Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Sigmund Freud's Psychoanalytic Theory

Sigmund Freud belongs to a group of select few who have generated work so creative and provocative that it has had a revolutionary impact on the course of human values, thought and behavior. Freud’s fundamental assumption about mental life is that it is divided into three parts: the conscious, the preconscious, and the unconscious. The conscious operates merely on the surface of personality and plays a relatively minor role in personality development and functioning.

While it is true that psychologically healthy people have a greater awareness of their experiences than do unhealthy ones, still Freud believed that even relatively mature people are governed by unconscious needs and conflicts. Unconscious can consist of repressed memories of which we are not aware and bringing them to awareness can cause tremendous anxiety. A key point in his theory is that such repressed memories seek expression in various defensive, disguised and distorted ways. Unconscious ideas, memories, and experiences may continually interfere with conscious and rational behavior.

Traditions of Western thought which emphasized human rationality and the virtues of ethical conduct, were shocked to learn that human beings are often irrational and that they continually engage in internal struggles to keep their sexual and aggressive impulses in check. Freud removed humans from their narcissistic pedestals and forced them to examine the dark side of their natures. At first he was publicly reviled and scorned but eventually investigators in many disciplines started taking his ideas seriously. Today Freud’s influence is world wide. Scholars in literature are fond of using psychoanalytic constructs to explain motives of fictional characters, and many Freudian concepts such as Oedipal conflicts, “ego trips,” “Freudian slips,” denial, repression, regression etc., have been adopted by laypeople. Whether we ultimately reject or accept his view of human personality, Freud has clearly earned his place in history.

Discsussion Questions: Freud thought that the major conflict experienced by individuals was between their needs to gratify their impulses (id), and society's need to control (superego) the expression of such individual needs. What do you think can be the best possible solution to this problem?

Do you agree with Freud that psychologically healthy people are adjusted satisfactorily in two major areas of life--love and work? Can you think of any other areas in which satisfactory adjustments must be made if people are to be psychologically healthy?

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

One way of solving the inevitable conflict between id and superego is to evolve one's consciousness especially its spiritual potentials. Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs also includes need for self-actualization but sadly, most humans remain stuck at narcissism. The pleasure principle has its pitfalls as can be observed in relentless consumerism in postmodern cultures. On the other hand, an untamed superego leads to fanaticism of one sort or another. Aristotle's middle way it is.

Anonymous said...

Freud's major contribution is that behavior can be caused by ideas that are totally unconscious, but bringing them to consciousness can lead to self-awareness which can be always be therapeutic. When we look at the agressive instinct in humans, it is usually directed towards those who are designated the "other" by the culture one is born in. When the physiological need to agress arises, the brain offers an image of the object that will satisfy that need. All cultures have need for enemies to vent their agression, from time to time.

Nomi said...

Politics and psychology are indeed intertwined. Rousseau was right in pointing out that whosoever separates psychology from politics will understand neither. Self-awareness is not just knowing one's innate instints and their unconscious operations, but also recognizing the arbitrariness of the "symbol systems" one carries in one's unconscious. The instincts are blind and will attach them to any "cultural conditioning" human children are subjected to in variuous cultures. Its not just psychology and politics that are intertwined but cognition and emotion as well. One feeds the other and vice versa.

Anonymous said...

Is it not the case that Freud's theory of personality has largely been replaced by information processing perspective of cognitive science? The notions of ego and superego are better explained through long term memory processes and dynamic nerual networks rather than some mysterious homunculus within.

Nomi said...

In our time, cognitive science has made great strides but the mystery of personality still remains. May be Freud would have theorized differently if he had an MRI at his disposal. But dogma is not the domain of religious fanatics only. Scientists are humans too. According to K.E. Stanovich, “Adherents of psychoanalytic theory spend much more time and effort in getting the theory to explain every known event, from individual quirks of behavior to large scale social phenomena, but their success in making the theory a rich source of after-the-fact explanations robs it of any scientific utility.” Freud’s theory must answer the “show me” challenge common to any type of valid scientific endeavor but the attempts to validate Freudian ideas experimentally have mostly produced controversial results. There is little support for specific psychosexual stages that Freud postulated. His theories have also been criticized for internal inconsistencies, male chauvinism, over emphasis on sexual and unconscious motivations, and being overly pessimistic about human nature (e.g., humans are basically aggressive and irrational). Freud equated ultimate state of happiness with the tension-free state that results when all of one’s biological needs have been satisfied. Some critics consider such a view of ultimate happiness rather parochial and limited.

Anonymous said...

MRI scan would have certainly made a difference. But if Freud had known the results of Pavlov's or Skinner's experiments in learning and conditioning, he would have placed more emphasis on learning rather than the unconscious. A thinker is limited not only by his tools, but also his times. We are what we have been rewarded and punished for. Therefore if our history of reward and punishment had been different, our personalities would be different. The difference between a successful person and an unsuccessful one is found in patterns of reward and punishment, not in genes or unconscious.

Nomi said...

Sigmund Freud’s legacy is rich and despite many criticisms, it cannot be denied that its overall value is positive. He demonstrated the importance of anxiety as a determinant of human personality and by discovering the many ways that human beings defend themselves against unbearable anxiety. The various psychological defense mechanisms that he postulated (i.e. denial, displacement, projection, rationalization, regression, repression, sublimation, reaction formation, undoing etc.) are among the most enduring contributions he made to understanding personality. He also demonstrated that physical and physiological disorders can have psychological as well as physiological causes. The feedback loops between different parts of the brain as discovered by cognitive science verify that insight. Freud also showed that much “normal” behavior is determined by the same processes that determine “abnormal” behavior, and many human problems result from the inevitable clash between the selfish, biological nature of humans and our need to live harmoniously with other humans in society. Although portions of Freud’s theory of personality may be incorrect or vague or difficult to test, it has raised questions which researchers are still trying to grapple with. Most personality theorists had to take into consideration what Freud said about the subject. Some later theorists support and extend his thought and some refute it but the dialectic continues.