Sigmund Freud was a remarkable social scientist that changed psychology through out the world. He was the first major social scientist to propose a unified theory to understand and explain human behavior. No theory that has followed has been more complete, more complex, or more controversial. Some psychologists treat Freud’s writings as a sacred text – if Freud said it, it must be true. On the other hand, many have accused Freud of being unscientific, suggesting theories that are too complicated ever to be proved true or false. He changed prior ideas on how the human mind works and the theory that unconscious motives control much behavior. He applied himself to a new field of studyand struggled with an environment whose rejection of his work endangered his livelihood and that of his family (Freud 3). His work greatly improved the fields of psychiatry, and psychology, and helped millions of mentally ill patients.
He was born on May 6, 1856, in Freiberg, Moravia, a region now in the Czech Republic. His father was a wool merchant and was forty when he had Sigmund, the oldest of eight children (Gay 78). When Freud turned four, his family moved to Vienna, Austria. After graduating from the Spree Gymnasium, Freud was inspired by an essay written by Goethe on nature, to make medicine as his career. After graduating from the medical school of the University of Vienna in 1881, Freud decided to specialize in neurology, the study and treatment of disorders of the nervous system (Gay 79).
In 1885, Freud went to Paris to study under Jean Martin Charcot, a famous neurologist. Charcot was working with patients who suffered from a mental illness called hysteria. Some of these people appeared to be blind, or paralyzed, but they actually had no physical defects. Charcot found that their physical symptoms could be relieved through hypnosis (Garcia 209). Freud returned to Vienna in 1886 and began to work with hysterical patients. While discussing the case history of one patient, Freud said: In the study of hysteria, local diagnosis and electrical reactions do not come into picture, while an exhaustive account of mental processes, of the kind we were accustomed to having from imaginative writers, enables me, by the application of a few psychological formulas, to obtain a kind of insight into the origin of a hysteria (Freud 15). He gradually formed ideas about the origin and treatment of mental illness. He used the term psychoanalysis for both his theories and methods of treatment. Freud was always changing and modifying his ideas, and in 1923 published a revised version of his earlier ideas.
Freud observed that many patients behaved according to drives and experiences of which they were not consciously aware. He then concluded that the unconscious plays a major role in shaping one’s behavior. He also concluded that the unconscious is full of memories of events from early childhood. Freud noted that if these memories were especially painful, people kept them out of conscious awareness. He used the term defense mechanism for the methods by which individuals handled painful memories. Freud believed that patients used mass amounts of energy to form defense mechanisms (Gay 97). Tying up energy could affect a person’s ability to lead a productive life, causing an illness called neurosis. With this theory, scientists have used hypnosis to unlock the defense mechanism to help thousands of patients cope with their problems.
Sigmund Freud also believed that many childhood memories dealt with sex. He believed that his patients’ reports of sexual abuse by a parent were fantasies reflecting unconscious desires (Freud 19). He theorized that sexual functioning begins at birth, and that a person goes through several psychological stages of sexual development. He thought that all children were born with powerful sexual and aggressive urges that must be tamed. In learning to control these impulses, children acquire a sense of right and wrong. The process and the results are different for boys and girls. Freud believed the normal pattern of psychosexual development is interrupted in some people. These people become interested at an earlier, immature stage. He felt such fixation could contribute to mental illness in adulthood. Because of this theory of Freuds, psychologists across the world have developed ways to help people deal with their sexual abuse in the past.
Through out his life, Freud was a cocaine user and a cigar smoker. In 1923, he learned that he had cancer of the mouth from the cigars. He continued his work, though the cancer made it difficult, along with him not being able to quit the habit of smoking cigars (Gay 67). The Nazis gained control of Austria in 1938, and under their rule, Jews were persecuted. Freud, who was Jewish moved to England with his wife and children, to escape being arrested and persecuted (Clark 122). There, he died of cancer in 1939.
Freud was one of the world’s most influential thinkers. He showed the crucial importance of unconscious thinking to all human thought and activity. Freuds strongest impact occurred in psychiatry and psychology. His work on the origin and treatment of mental illness helped form the basis of modern psychiatry. In psychology, Freud greatly influenced the field of abnormal psychology and the study of the personality.
Since the 1970’s, many scholars and mental health professionals have questioned some of Freud’s theories. Feminists attacked Freud because he seemed to believe that in some respects women were inferior to men. For example, he thought that women had weaker superegos than men and were driven by envy. He also thought that women had penis envy and were jealous of men. Other people challenged the theory that patients’ memories of early sexual abuse reflected fantasies rather than actual experiences. As a result of such criticism, most scholars and psychoanalysts now take a more balanced approach to Freud’s theories. They use the ideas and techniques from Freud that they find most useful without strictly following all of his teachings. No one, however, disputes Freud’s enormous influence in the world.
Clark, David. What Freud Really Said. New York: Scholden, 1995.
Freud, Sigmund. The Origin & Development of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Henry Regnay. New
York: Indiana Press, 1965.
Garcia, Emanuel. Understanding Freud. New York: NYU Press, 1992.
Gay, Peter. Freud, A Life Of Our Time. New York: W.W. Norton, 1988.
Macionis, John. Society: The Basics. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 2000.