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Neuroethics in a “Psy” World: The Case of Argentina



Given the cultural psychoanalytic tradition that shapes the thought of Argentineans and their current skepticism with regard to neurosciences when it comes to understanding human behavior, this article addresses the question of how a healthy neuroethics can develop in the country.



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1. For a review of different definitions, see Racine, E. Pragmatic Neuroethics: Improving Treatment and Understanding of the Mind-Brain. Boston: The MIT Press; 2010.

2. I do not deal here with the issue of whether neuroethics deserves an altogether independent status.

3. For a sample of anthologies that deal with some of these issues, see Illes, J, ed. Neuroethics, Defining the Issues in Theory, Practice and Policy. New York: Oxford University Press; 2006;Glannon, W, ed. Defining Right and Wrong in Brain Science. New York: Dana Press; 2007;Farah, M, ed. Neuroethics. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press; 2010;Illes, J, Sahakian, B, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics. New York: Oxford University Press; 2011.

4. In Buenos Aires, FLENI (Fundación para la Lucha contra las Enfermedades Neurológicas de la Infancia) was the first Latin American institution involved in the World-Wide Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (WW-ADNI), an international effort to characterize neuroimaging, cerebrospinal fluid markers, and clinical predictors of conversion from mild cognitive impairment to the dementia characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. At present, one of the groups of this initiative is doing research on social cognition in schizophrenia, defining abnormalities of brain lateralization of emotion processing and theory of mind in affected patients and their unaffected siblings, trying to discern the contribution of genetic factors to observed alterations. INECO (Instituto de Neurología Cognitiva) is a medical and neuroscience research institute with a variety of research lines, including one that centers on the basic neural mechanisms underlying decisionmaking, emotional processing, autobiographical memory, and the neurobiology of consciousness. The Integrative Neuroscience Program at the University of Buenos Aires studies perceptual and cognitive aspects of socioemotional information processing and their cerebral correlates in people affected by autism spectrum disorders. Several laboratories at Fundación Instituto Leloir carry out studies on a variety of themes, from how brain functions are acquired, which genes are involved in the process, and how cells and tissues acquire their final architecture to trying to understand neurodegenerative processes that cause diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The Applied Neurobiology Unit at CEMIC-CONICET studies processes of brain organization and reorganization and carries out experimental studies with humans and animals (primates and rodents). One of its projects involves the study of poverty’s impact on cognitive development and the design of interventions aimed at improving children’s cognitive performance through training interventions in laboratory, home, and school settings.

5. Lombera, S, Illes, J. The international dimensions of neuroethics. Developing World Bioethics 2009;9(2):5764.

6. Chen, D, Quirion, R. From the internationalization to the globalization of neuroethics: Some perspectives and challenges. In: Illes, J, Sahakian, B, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics. New York: Oxford University Press; 2011:823–34.

7. Of course, there are other factors as well, among them scientists’ attitudes to neuroethics and philosophers’ attitudes to neuroscience and its relevance, but those are common to other countries. In this article, I focus on one that is to a certain extent unique to the Argentinean context.

8. Dagfal, A. Entre Paris y Buenos Aires: La Invención del Psicólogo. Buenos Aires: Paidos; 2009.

9. Plotkin, M. Freud in the Pampas: The Emergence and Development of a Psychoanalytic Culture in Argentina. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; 2001.

10. Garcia, H, Barbenza, CM. Modelos teóricos de psicoterapia en Argentina: Actitudes y creencias de sus adherentes. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy 2006;6(3):381–96.

11. Muller, F. Psychotherapy in Argentina: Theoretical orientation and clinical practice. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration 2008;18(4):410–20.Muller notes that although the situation is slowly changing in Argentina, psychologists involved in cognitive or other types of psychotherapy are still the exception to the rule.

12. Nancy Caro Hollander called Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital city, the mecca of psychoanalysis. Hollander, NC. Buenos Aires: Latin mecca of psychoanalysis. Social Research 1990;57(4):889919. For a recent commentary on this issue, see Romero, S. Do Argentines need therapy? New York Times 2012 Aug 18; available at (last accessed 29 Mar 2013).

13. Moreno, J. Psychoanalysis in Argentina. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 1995;43:641–4.

14. Wilson, T. Stop bullying the “soft sciences.” Los Angeles Times 2012 Jul 12; available at (last accessed 29 Mar 2013).

