By published 2013
Sigmund Freud explored the human mind more thoroughly than any other who became before him.
His contributions to psychology are vast. Freud was one of the most influential people of the twentieth century and his enduring legacy has influenced not only psychology, but art, literature and even the way people bring up their children.
Freud’s lexicon has become embedded within the vocabulary of western society. Words he introduced through his theories are now used by everyday people, such as anal (personality), libido, denial, repression, cathartic, Freudian slip, and neurotic.
Freud believed that when we explain our own behaviour to ourselves or others (conscious mental activity) we rarely give a true account of our motivation. This is not because we are deliberately lying. Whilst human beings are great deceivers of others, they are even more adept at self-deception. Our rationalizations of our conduct are therefore disguising the real reasons. Freud’s life work was dominated by his attempts to find ways of penetrating this often subtle and elaborate camouflage that obscures the hidden structure and processes of personality.
Freud was the founding father of psychoanalysis, a method for treating mental illness and also a theory which explains human behavior.
Psychoanalysis is often known as the talking cure. Typically Freud would encourage his patients to talk freely (on his famous couch) regarding their symptoms, and to describe exactly what was on their mind.
The Case of Anna O
The case of Anna O (real name Bertha Pappenheim) marked a turning point in the career of a young Viennese neuropathologist by the name of Sigmund Freud. It even went on to influence the future direction of psychology as a whole.
Anna O. suffered from hysteria, a condition in which the patient exhibits physical symptoms (e.g. paralysis, convulsions, hallucinations, loss of speech) without an apparent physical cause. Her doctor Josef Breuer succeeded in treating Anna by helping her to recall forgotten memories of traumatic events. During discussions with her it became apparent that she had developed a fear of drinking, when a dog she hated drank from her glass. Her other symptoms originated when caring for her sick father. She would not express her anxiety for her his illness but did express it later, during psychoanalysis. As soon as she had the opportunity to make these unconscious thoughts conscious her paralysis disappeared.
Breuer discussed the case with his friend Freud. Out of these discussions came the germ of an idea that Freud was to pursue for the rest of his life. In Studies in Hysteria (1895) Freud proposed that physical symptoms are often the surface manifestations of deeply repressed conflicts. However, Freud was not just advancing an explanation of a particular illness. Implicitly he was proposing a revolutionary new theory of the human psyche itself.
This theory emerged “bit by bit" as a result of Freud’s clinical investigations and it led him to propose that there were at least three levels of the mind.
The Unconscious Mind
Freud (1900, 1905) developed a topographical model of the mind, whereby he described the features of the mind’s structure and function. Freud used the analogy of an iceberg to describe the three levels of the mind.
On the surface is consciousness, which consists of those thoughts that are the focus of our attention now, and this is seen as the tip of the iceberg. The preconscious consists of all which can be retrieved from memory. The third and most significant region is the unconscious. Here lie the processes that are the real cause of most behaviour. Like an iceberg, the most important part of the mind is the part you cannot see.
The unconscious mind acts as a repository, a ‘cauldron’ of primitive wishes and impulse kept at bay and mediated by the preconscious area. For example, Freud (1915) found that some events and desires were often too frightening or painful for his patients to acknowledge, and believed such information was locked away in the unconscious mind. This can happen through the process of repression.
Sigmund Freud emphasized the importance of the unconscious mind, and a primary assumption of Freudian theory is that the unconscious mind governs behavior to a greater degree than people suspect. Indeed, the goal of psychoanalysis is to make the unconscious conscious.
Freud (1923) later developed a more structural model of the mind comprising the entities id, ego and superego (what Freud called “the psychic apparatus"). These are not physical areas within the brain, but rather hypothetical conceptualizations of important mental functions.
Freud assumed the id operated at an unconscious level according to the pleasure principle (gratification from satisfying basic instincts). The id comprises two kinds of biological instincts (or drives) which Freud called Eros and Thanatos.
Eros, or life instinct, helps the individual to survive; it directs life-sustaining activities such as respiration, eating and sex (Freud, 1925). The energy created by the life instincts is known as libido.
In contrast, Thanatos or death instinct, is viewed as a set of destructive forces present in all human beings (Freud, 1920). When this energy is directed outward onto others, it is expressed as aggression and violence. Freud believed that Eros is stronger than Thanatos, thus enabling people to survive rather than self-destruct.
The ego develops from the id during infancy. The ego's goal is to satisfy the demands of the id in a safe a socially acceptable way. In contrast to the id the ego follows the reality principle as it operates in both the conscious and unconscious mind.
The superego develops during early childhood (when the child identifies with the same sex parent) and is responsible for ensuring moral standards are followed. The superego operates on the morality principle and motivates us to behave in a socially responsible and acceptable manner.
The basic dilemma of all human existence is that each element of the psychic apparatus makes demands upon us that are incompatible with the other two. Inner conflict is inevitable.
For example, the superego can make a person feel guilty if rules are not followed. When there is conflict between the goals of the id and superego, the ego must act as a referee and mediate this conflict. The ego can deploy various defense mechanisms (Freud, 1894, 1896) to prevent it from becoming overwhelmed by anxiety.
In the highly repressive “Victorian" society in which Freud lived and worked women, in particular, were forced to repress their sexual needs. In many cases the result was some form of neurotic illness.
Freud sought to understand the nature and variety of these illnesses by retracing the sexual history of his patients. This was not primarily an investigation of sexual experiences as such. Far more important were the patient’s wishes and desires, their experience of love, hate, shame, guilt and fear – and how they handled these powerful emotions.
It was this that led to the most controversial part of Freud’s work – his theory of psychosexual development and of the Oedipus complex
Freud believed that children are born with a libido – a sexual (pleasure) urge. There are a number of stages of childhood, during which the child seeks pleasure from a different ‘object’.
To be psychologically healthy, we must successfully complete each stage. Mental abnormality can occur if a stage is not completed successfully and the person becomes ‘fixated’ in a particular stage. This particular theory shows how adult personality is determined by childhood experiences.