Psychoanalysis was established by Sigmund Freud, in 1895. While examining his patients, as a neurologist, Freud realized that many of his patients had neurological symptoms without any organic cause. He came to the conclusion that such symptoms result from inner conflicts that are repressed in the form of traumatic memories and experiences. Resolving those inner conflicts by uncovering the repressed memories into the conscious mind then became the underlying feature of psychoanalysis.
As psychoanalysis evolved, it began to gain popularity but at the same time faced criticisms. Freud’s associates like Alfred Adler and Carl Jung parted ways from him due to their disagreements and developed their own forms of psychoanalysis, keeping some of the basic elements the same. Like Adler and Jung, others had different perspectives about psychoanalysis, which became more prominent after the death of Sigmund Freud in 1939.
Despite the many modifications, over the years, classical Freudian psychoanalysis continued to have wide acceptance. It was found to be highly applicable in therapeutic settings as well as in day-to-day life. Psychoanalysis received its immediate expression through the needs of the mentally ill. It was, initially, a clinical-based discipline, and was not academically oriented.
It was due to this that psychoanalysis had a dominant role in psychiatry, as it was found suitable to clinical problems. Till the 1960s, psychoanalytic writings found an almost exclusive position in psychiatry and clinical psychology. It was one of the major reasons for the alarming rise of clinical psychology.
Being clinically oriented, psychoanalysis resulted in huge advances in treatment of mental patients. It was one of the pioneer movements to treat mental patients more humanely. It is, in fact, the first of the five classical schools of psychology to give emphasis to mental illness. It stressed the importance of allowing patients to talk and express themselves. It is, thus, the forerunner of all the current approaches to counselling and psychotherapy.
Psychoanalysis, however, has not restricted itself to mental illness. Apart from the understanding of abnormal behavior, psychoanalysis has also led to an understanding of normal behavior. It addresses both normal and abnormal behavior, and demonstrates that the psychological processes underlying both are fundamentally the same. Psychoanalysis has addressed a wide range of topics, apart from mental illness. It has contributed to ground breaking work on humour, marriage, death, friendship, suicide, creativity, competition, forgetfulness, mistakes, importance of culture, society, and war, and many other domains. Sigmund Freud being one of the most frequently cited authors in the psychology and the Division of Psychoanalysis (Division 39) being the sixth largest of all APA Divisions reflects the huge impact that psychoanalysis has had.
Further, psychoanalysis has helped in the generalization of psychology to other fields. By showing the usefulness of psychology in explaining everyday life phenomena such as religion, sports, politics, art, literature, and philosophy, the relevance of psychology has expanded to almost every sector of human existence. Additionally, it also created substantial interest in the field of psychology among other professionals like physicians and philosophers and even the general audience.
Psychoanalysis has also had an enormous influence on art and literature. This has led to literary and artistic expressions interpreted in light of the unconscious of the artist as well as the perceiver. It is for this reason that art is seen as symbolic, something that can be probed for unconscious meanings. The analysis of art is regarded as an extension of psychoanalysis.
One of the reasons for the popularity of psychoanalysis is that it has a strong influence on popular culture, which began immediately after Sigmund Freud’s visit to Clark University in 1909. Due to the rising of psychoanalysis, the 20th century saw a loosening of sexual restraints in behavior, arts, literature, and entertainment. It has become widely acceptable that inhibitions or repression of sexual impulses can be harmful. The emphasis of psychoanalysis on sex helped to popularize its ideas.
Even though being highly popular and contributing to the field of psychology in a major way, psychoanalysis has faced major criticisms, especially by the philosopher Karl Popper, regarding falsifiability and scientific validity. Popper, considered to be one of the greatest 20th century’s philosopher of science, majorly criticized the methodology used by Freud, which was solely based on clinical case studies and did not adhere to the commitment to the methodology expressed in the systems that were generated by academic research.
In later times, however, there has been a great deal of empirical research on psychoanalytic concepts, trying to give it scientific validity. This research was initiated by Anna Freud, and later carried forward by Heinz Hartmann, George Klein, and Henry Murray. Through their research, they have given empirical evidences of psychoanalytic concepts, which in turn, led to the acceptance of psychoanalysis in mainstream academic psychology.
