Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me.

– Sigmund Freud

Freudian Ideas and the Test of Time

If anyone has increased our consciousness about the mind it is Sigmund Freud. He is synonymous with the exploration of the psyche and undoubtedly was one of the most influential figures of the late 19th and 20th centuries. He significantly advanced the concept of treatment of psychological conditions through a type of talk therapy he called psychoanalysis. Freud had many believers and followers but also many detractors. So what is his true legacy? How original were his ideas, how were they initially received, and are they still relevant today?

Freud Idea 1: The Unconscious

One of Freud’s major contributions was his concept of the unconscious. What did he mean by that term?

Being conscious means that you are aware of what is in your mind. For example, as you are reading this, you are aware of the words on the page and your thoughts. The subconscious (Freud preferred the term “unconscious”) refers to mental processes that you are not aware of. For example, some of our behavior, like riding a bicycle, is done on autopilot. We are not consciously focusing on pedaling the bike—we do it automatically without attention. Freud’s theory suggested that we have painful memories and other “unwanted” thoughts stored in the unconscious. We are not aware of them, but they can influence our behavior, especially if they are emotionally charged memories of difficult, even traumatic, experiences. The mind works hard to keep these difficult memories out of our awareness. 

In fact, the closer these secrets come to awareness, the more anxious the patient becomes, without realizing why. Freud used the term “repression” to describe this process of keeping unwanted thoughts and memories out of conscious awareness. To Freud, the unconscious is the dumping ground for difficult issues we don’t want to face. But not facing issues doesn’t resolve them and they can fester beyond our awareness, causing havoc with our lives.

Freud Idea 2: Psychoanalysis

Freud started his professional life as a neurologist, but in 1886, after being introduced to the concept of hypnosis, Freud decided to open his own practice treating nervous disorders. His belief was that if unconscious memories could be brought into awareness, they could be confronted and managed. Freud subsequently adopted a slightly different form of hypnosis and found that encouraging people to talk about their issues, as well as analyzing their dreams, was helpful in revealing the unconscious. After several years, Freud renamed his technique “psychoanalysis”.

Bringing traumatic memories into awareness is pretty scary. (If a memory is not scary, there’s less need to repress it.) In fact, as these painful secrets came close to the conscious surface, the patient typically got more and more anxious as the conscious mind tried to repress these often difficult ideas. Once these memories reached awareness, however, the patient could then “process” them. Often, awareness of a difficult experience, while painful, can also be liberating as it brings understanding and increased awareness of self-destructive behavior. Awareness is necessary for change.

Freud didn’t invent the idea of the unconscious but he elaborated the concept and developed and enhanced techniques to access repressed memories and then deal with them once they reached consciousness. Now there was a better explanation—and a treatment. Moreover, Freud’s emphasis and explanation meant that it wasn’t just clients who had an unruly unconscious; everyone does. Sure, the more traumatic those experiences and memories, the more neurosis there’ll be, but no one is immune to the process of repression.

Freud was a prolific writer and speaker and before long his ideas spread amongst colleagues, especially in Europe. Others developed theories that reflected their own spin on psychoanalysis, but Freud’s theory of unconscious dynamics was widely accepted. Today, a concept of the unconscious is embedded in almost every model of human behavior and in every profession from psychiatry to marketing, from coaching to teaching. It’s a brilliant and universal concept that describes a fundamental process about the human psyche.

Now, in late 19th-century Vienna, the concept of psychotherapy was new, so people who showed up at Freud’s office weren’t having marital problems or difficulty dealing with their bosses; they were people who were acting pretty weirdly. In fact, many of them were dealing with the fallout of some very traumatic childhood experiences. And many of those experiences related to childhood sexual abuse.

Freud Idea 3: Infantile Sexuality

While under hypnosis or in “free association”, many of Freud’s clients recounted stories of sexual abuse. By using psychoanalysis, Freud enabled his clients to remember, recount, and then resolve incidents of incest and molestation. However, he soon changed his mind about what was happening and developed an alternate theory that drew criticism in his own time and even more so as time passed.

Two explanations are generally presented for Freud’s change. The first is that some clients, when confronted with the evidence of childhood sexual abuse, denied it. Apparently, some clients simply didn’t believe that such events had taken place. Secondly, in late 19th-century Victorian Europe, talking about childhood sexual abuse was about as politically incorrect as walking down the street naked. Anyone publicly talking about such a nasty and despicable behavior would likely be outcast and demonized. 

