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3.3: Basic Concepts

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  • It is not easy to read the earliest writings of Freud on psychoanalysis. Following his years of working in isolation, Freud published four books in a span of 5 years: The Interpretation of Dreams (1900/1995), Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1904/1995), Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex (1905/1995), and Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious (1905/1995). Each of these books clearly reflects their author: a genius, educated in Europe, and writing in a style well suited to the late 1800s/early 1900s. Not only are these books intellectually challenging, but even the English translations are sprinkled with lines in German, French, and Latin. In 1917, however, Freud published a series of lectures he had given at the University of Vienna during the years 1915-1917. His Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1917/1966) describes the essential aspects of his theory in neatly organized lectures that are much easier to grasp than his earlier work. Shortly before he died, Freud presented a very brief outline of his theories in the aptly named An Outline of Psycho-Analysis (1938/1949). In what seems to be a logical approach to the study of Freud’s work, we will begin with the general theory and then address the psychoanalytic method. Keep in mind, however, that Freud actually worked the other way around: first he developed his modifications of Breuer’s cathartic method and began treating patients (actually, treating patients contributed to his development of the methods), and then he developed his theoretical perspectives in order to explain what had already proved successful.

    Hysteria and Psychic Determinism

    The term hysteria generally refers to a condition in which psychological trauma or stress is converted into physical symptoms and/or excessive emotional behavior. Today, this condition is typically referred to as a conversion disorder (DSM-IV-TR; American Psychiatric Society, 2000). However, Freud meant to use the term in a rather broad sense, and he applied it to a collection of disorders that are not officially recognized today: the neuroses (relatively mild mental illnesses, often associated with stress, but which do not result in a loss of contact with reality).

    Freud and Breuer (1895/2004) believed that their clinical observations revealed a number of key elements that provided the early framework for psychodynamic theory and psychoanalysis. In each case, the symptoms exhibited by their patients were connected to some earlier psychological trauma. This connection was not always obvious, however, and often could not be remembered by the patient. When the patient was helped to remember the traumatic event, the symptoms were typically relieved, a process known as catharsis. In order to help patients remember, Breuer and Freud (as well as Charcot and a few others) relied primarily on hypnosis. What intrigued Freud and Breuer was the observation that these traumatic memories seemed to last for a very long time without getting weaker, even though they were not conscious memories. What seemed to matter most was whether there had been an energetic reaction to the emotional event when the memory was formed. In order for the trauma to be released, there needed to be a cathartic event strong enough to adequately dissipate the energy associated with the formation of the traumatic memory.

    Both Freud and Breuer recognized that this was only the beginning of this new field of clinical research. Although they were somewhat satisfied that they had described the nature of hysterical symptoms, and that they had moved further than Charcot, they recognized that they were no closer to understanding the internal causes of hysteria and the neuroses. This would become the work of Freud alone, at least for a number of years.

    The concept of psychic determinism arises naturally from these early observations. Freud believed that all behavior and thought is the result of psychological connections created during previous experiences, nothing happens by accident or chance. The fact that we might find it difficult to recognize the connections between some emotion or behavior and a previous incident does nothing to minimize the reality of those connections, it just presents a challenge for the psychoanalyst. In Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud (1904/1995) described how psychic determinism results in many common problems, certainly the most famous of which is the “Freudian slip.” A Freudian slip is an instance where someone says something wrong, but it actually reflects the persons true feelings. Freud attributed the following example to Dr. Brill:

    While writing a prescription for a woman who was especially weighed down by the financial burden of the treatment, I was interested to hear her say suddenly: “Please do not give me big bills, because I cannot swallow them.” Of course, she meant to say pills. (italics in the original, pg. 50; Freud, 1904/1995)

    Discussion Question: Consider psychic determinism and what it means for your own life. Do you believe that everything you think and do is predetermined by earlier experiences? And what would that mean for your ability to change and grow?

    Freud’s Theory of Instincts

    Freud used the term instinct in a way that does not fit with the technical term instinct as defined by Tinbergen (see Beck, 1978). It has been suggested that the German word trieb should not have been translated as instinct, and actually referred to something more like a drive or impulse. Freud was not concerned with specific behaviors, but rather with general categories of behavior. As a former scientist, Freud never left his interests in biology behind. When Freud referred to the psyche, or mind, he considered both its physical elements, the brain and the rest of the nervous system, and its mental elements, primarily our consciousness (which is made possible by the structure and function of the brain). Given our basic biological nature, and our genetic make-up, we inherit basic instincts essential to our survival: both our individual survival and the survival of our species. In recognition of the general rule in nature that all systems are comprised of opposing forces (attraction and repulsion) Freud hypothesized a life instinct and a death instinct.

