Dr Leonardo Niro

Department of Psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies
Dr Leonardo Niro
  • Email

  • Telephone

    +44 (0) 1206 872209

  • Location

    5A.211, Colchester Campus

Research and professional activities

Research interests

History of Psychoanalysis, Psychology and Psychological Practices

Open to supervise

Epistemology of Psychoanalysis, Psychology and Psychological Practices

Open to supervise

Psychotherapy Research

Current research

The Forces of Life and the Forces of Mind: Notions of Force and Energy in the Early Psychological Sciences

This project develops a theoretical-comparative approach to the history of science, showing how different nineteenth-century psychologists, neurophysiologists, and psychiatrists engaged with notions of force and energy as a way of conceptualising mental phenomena. Inherited from physics and its earlier applications in the life sciences, notions of psychological force or psychic energy became ubiquitous in the emergent science of psychology in the late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century. Scientists with projects as widely distinct as Ivan Pavlov, William James, Wilhelm Wundt, Sigmund Exner, Pierre Janet, Josef Breuer, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Wilhelm Reich, amongst many others, have at some point of their work made use of ideas of force and energy. Although their use of the concept(s) shows marked differences, which requires a close and detailed analysis, they all emphasised the need for the psychological sciences to frame the mind (or brain) around the model of a quantity that would at least partially explain some characteristics of our mental functioning. Heavily impacted by the recently discovered law of conservation of energy, the work of the aforementioned authors necessarily entailed a debate with the physiological tradition of organic physics, as proposed by the likes of Helmholtz, du Bois Reymond, Brücke and Ludwig – as well as with the vitalism and teleomechanism the organic physicists so fiercely rejected (Lenoir, 1982). As Kremer observed in his analysis of the impact of thermodynamics in nineteenth-century physiology, energy conservation was seen as ‘an over-arching natural law, unifying all the sciences just at a time when disciplinary and institutional specialisation appeared to be permanently splintering the scientific enterprise’ (Kremer, 1984, p. 452). Taking into consideration Edwin Boring’s still apt remark that the “new” experimental psychology ‘was really physiological psychology’ (1950, p. 425) – along the lines of Johannes Müller’s maxim that ‘psychologus nemo nisi physiologus’ (one is not a psychologist who is not also a physiologist) – early psychologists had to consider the impact of energy conservation and thermodynamics in their emergent science. In either attempting to make use of the theoretical framework of the group of organic physicists, or instead in rejecting its mechanist view of life, psychologists were compelled to engage in wider debates in physiology – and in particular, that on teleology and vital forces. As will be argued, the early psychologists, in translating conceptual frameworks from physiology to psychology, have re-enacted similar models, problems, answers, and disputes from the debate between mechanism vs. vitalism that were at the centre of the pre-biological life sciences in the eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century. The analysis will highlight the tension present in the concept(s); while some researchers used it to bring their field of studies (physiology, neurophysiology, psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis) into the realm of the natural sciences by attempting to reduce mental phenomena to quantitative relations, others used it precisely to oppose such mechanical reduction. Furthermore, the project will demonstrate that the early psychologists, rather than being in relative isolation, as proposed by classical accounts, were in fact deeply engaged in a dialogue that crossed geographical and disciplinary boundaries – being therefore embedded in a debate not only in physiology, but also in how exactly to apply such principles to their newly formed science. Finally, the project will also question, along the lines of historical epistemology, the nature of the relation between global and local knowledge – in particular, it will be proposed that the appropriation and uses of global principles of energy conservation were eminently local, fitting within specific contexts and serving particular functions, both for purposes of theory and practice. This, in turn, will help explaining on the one hand the widely different appropriations and interpretations of energy in psychology, while, on the other, the motivation for the great split into various schools that psychology experienced from its very start.

