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Freud's couch: where it all started
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Popping into your mind

Sigmund Freud developed psychoanalysis — an approach to understanding human psychology and behaviour — during the 1890s. One can break down the approach into three core elements:

While Freud's original ideas of psychoanalysis were overwhelmingly pseudoscientific, they laid a groundwork for more empirically valid approaches, much like how alchemy laid a groundwork for chemistry.


The central idea of Freud has been to view the mind as a mechanical device. Just like an electric device (say, a lamp) can be said to take energy from a source and immediately translate it into a certain collection of outputs (in the example case it would be light) the mind can be said to take input from the senses and traverse the networking structure of the brain that would make outputs of the given sensory data. He clearly makes a difference between neurons that have a tendency to quickly store information that the senses receive and calls them the conscious mind and contrasts them with neurons that exist for other functionalities of the brain, like memory. The famous idea of the unconscious is in some ways a misnomer, as it seems to suggest that Freud positively defined what the unconscious is when he in fact only positively defined what part of the mind is conscious and said that the rest is not conscious.

His view on mental illnesses is very much based on this idea of the mind as well. He defined PTSD, for instance, by saying that it is the result of sensory input that was far too violent for the brain to physically handle.

The Oedipus complex[edit]

Freud's notion of the Oedipus complex — named after Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex — was that between ages 3 and 6, all young children develop a sexual attraction to the parent of the opposite sex, which social pressures forbid them from acting on. This would then drive the children to try and behave more like the parent of the same sex while growing up, since said parent is seen as having been successful with the parent of the opposite sex. This seems to run contrary to the Westermarck effect,Wikipedia an instinctive aversion to sexual relations with someone you've grown up with. Steven Pinker wrote that "The idea that boys want to sleep with their mothers strikes most men as the silliest thing they have ever heard. Obviously, it did not seem so to Freud, who wrote that as a boy he once had an erotic reaction to watching his mother dressing. But Freud had a wet-nurse, and may not have experienced the early intimacy that would have tipped off his perceptual system that Mrs. Freud was his mother."

The focus on the Oedipus complex has come to define the movement; however, this makes up only a fraction of the vast theoretical framework in later psychoanalysis-related works, such as those by Jacques Lacan or Slavoj Žižek. The psychoanalytic movement has become varied, commenting on areas such as art, culture, and social criticism. This is in adjunct to a small group of psychotherapists who go back to Freudian theoretical frameworks. While Freud is still popularly viewed as the face of psychoanalysis, his theories in their original forms have not been current for over half a century.[1]

Often major misnomers occur when viewing modern psychoanalysis; this is due to the sheer pace of theoretical and scientific research since Freud's tentative steps towards understanding the unconscious. Areas such as the philosophy of mind as well as linguistics have shifted emphasis towards psychoanalysis being used to understand recurring linguistic postulates and mythological repetitions across cultures; it has also increasingly been utilised for understanding the vectors of economic activity by businesses and social theorists of all types. Its everyday usage and recurring leitmotifs in marketing, for example, betray a constant affectation for psychoanalytic readings of situations, while at the same time looking to see where neuroscience can push boundaries.

Because the Anglo-sphere has adopted philosophical premises around Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege (commonly called the Analytic Tradition), theoretical works which stand outside traditional positivist enquiry are viewed with suspicion. However, it should be pointed out that while psychoanalysis is perhaps less rigorous, many of its adherents have much to offer scientific enquiry, particularly in areas that have been overlooked, or have taken a narrow and incomplete route to understanding them.


Psychoanalysis has largely fallen out of favor among the more empiricist crowds, although it is still popular in much of the world, both as an element of popular culture and as an actual form of therapy.

Contrary to popular belief it is definitely possible to falsify the idea of Freud's unconscious. If one were to, for instance, show that one has the ability to create memories in any meaningful sense Freud's theory would be disproven. That being said there are definitely some claims Freud makes in some of his works that are unfalsifiable by design. In On The Interpretation of Dreams, for instance, he states that dreams are a form of wish fulfillment, and dismisses any dream that can't be interpreted as wish fulfillment as people wishing in their dream that his theory is wrong.

