Carhart-Harris: Neuroscience and Freudian Concepts

Here are some notes taken off an interesting article, entitled “The default-mode, ego-functions and free-energy: a neurobiological account of Freudian ideas” that can be downloaded online. See bibliography below.

Researchers developed a strategy of comparing Freudian concepts of primary and secondary processing of cognition with fMRI neuroimaging, by studying brain activity under psychedelic- induced altered states.

The ego and the secondary process
 1. Default energy store or reservoir, which possesses the property of being spontaneously or tonically active.
 2. Receives and ‘contains’ or ‘represses’ endogenous excitation.
 3. Minimizes free-energy.
 4. Integrates or binds the primary process and its representational system (the id) into a broader, more cohesive, composite organization (the ego).
 5. Specific ontogenetic development.
 6. Supports reality-testing and perceptual processing.
 7. Supports conscious awareness, cognition and directed attention.
 8. Possesses internally and externally-focused components, which are inversely related (anti-correlated).
 9. Excessive-engagement of internally-focused component and impoverished engagement of externally-focused network during pathological withdrawal; e.g. in depression and schizophrenia.
10. Failure of systems to minimize free-energy (suppress endogenous excitation) results in disturbed affect, cognition and perception; as seen in non-ordinary states such as dreaming and psychosis.

The id and primary process thinking

11. Characteristics of the system unconscious/the id and primary process thinking: i.e. a primitive, ‘magical’ or animisitic style of thinking, characterized neurophysiologically by ‘free’ movement of energy. One can think of primary process thinking in evolutionary terms as a ‘protoconsciousness’.


Psychopathology and Neuroscience

Studies and papers written of the DMN through neuro-imaging are producing data to show the activity level differences in brain activity of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease (Royall 2012), Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia (Öngür 2010), Post traumatic Stress disorder (Lanius 2010).



Buckner, R. L., Andrews-Hanna, J. R., & Schacter, D. L. The brain’s default network: anatomy, function, and relevance to disease Ann NY Acad Sci 2008; 1124: 1-38.

Carhart-Harris, R. L., & Friston, K. J. (2010). The default-mode, ego-functions and free-energy: a neurobiological account of Freudian ideas. Brain, 133(4),, 1265-1283.

Lanius, R. A., Bluhm, R. L., Coupland, N. J., Hegadoren, K. M., Rowe, B., Theberge, J., … & Brimson, M. (2010). Default mode network connectivity as a predictor of post‐traumatic stress disorder symptom severity in acutely traumatized subjects. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica121(1), 33-40.


Öngür, D., Lundy, M., Greenhouse, I., Shinn, A. K., Menon, V., Cohen, B. M., & Renshaw, P. F. (2010). Default mode network abnormalities in bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging183(1), 59-68.

Royall, D. R., Palmer, R. F., Vidoni, E. D., Honea, R. A., & Burns, J. M. (2012). The default mode network and related right hemisphere structures may be the key substrates of dementia. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 32(2), 467-478.

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