15. Littlefield, S. Public skepticism of psychology: Why many people perceive the study of human behavior as unscientific. American Psychologist 2012;67(2):111–29.

16. Ansermet, F, Magistretti, P. A cada cual su cerebro: Plasticidad neuronal e inconsciente. Buenos Aires: Katz editores; 2006.A number of psychiatrists have made the same point. See, e.g., Beutel, M, Stern, E, Silberweig, D. The emerging dialogue between psychoanalysis and neuroscience: Neuroimaging perspectives. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 2003;51:773801.

17. Lombardi G. El Psicoanalisis no es una neurociencia; 2001; available at (last accessed 29 Mar 2013).

18. Martinez, H. Opsicoanálisis o neurociencias. Psicoanálisis y el Hospital 2008;17(33):811.

19. Muller, F, Zammitto, V, Oberholzer, N, Iglesias, MP. Psicoterapia e integracionismo teórico: Los psicoterapeutas argentinos. Revista Argentina de Clínica Psicológica 2008;17:225–31.

20. Bethell, L. The Cambridge History of Latin America. Vol. IV. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1986.

21. In Mexico, e.g., positivism was associated with the political program of the authoritarian regime of Porfirio Diaz. For a discussion of some of these issues, see Ardao, A. Assimilation and transformation of positivism in Latin America. Journal of the History of Ideas 1963;24(4):515–22;Nuccetelli, S, Schutte, O, Bueno, O. A Companion to Latin American Philosophy. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell; 2010, esp. chap. 5, 6.

22. Vezzetti, H. Los estudios históricos de la psicología en la Argentina. Cuadernos Argentinos de Historia de la Psicología 1996;2(1–2); available at (last accessed 29 Mar 2013).

23. See note 22, Vezzetti 1996.

24. Klappenbach, H, Pavesi, P. Una historia de la psicología en Latinoamérica. Revista Latinoamericana de Psicología 1994;26(3):445–82.

25. See note 22, Vezzetti 1996.

26. Frondizi, R. Contemporary Argentine philosophy. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 1943;4(2):180–6.

27. However, it is worth noting that psychoanalysis was already a presence in the region. Both Hugo Vezetti and Mariano Plotkin note that it is a mistake to think that psychoanalysis in Argentina started with the creation of the Asociación Psicoanalítica Argentina in 1942. See note 9, Plotkin 2001; Vezetti, H. Freud en Buenos Aires 1910–1939. Bernal, Buenos Aires: Universidad Nacional de Quilmes; 1996.

28. See note 9, Plotkin 2001, at 17. Plotkin notes that most mentions of Freud were negative and based on what French psychiatrists had said.

29. Salles, A. Rodó, race, and morality. In: Gracia, J, ed. Forging People: Race, Ethnicity and Nationality in Hispanic American and Latino/a Thought. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press; 2011.

30. Vezetti, H. Las promesas del psicoanálisis en la cultura de masas. Historia de la vida privada en la Argentina. Vol. 3. Buenos Aires: Taurus; 1999.

31. See note 8, Dagfal 2009, and note 9, Plotkin 2001.

32. Psychology became a major in the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, which meant that it was academically connected to the humanities.

33. Vezetti, H. Los comienzos de la psicología como disciplina universitaria y profesional. In: Neiburg, F, Plotkin, M, eds. Intelectuales y expertos: La constitución del conocimiento social en la Argentina. Buenos Aires: Paidós; 2004:293327.

34. Klappenbach, H. El título profesional del psicólogo en Argentina: Antecendentes históricos y situación actual. Revista Latinoamericana de Psicología 2000;32(3):419–46.

35. See note 9, Plotkin 2001, especially chap. 3.

36. See note 9, Plotkin 2001.

37. See note 9, Plotkin 2001.

38. Evans, D. From Lacan to Darwin. In: Gottschall, J, Sloan, Wilson D, eds. The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press; 2005:3855.

39. Lakoff, A. The Lacan ward. Social Analysis 2003;47(2):82101; see also note 8, Dagfal 2009, and note 9, Plotkin 2001.

40. Evans, D. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge; 2005.

41. See note 8, Dagfal 2009; see also note 34, Klappenbach 2000.

42. Dagfal, A, Gonzalez, ME. El psicólogo como psicoanalista: Problemas de formación y autorización. Intersecciones Psi: Revista Electrónica de la Facultad de Psicología de la UBA 2012;2(5); available at (last accessed 29 Mar 2013).

