Freud, Sigmund (1856-1939), was an Austrian doctor who revolutionized ideas on how the human mind works. Freud established the theory that unconscious motives control much behaviour. He thus greatly advanced the fields of psychiatry and psychology. His work has helped millions of mentally ill patients. Freud’s theories have brought new approaches in child rearing, education, and sociology and have provided new themes for many authors and artists. Most people in Western society view human behaviour at least partially in Freudian terms.
Freud was born on May 6, 1856, in Freiberg, Moravia, in what is now the Czech Republic. He was the oldest of eight children, and his father was a wool merchant. When Freud was 4 years old, his family moved to Vienna, the capital of Austria. He graduated from the medical school of the University of Vienna in 1881. Freud later decided to specialize in neurology, the study and treatment of disorders of the nervous system.
In 1885, Freud went to Paris to study under Jean Martin Charcot, a famous neurologist. Charcot was working with patients who suffered from a condition now called hysteria. Some of these people appeared to be blind or paralyzed, but they actually had no physical defects. Charcot found that their physical symptoms could be relieved through hypnosis.
Freud returned to Vienna in 1886 and began to work extensively with hysterical patients. He gradually formulated ideas about the origin and treatment of mental illness. Freud used the term psychoanalysis both for his theories and for his method of treatment. When he first presented his ideas in the 1890′s, other doctors reacted with hostility. But Freud eventually attracted a group of followers, and by 1910 he had gained international recognition.
During the following decade, Freud’s reputation continued to grow. But two of his early followers, Alfred Adler and Carl Jung, split with Freud and developed their own theories of psychology . Freud was constantly modifying his own ideas, and in 1923, he published a revised version of many of his earlier theories. That same year, he learned he had cancer of the mouth. He continued his work, though the cancer made working increasingly difficult. In 1938, the Nazis gained control of Austria. Under their rule, Jews were persecuted. Freud, who was Jewish, went to England with his wife and children to escape persecution. He died there of cancer in 1939.
Freud wrote many works. His most important writings include The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), Totem and Taboo (1913), General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (1920), The Ego and the Id (1923), and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930).
On behaviour. Freud observed that many patients behaved according to drives and experiences of which they were not consciously aware. He thus concluded that the unconscious plays a major role in shaping behaviour. He also concluded that the unconscious is full of memories of events from early childhood. Freud noted that if these memories were especially painful, people kept them out of conscious awareness. He used the term defence mechanisms for the methods by which individuals handled painful memories. Freud believed that patients used vast amounts of energy in forming defence mechanisms. Tying up energy could affect a person’s ability to lead a productive life, causing an illness that Freud called neurosis.
Freud also concluded that many childhood memories dealt with sex. He believed that his patients’ reports of sexual abuse by a parent were fantasies reflecting unconscious desires. He theorized that sexual functioning begins at birth, and that a person goes through several psychological stages of sexual development. Freud believed the normal pattern of psychosexual development is interrupted in some people. These people become fixated at an earlier, immature stage. He felt such fixation could contribute to mental illness in adulthood. This theory is known as Freud’s theory of psychosexual development.
On the mind. Freud divided the mind into three parts: (1) the id, (2) the ego, and (3) the superego. He recognized that each person is born with various natural drives that he called instincts, such as the need to satisfy sexual desires and the need to be aggressive. The id is the source of such instincts. The desire for sexual pleasure, for example, comes from the id. The ego resolves conflicts between instincts and external reality. For example, it determines socially appropriate ways to obtain physical satisfaction or to express aggression. The superego is a person’s conscience. A person’s ideas of right and wrong–learned from parents, teachers, and other people in authority–become part of the person’s superego.
All people have some conflict among the three parts of the mind, but certain people have more conflict than others. For example, the superego might oppose angry behaviour. In that case, the id and the superego would clash. If the parts of the mind strongly oppose one another, psychological disturbances result.
On treatment. At first, Freud treated neurotic patients by using the hypnotic techniques he had learned from Charcot and the Austrian doctor Josef Breuer. But he later modified this approach and simply had patients talk about whatever was on their minds. He called this free association. By free associating–that is, by speaking freely–the patient sometimes came upon earlier experiences that contributed to the neurosis.
Often, however, the painful feelings that caused the neurosis were held in the unconscious through defence mechanisms. Freud then analysed the random thoughts that had been expressed during free association. He did this in an effort to penetrate the patient’s defence mechanisms. He also interpreted the patient’s dreams, which he believed contained clues to unconscious feelings. Freud talked with the patient about the person’s earlier experiences in order to understand the root of the problem. He paid particular attention to transference, the patient’s shifting of painful feelings–hostility or love, for example–toward Freud himself. If the psychoanalyst could help the patient understand and deal with unpleasant feelings or painful memories, the symptoms of the neurosis might then disappear.
Freud was one of the world’s most influential thinkers. He showed the crucial importance of unconscious thinking to all human thought and activity. Freud’s strongest impact occurred in psychiatry and psychology. His work on the origin and treatment of mental illness helped form the basis of modern psychiatry. In psychology, Freud greatly influenced the field of abnormal psychology and the study of the personality.
Freud’s theories on sexual development led to open discussion and treatment of sexual matters and problems. His stress on the importance of childhood helped teach the value of giving children an emotionally nourishing environment. His insights also influenced the fields of anthropology and sociology. Most social scientists accept his concept that an adult’s social relationships are patterned after early family relationships.
In art and literature, Freud’s theories influenced surrealism . Like psychoanalysis, surrealistic painting and writing explores the inner depths of the unconscious mind. Freudian ideas have provided subject matter for authors and artists. Critics often analyze art and literature in Freudian terms.
Since the 1970′s, many scholars and mental health professionals have questioned some of Freud’s theories. Feminists attacked Freud because he seemed to believe that in some respects women were inferior to men. For example, he thought that women had weaker superegos than men and were driven by envy. Other people challenged the theory that patients’ memories of early sexual abuse reflected fantasies rather than actual experiences.
As a result of such criticism, most scholars and psychoanalysts now take a more balanced approach to Freud’s theories. They use the ideas and techniques from Freud that they find most useful without strictly following all of his teachings. No one, however, disputes Freud’s enormous influence.