19 April, 2024


Is Sigmund Freud Dead, No, Not Really?

By M. S. Thambirajah

Dr. M. S. Thambirajah

Today (6th May) marks the 166th birth anniversary of Sigmund Freud

Ask anyone to name the most famous psychologist in history, you can be certain that their choice would be none other than Sigmund Freud. Freud was in fact a neurologist who became interested in the working of the human mind. He is the founding father of psychoanalysis, a model of the mind as well as a type of psychotherapy, who created an entirely new approach to the understanding of the human mind. He is regarded as one of the most influential – and controversial – minds of the 20th century.

Sigmund Freud

But modern psychology has developed along different lines and Freud’s works have become almost footnotes in current books on psychology. Freud was idealised in the 1950s and 1960s but in the 1970s and 1980s psychoanalysis – both the theory and the treatment method – was challenged and found to be not ‘evidence based’. However, he remains the most quoted psychologist of all times and the most searched psychologists on Google. Terms such as Freudian slip, the unconscious mind and Oedipus complex are now in common usage. What explains his popularity?

Freud’s works rest of four pillars: his model of the mind and associated processes; his method of treatment of mental disorder, i.e. psychoanalysis; his theory of psychosexual development; and his views on how social groups and civilization. Thus, his works are wide ranging and cover amongst others general psychology, developmental psychology, social psychology and psychotherapy.

The central theme that underpins all his theories is the unconscious mind – that part of the mind that we are not aware of but one that shapes our thinking, feeling and behaviour. “The mind is like an iceberg, it floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water”, says Freud. The Id, the part of the unconscious mind, is the seat of aggressive and sexual impulses tamed by the ego and supervised by the superego says Freud. But, modern day science holds that the unconscious by definition cannot be known and, therefore be subjected to research. Freud postulated that unconscious wishes surface in dreams. According to him dreams are ‘the royal road to the unconscious’ and are ‘wish fulfilments. But modern research carried out in sophisticated sleep laboratories on tens of thousands of dreams have found no evidence for this assertion. Current theories of dreams hold that they are the manifestations of organisation of information and memories formed during daytime very much like a filing system.

For Freud, his sexual theory was his most important work. He explained almost all unusual psychological phenomena with references to sex and came to be known as the ‘sex doctor’. Most neuroses, he claimed, were the result of repressed sexual impulses. His hypotheses about psychosexual development that incudes the oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital stages, and the erogenous zones have now been shown to be defunct. The much-flaunted Oedipal complex – a child’s feelings of desire for his or her opposite-sex parent and jealousy and anger toward his or her same-sex parent – has been shown to be developmentally insignificant. It is now believed that sexual development begins after puberty.

Psychoanalytic treatment pioneered by Freud involved many years of frequent psychotherapeutic sessions often lasting years in which the patient ‘free associated’, i.e. spoke out anything ang and everything that came into his mind. It has now been proven to be ineffective.

So, of his postulates the unconscious cannot be researched; his dream theory had turned out to be a dream, even his ardent followers have given up interpreting dreams; his theory of infantile sexuality and Oedipus complex is now considered farcical; psychoanalysis had been shown to ineffective in the treatment of various neurotic condition. Is it, then. time for us to say the last rites and bid farewell to Freud?

Certainly not! He may have been wrong in details, but the generality of his theories and treatment approaches are enduring and should not be underestimated. Disregard the details of psychoanalytic treatment and look at the approach. He was the first to demonstrate that by opening up your mind to a trained therapist (he called this ‘free association’), you could be relieved of your ‘neurosis’. Talking of hysteria, the most common neuroses at that time, he

says, “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways”. No psychologist or psychiatrist would fault this assertion. Thus, he is the father of all ‘talking therapies’ practised today ranging from formal psychotherapy to counselling and many more.

His insights on the interaction between the therapist and the client has been of enormous value for those in the helping professions: psychologists, psychiatrist, counsellors and doctors. He talks of resistance, the block that some people have when discussing their problems with those trying to help them and analyses their origins. He goes on to analyse the relationship between the therapist and the client, the so-called transference: who does the therapist remind him/her: the authoritative father, the caring mother or the abuser? What are its implications for the therapeutic relationship? More importantly, he helps scrutinise the emotional effect on the therapist. What emotional impact does the client have on the therapist? Freud called it countertransference. Does the therapist go home with a headache after seeing the client? Does he/she detests seeing the client, even hate him? If so, why? Freud held that these emotional reactions held the answer to the problems that both the therapist and the client had. He observes, “The unconscious of one human being can react upon that of another without passing through the conscious”. No one since the time of Freud has analysed the nuances of therapist’s relationship with the client in such great depth.