    Freud gave the life instinct the name Eros. Each organism has available to it energy to act within its environment. The energy associated with Eros is called libido. Libido has been mistakenly associated with the concept of a sexual impulse. What Freud was really referring to was a general survival impulse, both individual and species survival. While it is true that the survival of our species depends on sexual reproduction, there are many aspects of our behavior that are not directly related to sex. For example, we might have many friends, but our sexual interests are typically limited to only a few (it is our culture that encourages us to limit our interests to only one person). From an evolutionary perspective, of course, friends and others within our social group helped to protect us from predators and enemies. Similarly, the love and care we provide for our children are essential to the survival of our species, but are not usually associated with sexual acts. Incest appears to be one of the most common cultural taboos, and Freud found this to be a fascinating observation amongst primitive societies, which could not be expected to know anything of Western ideas of morality (Freud, 1913/1995). So it becomes apparent that the impulse to survive, Eros and its associated libido, involves many types of behavior, of which sexual intimacy is just one.

    Libido is limited. We have only so much energy to devote to the many aspects and responsibilities of our lives. Cathexis refers to the attachment of libidinal energy to some psychical phenomenon. This is what Freud and Breuer meant by an energetic reaction to some experience. When we are attracted to someone, we connect some of our libidinal energy to that relationship. That energy is no longer available to us for other relationships, or to deal with the daily stress of our lives. If we have previously connected libidinal energy to some traumatic event, which might require a great deal of libidinal energy, it may prove difficult to maintain the level of energy we desire for our new relationship. As a result, that relationship, indeed all of our relationships, may suffer.

    Although the libido is limited, it has the important characteristic of mobility (Freud, 1938/1949). In other words, it can switch from one task to another as necessary. At least, that is how it is supposed to work under normal conditions. Sometimes, however, problems arise, such as the failure to satisfy the needs that occur during a particular psychosexual stage of development (see below). When this occurs, the libido can become fixated on particular psychological objects. These fixations can last a lifetime, interfering with continued normal development and the individual’s ability to live a healthy adult life.

    Freud also proposed a destructive instinct, which is sometimes referred to as the death instinct. The energy associated with the death instinct is aggressive, but Freud never gave names to either the death instinct or its associated aggressive energy. This was never an important aspect of Freud’s theories, but he did address it in some detail in the book Beyond the Pleasure Principle(Freud, 1920/1961). In this book, Freud makes one thing very clear: the life instinct is far more influential than the death instinct. The primary role of the death instinct is protective. This may sound strange, but he considered the developing organism, even well before birth, as a fragile being assailed on all sides by threatening stimuli (both external stimuli and internal psychical stimuli). The death instinct creates a shell of inert tissue (figuratively, if not also literally), which protects the developing organism from harm.

    Although Freud did not include the death instinct among his major concepts, other psychologists have. The neo-Freudian theorist Melanie Klein found evidence of the death instinct in the aggressive fantasies of children, and Wilhelm Reich’s concept of armoring is reminiscent of Freud’s description of the theoretical shell protecting the developing organism. Regarding aggression itself, there are many different forms, including predatory aggression, self-defense, defense of one’s young, learned aggression, etc. The noted animal behaviorist and Nobel Laureate Konrad Lorenz wrote extensively on aggression, and he proposed a very Freudian perspective in which instinctive aggressive energy builds up and lashes out, unless an opportunity for catharsis arises first (see Beck, 1978).

    At first it might seem strange that Freud suggested the role of the death instinct is to create a protective shell around the core of the developing nervous system, but the important question is whether we can find any evidence of it. Daniel Goleman, in Emotional Intelligence (1995), suggests a similar theory. The primitive role of emotion is evident in the brain regions devoted to emotion, which are common to many species other than humans. As the mammalian brain evolved, structures were added to the reptilian brain, culminating in the neocortex of the cerebral hemispheres. The cerebral hemispheres are necessary for the cognitive functions that are characteristic of humans. Still, we retain the emotional structures that developed first, and our rational thoughts can easily be hijacked by emotional reactions (Goleman, 1995, 1998). Perhaps the most important brain region involved in the processing of emotional information is the amygdala. Jerome Kagan has suggested that if the amygdala is overly sensitive a child will avoid external stimuli, leading to a life of shyness, and vice versa (cited in Goleman, 1995). The development of brain structures that process emotion and allow for cognitive processing well beyond the primitive and most basic emotions sounds very much like what Freud had proposed regarding the role of the death instinct. This is not to suggest that either the amygdala or some portion of the neocortex is the anatomical location of the death instinct, but the evidence that such functions exist within the brain lends support to Freud’s concept. According to Goleman, the ability to work with emotional intelligence is essential to one’s well-being in life, and fortunately emotional intelligence can be trained and strengthened (Goleman, 1995, 1998).

    Discussion Question: Compare Freud’s concept of a life instinct and a death instinct, and consider the choices you make in life. Do you make choices that provide an opportunity to grow and change, or do you get caught up in pointless, even self-defeating, activities? If you make bad choices, where do you think those choices come from?