In more recent times, advances in cognitive psychology and neurosciences have led to findings that are very consistent with Freudian concepts. These findings led a group of cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, and psychiatrists began a movement and established a society called Neuro-psychoanalysis, which is an integration of Freudian concepts with neuroscience. This movement is often referred to as the second coming of Sigmund Freud.
The person at the forefront of this movement, known as the originator of Neuro-psychoanalysis, is the neuropsychologist Mark Solms. Along with Solms, neuroscientists like Daniel Schacter and Antonio Damasio argue that Freud’s conceptions of consciousness are corroborated by contemporary neuroscience. According to Solms, Freudian concepts like the unconscious, repression, and pleasure principles can be supported by neuroscientific research.
Solms examined patients of brain damage in the light of Freudian concepts. He found that the brain part known as the brain stem is associated with the core conscious also called the state of not being awake. Damage to this region makes the person unconscious. The brain area known as the prefrontal cortex is found to be associated with being aware and the ability to self-reflect. Solms likened these findings in terms of Freud’s unconscious (the part of the mind that consists of memories and emotions beyond awareness) and conscious mind (the part of the mind that consists of memories and emotions within awareness).
Proponents of neuro-psychoanalysis also compare the unconscious to the highly studied phenomenon of cognitive psychology referred to as nonconscious mental processing. These are processes that are implicit and have automaticity. Cognitive psychologists refer to such activities as beyond conscious awareness and intentional control.
The social-cognitive psychologist John Bargh, on the basis of a number of studies in cognitive psychology on the phenomenon of nonconscious mental processing concluded that 95 percent of human behavior is determined by these implicit and automatic activities. Psychologists clearly mention that nonconscious cognition may not be similar to Freud’s unconscious, but it comes close to it and can be seen consistent with the tip-of-the-iceberg metaphor used by Freud in describing the conscious mind.
Nonconscious cognition may not be exactly the same as the unconscious mind, however, other studies by Solms reflect neuroscientific findings that are similar to specific aspects found in the unconscious.
Sigmund Freud suggested that one of the basic instinctual drives that individuals have is to seek pleasure and immediate gratification, which is guided by one of the structures of personality called the id. Neuroscientific research, by Solms, shows that the pleasure-seeking drives have their neurological origins in two brain structures, namely the brain stem and the limbic system. Further, the neurotransmitter called dopamine is centrally involved in most pleasure seeking behaviors. These findings indicate a neuroscientific basis of the Freudian concept of the id.
Neuroscientific research also identified the brain area of the frontal-limbic system to be associated with inhibition of impulses or impulse regulations. It has been found that when this brain area is damaged, the individual’s id-based pleasure seeking impulses increase.
In other words, basically in Freudian terms, the individual behaves as if the ego is not inhibiting the basic drives and that he/she becomes hostile, highly impulsive, and least concerned about social norms. Solms suggests that injuries to the frontal lobe lead to inability of individuals to stay reality bound and they start interpreting and reacting to events through their wishes or basic drives. This, according to Solms, provides a neuroscientific explanation of Freud’s concepts of id and ego.
Sigmund Freud’s concept of defense mechanisms, especially repression, has been found to have a neuropsychological basis. According to Freud, in repression the unconscious keeps ideas, feelings, and unpleasant or threatening impulses out of consciousness. Neuroscientific research, by Solms, reports cases that explore the areas of the brain that may be implicated in the use and perseverance of defense mechanisms. A number of cases have demonstrated repression of unpalatable information when damage occurs to the right brain hemisphere and, if this damaged region becomes artificially stimulated, the repression goes away; that is, awareness returns. Additionally, these patients frequently rationalize away unwelcome facts by fabricating stories, which is an indication of demonstrating the Freudian wish-fulfilling defense mechanisms.
