Researchers believe measurement of brain waves confirm Sigmund Freud’s contention that anxiety disorders such as phobias are the result of unconscious conflict.
In new research, Shevrin Howard Shevrin, Ph.D., presented research on 11 individuals diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Each received a series of psychoanalytically oriented diagnostic sessions conducted by a psychoanalyst.
From these interviews the psychoanalysts inferred what underlying unconscious conflict might be causing the person’s anxiety disorder. Words capturing the nature of the unconscious conflict were then selected from the interviews and used as stimuli in the laboratory.
Researchers also selected words related to each patient’s experience of anxiety disorder symptoms. Although these words differed from patient to patient, results showed that they functioned in the same way.
These verbal stimuli were presented without an individuals’ awareness (subliminal) at one thousandth of a second, and supra-liminally (at the conscious level) at 30 milliseconds.
A control category of stimuli was added that had no relationship to the unconscious conflict or anxiety symptom. While the stimuli were presented to the patients, scalp electrodes recorded the brain responses to them.
In a previous experiment, Shevrin — who has long probed the intersection between neuroscience and psychoanalysis – had demonstrated that time-frequency features, a type of brain activity, showed that patients grouped the unconscious conflict stimuli together only when they were presented subliminally.
But the conscious symptom-related stimuli showed the reverse pattern – brain activity was better grouped together when patients viewed those words supraliminally.
“Only when the unconscious conflict words were presented unconsciously could the brain see them as connected,” Shevrin notes. “What the analysts put together from the interview session made sense to the brain only unconsciously.”
Researchers then sought to directly compare the effect of the unconscious conflict stimuli on the conscious symptom stimuli.
To do this, the unconscious conflict stimuli were presented immediately prior to the conscious symptom stimuli and a new measurement was made, of the brain’s own alpha wave frequency, at 8-13 cycles per second, that had been shown to inhibit various cognitive functions.
Analysis of alpha brain waves suggested the inhibitory effect correlated with the amount of alpha associated with the conscious symptom alpha — but only when the unconscious conflict stimuli were presented subliminally.
No results were obtained when control stimuli replaced the symptom words. From a psychoanalytic standpoint, the findings of inhibition suggest that repression might be involved.
“These results create a compelling case that unconscious conflicts cause or contribute to the anxiety symptoms the patient is experiencing,” says Shevrin.
“These findings and the interdisciplinary methods used — which draw on psychoanalysis, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience — demonstrate that it is possible to develop an interdisciplinary science drawing upon psychoanalytic theory.”
He notes that a prominent critic of psychoanalysis and Freudian theory, Adolf Grunbaum, Ph.D., professor of the philosophy of science at the University of Pittsburgh, has expressed satisfaction that the new results, when added to previous evidence, show that fundamental psychoanalytic concepts can indeed be tested in empirical ways.