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The Life and Theories of Sigmund Freud

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The Life and Theories of Sigmund Freud


Sigmund Freud, and his psychoanalytic theory of mental illness, was clearly one of the most significant figures of the 20th century. He changed the way people look at themselves and at each other, as well as the way that medical science looks at mental illness.

Formation of the Man

Sigmund Freud was born on May 6, 1856 in Freiburg, Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic). His father, Jacob, was a Jewish wool merchant, who married Amalie Nathanson as his second wife. Jacob already had two grown sons and a grandchild when he married Amalie, with whom he had eight more children, Sigmund being the oldest.

In 1860, Jacob Freud and his family permanently relocated to Vienna, then the seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1873, Sigmund Freud began his medical studies at the University of Vienna, finishing in 1881, three years longer than normal. His interests in medical school were histology (the study of organic tissues) and neurophysiology (the study of the nervous system). He actually wanted to be a scientist, not a doctor. However, two of his teachers, one the founder of Mechanism and the other, Hermann Helmholtz, its leading practitioner, told Freud that because he was Jewish, he would have difficulty succeeding

as a scientist and suggested he become a doctor instead. Mechanism was a theory that suggested life should be investigated using the experimental methods of chemistry and physics.

Freud did some important pioneering work in the study of nerve cells. In 1882 he met and fell in love with Martha Bernays, who he later married. From 1882-1885 Freud went through a training period in clinical medicine at the Vienna General Hospital, after which he began a private medical practice. During the period of 1884-1887 he studied the effects of cocaine, believing it to be healthy to use as well as a cure for morphine addiction, with his first subjects being himself and his wife. He later used cocaine as a local anesthetic when operating on his father's eye. However, his reputation was almost ruined in 1886 when studies showed that cocaine was addictive and as dangerous as the opiate addiction he was trying to cure.

In 1885 Freud was awarded a 19 week study period in Paris with Jean Martin Charcot, a world famous neurologist and Director of the SalpÐÂștriere Asylum. Charcot had proposed some radical ideas about the origins of hysteria, which many believed was only suffered by women. Charcot was a mechanist who believed hysteria was a neurosis which was suffered by both women and men. He felt that hysteria was a purely physical condition, and refused to allow Freud to ask questions about a possible psychological component.

On His Own

In April 1886 Freud began is own private practice in Vienna. Using his work with Charcot as a basis, Freud and his fellow psychologist and friend, Josef Breuer, continued the study of hysteria, proposing several key ideas: 1) hysterics suffer painful memories of a traumatic experience; 2) the pain does not dissipate because the traumatic memories remain in the unconscious and what is not remembered cannot be dealt with; 3) the negative energy from the experience is blocked, repressed, and converted into the physical symptoms of hysteria (paralysis, catatonia, etc.). Freud proposed that if the repressed feelings and memories of the traumatic experience could be remembered and released, the physical effects of the hysteria would disappear.

The Wheels Start Moving

By 1896 Freud had proposed his Seduction Theory, in which he said that: 1) most repressed memories led back to a seduction or molestation by a parent or other adult; 2) that the negative experience became a pathogenic (disease creating) idea which worked in a delayed way to cause hysterical symptoms after the onset of puberty. In 1896 Freud also coined the word "psychoanalysis" and developed his "pressure technique", in which he would have the patient lie on a couch with Freud sitting at the head and using his hands to place pressure on the patient's forehead while letting the patient speak. This technique eventually evolved into the "free association technique" which allowed the patient to speak freely and randomly, without the therapist's censorship, judgment, or leading. Freud believed only the patient could lead the therapist to the buried memory, after which the therapist could help to release and relieve the pain. Because neither the patient nor the therapist would know what was repressed or in the unconscious, it would take both of their efforts to come to a successful conclusion.

By the age of 40, Freud had a wife, six children, both parents, and two sisters he was supporting. On October 23, 1896 Freud's father died, plunging Freud into a period of depression and self-analysis. During this period, Freud began writing The Interpretation of Dreams and developed one of his most important concepts, the oedipal complex, which proposes that all children go through a period in which they fall in love with their mothers and feel tremendous jealousy towards their fathers. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud suggests two revolutionary findings: 1) that all dreams represent the fulfillment of unconscious wishes; and 2) that the fact we dream at all provides evidence of the unconscious. He suggested that the wishes contained in dreams were almost entirely of a sexual nature, although often so well disguised or distorted that the sexual nature is not apparent. Freud believed that dreams were a censored expression of our deepest wishes, and the latent content (the sexual component) is only allowed to appear in symbolic terms not usually associated with sex or sexuality. These symbolic terms are popularly known as "Freudian symbols".

Freud divided the mind into two parts: 1) the preconscious, which contains all ideas and memories which are capable of becoming conscious; and 2) the unconscious, which contains all wishes and desires of a prohibited sexual or destructive nature. Freud also called this "the pleasure principle", which could easily come into conflict with a person's conscious, everyday behavior. Freud also referred to the preconscious as "the reality principle". In 1901, Freud's Psychopathology of Everyday Life describes examples of "forgetting" or parapraxis, which is the scientific name for "Freudian slip", These include slips of the tongue, pen, or memory which occur every day and, according to Freud, are symbolic of unconscious attitudes



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