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Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute & Society

Howard Shevrin, Ph.D.


There could be no better occasion on which to honor the contributions of Dr. Howard Shevrin than on the anniversary of Freud's 150th birthday. While most of Freud's followers have concentrated on developing and refining psychoanalysis as a clinical discipline, Dr. Shevrin has devoted a significant portion of his career to laying the groundwork for a basic science of psychoanalysis.

There are those who believe that psychoanalysis is complete unto itself--that a basic science of psychoanalysis is unnecessary. Freud would not be included in that group. He began his career as a neurologist. His early “Project for a Scientific Psychology” was a neurological model of the mind, but limitations in 19th century science led him to set this model aside in favor of a psychological model, which he developed through the use of observational rather than experimental methods.

For the greater part of the last century, a clear division existed between those studying the mind and those studying the brain, with psychoanalytic theorists elaborating only the psychological model of the mind, leaving exploration of the brain to medicine and cognitive neuroscience. Understandably, since the enterprises are so different, neither group has made it a priority to communicate with and learn from the other.

The study of mind concerns itself with the realm of the immaterial and insubstantial--the world of affects, dreams, motivations, and fantasies. It cannot be studied directly and requires as its only apparatus another human mind. It thus has a close affinity with the arts. The study of brain, on the other hand, concerns itself with the realm of the material--concrete entities that can be seen, weighed, measured and counted--and so is unambiguously a field of science. The two fields would appear to have little in common. Yet, as Stravinsky in his "Poetics of Music" observes, "Contrast is everywhere. One has only to take note of it. Similarity is hidden; it must be sought out, and it is found after the most exhaustive efforts."

Are there hidden similarities between these seemingly disparate fields? Is it possible that the vexing "mind-body problem" of philosophy can be productively addressed from within a union of well-developed psychoanalytic theory and comprehensive understanding of how the brain functions?

The question of whether the psychological and neurological models of the mind can be integrated into a unified whole is one that will be of considerable interest in the coming decades, and it is one that Dr. Shevrin has been pursuing since the beginning of his career. He has been engaged for almost 50 years in testing the basic assumptions of psychoanalysis--notably the unconscious, repression, and defenses--in a laboratory context, where they can be demonstrated and validated outside of the clinical situation in which they are more familiarly known and observed. His research, which colleague Mayer Subrin, M.D. deems deserving of a Nobel Prize, is centered at the intersection of three separate disciplines--psychoanalytic theory, cognitive psychology and psychophysiology--each employing a distinctly different method and a different frame of reference.

In 1968 Dr. Shevrin published the first report of brain indicators of unconscious processes. This work appeared in Science, the premier journal in science, which has a worldwide circulation. A year earlier he had published the first study demonstrating distinctive primary and secondary process unconscious effects on dreaming that depended on the psychophysiological state of the brain. More recently, work from his laboratory has provided brain evidence for unconscious conflict and unconscious inhibition in phobic patients.

Dr. Shevrin was lauded in 2003 for his contributions to psychoanalysis with the prestigious Mary S. Sigourney Award, one of only four that were granted in that year. This year, he received the Arnold Pfeffer Award for the best paper on neuro-psychoanalysis in 2005. Recognition may be on the horizon from his neuroscience colleagues as well. "We are on the threshold of important and ground-breaking changes," he said recently. "Clinical psychoanalysis is under attack--as a therapy--from insurance and managed care. But psychoanalysis is also a powerful theory of mind, and in important quarters of the scientific world, that is beginning to be acknowledged." Two Nobel Prize Laureates, Eric Kandel and Gerald Edelman, have both recognized that psychoanalysis offers the only comprehensive theory of mind, and recent findings in cognitive neuroscience have begun to converge on phenomena that can only be understood by reference to the existence of the unconscious.

Dr. Shevrin is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychiatry, where he heads the Program of Research in Neuro-Psychoanalysis, the only one of its kind in a major department of psychiatry. The program is co-directed by Linda A.W. Brakel, M.D., a member of the Michigan Institute who has made important contributions to our understanding of primary process and the philosophical foundations of psychoanalysis, and Michael Snodgrass, Ph.D., a pychodynamic psychotherapist and cognitive psychologist who has contributed significantly to placing the methodology of subliminal perception on a sound scientific footing.

Dr. Shevrin holds a joint appointment in the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. He has over 150 publications to his credit and he wrote, together with his collaborators, Conscious and Unconscious Processes: Psychodynamic, Cognitive, and Physiological Convergences. He is the author of The Dream Interpreters, an award-winning psychoanalytic novel in verse form. Retired from clinical practice, he continues his research program and remains Director of The Ormond and Hazel Hunt Laboratory in Ann Arbor.

By Kathleen Moore, Ph.D.
Editor, Free Associations