Perhaps the best known name in the world of psychology is that of Sigmund Freud. Perhaps no other name provokes greater controversy. Was he a genius or a charlatan?
Born in Vienna to a middle class Jewish family, young Sigmund was the apple of his mother’s eye. A diligent and studious youth, he excelled in his studies and eventually qualified in medicine. He was drawn to the new science of neurology and became recognized as being an extremely skilled neuro-anatomist.
However, for various reasons, cutting and staining slices of brain tissue began to hold less and less appeal, and he began to lean towards psychology, and in particular, the treatment of what was then called hysteria. Very fashionable in middle class, 19th century Europe, this malady was strictly the preserve of the female gender.
Crying, faintness, inability to cope, withdrawal and neediness seemed to be the main symptoms, and as late as the 1850s some still held that it was caused by the womb moving upward in the body towards the seat of emotion, the heart.
Above all, however, the treatment of hysteria could be quite lucrative, and Freud – in somewhat difficult financial circumstances, began to build a substantial practice in that area. Initially, he used hypnosis, but soon abandoned it. Various reasons for this have been suggested, the most popular being that he was a pretty poor hypnotist!
He called his own system psychoanalysis and developed a technique, still used today, which he described as free association. Essentially, this entails (even now) the client reclining comfortably, with the analyst out of his or her direct line of vision, saying whatever comes into his mind about his condition or concerns. Nothing may be held back, and deep introspection or mental analysis is discouraged. In theory, over time, this will lead to a better understanding of client’s condition, and thereby offer a solution or accommodation.
It is Freud’s theoretical contribution to the world of psychology which is the most fascinating, and which still stimulates sometimes violent debate. To really over simplify matters, Freud suggested a basic framework of the mind, and a belief that what ails you now is the result of what happened in your childhood. Pretty strong stuff, since the theoretical underpinnings of his work rely heavily on juvenile sexuality – a hot potato today, let alone in 19th century Vienna. Freud made a great impact, and at one stage, counted amongst his followers such luminaries as Alfred Adler and Carl Jung.
So, Freudian psychology – it’s all about sex, isn’t it? Well yes, but when Freud used the term sex, he did so in a very wide connotation encompassing practically any pleasurable sensation related to the body, and by extension, to such feelings as tenderness and affection.
His great idea was that all of us have two basic drives – self preservation and the procreation of the species and from the way those develop in us as individuals comes our character, personality and behavior. He called this drive towards procreation libido, (in a simple sense, desire) and suggested that as it developed in the child, it moved through more or less clearly defined phases, each linked to a particular stage of infant sexual development – oral, anal and genital – where the child was concentrated upon particular aspects of its life.
In the oral stage for example, the child’s first need and desire is to suckle, and this first stage persists for a considerable time. Freud thought that we never entirely lose this devotion to mouth pleasures as adults, citing such pleasurable activities as kissing, smoking and eating. The oral stage was overlapped by the anal stage, which generally coincides with the start of the child’s ability to control its anal sphincter, and therefore his ability to give or ‘withhold’ gifts at will.
In the genital stage, the child becomes aware of, and interested in his or her genitalia as a source of pleasure, and this stage lasts until about the age of five. From then, until puberty, there are no further stages of libidinal development, except quantitatively.
Although Freud took the view that these various stages were basically biologically determined, he conceded that social and parenting factors could influence the direction and rate of their development, and he held the view that each stage had to be completed successfully for the child to emerge as a well balanced adult.
Any disruption of any of these phases could result in fixation, a stalling of development in which the adult would develop and display behavioral characteristics related to the point at which his libidinal development was interrupted. We have all probably heard of the anal retentive type of character – stubborn, controlling, possessive, with a “what I have, I keep” sort of personality. In Freudian psychology, feces became associated with possessions, and particularly money. Otherwise, the Freudians ask, why do we have such phrases as “stinking rich”, “filthy lucre”, or “rolling in the stuff”.
Time now to examine Freud’s Oedipus and Electra theories, the Id, Ego and Super Ego and see what has become of his theories today.
Not content with ascribing all sorts of adult problems to childhood sexual development, Freud went even further. He theorized that as a little boy passed through the genital stage; he developed strong sexual feelings for his mother, and an intense jealousy and distrust for his father, because the father is the stronger competitor for his mother’s love and affection.
This is the often referred to Oedipus complex and usually ends at about four years old, as the boy develops a distinct fear that his father will castrate him in revenge for his feelings about his mother.
Little girls go through a similar but opposite phase in which there is rejection of the mother and attachment to the father, which Freud referred to as the Electra complex. Freud suggests that we all need to go through these complexes in order to be able to develop healthy adult relationships.
In order to make sense of the seething mass of drives and emotions present in infants, Freud began to develop a complex theory of personality to try to describe why we behave as we do. He thought that infantile behavior was instinctive, without guiding thought or conscious decision, and referred to this impersonal primitive mass as the Id.
As the child grows older, and begins to use reasoning, part of the Id becomes detached to form the Ego, or self, whose purpose is to help determine what reality is like, and what form of behavior brings the most rewards – very selfish, one would think!
Later, a third component of the personality begins to form, the Super-ego. It results from the child taking on board the dictates of its parents, and the “rules” of the society in which it finds itself, and appears to mediate between the demands of the Id and the Ego.
According to Freud, females can never develop a strong Super-ego, resulting in them having a weak moral nature, and of course, leading to our expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the need for psychoanalysis! I think that we can assume that Germaine Greer would have something to say about that.
So when something goes wrong with us, and we decide we need psychoanalysis, what happens?
The object of the treatment is for the client to understand the nature of the drives and conflicts within him, and to adjust his behavior in the light of the information gained.
Typically, the client would be expected to attend four or five one hour sessions per week, for an average of five and a half years- one can see immediately that a great deal of faith and very deep pockets are a pre-requisite for candidates for psychoanalysis.
Amazingly, it is still a popular therapy, despite a great deal of skepticism in the psychological community.