    The Development of Libido and Psychosexual Function

    Freud’s most controversial theories related to sexual function and its role in personality development. Even more controversial than that initial statement was his suggestion that the sexual life of every person begins at birth. It is important, of course, to remember that Freud did not mean intimate sexual behavior when he talked about sexual impulses, but rather a general life impulse. He made an important distinction between “sexual” and “genital.” By sexual he was referring to a wider concept of obtaining pleasure from different regions of the body, whereas genital refers to the act of reproduction, which comes into play following puberty.

    Freud was well aware of this controversy during the early days of psychoanalysis, and many of his books make a special point of defending the theory of infantile sexuality. As mentioned in the biography, he actually attributed the initial observations of the role of sexuality in the development of neuroses to Breuer, Charcot, and Chrobak (Freud, 1914/1995). As he reflected on the history of psychoanalysis, Freud described how he and others before him had not intended to address infantile sexuality, but it proved unavoidable after extensive experience with psychoanalysis. In other words, Freud kept encountering infantile sexuality, and eventually he concluded that it was both universal and far too important to ignore. Therefore, he felt he could not allow old prejudices against recognizing or discussing the relevance of sexuality to interfere with the development of psychoanalysis (see Freud, 1938/1949).

    Freud also defended his theory of sexuality in logical ways. In his initial work on this topic, Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex(1905/1995), Freud specifically argued against the prevailing views that sexuality develops at puberty for the purpose of attracting a man and a woman to each other for the ultimate purpose of reproduction. He noted that there are individuals who are attracted to members of their own sex, that there are those who engage in sexual acts that disregard the genitalia (e.g., fetishes), and there are undeniable examples of children who become interested in their genitalia and obtain some excitation from them. Finally, in his Introductory Lectures… (Freud, 1917/1966) he declared his position quite clearly:

    To suppose that children have no sexual life – sexual excitations and needs and a kind of satisfaction – but suddenly acquire it between the ages of twelve and fourteen, would (quite apart from any observations) be as improbable, and indeed senseless, biologically as to suppose that they brought no genitals with them into the world and only grew them at the time of puberty. (pg. 385).

    Levels of Consciousness

    From the very beginning of psychoanalysis, Freud and Breuer (1895/2004) recognized that their patients were often unaware of the connections between their symptoms and earlier traumatic events, and they might not even recall the events themselves. And yet, as described above, the memory of those events remained strong. How can a memory be strong but not remembered? The answer lies in the theory that there are different levels of consciousness. Freud described three levels of consciousness: the conscious, the preconscious, and the unconscious.

    The conscious mind is our awareness, the knowledge that we exist and are alive. As you read this book you are conscious of it, when you talk to a friend you are aware of what they are saying and how you will respond (unless, of course, you respond with a Freudian slip!). Although the conscious mind is usually identified with our personality, and Freud recognized that people viewed consciousness as nothing more or less than the defining characteristic of the mind, his clinical experience with psychoanalysis made it impossible for him to accept the identification of the conscious mind with the mental mind (Freud, 1917/1966).

    The unconscious mind, according to Freud, is the true psychic reality, and all conscious thought has a preliminary unconscious stage. And yet, the unconscious mind is truly inaccessible. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900/1995), Freud wrote about the unconscious mind that:

    …in its inner nature it is just as much unknown to us as the reality of the external world, and it is just as imperfectly communicated to us by the data of consciousness as is the external world by the reports of our sense-organs. (pg. 510)

    How then does the unconscious mind affect our personality? Between the unconscious and conscious minds there is an intermediary: the preconscious. Technically, the preconscious mind is part of the unconscious, but only through the preconscious mind can the impulses arising in the unconscious enter into our conscious awareness. Freud distinguished between the two by theorizing that the unconscious cannot enter into consciousness, but if certain rules are followed, the preconscious can enter into consciousness (but perhaps only after being censored; Freud, 1900/1995).

    Freud also made two important points regarding these levels of the mind. First, the unconscious, preconscious, and conscious minds are not located in different regions of the brain. Instead, the level of consciousness of any particular psychical phenomenon depends on the cathexis of libidinal energy (or perhaps energy related to the death instinct) and repression (see Anxiety and Defense Mechanisms below). If the memory of a traumatic event is significantly repressed, it will remain in the unconscious, if not, it may enter into consciousness through the preconscious. Yet it has remained the same memory within the same memory structure of the brain. Freud also distinguished between the mind and reality, particularly between the unconscious mind and reality. He did, however, remind his readers that they would do well to remember that psychic reality is a special form of existence, though not to be confused with material reality (Freud, 1900/1995).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    The levels of consciousness and the structures of the mind, as proposed by Freud. The iceberg analogy should actually be attributed to Theodor Lipps, whose work on the unconscious mind and humor was cited extensively in Freud’s early books.