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Psychother Psychosom. 2007;76(3):141-53.

How does our brain constitute defense mechanisms? First-person neuroscience and psychoanalysis.

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Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, University of Magdeburg, Magdeburg, Germany.


Current progress in the cognitive and affective neurosciences is constantly influencing the development of psychoanalytic theory and practice. However, despite the emerging dialogue between neuroscience and psychoanalysis, the neuronal processes underlying psychoanalytic constructs such as defense mechanisms remain unclear. One of the main problems in investigating the psychodynamic-neuronal relationship consists in systematically linking the individual contents of first-person subjective experience to third-person observation of neuronal states. We therefore introduced an appropriate methodological strategy, 'first-person neuroscience', which aims at developing methods for systematically linking first- and third-person data. The utility of first-person neuroscience can be demonstrated by the example of the defense mechanism of sensorimotor regression as paradigmatically observed in catatonia. Combined psychodynamic and imaging studies suggest that sensorimotor regression might be associated with dysfunction in the neural network including the orbitofrontal, the medial prefrontal and the premotor cortices. In general sensorimotor regression and other defense mechanisms are psychoanalytic constructs that are hypothesized to be complex emotional-cognitive constellations. In this paper we suggest that specific functional mechanisms which integrate neuronal activity across several brain regions (i.e. neuronal integration) are the physiological substrates of defense mechanisms. We conclude that first-person neuroscience could be an appropriate methodological strategy for opening the door to a better understanding of the neuronal processes of defense mechanisms and their modulation in psychoanalytic psychotherapy.

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