Neuro-Psychoanalysis and Pain. Neurosciences between Natural Science and Cultural Studies

Project description

The neurosciences are currently experiencing a shift in the boundaries between nature and culture on two fronts. On the one hand, they are attempting to determine the neurophysiological foundations behind cultural production and aesthetic perception through the use of imaging technology, such as in the field of neuroaesthetics (S. Zeki). On the other, numerous social and cultural dimensions of human development, which have been deemed significant in understanding the neurophysiological basis of human consciousness, are now topics of debate in the »social neurosciences«, specifically in »developmental social neuroscience« and »cultural neuroscience«. These more recent trends have highlighted the brain’s incredible lifelong plasticity as well as its physical, social, and cultural embeddedness. As a consequence, a methodological gap opens up between different disciplinary explanatory models: between neuronal activity, subjective experience, and culturally preset forms of expression.

With these issues in mind, the project builds on parallel sets of interests. It investigates the development of neuro-psychoanalysis as a discipline and participates in an international network that facilitates an ongoing dialogue between the humanities, cultural science, and neuroscience. Since 2015, the project has begun to focus on the example of pain as a field study that we can extrapolate in order to explain more generally the epistemological conditions and historical-scientific stakes that have both allowed for and hindered a productive exchange between disciplines.

Program funding through the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) 2014–2019
Head researcher(s): Stephanie Eichberg, Sigrid Weigel
Partner(s): Vanessa Lux (Bochum)



Associate Researcher(s): Stephanie Eichberg, Sigrid Weigel
Partner(s): Vanessa Lux (Bochum)

The project is actively engaged in shaping neuro-psychoanalysis – in both theory and practice – as it attempts to observe and bridge, if not close, existing methodological and epistemological gaps through dialogue, exchange, and the integration of different bodies of knowledge. In conjunction with these efforts, the research project further asks what contributions philological, cultural-scientific, and psychological approaches can make to help bridge these gaps – each with its own specific area of expertise, for example, in the analysis of texts, language, gestures, imagery, and other forms of expression. To this end, the research and collaborations that began as part of the ZfL Project Freud and the Sciences (2008–2010), will continue to inform our current work, including, among others, our collaborations with the Sigmund-Freud-Institute in Frankfurt and the International Neuropsychoanalysis Society. An international network has grown out of these efforts enabling a productive dialogue between the humanities/cultural sciences and neuroscience over the last few years.

The dialogue has several focal points. It aims at reconstructing the interdisciplinary conceptual history behind central terms and concepts (for example, Einfühlung/empathy, imagination/simulation, plasticity) and the respective epistemological conditions that have shaped their use in specific disciplines. It also explores the implicit knowledge that informs research practices and therapy. Another special focus looks at the relationship between data collection practices in the humanities versus the natural sciences. The tension between the epistemes of interpretation versus measurement is understood as constitutive of neuro-psychoanalytical undertakings.

At the symposium on empathy, Empathy. A Neurobiological Capacity and Its Cultural and Conceptual History (January 2013, Berlin), researchers discussed the variegated conceptual and cultural history of empathy and its predecessor, Einfühlung (F. Th. Vischer, R. Vischer, Th. Lipps, and others), on the basis of the discovery of mirror neurons and neuroscientific research on empathy. The mirror neuron mechanism is characterized by our neurons’ general ability to internally simulate the actions and intentions that we observe in others. This neuronal aspect has been met with diverse interdisciplinary processes of transfer and translation between aesthetic theory, moral philosophy, political theory, psychology, psychoanalysis, and the neurosciences. These processes in turn influence the moral dimension of our current understanding of empathy and the concept’s association with related terms such as sympathy (Mitgefühl), compassion (Mitleid), and prosocial behavior.

The ability to internally simulate the actions and intentions of others is apparently based on unmediated “as-if” constructs, which in turn are related to one’s own personal experiences. At a subsequent symposium on figures of the imagination and simulation, »As-if« – Figures of Imagination, Simulation, and Transposition in the Relation to the Self, Others, and the Arts (part of the Villa Vigoni-Conversations series, June 2014, Loveno die Menaggio, Italy), scholars explored the rich body of knowledge on these as-if constructions that the humanities and cultural science research have acquired. The symposium also looked at other operations, including that of the imagination, simulation, fiction, thought experiments, imitation, mimicry/facial expression, etc. and what significance they might have for current psychological, psychoanalytical, and neuroscientific research on intersubjectivity and embodied knowledge.