43. See note 8, Dagfal 2009.

44. See note 8, Dagfal 2009; see also note 42, Dagfal, Gonzalez 2012.

45. See note 9, Plotkin 2001, at 210–11.

46. See note 42, Dagfal, Gonzalez 2012.

47. See note 8, Dagfal 2009, and note 9, Plotkin 2001.

48. See note 39, Lakoff 2003.

49. See note 9, Plotkin 2001, at 224.

50. Dagfal A. Entrevista. Letra Urbana; 2011; available at (last accessed 14 Feb 2013).

51. The return to democracy also brought about new legislation that enabled those who have a degree in psychology to offer psychotherapy to patients. See Ley 23.277 Ejercicio Profesional de La Psicología, Buenos Aires, 1985 Nov. It is worth noting that, for Lacanian psychoanalysts, the law takes as a starting point a conception of psychoanalysis that they do not embrace: psychoanalysis as just one medical therapy among many other possible medical therapies. On their view, this kind of medicalization of psychoanalysis is mistaken. I thank Paula Castelli for discussion of this point.

52. Pujó, M. Una nueva Babel. Psicoanalisis y el Hospital 2008;17(33):15–26, at 17.

53. See also note 8, Dagfal 2009. For Dagfal it is impossible to separate the influence of French thought on Argentina from the development and success of psychoanalysis. Dagfal claims that French thought systematically blocked more objectivist psychological lines of thought prevalent in other places.

54. I thank Paula Castelli for useful discussions of some of these issues.

55. See note 18, Martinez 2008, at 10. A similar view is held by others. See, e.g., note 17, Lombardi 2001.

56. Moscón, J. De un discurso... Psicoanalisis y el Hospital 2008;17(33):1214.

57. Muñoz, P. Una polémica no tan actual. Psicoanalisis y el Hospital 2008;17(33):5962.

58. This concern is particularly evident in the reaction in Argentina to the news about the recent ruling from the health ministry in France (where, until recently, the French medical establishment treated autism with some kind of psychotherapy) that calls into question the use of psychoanalysis as a treatment for autism. Chacon P. El autismo, ¿una causa perdida para el psicoanálisis? Revista de Cultura Ñ 2012 Oct 15; available at (last accessed 22 Feb 2013).

59. See note 18, Martinez 2008.

60. Castelluccio, C. La responsabilidad en psicoanálisis es ética. Psicoanalisis y el Hospital 2008;17(33):149–54.

61. For a discussion of how this plays out in a psychiatric ward in Buenos Aires, see note 39, Lakoff 2003. This view is shared by several of the contributors to Psicoanalisis y el Hospital 2008;17(33).

62. See note 52, Pujo 2008, at 18.

63. This self-imposed ignorance regarding the role and content of neuroethics is shared by a few philosophers as well.

64. See, e.g., LeDoux, J. The Emotional Brain. London: Phoenix; 1998.LeDoux believes that naturalism does not mean that human beings’ subjectivity can be wholly accounted for by appealing to nature, nor does he deny the existence of a psychoanalytic unconscious.

65. For a discussion of some of the issues raised, see Morse, S. New neuroscience, old problems. Cerebrum 2004;6:8190;Roskie, A. Neuroscientific challenges to free will and responsibility. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 2006;10(9):419–23;Glannon, W. Diminishing and enhancing free will. AJOB Neuroscience 2011;2(3):1526.

66. Evers, K. Neuroética: Cuando la Materia se Despierta. Buenos Aires: Katz Editores; 2010.

67. For a discussion of this issue, see, e.g., Kandel, E. Biology and the future of psychoanalysis: A new intellectual framework for psychiatry revisited. The American Journal of Psychiatry 1999;156(4):505–24;Lehtonen, J. Dimensions in the dialogue between psychoanalysis and neuroscience. International Forum of Psychoanalysis 2010;19:218–23.

68. See note 38, Evans 2005.

While working on this article, I have benefitted greatly from conversations with Marcelo Cetkovich, Sebastián Lipina, Pablo Pavesi, and in particular Paula Castelli, who also gave critical comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript. I have received very helpful suggestions from Kathinka Evers, Joseph Fins, and Pablo Rodríguez del Pozo. I also thank Micaela Goldschmidt and Paula Castelli for sharing useful resources.


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