Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) Sigmund Freud

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Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Austrian physician, neurologist, and founder of psychoanalysis, who created an entirely new approach to the understanding of human personality. Through his skill as a scientist, physician, and writer, Freud combined ideas prevalent at the time with his own observation and study to produce a major theory of psychology. Most importantly, he applied these ideas to medical practice in the treatment of mental illness. His newly created psychotherapy treatments and procedures, many of which in modified form are applied today, were based on his understanding of unconscious thought processes and their relationship to neurotic symptoms (see Neurosis). Regarded with skepticism at the time, Freud’s ideas have waxed and waned in acceptance ever since. Nevertheless, he is regarded as one of the greatest creative minds of the 20th century.

An important development in Freud’s theory of psychology came out of work he conducted with his friend and colleague Josef Breuer, a Viennese physician who was involved in the treatment of a young woman who was distressed while caring for her dying father. The patient had developed a number of hysterical symptoms, which Breuer initially treated by hypnotic suggestion. Initial success gave way to disappointment when on her father’s death her symptoms returned with increased severity. Somewhat at a loss as to how to proceed, Breuer had continued to talk to his patient on a daily basis and in time she began to talk about various reminiscences from the past and about her daydreams. Remarkably, as her narrative revisited memories from the past, which were associated with the onset of a particular symptom, each symptom disappeared when accompanied by an emotional outburst. Breuer made use of this discovery to eliminate her symptoms one at a time. He called the treatment the cathartic technique (from the Greek katharsis meaning “purgation”). The treatment was time consuming and required considerable effort to reach dimly recalled and otherwise inaccessible memories. 

Freud and Breuer published the case and several others in 1895 under the title Studies on Hysteria. Their view was summed up in the statement “Hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences.” They proposed that when faced with emotionally traumatic memories, hysterics subjugate them from conscious appreciation to prevent the unbearable emotional pain and suffering that they cause. Rather than being driven out of the mind, however, these memories are driven into an area of the mind that is unconscious and inaccessible. Here the memories may be redirected from the emotional system into the somatic (bodily) system and appear as apparently unexplained physical symptoms. The cases that constitute Studies on Hysteria outline the transition from treatment by hypnotic suggestion to the earliest descriptions of what is now known as psychoanalysis.

Working on his own Freud hypothesized that hysterical symptoms were most likely to arise when repressed traumatic memories related to adverse childhood sexual experiences. This view generated tremendous controversy at the time because the existence of childhood sexuality was not widely accepted. In time Freud was forced to reconsider this aspect of his theory, instead relating the repressed memories to childhood fantasies of sexuality and their relationship to parental figures.

Oedipus Complex, in psychoanalysis, a son’s largely unconscious sexual attraction toward his mother accompanied by jealousy toward his father. The term Oedipus complex, derived from the Greek legend of Oedipus, was first used in the late 1800s by Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Freud thought that the Oedipus complex was the most important event of a boy’s childhood and had a great effect on his subsequent adult life. Freud claimed that in nearly all cases the boy represses the desire for his mother and the jealousy toward his father. As a result of this unconscious experience, Freud believed, a boy with an Oedipus complex feels guilt and experiences strong emotional conflicts.

Freud thought that girls go through a similar experience, in which they are attracted to their father and become antagonistic toward their mother. He called this the Electra complex. According to Freud, if a woman remains under the influence of the Electra complex, she is likely to choose a husband with characteristics similar to those of her father.

"Oedipus Complex," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2008 © 1997-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

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