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Biology of FreedomReview - Biology of Freedom
Neural Plasticity, Experience, and the Unconscious
by François Ansermet and Pierre Magistretti
Other Press, 2007
Review by Mark Dietrich Tschaepe
Feb 12th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 7)

In their recent book, Biology of Freedom: Neural Plasticity, Experience, and the Unconscious, François Ansermet (psychoanalyst) and Pierre Magistretti (neuroscientist) attempt to synthesize psychoanalysis and neurobiology, arguing that the two are not only related in origin, but also that one provides confirmatory evidence for the other. The book is nicely organized, providing neurobiological evidence and examples, followed by psychoanalytic concepts that follow from the neurobiological foundations. Most of the neurobiological data is taken from studies in learning and memory, which Ansermet and Magistretti utilize as foundational in relation to the unconscious. The link between the scientific data and the psychoanalytic theory is neural plasticity, which the authors proclaim as the phenomenon by which the organic marks the mental, and the mental reciprocally marks the organic.  Principles from neurobiology, such as summation and long-term potentiation, are explained and diagrammed for the reader uninitiated in neuroscience. Psychoanalytic concepts, such as drive and the pleasure principle, are also well-explained and diagrammed for the reader unfamiliar with such concepts (most of which are based in Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, specifically). Each chapter provides heuristic diagrams in which new concepts are added to those previously explained. The book is, in many ways, an introduction to both neurobiology and psychoanalysis, centered on the argument that neural plasticity provides a dynamic basis by which to understand the unconscious.  As an introduction to such a synthesis between what have often been understood as two disparate fields, Biology of Freedom successfully achieves its task.

Given the accessibility of Biology of Freedom, it is an appropriate book for a wide variety of audiences. Primarily, there are three groups who could greatly benefit from the book: psychoanalysts interested in recent neuroscientific accounts of memory and learning; neuroscientists curious about psychoanalytic concepts; and general readers who are intrigued by both neurobiology and psychoanalysis, but have little knowledge of either.  In addition, this would be an ideal book for an advanced undergraduate or graduate seminar focused on the intersection of neuroscience and psychoanalysis, the history of both, or the philosophy of psychology. Although later chapters of the book, such as "Redibis Non Morieris: The Plasticity of Becoming and the Becoming of Plasticity" might initially seem a bit complex to the lay reader, Ansermet and Magistretti successfully unpack concepts like diachronic stimuli and neural inscription in a fashion satisfactory for most audiences to understand.

Readers aligned with psychoanalytic schools opposed to Lacan's reading of Freud will probably find at least a few aspects of the book to disagree with, such as the linguistic image of the unconscious presented by the authors. This should not undercut the value of providing foundations for psychoanalytic concepts through the use of neurobiology. In the same regard, specific biases concerning neurobiological accounts of memory consolidation or learning should not undermine the book's success at providing neuroscientists with an access point for understanding psychoanalysis.

Overall, this is a pleasurably readable book that brings together two intriguing methods for understanding how we come to experience the world. The authors have provided both a cogent argument for linking neurobiology and psychoanalysis through the concept of plasticity, as well as a valuable introduction to concepts from both fields.

© 2008 Mark Dietrich Tschaepe

Mark Dietrich Tschaepe, Southern Illinois University, Department of Philosophy

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