In any event, for whatever reason, Freud came up with a theory to explain the apparent subconscious idea of sexual relations when no such behavior had apparently taken place. Children, he said, had a subconscious desire to have sex with their opposite sex parent. This led to the idea of jealousy, and fear of reprimand, from the same sex parent. The Oedipus complex today sounds a bit like a sports stadium but it, and the female equivalent the Electra Complex, were the heart of Freud’s explanation of why repressed sexual trauma seemed so prevalent when there appeared to be no real basis for it.

Even at that time, various experts disagreed with Freud, some even accusing him of copping out. He had uncovered a nasty and pervasive secret about childhood sexual abuse and was now backing down, they claimed. One detractor at the time was psychoanalyst Dr. Karin Ahbel-Rappe who wrote: “Freud marked out and started down a trail of investigation into the nature of the experience of infantile incest and its impact on the human psyche, and then abandoned this direction for the most part”.

There are a variety of alternative explanations as to why clients might produce “memories of sexual abuse” and then deny that it ever happened, and one theory is very critical of Freud’s technique. Today’s practitioners of hypnosis or other regressive techniques go out of their way not to lead their clients or make any comments that could plant ideas in the client’s minds, otherwise, out of association or a desire to please, “memories” might appear. 

Freud didn’t adhere to this methodology. On the contrary, he used the “pressure” technique to encourage his clients to produce what he was looking for. This technique led to a lot of criticism of Freud at the time that there was simply no objective evidence for his theories, especially about infantile sexuality. Others objected that the theory was simply not testable. Later, as psychology emerged as a data-driven science, there were many detractors who suggested that Freud’s unsubstantiated and untestable ideas had delayed the development of a scientific psychology by half a century.

Freud Idea 4: Id, Ego and Super-Ego

Later in his career, Freud developed a new three-pronged description of the mind with the introduction of the id, the unconscious, impulsive part of the mind; the superego, which might be thought of as conscience, the moral imperative; and the ego, the rational mind trying to find a balance between instincts, impulses, and conscience. There really wasn’t anything unique in this description. Any person with a little insight feels primitive instincts, like hunger and sex, as well as emotions and obligations, and is aware of the struggle to balance them all out.

Today, this balance between these various parts of the psyche are more likely to be expressed in neuroscientific terms. We have largely identified the areas of the brain that are implicated in these different functions. As a simple generalization, because the brain is truly an integrated organ, the frontal lobes are the seat of thinking and judgment; the limbic areas are where emotion is mediated; and various areas of the brain are implicated in basic drives or instincts. So this division of mental processes wasn’t terribly earth-shattering at the time and has been replaced with a different context today.

Freud Idea 5: The Interpretation of Dreams and Beyond

Freud’s concept was that dreams are inspired by daily events and reflect symbolic desires, a view that was accepted by the inner circle of practitioners at the time. Even today we recognize that some dreams do have symbolic significance. As he did with the idea of infantile sexuality, however, Freud viewed dreams as mental processes that reflected desires. A current view of the brain and the mind is that while indeed there are specific pleasure pathways in the brain and pleasure is a motivator, the brain’s main goal is survival. Indeed, cognitive neuroscience—the study of how we think—suggests that human beings are much more motivated to avoid threat than to seek pleasure.

And speaking of how we think, the most recent developments and research (summarized in Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow) suggest that humans are storytellers rather than rational beings. We construct our perceptions around the stories that are most comfortable for us and then find ways to rationalize our thoughts and actions. We seek “cognitive ease” rather than the truth. Cognitive ease isn’t pleasure, however; it is the avoidance of stress. So, perhaps our main motivation isn’t pleasure as Freud suggested, but rather a freedom from stress. 

Later in his career, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud did make a nod in this direction but then took it to the extreme by suggesting that the desire to reduce tension can be so extreme it could be thought of as a death instinct—his idea of Thanatos.

Sigmund Freud Today

Like the rest of us, Freud was a storyteller and, just like the rest of us, he believed in his stories, as did others. It’s hard, even impossible, to come up with a truly unique narrative about human behavior, but Freud certainly integrated many existing ideas and presented them in a unique way. During a time when there was no Facebook or even television, books were the currency of ideas and Freud certainly was able to spread his ideas through his writings. The man wrote more than 20 books. In so doing he focused popular attention on the mind and human motivation. He inspired people to think about thinking and he created the groundwork for psychotherapy and the treatment of psychological issues. 

That’s not to suggest that if Freud hadn’t lived there would be no such thing as psychotherapy today, but he was a thought leader in moving the discussion about the mind—and therapy—forward. The last century has seen the most explosive development in human knowledge and public access to it. It might be unrealistic, therefore, to think that any ideas from a hundred years ago, especially outside the physical sciences, would completely stand the test of time. Perhaps it’s a testimony to Freud that he still has many followers today and that we continue to discuss his ideas and influence.