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Gut Feelings: Neurology, Psychoanalysis and the Stomach

This lecture is part of the Science, Medicine and Technology in Culture Lecture Series presented by Elizabeth A. Wilson, Member, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and Research Fellow, Research Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Sydney.
When Dec 01, 2003
from 4:00 PM to 5:00 PM
Where 102 Thomas Building
Contact Name
Contact Phone (814) 863-5911
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Elizabeth A. Wilson  Elizabeth Wilson

Member, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and Research Fellow, Research Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Sydney

Elizabeth Wilson is a Research Fellow at the University of Sydney. In 2003-2004, she is a Member at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, where she is working on a project on AI and affect. She has a book on neurology and the body forthcoming with Duke University Press.

Gut Feelings: Neurology, Psychoanalysis and the Stomach

There has been interest in recent years in the synthesis of neuroscience and psychoanalysis. Most of this interest has been focused on the central nervous system and its role in psychological disruption and clinical treatment. The role of the peripheral nervous system (which innervates the body’s motor pathways and internal organs) has been relatively neglected.

This paper has two points of focus. First, it will inquire into the peripheral nervous system and the gut. There is a concentrated web of neurons that innervates the gut from the esophagus to the anus. This network—the enteric nervous system—is thought to act somewhat independently of the central nervous system; and it is sometimes referred to as “the second brain”. Disruption in the enteric nervous system bears on psychopathology and its treatment in significant ways—the enteric nervous system is linked to psychosomatic disorders of the gut (e.g., irritable bowel syndrome) and to depression and anxiety. The second focus of the paper is an examination of how data about the enteric nervous system might be useful for psychodynamically oriented treatments. Psychoanalysis has had plenty to say about the psychology of the openings of the digestive tract (orality, anality) but much less about the processes in-between. The psychodynamics of the internal body remain understudied, despite the large amount of clinical and anecdotal evidence that points to the gut’s highly mobile, highly sensitive psychological nature. How is the gut involved in transferential relations? Are depressions “all in the head” or is the gut central to the affective and behavioral disruptions of depressive states? What kinds of distress are enacted in the gut?

December 1, 2003
4:00 p.m.
102 Thomas Building