Freud and the Legacy of Physiology

Psychoanalysis is an inherently interdisciplinary science (Kitcher, 1992), and a rich and long tradition of historical scholarship has demonstrated how psychoanalytic ideas were influenced by those stemming from disciplines as disparate as philosophy, psychology, psychiatry, sociology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, sexology, and neurology. Relatively little attention, however, has been given to physiology’s impact in psychoanalysis – despite the fact that Freud spent some of his most formative years working at the Institute of Physiology of the University of Vienna, then headed by the German physiologist Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke. This book aims to fill that important gap in the literature by providing not only to an assessment of the ideas and theories Freud inherited from his engagement with physiology, but to evaluate the personal, social and cultural impact of the physiology group of Vienna in his formation.The monograph will conduct a broader exploration of the intellectual environment of the physiology institute itself, and historically locate Freud the man and scientist within it. This entails understanding the history of the institute prior to Freud’s arrival, the research programme followed there, the motivation for the lines of investigation and experimentation pursued, as well as exploring the nature of the professional and personal ties maintained amongst its members and the political background which, in way or other, has informed their research programme. As shall be demonstrated, Freud was embedded in an institutional structure that transcended him, and was immersed in a carefully crafted research programme – one that may have represented the most marking philosophical and scientific influence in his thinking.

Conferences and presentations

Freud and the legacy of sensory physiology

Invited presentation, Open Seminar, Colchester, United Kingdom, 9/12/2020

Entre vitalismo e mecanicismo: usos do conceito de energia em Sigmund Exner e Josef Breuer


Fisiologia e Psicanalise: uma relacao inexplorada

Invited presentation, Keynote presentation, Workshop: Fisiologia e Psicanalise: uma relacao inexplorada, Sao Paulo, Brazil, 10/6/2019

Fisiologia e Psicanalise: uma relacao inexplorada

Invited presentation, Keynote presentation, Simposio de Historia e Filosofia da Psicologia, Simposio de Historia e Filosofia da Psicologia, Juiz de Fora, Brazil, 5/6/2019

Psicanálise e neurociências O desenvolvimento emocional e o desenvolvimento do cérebro

Invited presentation, Keynote presentation, Sao Paulo, Brazil, 10/5/2018


Invited presentation, Keynote presentation, Sao Paulo, Brazil, 4/5/2018

Predictive Minds: From Helmholtz to Freud and the Free Energy Principle - Poster presentation at the Summer School on Embodied Inter-subjectivity : the 1st person and the 2nd person perspective (June, 2013), in Aegina, Greece. Organized by the Royal Holloway and the Institute of Advanced Studies, London.


Introduction to Neuropsychoanalysis -Psychoanalysis, History and Political Life Forum (March, 2013), University of London

London, United Kingdom, 2013

From Neurology to Psychoanalysis: The Influence of John Hughlings Jackson in the construction of Psychoanalysis -British Psychological Society History and Philosophy of Psychology Section Annual Conference (April, 2012), St. Hilda College, Oxford, UK

Oxford, United Kingdom, 2012

From Neurology to Psychoanalysis: The Influence of Hughlings Jacksons work in Freuds early conception of the mind and brain -XXV Symposium de la Sociedad Espanola de Historia de la Psicologia (2012)

Spain, 2012

Freuds Criticism of Localizationism in XIX Century German Neurology -Middlesex Postgraduate Conference (May, 2012), London, UK

London, United Kingdom, 2012

Teaching and supervision

Current teaching responsibilities

  • Freud: Mind, Culture and Society (PA208)

  • Psychoanalytic Theory: Freud and Object Relations (PA401)

  • Psycho Analytic Theory (PA901)

  • Research Skills and Methods in Depth Psychology (PA915)

  • Psychoanalytic Epistemology (PA928)

  • Psychoanalysis in Contexts (PA976)

  • MA Dissertation (PA981)


Journal articles (3)

Niro, L., (2021). Social Evolution, Progress and Teleology in Spencer's Synthetic Philosophy and Freudian Psychoanalysis. American Imago. 78 (1), 105-130

Niro Nascimento, L., (2017). Evolution in the Brain, Evolution in the Mind: The Hierarchical Brain and the Interface between Psychoanalysis and Neuroscience. Psychoanalysis and History. 19 (3), 349-377

Palmer, R., Nascimento, LN. and Fonagy, P., (2013). The State of the Evidence Base for Psychodynamic Psychotherapy for Children and Adolescents. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America. 22 (2), 149-214

Book chapters (2)

Niro, L., Freud and the Legacy of Sensory Physiology. In: Routledge Handbook of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis. Editors: Govrin, A. and Caspi, T., . Routledge

Nascimento, LN., (2012). From Neurology to Psychoanalysis: The Influence of Hughlings Jackson’s work in Freud’s early conception of the mind and brain. In: XXV Symposium de la Sociedad Espanola de Historia de la Psicologia. Sociedad Espanola de Historia de la Psicologia. 67- 68

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5A.211, Colchester Campus