box and understand what is going on at a macro level. This is Neuro-Psychology, largely grown on the understanding of what happens when there is a brain lesion. We can see what that lesion does, so we can infer which part of the brain is doing what. Digging deeper and deeper you will eventually enter Chemistry and Biology. Here you will encounter the language of cell receptors, chemical messengers and their activities. This is where drug therapy sits, and the place from where simplifications within popular cultural (never challenged with any enthusiasm by the scientists within pharmaceutical companies,) see the light: ‘Depression ‘is’ a deficit of X, Psychosis is an over activity of Y’, etc.
This ‘chemical level’ is sometimes re-‘discovered’ and then portrayed as the latest and the best of all explanations. The case of Oxytocin, a hormone involved in many social and affective human mechanisms, including childbirth and maternal bonding, is an interesting one. Oxytocin is now, not more, and not less, than “The Moral Molecule”, and has its own gurus, is the subject of books, interviews, prime time TV and celebrity and coverage in reputable newspapers.
A Copernican revolution now comes and changes everything. It comes in Technicolor and shows ‘the answers’ in sophisticated machines and screens. Thanks to Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Functional MRI (fMRI), suddenly that black box that the brain was can be accessed, and we have lots of multicolour pictures to ‘explain everything’. We can actually ‘see’ what’s happening inside the head! Serious science! Hey, this is a great opportunity for Neuro-Explanations. And business can buy it! This is next, tomorrow.