Pain Research. A Case Study on the Relationship between Neuroscientific, Psychological/Psychoanalytical, and Clinical Interpretive Analysis

Associate Researcher(s): Stephanie Eichberg

Pain as a corporeal and mental experience represents, more than any other phenomenon, the gap between the various explanatory models used both in science and in society at large. In the 1960s the emergence of the so-called gate control theory revolutionized pain research with its claims about the influence of emotions and consciousness on the peripheral perception of pain. This shift signaled the integration of psychological (affective, emotive, and cognitive) and cultural aspects of pain into neurophysiological research, while the fields of psychology and psychiatry also began to rely on biological frames of reference in which pain could be studied and manipulated using neuroscientific methods. Thus, researchers interpret the fact that individuals experience pain in unique and personal ways according to very different premises, with some focusing on brain anatomy, neural activity, and epigenetic make-up, while others emphasize culturally predispositioned forms of expressing pain and psychological conflicts.

Pain research, in this respect, does not constitute a unified field of scientific inquiry. The various disciplines that take up pain as an object of study have their own ways of conceptualizing it – from neuronal correlates to complex mental functions – and equally diverse methods of analyzing expressions of pain. Inherent to nearly all of these approaches are implicit, that is pre-scientific, assumptions, such as the idea that the phenomenon of pain can reveal the mechanisms of conscious and subconscious processes. This assumption has long held sway over the field of psychoanalysis, yet its premise is still an experimental object of research in neurophysiology. The debates surrounding the paradoxical phenomenon of ›unconscious pain‹, which calls into question the general definition of pain as something that is ›experienced‹, have in turn led to new conceptualizations of the body and mind within the neurosciences.

This project investigates the extent to which different epistemological practices and semiotic systems involved in studying pain can be brought together and what impact this might have on the treatment of pain in a clinical context. The focus will be on historical and current trends that establish connections between various approaches to the phenomenon of pain and on the potential for a productive synthesis of these approaches exemplified perhaps by the birth of »neuro-psychoanalysis« as a discipline in its own right.


Vanessa Lux, Sigrid Weigel (ed./eds.)

Epistemic Problems and Cultural-Historical Perspectives of a Cross-Disciplinary Concept

Palgrave Studies in the Theory and History of Psychology
Palgrave Macmillan UK, London 2017, 325 pages
ISBN: 978-1-137-51298-7
Stephanie Eichberg, Christine Kutschbach


Berlin 2016, 32 pages
DOI: 10.13151/IJ.2016.08


10 Nov 2017 · 11.15 am

Stephanie Eichberg: »Cell-deep and world-sized.« The challenge of perceiving pain from a humanities point of view

Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Karlstraße 4, 69117 Heidelberg

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21 Sep 2017 · 10.15 am

Stephanie Eichberg: From metaphor to molecule. Decoding the languages of pain

University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT (UK)

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Lecture as part of the exhibition »No pain no game«
17 May 2016 · 6.30 pm

Stephanie Eichberg: Schmerzgrenzen und Reizschwellen. Wie kann man Schmerz (er)messen?

Museum für Kommunikation, Leipziger Str. 16, 10117 Berlin

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19 Jun 2014 · 7.00 pm

Sigrid Weigel: Spiegelfechtereien. Die Spiegelszene im Zeitalter der Spiegelneuronen

Radisson Blu Scandinavia, Karl-Arnold-Platz 5, 40474 Düsseldorf, Europasaal

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Villa Vigoni-Gespräche 2014 (Internationales Symposium)
03 Jun 2014 – 06 Jun 2014

»As-if« – Figures of imagination, simulation, and transposition in the relation to the self, others, and the arts

Villa Vigoni. Deutsch-Italienisches Zentrum, Via Giulio Vigoni 1, 22017 Loveno di Menaggio (CO), Italien

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10 Jan 2013 – 12 Jan 2013

Empathy. A neurobiological capacity and its cultural and conceptual history

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, 3. Et., Trajekte-Tagungsraum

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Podiumsgespräch mit Sigrid Weigel
06 May 2012 · 11.00 am

Mitleid und Empathie

Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, Lingnerplatz 1, 01069 Dresden

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25 Jun 2011 · 2.00 pm

Sigrid Weigel: Embodied Simulation and the Coding-Problem of Simulation Theory. Interventions from Cultural Sciences

RADIALSYSTEM V, Holzmarktstr. 33, 10243 Berlin

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10 Jul 2010 · 2.15 pm

Sigrid Weigel: Erbschaft und Entstellung. Religionsgeschichte und Psychoanalyse

International Psychoanalytic University Berlin, Stromstr. 2, 10555 Berlin, Hörsaalgebäude

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Media Response

21 Oct 2016
Wo tut's denn weh? Vom Sinn des Schmerzes

Radio program on the topic Schmerz (pain), with Stephanie Eichberg, in: HR2 Kultur, program: Der Tag, 21 Oct 2016

09 May 2016
Schmerzgrenzen und Reizschwellen. Wie kann man Schmerz (er)messen?

Radiointerview with Stephanie Eichberg, in: RBB Kulturradio, Sendung Wissen 09. May 2016, 9.05 a.m. (6:09 min)