Innovation in Psychology

A glimpse into the invention of psychotherapy.

Posted Dec 11, 2011

This blog is about innovation and invention, and I just got a glimpse into the creation of one of humanity's greatest inventions—psychotherapy. A new film, A Dangerous Method, is now opening in various cities, and provides an unflinching perspective on the invention of "the talking cure," as Sigmund Freud called it. In addition to being a terrific movie, it also provides some insights about the nature of creativity and invention.

The film was directed by David Cronenberg (director of A History of Violence and Crash), and stars Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung and Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud. The film begins with a remarkable performance by Keira Knightley, who plays Sabina Spielrein, a deeply troubled but beautiful young woman who serves as Jung's patient for an experimental treatment known as psychoanalysis. As they proceed with treatment, she reveals a childhood marred by humiliation and beatings from her authoritarian father, and further uncovers a disturbing sexual element to her dysfunction. Happily, her healing is beautiful to watch, and in the film, we're constantly reminded that in those days, the state of the art in psychiatric treatment consisted of purgatives and emetics, bloodletting, cold baths,, and restraints.

Sabina is the midwife of modern psychotherapy, as it is through Jung's correspondence with Freud on Sabina's case that the two forge this friendship that gave birth to modern psychotherapy. Soon, the relationship between Jung and Freud deepens, an illicit love affair blossoms between Spielrein and Jung, and some delicious BDSM sexplay is provided to spice up the movie. More importantly, her treatment is successful—she was essentially cured in under a year—and she winds up becoming Jung's Pygmalion, by pursuing a career as a psychiatrist with Jung's encouragement.

I've noticed that when actors portray historical figures, the filmmaker is usually prone to romanticize and idolize the protagonist. This film bravely chooses instead to reveal as much "shadow" as possible, as this provides for a deeper, multi-dimensional characterization and well, maximizes the chances of an Oscar. And so, Jung's indulgence in a sexual relationship with Sabina proves to be a powerful and healing process for her; normalizing her "taboo" desires to experience pain via spankings and other submissive behaviors. It clearly strengthens her mental health while weakening Jung's. In fact, Freud was appalled by Jung's taking his patient as a lover, a fact that Jung only reluctantly revealed in shame.

In a letter to the theologist Theodor Bovet, Jung reveals the personal roots of his own shadow: "I would hardly have been able to formulate the concept 'shadow', if its existence had not been my greatest experience, and most certainly not alone in others, but in myself... In fact, my shadow is so big, that I was not able to overlook it in my life plan. Yes, I had to consider it as a necessary part of my personality, draw the consequences from this insight, and take responsibility for it. Through many bitter experiences I learnt that the sin which one has or is, may lead to remorse, but cannot be lifted. Now I know where and how one sizes the devil." 

In his letters, he refers to the "polygamic components" of his psyche only in general terms. It is in this film that we can finally know what sin Jung is referring to exactly, which provides us with a better understanding of how his own shadow played a part in the invention of psychotherapy. It must be remembered that in Jung's theory, the shadow does not consist only of morally repressible tendencies, but also displays a number of good qualities, such as instinct, insights... and creative impulses. In this context, when you think about films about innovation, like The Social Network, all that reprehensible behavior by the founder suddenly makes sense. This is the first lesson about innovation from this film... creativity springs from the whole psyche, as the shadow is a necessary component of the creativity machine that is the human brain.

One other interesting historical note has to do with the rift that slowly formed between Jung and Freud. Freud essentially declared Jung to be the heir apparent of psychoanalysis. However, in 1912, Jung's interest in mysticism led to a fundamental disagreement about the foundations of psychoanalysis, and Freud's relationship with Jung rapidly fell apart. In the film, Jung's interest in synchronicity slammed like a tsunami against Freud's concrete paradigm. The film plays out a critical dialogue in which Jung demonstrates precognition, or what he called "temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events." All Freud could do was puff a little harder on his cigar. After the rift, the two rarely spoke, and Jung eventually pursued the investigation with a Nobel prize winning physicist, Wolfgang Pauli. He even chatted with Albert Einstein about it.

Freud's unrelenting desire to "save psychotherapy" from a medical establishment that was hell bent on destroying this emergent practice—forced him to reject anything that reeked of mysticism. In this case, Jung is clearly the true innovator within the group of innovators, and Freud plays the part of the organizational anti-virus. This is the second lesson about innovation from this film; even within an innovation, there will be a source of internal resistance based on fear.

Incidentally, Dr. Pauli made an effort to investigate Jung's synchronicity phenomenon, and even coauthored a paper with Jung on the subject. Pauli knew that Jung had discovered something important with the concept of synchronicity, because he began to find deep meaning in his dreams. Symbols from his dreams would synchronistically appear in letters from colleagues and statements made by fellow researchers and friends. This provided Pauli with direct evidence that there might be something to this mystical stuff, and provides a slightly less provocative lesson that great scientific insights could be made by allowing the mind to follow non-mechanistic and intuitive paths. This is a reinforcement of the first lesson, that creativity is sourced within the whole psyche, which not only includes the shadow but the mystical unconscious as well.

What Freud failed to see was that just as an individual needs to integrate his or her shadow and mine the unconscious to achieve individuation, society needs to do so as well, to achieve coadunation. The collective unconscious is where the unknowable truth of "acausal coincidence" hides, and it is only by embracing the investigation of synchronicity, PSI, and mysticism that a society can truly achieve its own unpredictable form of global self-actualization. Freud's subconscious resistance to Jung's natural curiosity about miraculous coincidence, or what I call "concretization," provided the International Psychoanalytical Association with the cathexis that eventually led to Jung's resignation from that body. Only the most courageous scientists are brave enough to follow the evidence no matter where it leads. It is the lesser scientist in all of us who lets fears about funding and societal acceptance stop us from exploring truly undiscovered territories.

The conclusion of the film cleverly illustrates Freud's claim that his treatment could turn neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness. The unclimactic dénouement—providing no cathartic dramatic relief whatsoever—brings a married and pregnant Sabina back to visit Jung, to find that his marriage has survived and that he has a new mistress. Jung has learnt so much about the nature of the psyche, but in doing so has damaged those close to him, and even damaged himself to the point of a nervous breakdown. It was as if sanity was a transfusion between Sabina and Jung. They reach a bittersweet closure, as she pronounces that her unborn child should have been Jung's and he professes that she was the greatest love of his life.

It's a remarkably intelligent film, with an extraordinary story and actors that any indie director would kill for. It provides a rare glimpse into the reality, both legend and shadow, of three unique people who invented one of the most profound technologies of the 20th century—the ability to heal the human mind. A Dangerous Method is a must-see film for anyone interested in the human psyche and the birth of modern psychotherapy.