That Freud deserves to be honoured as a pioneer in developing a new approach to psychology is undoubtedly true; but we must be careful to avoid the assumption that he did this all on his own. The fact is that the last half of the 19th Century saw a growing interest in personality theories and in how they might be applied to psychological illnesses. And the idea that the human mind has an unconscious side, hidden from the view of our conscious minds, was being treated seriously by numerous theorists before Freud. (Indeed, six lengthy chapters precede the chapter on Freud in Ellenberger’s classic book, The Discovery of the Unconscious.) When Freud began training as a medical doctor at Vienna University in 1873, he entered into a climate where colleagues were already actively searching for effective forms of therapy and meaningful ways of understanding the unconscious.
If Freud was not the first psychotherapist and did not invent the notion of the unconscious, then what did he do that makes him such an important figure in the history of psychology? The two most significant answers to this question, I believe, are as follows. First, he constructed a systematic, scientifically-based theory of the whole structure of human personality (conscious and unconscious). Here he drew together insights from the many other scholars who had been working in this area (most now ignored), and went well beyond them with new insights into some areas that had hardly been touched before. Second, he popularised the practice of psychotherapy and belief in the unconscious by showing in his many writings how his theory has meaningful practical (therapeutic) applications. The success of his efforts to popularise his views is evidenced by the fact that before Freud only intellectuals talked about the unconscious; ordinary people typically assumed a naive form of Cartesian dualism, with the material body being “inhabited” by a conscious mind. After Freud, by contrast, belief in the dual nature of the mind (i.e., as both conscious and unconscious) has been taken for granted by most people.
Freud developed his understanding of the unconscious and his method of psychotherapy gradually over a number of years.…After medical school, Freud’s first experience with mentally ill patients came in a hospital where some doctors used hypnosis to assist them in their treatment of hysteria (a mental illness characterised by intense emotions that interrupt the body’s normal functioning). Freud was deeply impressed by the power doctors were able to gain over the minds of people who had been hypnotised. He was convinced that by understanding the nature and functions of this hidden and largely unharnessed power, it could become a significant tool for psychological healing. This began his lifelong search for better and better explanations of the unconscious.
(….) Soon Freud began seeing private patients with various sorts of emotional problems. Mainly he tended to work with rich, European women who were “neurotic”. Neurosis develops in a person as a way of responding to very stressful (traumatic) situations. It is characterised by specific abnormal behaviour patterns. For instance, a person who had nearly been hit by a train as a young child might have an irrational fear of riding in trains as an adult. Or a person who nearly drowns in the bathtub at a young age might be unable to learn how to swim, no matter how many lessons he or she takes. If the stress of a person’s life is so intolerable that the person’s overall personality disintegrates, then a “psychosis” will develop. Unlike a neurotic, who might function quite normally in most social situations, a psychotic copes with life’s stress by inventing a false reality and behaving in generally abnormal ways, completely detaching their personality from the “normal” world.
(….) The name Freud gave his approach to therapy, “psychoanalysis”, conveys the fact that he viewed the unconscious the way medical doctors in those days were taught to approach physical diseases: as a problem to be dissected and analyzed into its constituent parts, traced back to its determining causes, and then mechanically repaired by reversing those causes. The main challenge Freud faced during the early years when he was first developing what would become psychoanalysis (i.e., roughly from 1885 to 1897) was to discover ways of obtaining knowledge about the unconscious roots of his patient’s problems.
(….) One of the first psychoanalytic methods Freud discovered was “free association”. By encouraging his patients to speak spontaneously about their problem (or about any situation), without heeding the social constraints that normally moderate our speech, he found that solutions (or other relevant insights) would sometimes emerge from the unconscious. In other words, his patients would suddenly say something unexpectedly, something previously hidden from their conscious mind, and this could be analysed in a way that revealed it to be a key to solving their problem. Sometimes he used hypnosis to encourage free association to be more spontaneous. But other therapists (most notably, Jung) soon developed what came to be regarded as a more systematic method: association tests.
An association test is a list of words the therapist draws up and reads to the patient, one by one. After the therapist says a word, the patient must say the first word that comes to mind, whether or not there is any “logical” relationship between the two. The therapist records the patient’s responses, and analyses them to find any evidence of patterns that might be determined by the unconscious. By carefully selecting appropriate lists of potentially relevant words and insuring that the patient gives spontaneous, unplanned answers, Freud and Jung believed such tests could stimulate associations that would be more likely to suggest a solution to the patient’s problems. Consider, for example, the following association test, where the first word is said by the therapist, and the second is the response given by the patient, with an asterisk (*) indicating that the patient pauses before answering:
|1. dog – cat||6. holiday – lonely||11. head – hair||16. boat – ****|
|2. bible – green||7. death – *life||12. sad – orphan||17. moon –|
|3. water – dirty||8. white – pure||13. mother – mom||18. stars –|
|4. child – fear||9. black – night||14. sea – *swim||19. flower –|
|5. house – home||10. eat – food||15. shoes – socks||20. love –|
Note that most of the answers can be easily explained through some conscious, logical connection (e.g. “life” is the opposite of “death”, “cats” are the main alternative to “dogs” as house pets, etc.). But a few of the answers are quite strange (e.g. “holidays” are not usually “lonely”, and the word “child” would not remind most people of “fear”).
