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How Freud hijacked the most heated debate of all time

Introduction to Key Concepts and Evolutions in Psychoanalysis: From Freud to Neuroscience by Alexis A. Johnson (Routledge; £32.99). Reviewed by Voula Tsoflias, chartered psychologist and novelist.

10 June 2019

If it's true that the dead don't rest in peace until their name is no longer spoken on earth, then Freud must resign himself to restlessness for eternity. This book describes the enthralling story of how the founding father of psychology hijacked the most heated and unresolvable debate of all time: how can we understand human nature?

Alexis A. Johnson offers a clear and insightful primer for students of psychiatry, psychology, psychotherapy and counselling, with a step by step tracking of 150 years of psychological theory, complete with a comprehensive glossary of terms, case studies, and references for further reading. The book also creates a narrative that operates on an entirely different level for the mature practitioner: a profound professional and personal journey of discovery that engaged my mind, my heart and my very soul.

Starting with Freud's revolutionary new theory of psychoanalysis, Johnson shows both how theory underpins practice, and how practice moderates and revises theory, usually over a long period of time as anecdotal evidence slowly accumulates. This theoretical history is supplemented and supported by a tapestry of case studies along with commentary on Johnson's own experiences of consulting work. This thread of practice illustrates and enlivens the theoretical discourse, creating an engaging narrative with relatable characters and a compelling voice.

By the end of the book, we see the radical volte-face that occurred, from the austere froideur of Freudian psychoanalysis focusing on past trauma, to the warm encounters of the relational therapists, focussing on the present, and its obstacles to future thriving.

As the book takes us ever further from Freud's original vision of psychoanalysis in theory and in practice, we are faced with a mind-bending turning of the tide, as Johnson reverses the timeline, circling back to Freud and his early followers to discuss the impact of neuroscience on the fundaments of psychoanalysis. I won't spoil the story by revealing the denouement, but this last perspective of the ebb and flow of ideas, and how they impact and moderate each other both backwards and forwards, was a deeply satisfying end to this fascinating book.

- Reviewed by Voula Tsoflias, chartered psychologist and novelist