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Sigmund Freud

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SIGMUND FREUD

1856 - 1939

Freud's story, like most people's stories, begins with others. In his case those others were his mentor and friend, Dr. Joseph Breuer, and Breuer's patient, called Anna O.

Anna O. was Joseph Breuer's patient from 1880 through 1882. Twenty one years old, Anna spent most of her time nursing her ailing father. She developed a bad cough that proved to have no physical basis. She developed some speech difficulties, then became mute, and then began speaking only in English, rather than her usual German.

When her father died she began to refuse food, and developed an unusual set of problems. She lost the feeling in her hands and feet, developed some paralysis, and began to have involuntary spasms. She also had visual hallucinations and tunnel vision. But when specialists were consulted, no physical causes for these problems could be found.

If all this weren't enough, she had fairy-tale fantasies, dramatic mood swings, and made several suicide attempts. Breuer's diagnosis was that she was suffering from what was then called hysteria (now called conversion disorder), which meant she had symptoms that appeared to be physical, but were not.

In the evenings, Anna would sink into states of what Breuer called "spontaneous hypnosis," or what Anna herself called "clouds." Breuer found that, during these trance-like states, she could explain her day-time fantasies and other experiences, and she felt better afterwards. Anna called these episodes "chimney sweeping" and "the talking cure."

Sometimes during "chimney sweeping," some emotional event was recalled that gave meaning to some particular symptom. The first example came soon after she had refused to drink for a while: She recalled seeing a woman drink from a glass that a dog had just drunk from. While recalling this, she experienced strong feelings of disgust...and then had a drink of water! In other words, her symptom -- an avoidance of water -- disappeared as soon as she remembered its root event, and experienced the strong emotion that would be appropriate to that event. Breuer called this catharsis, from the Greek word for cleansing.

It was eleven years later that Breuer and his assistant, Sigmund Freud, wrote a book on hysteria. In it they explained their theory: Every hysteria is the result of a traumatic experience, one that cannot be integrated into the person's understanding of the world. The emotions appropriate to the trauma are not expressed in any direct fashion, but do not simply evaporate: They express themselves in behaviors that in a weak, vague way offer a response to the trauma. These symptoms are, in other words, meaningful. When the client can be made aware of the meanings of his or her symptoms (through hypnosis, for example) then the unexpressed emotions are released and so no longer need to express themselves as symptoms. It is analogous to lancing a boil or draining an infection.

In this way, Anna got rid of symptom after symptom. But it must be noted that she needed Breuer to do this: Whenever she was in one of her hypnotic states, she had to feel his hands to make sure it was him before talking! And sadly, new problems continued to arise.

According to Freud, Breuer recognized that she had fallen in love with him, and that he was falling in love with her. Plus, she was telling everyone she was pregnant with his child. You might say she wanted it so badly that her mind told her body it was true, and she developed an hysterical pregnancy. Breuer, a married man in a Victorian era, abruptly ended their sessions together, and lost all interest in hysteria.

It was Freud who would later add what Breuer did not acknowledge publicly -- that secret sexual desires lay at the bottom of all these hysterical neuroses.

To finish her story, Anna spent time in a sanatorium. Later, she became a well-respected and active figure -- the first social worker in Germany -- under her true name, Bertha Pappenheim. She died in 1936. She will be remembered, not only for her own accomplishments, but as the inspiration for the most influential personality theory we have ever had.

Biography

Sigmund Freud was born May 6, 1856, in a small town -- Freiberg -- in Moravia. His father was a wool merchant with a keen mind and a good sense of humor. His mother was a lively woman, her husband's second wife and 20 years younger. She was 21 years old when she gave birth to her first son, her darling, Sigmund. Sigmund had two older half-brothers and six younger siblings. When he was four or five -- he wasn't sure -- the family moved to Vienna, where he lived most of his life.

A brilliant child, always at the head of his class, he went to medical school, one of the few viable options for a bright Jewish boy in Vienna those days. There, he became involved in research under the direction of a physiology professor named Ernst BrÑŒcke. BrÑŒcke believed in what was then a popular, if radical, notion, which we now call reductionism: "No other forces than the common physical-chemical ones are active within the organism." Freud would spend many years trying to "reduce" personality to neurology, a cause he later gave up on.

Freud was very good at his research, concentrating on neurophysiology, even inventing a special cell-staining technique. But only a limited number of positions were available, and there were others ahead of him. BrÑŒcke helped him to get a grant to study, first with the great psychiatrist Charcot in Paris, then with his rival Bernheim in Nancy. Both these gentlemen were investigating the use of hypnosis with hysterics.

After spending a short time as a resident in neurology and director of a children's ward in Berlin, he came back to Vienna, married his fiancйe of many years Martha Bernays, and set up a practice in neuropsychiatry, with the help of Joseph Breuer.

Freud's books and lectures brought him both fame and ostracism from the mainstream of the medical community. He drew around him a number of very bright sympathizers who became the core of the psychoanalytic movement. Unfortunately, Freud had a penchant for rejecting people who did not totally agree with him. Some separated from him on friendly terms; others did not, and went on to found competing schools of thought.

Freud emigrated to England just before World War II when Vienna became an increasing dangerous place for Jews, especially ones as famous as Freud. Not long afterward, he died of the cancer of the mouth and jaw that he had suffered from for the last 20 years of his life.

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