The unusual answers are typically regarded as clues to the recovery of past memories that had been forgotten, because the original events were too painful. This process, called “repression”, involves pushing painful memories into the unconscious. Freud shocked the Victorian culture of his time by claiming that all repression is ultimately sexual in nature and takes place mainly before a child reaches puberty.…Becoming aware of these forgotten memories is the key to psychological healing, and is the basic purpose for engaging in psychoanalysis.
One of Freud’s greatest early insights came when he realised what is now a standard assumption of most types of psychotherapy: when a person is able to recover an awareness of some repressed “memory” and in some sense to relive the painful event, the symptoms caused by the repression will disappear – sometimes immediately, like magic! In the above example of an association test, Freud might ask the patient to talk further about the connection between “sad” and “orphan”, in hopes that a memory would be uncovered of some childhood event that made the patient feel like an orphan, unloved by his or her parents. Or he might inquire as to whether the patient remembers childhood as a happy or fearful time of life (see word 4). The goal of all such inquiries is to bring to light whatever secret the unconscious is trying to hide from the patient’s conscious mind, so that it can be analysed and properly understood. This takes away its power to cause mental disturbances.
(…) Another, closely related breakthrough came when Freud noticed that at certain points in the process of association most patients will encounter “resistance”. That is, patients will come to a point when their mind just “goes blank” – e.g., they will find themselves “stuck” on one word of an association test, unable to give any further responses. In the above example, the experiment stopped at word 16, because the patient encountered such a resistance, as represented by the “****”. When this happens, the therapist assumes there must be something about the word (“boat”) that caused the patient’s unconscious to block the spontaneous answer that would have otherwise come up. Presumably, this happened because remembering that association would be too painful for the patient to bear. Other moments of hesitation during the test might provide clues as to why this happened. For instance, the therapist might question whether “life” was really the first word that came to mind in response to “death”; perhaps the patient’s conscious mind stepped in and substituted a “safer” word for one that would have brought the analysis too close to whatever the unconscious is hiding. Likewise, he might ask for further associations relating to dirty water (see word 3).
(….) Rather than being discouraged by such resistances, Freud taught that we should focus on them and seek to understand why they occur when they do; for in this way we can eventually break through to the unconscious root of the repression that caused the resistance in the first place. The problem Freud encountered, however, was that many patients were simply unable to engage in this difficult task. Their neuroses had produced too many defence mechanisms to allow even the most skilled therapist to break through the resistances. After several years of frustration in this regard, Freud accidentally stumbled across another insight – one that turned out to be the greatest discovery of his life.
One of Freud’s patients, who had been bed-ridden for some time due to a severe neurosis, spontaneously told Freud a dream she remembered from the night before. At first he ignored this as an irrelevant fantasy; but suddenly he realised that the dream provided a crucial clue to the forgotten memory that would enable this patient to be healed. He pursued the idea and within a short time, the patient was completely cured of her neurosis.
To conclude this lecture, let’s briefly assess Freud’s claim that all repressed material is sexual in nature. Most psychotherapists nowadays (including most Freudians!) agree that Freud was wrong to emphasise sex so exclusively. The question is, why was he so convinced he was right’? Three considerations are noteworthy here. The first is that his understanding of what counts as “sex” was far broader than the ordinary use of this word would allow. His theory becomes more believable (though still highly debatable) once we realise the spectrum of desires he regarded as sexual in nature.
The second point is that Freud’s theory may have been accurate for the majority of his patients without being universal. Initially, he based his conclusions largely on his own self-analysis. He was convinced that his own neurotic tendencies were rooted in repressions of his early childhood sexual urges. Of course, one cannot necessarily make a universal judgment about the nature of unconscious repressions based on only one case. But, as I mentioned earlier, nearly all Freud’s patients were wealthy European women. These women were all born and raised at the height of the Victorian Age (roughly, the last half of the 19th Century), an age perhaps best known for its strict suppression of overt sexual expression. Naturally, in such a cultural climate a large majority of neuroses are likely to arise as a direct result of this overly strict cultural suppression. With this in mind, we can suggest that many, if not most, of Freud’s diagnoses were probably correct; his mistake was that he did not see clearly beyond his own culture, to the deeper layers of the unconscious that are shared by all human beings.
Finally, toward the end of his life Freud himself softened his extreme view that sex is the source of all repression. As we shall see in the next lecture, he began to acknowledge two basic instinctual drives: the sex drive and the “death” drive. Moreover, he acknowledged the presence of “ancestral memory traces” residing in the deepest layers of the unconscious. We’ll see how these operate when we examine Freud’s view of the structure of the psyche (Lecture 8). For now it is enough to say that, although psychoanalysis began with an emphasis on sexuality as the source of all unconscious repressions, neither with Freud nor his followers has it ended with such an exclusive emphasis on sex.