Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, is known for pioneering a wide range of theories for furthering our understanding of the human mind. During his career, he established the groundwork for the structure of the mind, the unconscious, dreams, child development, and defense mechanisms. His major works could be viewed as a synthesis of several ideas across different fields (the psychic economy as a Helmholtz energy system, drive theory rooted in Schopenhauer/Nietzsche’s blind impulse/will to power, pleasure principle/sex motivated by Darwinian evolution) but his primary contributions was their systematization in a clinical setting for treating patients. Regardless, Freud’s contributions to psychology had broad impact on ideas of sociology (critical theory, alienation, the Other, power-structures, libidinal economy), philosophy (subjecthood, Marxism), biology (neural science), and economics (public relations/marketing). Let us investigate each of his theories.
Freud viewed the mind as a mechanized tripartite system that operated according to energy conservation laws. Conscious behavior are actually determined or could be explained by latent mental within the unconscious. This deterministic account of action renders free-will illusory as one’s choices are derived from hidden mental processes. Conscious and unconscious states are phenomena produced by a tripartite arrangement of the mind known by the id-ego-superego. The id consists of the primitive and instinctual (innate) components of humanity that can be categorized into Eros (sex, reproductive drive), Thanatos (aggressive, destructive drive) instincts. It is autonomous and operates under the so-called pleasure principle which that demands that impulses be satisfies both instantly and unconditionally. The ego is the conscious mediator between the impulses of the id and the practical means of achieving the id’s demands. It conditions the id’s instincts according to the reality principle by delaying gratification and compromising the demands according to socially responsible and normative methods in the external world. The super-ego consists ideals from society that are internalized as to pressure the ego into both acting and assigning worth (value) according to parental influences during upbringing and by implication society; it punishes the ego with feelings of guilt for not living up to its standards. One’s sense of agency, which derives from the conscious deliberation of action, is thus produced in the ego, driven to satisfy the id, and regularized by the superego. Such dynamics are governed by the flow of so-called libido or energy in the psyche which are conserved between the id-ego-superego; impulses have different magnitudes of excitation which are transformed into different degrees of emotional investment into mental objects (cathexis) by the ego but when blocked or withdrawn (anti-cathexis) from the object by superego ideals will cause the ego to find alternative ways to release the energy or else experience neurotic symptoms.
Development of the tripartite structure occurs in phases during the early years of a child’s life in so-called psychosexual stages where the libidinal flow is fixated. In the first year of life, the infant is in the oral stage where the first source of gratification as well as frustration is experienced in terms of sucking/breast-feeding from the mother; frustration follows from the separation of the breast where libido is blocked and reconstitutes itself in the basic ego as a separate structure from the id-nature. Between years 1-3, the libido is fixated on the anus during potty-training where the pleasures of defecating must be delayed according the authority of the parents. The greater external demands and authority of the parents further clashes with ego, produced from the rising tension with the id. The phallic stage between ages 3-6 fixates the libido on the genitals and the child’s anatomical differences between mother and father. Erotic attraction with the opposite sex parent give rise to the so-called “Oedipus/Electra Complexes”. Boys seek to possess the mother but fears the father out of castration anxiety; the complex is resolved via identification with the father via his values/attitudes/behaviors which are adjusted according to male gender roles of the culture. Girls learn to repress their desire for father and their hatred of mother by identifying with female gender roles and the wish for a baby. For both genders, internalizing these values give rise to superego. From ages 6-puberty, the child enters into the latency stage where the libido is no longer fixated and can flow into play, developing new skills, and learning. From puberty to adulthood is the genital stage where libido is reconstituted in the pursuit of sexual intercourse with others.
The conflicting demands of both the id and super-ego on the ego produce tensions that cannot always be harmonized. Failure to harmonize would result in neurosis or experiencing different forms of mental anxiety. Thus, the ego unconsciously employs a variety of defense mechanisms that reroutes/transforms the energetic potential of the different demands. Such mechanisms are developed during the psycho sexual fixation periods to different degrees and exhibit recurring patterns in adulthood. Defenses can thus be classified on a continuum from primary to mature:
- Withdrawal: Avoiding situation by re-investing energy into fantasy.
- Denial: Refusing to accept or acknowledge an unpleasant reality.
- Disassociation: Disconnect from present experience by escaping into another representation.
- Splitting: Separate inter-objects into either all good/all bad without ambivalence.
- Projection: Misinterpret impulse from within as coming from the outside in distorted form.
- Regression: Goes back to infantile behaviors for coping with stress.
- Reaction Formation: Adopting the opposite position of the impulse.
- Undoing: Taking back an unconscious behavior after the fact by doing the opposite.
- Repression: Blocking unacceptable impulse before it reaches consciousness.
- Displacement: Redirecting impulse onto another object.
- Intellectualization: Use thinking to create a distance from unpleasant emotions.
- Sublimation: Redirect impulse into socially acceptable objects for productive use.
The therapeutic applications of Freud’s theories culminated in the practice of psychoanalysis to which many practical methods such as free-association and dream analysis are developed. A common thread amongst these methods is to recover energetic content that have been reconstituted in the unconscious, which is a repository of forgotten memories and implicit knowledge. Recall that in the energy conserving id-ego-superego structure, energetic contents that have not found a release will flow back into the person and presumably remain in the unconscious. The contents retain their energetic potential and may be organized into a common themes such as complexes that exhibit a determining factor in conscious life when the ego is weakened. Thus, psychoanalysis aims to depotentiate these contents through the recovery and reintegration of the contents into the ego. This can be done via free-association where patients effectively speak their mind without inhibition; the method tends to reveal unsaid assumptions about the patient such as transference (feelings towards one person are directed onto another), projection (feelings about self directed to another), and resistance (a mental block or gap in events that fails to be recalled). Delving into more repressed contents required greater lessening of the ego during dreaming. Freud developed a theory of dream analysis as way to interpret manifest (dream material reported from experience) and latent contents (hidden meanings that have been transformed to protect the semi-lucid ego during dreaming).