Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Happy Birthday, Sigmund Freud

Regardless of what you think about him (I personally think he was a fraud and a snake-oil salesman...), it's impossible to escape the fact that Freud was someone whose ideas were incredibly influential in shaping 20th century thought.

From the Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of Sigmund Freud born in Freiberg in what was then the Austrian Empire (1856). He started out as a medical doctor and scientist in Vienna, studying the anatomy of eels. He developed a laboratory technique that involved staining tissue samples so that they could be seen more easily under the microscope, and he also made breakthroughs in the use of anesthetic for surgery. One of his superiors in the medical community, however, told him that he would never go far in his career because he was Jewish.

So Freud decided to go into the less crowded field of psychology, where he thought he might be able to break new ground. He was particularly interested in the mental illness called hysteria, which caused patients to suffer from tics, tremors, convulsions, paralysis, and hallucinations. Hysterics were given a variety of treatments, including isolation, electrocution, and in the case of women, surgical removal of the uterus.

Freud learned that some doctors were using hypnosis to treat hysteria, and he went to France to see the use of hypnosis firsthand. Seeing that a patient could be talked out of his or her symptoms gave Freud the idea that the symptoms were a product of the mind and not the body. He learned the method of hypnosis himself and began to treat patients, but he had little success. Then, one of Freud's colleagues told him about a patient named Anna O., whose hysterical symptoms had improved when she told stories about her life. The woman herself named this process of storytelling "the talking cure."

Freud saw her talking cure as a groundbreaking technique for the treatment of mental illness. He thought that maybe all the symptoms of the hysterics he was treating were the result of stories they hadn't ever been able to tell anyone about their lives. He took a couch that had belonged to his wife, covered it with a Persian rug, and asked his patients to lie down on it. Instead of looking at him, he asked them to stare at an empty wall, and he sat behind them as they talked, occasionally asking a question. He called the process free association.

Over the next few years, he developed the idea that his patients were not conscious of all their desires and fears, that many of their own thoughts were hidden from them in their unconscious mind. He believed that their unconscious mind would reveal itself in various ways, through slips of the tongue, jokes, and especially dreams. What made his ideas so revolutionary and controversial was that he didn't just apply them to mentally ill patients, but to all human beings, even himself. When he came out with The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, it read like a partial autobiography, because many of the dreams in it were his own. He was suggesting that no one can easily understand his or her unconscious mind, not even the doctor who invented the concept.

Freud went on to write many more books, including The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1904) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). Many of them were read by the general public, in part because of their scandalous frankness about sexuality. Freud was also a great fan of literature, and he filled his books with references to Shakespeare and Greek mythology.

Scholars have questioned whether psychoanalysis is really a science, and today his ideas are no longer part of modern psychology. Many critics mocked his obsession with sex, including the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who referred to him as "Dr. Fraud" and said, "Let the credulous and the vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts." But Freud had a tremendous impact on Western culture. The idea that people were driven by unconscious desires had a huge impact on literature. It was after Freud's writings became widespread that novelists began to write fiction that took place entirely inside their characters' minds. His work also gave writers permission to start describing more frankly their characters' sexual desires.

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