Friday, December 26, 2008

Freud's Psychoanalysis

A hundred years ago, during the first decade of the 20th century, an intellectual storm arose in Vienna, Austria, and spread outward through Europe and the Western World. This started in 1900 when Sigmund Freud, a little-known, Jewish-Austrian psychiatrist, published The Interpretation of Dreams. In this book he proposed that each of us keeps a lot of our own thoughts away from our conscious awareness because we regard those thoughts as morally unacceptable and, most importantly, that this requires effort--it consumes mental energy. In other words, thoughts and feelings that well up naturally but are contrary to accepted societal norms "cost" some psychological energy to suppress. Freud believed--and he reported clinical cases to support his argument--that neurotic symptoms such as anxiety and depression are the result of this "cost." Anxiety is a diffuse but busy fearfulness that the forbidden thoughts might rise into consciousness--a kind of mental standing guard to squelch offensive ideas. Depression is mental exhaustion from the effort of psychological suppression.

Freud made several significant contributions to Western culture in addition to the "psychoanalytic" formulation of psychological dynamics outlined above. Perhaps foremost, Freud introduced the concept--now universally accepted--of "talking therapy," that simply "talking things through" could help one feel better. In his approach called "psychoanalysis," under the observation of a trained "psychoanalyst," the patient would "free associate," that is, report whatever came to mind. Through this process the patient would have "insights" and discover--with the therapist's help--patterns of personal self-deception. Then, armed with these "insights" and discoveries, the patient would be able to make changes in personal behavior and emotional responses and live a happier, more productive, non-neurotic life.

Freud did indeed make significant contributions to psychological theory and to the practice of psychotherapy. But perhaps Freud's greatest contributions to Western culture came because of his showmanship, his flare for drama. He coined a series of colorful terms--ego, superego, Oedipus complex, Electra complex, etc.--based on classical scholarship and Greek mythology. He built a picture of the mind divided against itself, at war with itself. He linked this to fantasies of sex and death, two of the most exciting taboos of Victorian morality. And he traveled and lectured widely to garner public acceptance of his ideas.

Freud spent several decades "selling" psychoanalysis. By the 1930s and 1940s "psychoanalysis" was a popular intellectual buzzword. Every intelligent (and reasonably well-to-do) member of society had been "in" psychoanalysis. It became a dominant perspective for discussing not only mental illness and emotional discomfort, but also music, theater, poetry, art, and literature, and even history, politics, business, and other pursuits.

Psychoanalysis changed both how artists work and how critics respond. Not only, for instance, was the "psychological novel" born--and with it, the only narrative perspective we can now consider "realistic"--but it has also become impossible to read Shakespeare, Chaucer, Arthur Conan Doyle, or Milton from the same perspective as those authors' works were written--in fact, we can't even "think" in non-psychological terms now: Hamlet, Lear, and Iago; The Pardoner and the Wife of Bath; Sherlock Holmes; and even Satan were forever recast as "case studies." So, in a nutshell, Freud re-wrote the past as well as redirecting the future. Today, even the likes of Superman have complex, tortured souls. Since millions more people are exposed to Superman--and even to Shakespeare--than are exposed to Freud's own works directly, there has clearly been a "ripple effect" throughout the culture. No one today would question, even for one moment, the reality of the "psycho-killer" personality, even though, fortunately, almost none of us have met such a person face to face. And those types we do meet--the obsessive-compulsive, the passive-aggressive, the enabler, the abuser and the abused, the person who is "in denial," and the over-compensator--even high school dropouts today know that such aren't abstract case studies: they are "us."

During the latter half of the 20th century, psychoanalysis branched and metamorphosed to take hold in a wide variety of intellectual circles. But it also came into significant dispute because, as a "therapy" or treatment for psychological disorders, it was notoriously expensive and often not very effective. In addition, the evolving neuroanatomy and neurophysiological discoveries of the late 20th century did not support Freud's theoretical formulations well. There seemed to be no identifiable brain areas that corresponded to "conscious" versus "unconscious" much less to an an "ego," "id," or "superego"; or brain processes that seemed to function like "repression" much less the more elaborate and specific defense mechanisms such as "denial" and "projection." Moreover, scientific philosophy theoreticians came to criticize Freud's ideas as unverifiable and therefore unscientific.

But Freud's overall contribution to Western culture was immense. Because of him the 20th century became "the age of psychology." Psychoanalysis became an important part of scholarly inquiry; it was widely discussed as part of a variety of intellectual debates. Moreover, although it faded in importance late in the 20th century, as fate would have it, recent discoveries in the neurosciences over the past few years (essentially during the first decade of the 21st century) have shown some signs of validating and resurrecting Freud's psychological theories. For example, Freud's notoriously controversial "discovery," the "unconscious," is once again a hot topic of study in the fields of experimental and social psychology (e.g., implicit attitude measures, fMRI and PET scans, studies of subliminal information transfer, and other indirect tests).