Sigmund Freud's Theories: Overview

Instructor: Robert Turner
In this lesson, you'll learn how the work of Sigmund Freud transformed the field of psychology and profoundly influenced both scientific and popular ideas about human consciousness and human motivation.

How Sigmund Freud Changed Our World

Have you ever heard someone say, 'Denial is not a river in Egypt'? Did you ever hear someone say that Jake or Jane or someone else is 'anal'? Have you ever heard someone accused of making a 'Freudian slip'? If you have, guess what: You are hearing echoes from the ideas of an Austrian physician by the name of Sigmund Freud.

For Freud, denial is one among several defense mechanisms that include repression and projection. Denial is a mental process by which people deny the obvious because it makes them afraid or uncomfortable. Repression, on the other hand, happens when people bury disturbing events or memories in their unconscious mind. For example, victims of child abuse may repress memories of both the abuse and the abuser. In general, you could say denial is like refusal to look while repression is 'intentional' forgetting.

Meanwhile, projection shows up when we imagine that our motives, anxieties, or obnoxious traits are embodied in some other person. For example, Sally might imagine that Judy is jealous of Chloe because she is so pretty. But in fact, it is Sally who is jealous of Chloe's beauty. Indeed, very often, by way of projection, what we despise in another is actually a trait we (unconsciously) despise in ourselves.

In popular speech, when we refer to someone as 'anal,' we are characterizing them as compulsively neat, fussy, and addicted to their pet routines. For Freud, however, the term 'anal' refers to the second stage of a person's personality development. The oral stage - the period during which an infant suckles a breast or a bottle - is our first developmental stage. During the anal stage, which follows the oral stage, a young child becomes focused on the sensory stimulation associated with bowel movements. For Freud, the final, mature stage of personality development is the genital stage. In that stage we have progressed to a balanced understanding of the powerful role sexuality plays as we relate to others and make life decisions.

In Freudian theory, what we now call a Freudian slip happens when a person accidentally and often unconsciously says what they really mean. For example, Esther, talking about her current husband, says something like this: 'I have to admit that George can be very considerate at times.' That might sound fine to Esther, except that the person she's talking to happens to know that Esther's current husband is Horace, not George. George is her ex-husband.

So, when scholars and social commentators say that Freud changed our world, these are the kinds of things they are talking about. Even people who know very little about Sigmund Freud have been influenced by his ideas.

Who Was Sigmund Freud?

Freud was born in 1856 to Jewish parents in a small village in Moravia. Today, Moravia is part of the Czech Republic. However, his family moved to Vienna, Austria when Freud was a young child. And, as it turned out, he would spend most of his life in that elegant, sophisticated city.

Photo of Sigmund Freud

At the tender age of 17, Freud entered the University of Vienna to study law. But, as his studies progressed he became interested in biology and medicine. So, having earned his credentials as a physician, his early career was mainly devoted to studies in neurophysiology. Neurophysiologists examine the way body functions are regulated by the nervous systems of organisms.

However, by 1885, Freud had become increasingly fascinated by the phenomenon of hypnosis. And so, along with his colleague, Josef Breuer, Freud applied techniques of hypnosis to curing cases of hysteria. In those times, 'hysteria' referred to physical ailments that appeared to have no physical cause. In the famous case of 'Anna O.,' for example, a woman who was unable to walk recovered from her ailment simply through talking freely about her symptoms while under hypnosis.

Following the case of Anna O., Freud stopped using hypnosis and, with Breuer, began to develop what they called the talking cure. The technique, put simply, was Anna O.'s treatment without the aid of hypnosis. Freud's clinical work with the talking cure would, in time, lead to his theories of psychoanalysis. Using techniques like free association while encouraging the patient to speak freely, the essence of psychoanalysis is enabling patients to recover unconscious beliefs and feelings in order to resolve painful inner conflicts.

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