Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Emergent Ego: Complexity and Coevolution in the Psychoanalytic Process, by Stanley R. Palombo, M.D.

The following review is by Harold I. Eist, M.D., a Washington-area psychiatrist/psychoanalyst:

          In 1978, Stanley Palombo wrote Dreaming and Memory, a seminal volume that expanded understanding of dream function. He relied on empirical research in the sleep laboratory plus innovative integration of new neurobiological and computer science findings with current psychoanalytic ideas. Palombo’s new book skillfully continues these processes of integration and inclusion. He brings a new and lively version of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic theory into the millennium as he combines modern evolutionary theory, computer models of evolution and information, complexity theory, neuroscience, and clinical psychoanalytic wisdom. This integration convincingly documents that psychoanalysis is quintessentially a biopsychosocial discipline that is alive, changing, growing, and relevant.
           Palombo challenges long-held, incorrect views that psychoanalysis is not science; that psychoanalysis deals with only outside influences on development (the one-way shaping of the individual through the pressures of learning and society on the drives or instincts, which create a dynamic, Möbius-strip effect) rather than the inner influences (the genetic or molecular bases of behavior); and that there is no way of measuring change in psychoanalysis. He does not get stuck at the level of molecular biology, however; rather, he recognizes the importance of the whole organism and the fact that change is reflected as an aspect of the organism. Palombo’s work is responsive to the important ideas of the sociobiologist Edmund O. Wilson, whom Jonathan Weiner quoted as saying, "If everything else in biology is the product of evolution then surely we have to constantly examine and reexamine the human mind and human social behavior as products of evolution" (p. 220).
           Palombo argues compellingly that psychoanalysis induces changes within patients that are evolutionary in nature in that they alter adaptations from less effective to more effective. He also argues that these often small, nonlinear changes can lead to transformations with major enduring impact as new engrams. His views are in agreement with those of Eric Kandel, suggesting that the brain remains plastic throughout most of the life cycle and that new learning brought about by psychoanalysis can structurally alter the brain and the potential of the individual, which, like the brain, is changeable.
           Palombo points out that it is not essential for the reader to go through all of the chapters on computer models of self-sustaining and self-modifying systems to get the gist of his ideas and use them clinically. The concepts presented in these chapters are complex and require frequent rereadings and cogitation. However, reading these chapters is important not only as a strenuous mental exercise, which is good for the brain, but because they describe recent developments in post-Darwinian, modern evolutionary thinking. Evolution is often a glacial process, but it need not be, as documented in Jonathan Weiner’s exquisite volume, The Beak of the Finch, which Palombo refers to in this book and integrates into his ideas.
           Detailed clinical vignettes support the hypothesis that evolution is occurring in patients undergoing psychoanalytic treatment. Palombo’s writing also documents that he is a brilliant, creative thinker and one of the leading modern theory builders in psychoanalysis.
           For those interested in the advancement of psychoanalytic theory and understanding, for those desiring to break the intellectually stifling bonds of orthodoxy that have hurt psychoanalysis, for those feeling the need of a strong, intellectual, up-to-date perspective on psychoanalysis as an important science and an increasingly refined and clinically important art, this book is a major contribution. It richly deserves to be read.

  1. Palombo SR: Dreaming and Memory: A New Information Processing Model. New York, Basic Books, 1978
  2. Weiner J: Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior. New York, Alfred A Knopf, 1999
  3. Weiner J: The Beak of the Finch. New York, Alfred A Knopf, 1994

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