Why Psychoanalysis Isn't Going to The Dogs

Only humans can reflect on their experience

Posted Jul 20, 2013

What is uniquely human? What separates us from all other animals? It may seem obvious to some, but philosophers and scientists have had many different answers to this question over the years, and the debate goes on. For example, my brother, a neurobiologist, often reminds me that animal and human behavior are not as far apart as we would like to think. In fact in his book, "Bats Sing, Mice Giggle,” he makes the point that bats really do sing and mice actually giggle!

"That may be so,” I say to him, "but can bats or mice engage in psychoanalysis"?

My particular answer to the question of what is uniquely human has evolved out of what I do everyday for a living: listening and talking to humans.

So, here is my perspective on what is uniquely human, as seen through the lens of psychoanalytic work.

However, I have to start with a story about an animal - my dog, Oliver Chester Spice.

'Ollie', as he is better known, has learned to scratch on the glass doors leading out to our deck in three different places. If he scratches at the very edge, then he needs to go out. If he scratches in the middle of the glass pane, then he is asking for his usual after-dinner leftover treat. If he scratches where the two doors meet, then his water dish needs refilling.

No one has made any effort to teach Ollie these tricks. He has established this pattern purely through trial and error while living with us. Indeed, one can ask, who has trained whom?

You may be wondering what this has to do with us humans and psychoanalysis.

Well, most psychoanalytic models are based, more or less, on the theory that we take experiences had in one context and, mostly unconsciously, generalize them to many other, often very different contexts. This is the basis of what psychoanalysts call "transference."

Being clever organisms, we can do this really well. That is, we can generalize these response patterns to many different situations, often with barely recognizable similarities--a certain smell of the ground after a summer rain can bring me right back to my childhood in India, even though I may be thousands of miles and many years away from the original location. Or consider a war veteran, now startled by sounds, like the gunshot sound of a car backfiring, that were everyday experiences before his or her tour of duty.

The capacity for establishing associations is useful, but as just illustrated, it can also get us into trouble. Conflicts, anxieties, fears, phobias, expectations, all get acquired through an association between an experience in one situation that gets applied--and often misapplied--to other situations, at other times.

For example, a woman in a relationship finds herself constantly fearing that her partner will cheat on her, just like her father who cheated on her mother. Her partner looks nothing like her father, not even the same gender. Yet the association of intimacy with cheating is strong enough to put her relationship at risk.

However, this too is not unique to humans!

Once we left Ollie with my in-laws for a day. When we came back they told us that Ollie kept going to their back door and scratching on it. As a result their wooden door had scratch marks down one side! Well, that was the last time we got to leave our dog there.

Ollie had taken his associations to one door, and transferred them to a very different door in a different place.

From the moment we are born, we begin to form associations that get more and more complex. Research has shown that this can occur within milliseconds as baby and mother interact. Even before a baby can use a smile to express joy, she learns to associate smiling with the reciprocal smile of her mother.

However, given the somewhat greater complexity of our brains (compared to Ollie's) the possibilities of misapplication also grow exponentially.

One way to understand psychoanalytic treatment is that it attempts to make unconscious associations conscious. Because the original experience that established the association often remains out of awareness, we can need help in figuring out what associations have led to what behavior.

However, if it was simply a matter of tracing the line of associations, well I could put Ollie on the couch (given that he spends much of his time on one anyway!) and come up with a formulation of his behavior patterns. In fact, Cesar Millan (The Dog Whisperer) could do it much better than me!

This is where we begin to see the uniquely human.

What is startling about our human brains is our capacity to be self-aware and self-reflective. Not our capacity to learn through associations, but rather our capacity to unlearn.

Psychoanalysis makes use of this human capacity to unlearn.

In psychoanalytic treatment there is not only a gradual recognition of our many unconscious associations, but the mobilization--under the right conditions of a safe and caring relationship with a therapist--of our capacity for self-reflection, self-appraisal and self-healing.

Psychoanalysis thus utilizes the most uniquely human of human traits--creativity, imagination, and fantasy--to develop the capacity to be self reflective, to change, to unlearn.

This is what is fascinating about, and essential to, psychoanalytic treatment. This is what makes listening and talking to humans a deeply moving experience. Through a process of increasing self-awareness, we humans can acquire a new dimension of choice. A degree of choice that Ollie, or my brother’s bats, are unlikely to ever experience, smart as they might be.

Gurmeet S. Kanwal, M.D., is Supervising Psychoanalyst and Teaching Faculty at The William Alanson White Institute, and Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University. He is past president of the William Alanson White Psychoanalytic Society, and on the Editorial Board of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis. He is in private practice in NYC and Westchester.