Thanatos, Death Instinct: Definition & Explanation

Instructor: Vidhi Desai
Have you ever been skydiving or jet-skiing? If you have engaged in any of these activities, Sigmund Freud would have said that Thanatos, also known as your death drive, was dominant during those activities. Find out more about the death instinct in this lesson!

Who was Freud, Anyway?

Sigmund Freud was a leading figure in psychology in the early 20th century. He worked a great deal with psychoanalysis. He is remembered for his work and studies on the human mind, conscious and unconscious. A piece of his work on the mind included human instincts and drives, such as the death drive.

Definition of Thanatos

Thanatos is the Greek word for death. In this lesson, we will use the words death instinct, death drive, and Thanatos interchangeably. The death drive controls aggression, risky behaviors, and death. You can say that our death instinct takes the 'born to die' approach, often making humans engage in activities that bring them closer to death. Examples are war and murder.

If There's a Death Drive, Is There a Life Drive?

Yes! Freud thought there were competing drives, death (Thanatos) and life (Eros). We know that the death drive is interested in negativity, risk, destruction, and that it takes the 'born to die' approach. The life drive, on the other hand, is concerned with preservation of the human species and life. It controls the libido, which is the sex drive. It also controls our needs for health and safety in the form of food, sleep, and shelter. It focuses on positivity, pleasure, and takes the 'born to live' approach.

For example, John maintains a strict schedule - he wakes up in the morning at 7:00 AM to have a healthy breakfast, goes to work to make money, comes home to spend time with his children, exercises daily, and has a healthy dinner. He's done this for years - Freud would have said that his Eros is dominant. Following his schedule, he will probably live a long, healthy life. His wife, however, is a stunt woman named Roxy. Roxy is barely home due to her work schedule and is known to have road rage when driving. Freud would have said that her Thanatos is dominant. Her job is dangerous and she engages in risky behavior when she has her road rage episodes - this can bring her closer to death.

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