Apart from research in cognitive and neuroscience, recent research in social cognition has also given empirical evidences for Freudian concepts, especially the phenomenon of transference. Transference refers to holding mental representations of significant others in memory. According to Freud, transference occurs when childhood fantasies and conflicts associated with a parent or significant other are imposed on the psychoanalyst, during a psychotherapeutic session. This takes place outside conscious awareness.
Freud believed that people hold unconscious prototypes of individuals that determine their relationships with other new individuals that they meet. Transference becomes an important phenomenon as it helps the therapist to understand and uncover the conflicts and fantasies of the individual.
A series of experiments have been conducted by researchers in which they deliberately activate significant-other representations. These researches show that people tend to fill in the blanks about a new person based on the knowledge of a significant-other, when that significant-other representation is triggered. Such researches on the social-cognitive model of transference give experimental evidences for the Freudian phenomenon of transference.
Therefore, contemporary research in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and social cognition provide scientific explanations of many of Freudian concepts. These researches have made classical Freudian psychoanalysis relevant in today’s time, not letting it fade away from the realms of psychology.
On one the hand there have been contemporary researches that give evidence for Freudian concepts, and on the other hand there have been a series of recent researches that completely refute Freudian psychoanalysis. Recent research in the areas of memory, consciousness, trauma, and psychotherapy has not just been questioning, but has even provided evidences against phenomena that have shaped the foundation of Freudian psychoanalysis.
The central concept of Freudian psychoanalysis is the phenomenon of repression. Repression refers to the exclusion of painful, traumatic memories or undesirable urges that may have taken place in childhood, from the conscious awareness and pushing them into the unconscious. These lost/repressed memories are said to cause troubles to individuals in adulthood, in the forms of anxiety and other psychological problems. A way to treat these psychological problems, according to Freudian psychoanalysis, is to try to uncover or recover those lost/repressed memories, which is also known as recovered memory therapy.
The idea of treating psychological problems by recovering repressed childhood memories has been a contention of a huge controversy, which originates to the early 1990s, known as the memory wars. Recovered memory therapy has been at the receiving end of heavy criticisms, discrediting the central idea of Freudian psychoanalysis.
One of the leading the persons behind these criticisms is the well-known cognitive psychologist and human memory expert, from the University of California, Irvin, Elizabeth Loftus. Loftus has been involved in research in memory for over 20 years. She has a number of books on memory, including, The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse.
The work of Loftus on eyewitness testimony has been groundbreaking. Her research showed that eyewitness testimonies are not always accurate and can easily be manipulated by misinformation, giving rise to false memories. She conducted a series of experiments in which she showed that false memories can be implanted in individuals. Similar mechanisms, according to Loftus, can be applied in recovered memory therapy sessions. She came to this conclusion when she investigated cases of a number of parents claiming to be falsely accused of sexually abusing their children.
A large number of women during recovered memory therapy sessions are able to recall specific details of how they were sexually abused by their parents or a close relative. Psychotherapists claim that they are able to uncover traumatic memories of being sexually abused in childhood, helping them to overcome their psychological problems. Loftus completely discredits the idea of repressed memories being recovered, claiming that memory does not function in this manner.
Loftus argues that the memories that are recovered are not accurate - memories are not like video recordings in which every past thought, emotions, and experiences are stored safely and can be recovered easily. Memories are more of reconstructive in nature. This means that past events that are recalled are not in an accurate manner, but are a blend of fact and fiction. The assumption of therapists that memory works as per the video-recorder model and not the reconstructionist model leads to the creation of false memories – memories of events that do not exist.
According to Loftus, it is easy to make someone believe something to be true even if it has not occurred, especially in highly suggestible situations like recovered memory psychotherapeutic sessions. The memories that are recovered are mostly false memories. These false memories are implanted, unknowingly, by overzealous or biased therapists.
The individuals after being in multiple of such recovered memory therapy sessions end up believing things that have not even taken place; they actually start believing that they have had traumatic experiences (sexual abuse in the cases investigated by Loftus) in their childhood. In a number of cases, it has been found that people end up believing that they had experienced paranormal activities such as being abducted by aliens.
