- Curious Peoples
- Sigmund Freud
Exploring the Depths of the Mind
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, profoundly impacted both psychology and Western culture with his groundbreaking theories about the human mind’s nature and workings. Renowned as one of the 20th century’s most influential and controversial minds, his legacy continues to shape thought and debate.
Born on May 6, 1856, in Freiberg, Moravia (now Pribor in the Czech Republic), Freud came from a Jewish family of wool merchants. At four, his family moved to Vienna, where he would spend most of his life. As a medical student and young researcher, Freud concentrated on neurobiology, studying the brains and nervous tissue of humans and animals.
Sigmund Freud, c. 1921
At 29, Freud went to Paris to study at the Salpêtrière Hospital under Jean-Martin Charcot, a famous neurologist researching hypnosis and hysteria. Charcot’s work greatly influenced Freud, and upon his return to Vienna, he started a private practice treating psychological disorders. His office at Berggasse 19 would be his consulting room for nearly 50 years.
Though initially experimenting with hypnosis, Freud found its effects short-lived and turned to a method inspired by Josef Breuer, a Viennese colleague and friend. Breuer had found that encouraging hysterical patients to speak freely about the earliest occurrences of their symptoms sometimes led to their gradual improvement. Freud adopted this technique, marking a significant turn in his approach to treatment.
During the early 1880s, before collaborating with Sigmund Freud, Josef Breuer treated a patient named Bertha Pappenheim, known in the literature as “Anna O.,” who suffered from various hysterical symptoms. Breuer diverged from Charcot’s hypnotic suggestion technique, instead allowing her to enter a state akin to autohypnosis, where she discussed the initial manifestations of her symptoms. This process of verbalization, to Breuer’s surprise, seemed to alleviate the symptoms’ intensity. Breuer and Anna O. referred to this as “the talking cure” and “chimney sweeping,” which acted cathartically to release the emotional blockages causing her pathological behavior.
Bertha Pappenheim, 1882
Freud, working with Breuer, evolved the idea that many neuroses, including phobias, hysterical paralysis and pains, and some forms of paranoia, originated from traumatic experiences forgotten and hidden from consciousness. The goal of their treatment was to help patients recall and confront these experiences both intellectually and emotionally, thus discharging them and alleviating the neurotic symptoms. This technique and its underlying theory were classically presented in their 1895 joint publication, Studies in Hysteria.
However, Breuer soon disagreed with Freud’s intense focus on the sexual roots of neuroses, leading to their professional split, with Freud continuing to refine psychoanalysis alone. In 1900, after extensive self-analysis, Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, widely considered his magnum opus.
16-year-old Sigmund Freud with his mother, Amalia, 1972
Freud asserted that dreams have a purpose: they help us tackle subconscious problems that we can’t consciously resolve, with each dream driven by our innermost desires. He believed analyzing dreams and memories allows us to understand and, consequently, influence our current behavior and emotions.
In his later works, Freud introduced the concepts of the id, ego, and superego as the three vital elements of human personality. The id is the primitive and irrational unconscious part, driven by pleasure or pain, and responsible for basic instincts like sex and aggression. The ego represents the conscious self that interacts with the external world and makes decisions. The superego is the moral compass or conscience guiding the ego, with violations causing guilt and anxiety. Freud believed the superego mostly forms in the first five years of life, influenced by parental moral standards and later by other role models.
Freud also believed the id is the primary source of psychic energy, driving all mental processes. He particularly focused on libido, the sexual energy, as a driving force behind human actions, countered by Thanatos, the death instinct that leads to destructive behavior.
Furthermore, Freud proposed the Oedipus complex, suggesting that between the ages of three and five, children naturally develop a sexual attraction to the opposite-sex parent and a rivalry with the same-sex parent. This theory is named after the Greek legend of Oedipus, who unwittingly killed his father and married his mother.
Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna, 1913
Freud developed a tobacco addiction in his twenties, initially with cigarettes and then escalating to more than 20 cigars a day. Despite medical warnings, he believed smoking boosted his productivity and creativity. After doctors discovered and removed a cancerous tumor in his mouth in 1923, Freud endured 33 more surgeries and had a significant prosthesis fitted, yet he never quit smoking.
In 1933, the Nazis, having come to power, seized and publicly burned Freud’s books in Berlin, among other psychoanalytic and Jewish works, condemning them as “soul-destroying.” Freud, with his characteristic irony, remarked, “In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now, they are content with burning my books.”
After the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938, Freud managed to escape to England. Battling severe mouth cancer pain, on September 21, 1939, he firmly grasped the hand of his friend and physician, Max Schur, reminding him of the promise to avoid undue suffering, stating, “Now it is nothing but torture and makes no sense.” With his daughter Anna’s permission, Schur administered the first of three heavy morphine doses. Following this, Freud entered a coma and died two days later.
Words of wisdom
“Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise.” —Sigmund Freud
“Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.” —Sigmund Freud
“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” —Sigmund Freud
“Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength.” —Sigmund Freud
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