CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

by Harold P. Blum, M.D.

Sigmund Freud was born on May 6, 1856. He'd be 161 today.

Freud revolutionized the understanding and treatment of mental disorders. He created the psychoanalytic theory of personality. But beyond this, he profoundly changed our understanding of humanity, thought and culture. Freud, like Darwin, disturbed the sleep of the world by revealing hitherto unpalatable, but fundamental, truths about human nature. Contested and criticized, Freudian theory still permeates Western culture and scholarship. Modern neuroscience confirms Freud’s insight that most of mental life takes place outside of awareness. That the sexual drive and aggressive impulses are inseparable from human thought and action has been generally acknowledged. Though inevitably subject to continuing advances and modification, Freud's basic formulations about the functioning of the human mind have stood the test of time.   

Initially a research neurologist, Freud contributed original technical medical studies of aphasia and childhood cerebral palsy. But he gradually abandoned neuropathology, broadening his efforts to more comprehensive studies of mental or psychological conditions that interfered with successful human functioning. Freud's initial proposition was that the root causes of dysfunctional psychological symptoms (neuroses) that interfered with normal human functioning were the continuing harmful effects of traumatic experiences that had been repressed from conscious awareness but continued to control an individual’s conduct, feelings and thinking.  The repressed memory of trauma resembled a fenced off foreign body analogous to encapsulated lesions of tuberculosis. This focus on psychic trauma and its unconscious effects manifested in human thought and behavior made it possible to apply the scientific method to the study of consciousness, despite the inability of science at that time to connect consciousness with neurological structures and activities.

Freud, however, looked beyond patients who continued to suffer from the effects of traumatic psychic experiences and recognized the universal role of unconscious conflict and fantasy in all persons.  In particular, he inferred that sexual and aggressive fantasies were among the universal determinants of emotion, thought and behavior. Moreover, to elaborate a scientific approach to cause and effect in studying these determinants of human personality, Freud proposed that the human sexual drive influenced mental life in a developmental sequence.  He loosely referred to the sexual drive as "libido" and to the organizing psychological effects as “libidinal phases of development," which he identified as the now well-known oral, anal, and phallic libido phases.  Freud’s theories of personality development were a necessary precursor to the development of today’s far more complex psychoanalytic theories of personality. 

Freud’s profound influence grew not only from the breadth of his theoretical interests, but also from the universality of his sources. His genius was reflected in his integration of isolated, diverse and often inconsistent sources. Foremost, he relied upon his self-analysis, primarily accomplished through dreams and free associations, implicitly recognizing that human psychic processes are universal.  He also learned from the myths and legends of antiquity and the intuitive insights of the great writers, philosophers and artists of different times, places and cultures, e.g. Sophocles and Shakespeare, Goethe, and Schopenhauer, Dostoyevsky and Dickens, Leonardo and Michelangelo. As a child, Freud learned the Yiddish and German of his parents and the rudiments of the Czech dialects of his nursemaids.  As a youth, he learned English to read Shakespeare, and Spanish to read Cervantes. Freud’s education exposed him to the tensions of particularity and universality in language itself, which he later applied to his studies of dreams. 

Freud understood sleep and dreams in a profoundly different way than prior cultures, such as ancient Greece.  In his views, dreams continued to be a source of important knowledge, but not knowledge of future events. For Freud, dreams provided self-knowledge by recapturing our recent and remote past.

Freud distinguished between manifest (conscious) and latent (unconscious) content of dreams and daydreams. He determined that the manifest content was constructed, defensively, to disguise unacceptable latent content. His ideas about psychological defenses, such as denial, repression, regression, projection, isolation, undoing, reaction formation and reversal, became part of commonplace understanding, ("the lady doth protest too much" Shakespeare, Hamlet). The latent content of dreams encompassed forbidden, usually sexual and aggressive, wishful fantasies of childhood. 

Freud captured the educated public’s attention with his ideas of the Oedipus complex, castration complex, primal scene and family romance, all formulated from Freud's self-analysis of his own dreams and associations. Dreams and associated screen memories were disguised and distorted pathways to the reconstruction of the formative events of our childhood, which could be revealed in clinical psychoanalysis.

For Freud, dreams were "the royal road to the understanding of the unconscious mind." He considered The Interpretation of Dreams as his masterwork. "We are of such stuff as dreams are made on," (Shakespeare, The Tempest). 

It is no longer possible to see a play or other work of art without drawing upon Freud's penetrating vision. No modern biography is without inquiry into the subject's childhood, family, and traumatic as well as beneficial early experience.

While Freud was courageous and even firm in his convictions, he invited change and development to his theories in the light of new knowledge and experience.  He regarded femininity as a "dark continent," aware that his formulations concerning women were highly controversial and subject to future transformation. 

Finally, Freud’s influence has depended not only on the power of his theoretical insights and the breadth of his interests and sources, but also on his remarkable capacity to distinguish the significant from the insignificant, and his ability to communicate with great clarity, precision, and goal direction, without jargon, or distracting and superfluous detail. His speech and writing were characterized by elegant construction with ample metaphors, analogies, anecdotes, and illustrations. Freud's case histories read like detective novels or suspenseful short stories with themes further illustrated by repetition and expansion.  Freud wrote for the educated general public, not just technicians. 

Still with us, Freud remains indispensable as part of the continuing dialogue among students of psychology and behavior, and among members of the general public concerned with issues of mental health, politics and culture.  

About the Author: Dr. Harold Blum is Executive Director Emeritus for the Sigmund Freud Archives. He is also a Distinguished Fellow, American Psychiatric Association and President, Psychoanalytic Research and Development Fund. Dr. Blum was Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Training Analyst at New York University School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry (retired), past Editor-in-Chief for Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, past Vice President of the International Psychoanalytical Association and author of more than 170 psychoanalytic papers and several books.

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