Huge amounts of literature is dedicated to psychoanalyzing Nazism. The results are mixed, and a counter-literature has arisen that say we shouldn't be paying that much attention to this crap anyway.[2]

In the United States, it is considerably more in vogue among literary studies than in actual psychological practice, and is one of the many reasons why empirical fields such as the sciences often have trouble taking the humanities seriously. Karl Popper in particular singles out psychoanalysis as an example of a field of study that is unfalsifiable and thus counted as a pseudoscience.

Notable psychoanalysts[edit]

The movement's heroes and villains include:

  • Sigmund Freud: he started it all, inventing many of the principal concepts such as the Oedipus complex, dream interpretation, the unconscious, Freudian slip, eros and thanatos (sex and death drives), repression, and sublimation.
  • Carl Jung: the Swiss psychoanalyst was a close associate of Freud, and rather than his guru's sex-centric focus, he had a much more myth-centred viewpoint that bordered on mysticism, with concepts like the collective unconscious and animus/anima division. He is also responsible for the introvert/extravert dichotomy.
  • Alfred Adler:Wikipedia along with Freud, involved in the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Pioneered the idea of the inferiority complex. His work concentrated on topics like birth order, child-rearing, and addiction; but he is infamous for condemning homosexuality as a disorder.
  • Sandor Ferenczi:Wikipedia Hungarian psychoanalyst, originally a close colleague of Freud, they disagreed because Ferenczi believed that analysts' reports of child abuse were genuine while Freud dismissed them as fantasies. He also disagreed with Freud's idea that the analyst should be merely a passive listener.
  • Otto Gross:Wikipedia German psychoanalyst of anarchist political beliefs, the first to use Freudianism to advance free love and having lots of sex; and associated with radical artistic circles in Berlin around World War One. Now best known for being played by Vincent Cassel in the film A Dangerous MethodWikipedia.[3]
  • Wilhelm Reich: a particularly crazy figure, who claimed to have discovered a secret mysterious energy called orgone, and believed that sexual repression was a major cause of fascism and Nazism.[4]
  • Sabina Spielrein:Wikipedia female psychoanalyst and lover of Jung, who has been played by Keira KnightleyWikipedia on film. She was originally a patient of Jung, who spanked her on the buttocks as a form of therapy, which she claimed to enjoy. She later became involved with the psychoanalytical circle in Vienna, which was the chief rival to Jung's Zurich.[5]
  • Anna Freud:Wikipedia Freud's daughter followed him into the family business and became a pioneer of child psychology. She was psychoanalysed by her father for several years in her youth, and her first published work was on the relationship between daydreaming and masturbating.
  • Melanie Klein:Wikipedia Austrian psychoanalyst best known for her work on child psychology, specifically object relations theory! which focused on the mother-child relationship. She suffered depression as a young adult and was then analysed by Sandor Ferenczi.[6]
  • Jacques Lacan:Wikipedia French Freudian strongly associated with structuralism and postmodernism. Very influential on recent French thought despite his notorious difficulty; the alleged meaninglessness of his writings was one of the main targets of Alan Sokal.
  • Julia Kristeva:Wikipedia French literary theorist and feminist who trained as a psychoanalyst and was heavily influenced by Lacan.[7]
  • Slavoj Žižek: Marxist philosopher, controversialist, and movie star, who studied psychoanalysis in Paris.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. The Scientific Legacy of Sigmund Freud Toward a Psychodynamically Informed Psychological Science by Drew Westen, Psychological Bulletin November 1998 Vol. 124, No. 3, 333-371
  2. Frances Stonor Saunders, The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind: Hitler, Hess and the Analysts by Daniel Pick - review. The Guardian, 1 August 2012.

    The vast literature thrown up by nazism – which includes a counter-literature that says we shouldn't go on paying it so much attention – speaks to a kind of pathology in itself. As Pick writes: "The question of how nazism caught the subject's desire was explored again and again. It was as though this very question might itself be a traumatic problem to resolve."

  3. Otto Gross.
  4. See the Wikipedia article on The Mass Psychology of Fascism.
  5. Jung Love: Sabina Spielrein, a forgotten pioneer of psychoanalysis, The Telegraph, 2011
  6. Melanie Klein Biography, Gail Donaldson, American Psychological Association
  7. Modules on Kristeva: psychosexual development, Purdue
  8. See the Wikipedia article on Slavoj Žižek.