Now a days this approach to clients are taught to all those in helping professions including doctors, counsellors and other therapists. In medicine, for example, doctor-patient relationship is held to be crucially important in achieving good outcomes. More importantly, it is a skill that can be taught and therefore forms an important part of their training. It has been shown that with the six or ten minutes available for a consultation with the doctor a healthy and productive relationship could be established if only the doctor is open to such experience (the current practice of ‘diagnose and prescribe’ attitude of doctors is the very antithesis of good doctor-patient relationship; it’s another story).

Freud’s description of the various defense mechanisms that the mind employs to protect itself from anxiety is another example of his genius. Displacement (e.g. “kicking the cat”), rationalisation (e.g. “sour grapes”), denial (“it is a minor chest pain”) projection (“it is your fault”) and intellectualisation are few of the mental tricks that we employ to get over our worries and anxieties. According to Freud another useful clue to one’s inner feelings is slips of the tongue. Now called, Freudian slips, these refer to errors in speech that reveal an unconscious subdued wish or internal thought. He gives an example of it in his The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901). A friend goes to spend his holidays with his classmate. After a few days, quite accidentally the classmate calls his friend by another name. His friend knows that it was the name of another classmate his friend hated and realises that he has overstayed his welcome and decides to leave.

A less well-known aspect of Freud’s work is his contributions to social psychology, especially group psychology. Talking of how social groups think, he says, “Groups have never thirsted after truth. They demand illusions, and cannot do without them. They constantly give what is unreal precedence. They have an evident tendency not to distinguish between the two”. One social group, he says, may be united in much love and caring as long as there are few others left to bear their hate and rage. In present day social psychology this has been termed ‘ingroup love’ and ‘outgroup hate’.

During the second world war Albert Einstein wrote to Freud under the title ‘Why War?’ and asked him, ‘Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?’. In is reply Freud asserted that as much as man had a wish to live, he also had a destructive death wish and a tendency to brute force. In short, man was not a rational being, he is led by the same instincts that guide animals albeit in a more refined form that he calls civilisation.

Another less well-known fact is that Freud’s name was proposed for the Nobel Prize twice but was rejected because psychoanalysis was deemed to be unscientific. In 1933, the Nazis publicly burnt a number of Freud’s books. In 1938, shortly after the Nazis annexed Austria, Freud left Vienna for London with his wife and daughter Anna. Princess Marie Bonaparte, a great-grandniece of Emperor Napoleon I of France, paid Freud’s ransom to Nazi Germany, assisting his family’s escape into exile.

Many of his admirers tend to conceal the fact that Freud was at heart a rationalist who believed in science and no more. He was an ardent atheist. He wrote, “A religion, even if it calls itself a religion of love, must be hard and unloving to those who do not belong to it.” Who would dispute this assertion? According to Freud, “Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls within our instinctual desires”. “God”, he said. “is nothing more than an exalted father”. He holds that fear of death and unpredictability of life evets are the sources of religion. But he does not lose heart. “The more the fruits of knowledge become accessible to men, the more widespread is the decline of religious belief.”, he says and hopes that, “When a man is freed from God, he has a better chance to live a normal and wholesome life”. In Moses and Monotheism, he questions if Moses is, in fact, Jewish and claims that Moses is Egyptian. Despite efforts by the Chief Rabbi to persuade Freud not to publish the book, Freud did publish it. It was his last book.

Freud had been diagnosed with cancer of the mouth in 1923, and undergone more than 30 operations. When the cancer made him an invalid, he requested euthanasia and passed away on 23 September 1939 at the age of 83. His many books and essays transformed our ways of thinking about ourselves and others. His technical terminology has become a part of our everyday language. As one of his followers, Peter Fonagy says, “Admired or ridiculed, idealised or pilloried, Freud was a gigantic intellect. His credentials as a psychologist, indicated by his commitment to studying the mind, are beyond question”.

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