Strengthening her claims regarding the notions of repression and recovered memories, Loftus also states that the hippocampus, brain area that plays an important in the formation of memories, is not properly developed in early childhood. Due to this it is impossible that accurate memories are stored for a really long time and retrieved in adulthood. The human brain, therefore, according to Loftus, is incapable of recovering accurate memories from early childhood.
In the same light as Loftus, Harvard psychologist and expert in trauma research, Richard McNally argues that there is no such thing as repression. In a number of his researches he shows that there is no scientific evidence of repression. On the basis of his research, he further suggests that people actually do not forget their traumatic experiences; they in fact very well remember the traumatic events.
Traumatic events due to being highly emotionally arousing are remembered in a better manner rather than being forgotten. A good example of this is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), in which people keep getting flashbacks of their past traumatic experiences.
Further, McNally in his researches found that recovered memories are not genuine; they do not correspond to real events; for instance people being able to recall satanic ritualistic abuse or alien abduction. McNally also found that people recall such instances only after undergoing recovered memory procedures.
McNally like Loftus, argues that memory does not operate like a video recorder and that recollections are always reconstructive in nature. Regarding this he found that false memories of emotionally negative events can be implanted in recovered memory procedures.
These researches by Loftus and McNally create serious doubts and completely refute the phenomenon of repression, which is the central concept of Freudian psychoanalysis. They give clear research evidences that disprove the idea of repression.
In contemporary times, one of the biggest critics of Sigmund Freud is the University of California, Berkeley, psychologist John Kihlstrom. Known for his work on consciousness, Kihlstrom has heavily criticized Freud in many of his writings. Kihlstrom states that Sigmund Freud in contemporary times is irrelevant and his ideas are completely obsolete. He argues that from 1950s onwards, with the rise of cognitive-behavioral therapies and empirical approaches to personality, Freud’s theories can be considered to be archaic.
According to Kihlstrom, Freud’s theory of personality and psychotherapeutic techniques are completely dead as many of his ideas such as the psychosexual stages, Oedipus complex, or childhood origins of adult personality have no empirical evidence. He also argues that there is no empirical evidence that psychoanalytic psychotherapy is more effective than any of the behavioristic and cognitive therapies.
Kihlstrom further states that there is no scientific evidence of the Freudian concepts of the unconscious and repression, which play a central role in Freudian psychoanalysis. He argues that the discovery of cognitive unconscious or nonconscious (mentioned above) and that the concept of automaticity (automatic processes) cannot be considered as evidences of Freudian unconscious.
Automatic processes are unintentional, involuntary, effortless, consume little or no attentional capacity, and take place outside conscious awareness. Processes like implicit memory (any effect of a past event on an individual’s thoughts, actions, and experiences, without any conscious reflection of that event), implicit perception (influence of an event without conscious perception of that event), implicit learning (acquiring of knowledge without conscious awareness of what has been learnt) are included in automatic processes. Such processes have been found to generate conscious mental contents like percepts, memory, feelings, and desires.
These automatic processes are certainly unconscious and play an important role in conscious activities, and have been proven experimentally. But Kihlstrom argues that they cannot be considered as evidence for Freud’s unconscious. The automatic processes, Kihlstrom states are very different from Freud’s unconscious, which is represented by repressed contents like childhood trauma, emotional conflict, and sexual and aggressive urges.
Like Loftus and McNally, Kihlstrom completely discredits the phenomenon of repression. He also states that there is no scientific evidence of repression. He argues that experiments that claim to be evidences of repression do not involve any unconscious processes, and are simply evidences of suppression. As per Kihlstrom, the concept of repression is a clinical myth. Kilhstrom also states that Freud at best can be seen as a historical figure and is relevant only as a writer in the fields of language and literature, but has no relevance in psychology, in contemporary times.
The enormous impact that Sigmund Freud has had is undeniable. However, there is always the question of the relevance of Freudian concepts in the present-day. Advances in cognitive and neurosciences giving rise to the society called Neuro-psychoanalysis led by Mark Solms and research in social cognition by Susan Anderson and associates not only give cognitive and neuroscientific explanations of Freudian concepts, but even widen the scope of Freudian psychoanalysis.