Freud in China

“They don’t realize we are bringing them the plague.” Freud upon arriving in NY

I did most of my graduate work in the experimental psychology of learning and motivation, where I sought to test Freudian hypotheses in the laboratory. Like many beginning psychology students, Freud's analysis of mental processes appealed to me, as did the importance of early experience in his accounts of adult behavior.

Anxiety also played a central role in his theory of the neuroses and because I was young and beset with all the anxieties of youth, I was often preoccupied with the strenuous and usually unsuccessful effort to deal with it. What an excellent topic to study, I thought.

So, in the manner of a clinician, I set about to try to find a way to conquer anxiety. However, my dissertation was carried out in the laboratory, rather than the clinic. The research employed an animal model of human anxiety, an approach that was highly regarded at the time. In those days there was a good deal of interest on the part of clinicians in applying findings derived from animal models in therapeutic settings, a practice that has all but disappeared today.

It was against this background that I read Evan Osnos’ recent essay in The New Yorker on the introduction of psychoanalysis to China. While Freudian psychoanalytic theory and practice no longer exerts the influence it once did in this country, it seems to have become increasingly popular among the Chinese.

Apparently this is largely the result of the psychiatrist Elsie Snyder who according to Osnos, “…fell in love with the world of Sigmund Freud at a public library in the Bronx when she was fourteen….An hour of excavating the unconscious to her was like a string quartet, in which, as she put it recently, “one could hear all four instruments and all four melodies and how they fit together.”

While most therapists in this country have rejected the majority of psychoanalytic tenets, they still ring true to Snyder who, together with other American analysts, has been conducting psychoanalysis both in China and over the Web and Skype. Snyder says, “They’re [Chinese] are in love with psychoanalysis the way people my age were in love with it in New York in the fifties and sixties.” This makes perfect sense to me and may very well still be true for many young people when they are first introduced to Freud.

While the Chinese may find the concept of talking about their private troubles a refreshing alternative to “eating bitterness,” this approach is not without its detractors. Osnos cites the remarks of Frederic Crews:

“We have had a bad habit of dumping disapproved or dangerous materials—cigarettes, chloroflurocarbons, toxic components of old computers—on less developed countries without regard for the consequences. Will this be another instance, in the realm of psychological treatment.”….“Troubled people in China are entitled to get the best Western knowledge about their conditions.”

But what is the best Western knowledge about the practice of psychotherapy? A large number of well-controlled studies have indicated that almost all therapies have similar effects with very little difference between them. In addition, the effects are not large and sometimes indistinguishable from those of a placebo treatment.

We know that insight about a person’s problems, one of the fundamental Freudian assumptions, does little to overcome them. It may give a reasonable explanation of their origins but is only one of many steps required to eliminate them. And whatever effects such knowledge has, can also be achieved with other therapeutic approaches.

Therapies work because they establish a connection with another person, a connection that provides an opportunity to talk about conflicts and anxieties, worries and emotions. And it does so in a benign, accepting setting with someone who listens with concern and doesn’t take issue with what you say.

Psychoanalysis is one many situations like this and while it is reasonable to question its value, it does give a person, including those who live in China, a vocabulary for discussing whatever it is that ails them in a setting that, at least for now, may not otherwise be available.