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Sigmund Freud is widely considered to be one of the most famous psychologists in the history of the profession. As the founding father of psychoanalysis, the impact of Freud’s work is beyond considerable, and the word Freudian (which is defined as ‘relating to or influenced by Sigmund Freud and his methods of psychoanalysis, especially with reference to the importance of sexuality in human behaviour’) entered common parlance because of the popularity of Freud and of his work.
But who was Sigmund Freud? What were his theories and why were they considered so ground-breaking and important? Here’s everything you need to know:
Who was Sigmund Freud?
Sigmund Freud was born on the 6th May 1856 in Freiberg, Moravia, which was a part of the Austrian Empire. The region is now known as Příbor, and is a part of the Czech Republic. Freud was the youngest child in a family of three children, having two much older half-brothers. Born into a Jewish family, his father was already 40 years of age when Freud was born, and was considered to be a distant and largely emotionally absent figure. By contrast, Freud was very close to his mother, who was a nurturing and emotionally available parent. The other most significant relationship in Freuds’ childhood was with his nephew, John. The two boys were similar in age and fulfilled the position of both close friend and hated rival throughout their early years. Freud used this relationship as an example within his later works.
In 1859 the Freud family moved first to Leipzig and ultimately to Vienna, driven by economic necessity. Freud remained in Vienna until Austria was annexed by the Nazis some 78 years later. Freud’s parents invested heavily in his education, and from an early age he was considered an intelligent and serious thinker. In 1873, Freud graduated from the Sperl Gymnasium and decided to pursue a career in medicine, so he secured a place at the University of Vienna. It was here that he began to work with one of the leading physiologists of his day, Ernst von Brücke, and where he began to focus on neurology as his specialism. In 1882 he entered the General Hospital in Vienna as a clinical assistant and by 1885 he was appointed lecturer in neuropathology. His particular interest at this point was the pharmaceutical benefits of cocaine but despite pursuing this theory for several years the results were disastrous and seriously tarnished Freud’s medical career. One of Freud’s close friends and colleagues, Ernst Fleischl von Marxow, developed a mortal addiction to cocaine as a result of his research and experiments. Despite this set back, it is his background scientific knowledge that helped to make Freud’s theories so significant and unique.
In 1885 Freud left Vienna to work in Paris at the Salpetriere clinic, where he continued to work in the field of neuropathology. Although Freud was only in Paris for 19 weeks, this relatively short period abroad is widely considered to be the turning point of his career. It is here that Freud began to work with ‘hysterics’ and where we first postulated that psychological disorders might have their source in the mind rather than the brain. He returned to Vienne with this thought in his mind, and quickly worked to turn that thought into a robust, and now world-recognised theory.
Shortly after his return to Vienna, Freud married Martha Bernays and the couple went on to have six children. Their relationship was a good one, and the now Martha Bernays Freud was a calming and supportive presence throughout the ups and downs of her husband’s career. From this point onwards Freud worked tirelessly in the field of psychology, collaborating with influential actors in the arena and posing a huge number of unique theories.
Many of Freud’s theories were considered offensive to the Viennese society of the time, but they gained traction elsewhere in Europe, and Freud gathered a fairly large group of supporters. Gathering a group of like-minded peers in his waiting room, this informal group grew, and in 1908 the group was renamed the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, of which Sigmund Freud was a founding member.
When Hitler invaded Austria, Freud fled to England, and he died just weeks after the Second World War was declared. Despite his controversial theories and his death in exile, Freud remains one of the most important and significant intellectual figures of modern times, and an essential focus of study for psychology students of all stages.
Sigmund Freud theories
During his lengthy career, Freud posed many theories, but perhaps the most enduring of these is the concept of the unconscious mind. This is a theory that is still accepted and used regularly today. In the theory of the unconscious mind, we accept that outside of our own awareness (or conscious mind) sits an unconscious mind. This area contains a huge number of thoughts, memories, and emotions that we simply cannot access. The role of the conscious and unconscious mind is a significant one, because each of these parts of the mind has a part to play in influencing action and behaviour. What is now commonly known as a Freudian slip (or a slip of the tongue) is considered to be the unconscious mind in action, with each misstatement believed to reveal underlying, unconscious thoughts or feelings.
We are all aware of the terms ‘defence mechanisms’ and ‘coping strategies’ but the mechanisms of defence is another key Freudian theory that we still use and accept widely today. Defence mechanisms are unconscious psychological responses that protect people from feelings of anxiety, things that they don’t want to deal with or threats to their self-esteem. The concept of defence mechanisms played a key role in Freud’s first psychoanalytic theories. Anna Freud (a prominent psychoanalyst in her own right) continued her father’s important work in defence mechanisms, going on to describe the ten most common of these. The defence mechanism of repression was one that was particularly focused on by Freud, and he used this idea of thought repression again, incorporating it into his theories of both psychosexual development and his theory of personality.
Other key Freudian theories are the theory of personality and the theory of psyche, both of which are outlined more fully below. his concepts of life and death instincts, and the theory of psychosexual development are also worth further exploration as they played such a key role in shaping Freud’s overarching theories and his career.
What did Sigmund Freud do for education?
Although he did not specifically work within an educational setting, many of Freud’s theories can be directly applied to education and used to advise and support educators. Freud felt that the primary role of educators was to teach children to conform to a normative set of socially approved behaviours, and on this controversial subject of behaviour control he also stated that ‘the first task of education… is to teach the child…to control his instincts. It is impossible to give him liberty to carry out all his impulses without restriction’ consequently ‘education must inhibit, forbid and suppress.’ Whilst certainly educators do encourage their wards to behave in a socially acceptable way, and will address what those societal standards are, looking at education in this largely repressive way is at odds with what many educators feel is their primary role.
Although not intended to be used in an educational setting, Freud’s psychosexual development theory can be applied to teaching and learning, as it has such a huge impact on school-age children. Freud’s psychosexual theory poses that there are four important stages of desire during child development and that libido energy concentrates on a different area of the body during each stage. The stages are referred to as the oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital stages. Each stage will have its own unique characteristics: at the genital stage children are interested in gender and gender identity, for example, whilst at the anal stage ablution is the main focus. Freud proposed that children need to roundly develop at each stage, or they could develop a future fixation on the stage at which their resolution was not fulfilled. What adults (both parents and educators) can take from this theory is that young children are future adults, and often need to be treated as such. Educators can often provide the theoretical framework for solving the libido and desires at different stages within the learning environment and help to create rounded individuals later in life. Child psychologists will often refer to versions of this theory within their own work.
Perhaps one of Freud’s significant theories is that of the psyche. Freud felt that the human psyche could be divided into three main elements, which he labelled the Id, Ego, and Super- Ego. In order to fully understand human behaviour, the theory poses that it is important to understand each of these elements, as well as the ways in which they work together.
- The id is the primitive and instinctual part of the mind that contains sexual and aggressive drives. Forgotten and repressed memories are also a part of the id. The id is only controlled by the pleasure principle, meaning that it almost solely responds to things that feel good
- Freud defines the ego as being ‘that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world.’ The role of the ego is to mediate between the unrealistic and often infantile, impulsive desires of the id and the realities of the external world. The ego is often considered to be the voice of reason and is the decision-making component of the mind. Like the id, the ego still primarily prefers pleasure to pain and will seek out pleasurable experiences, but it will not allow an individual to undertake actions that will cause it harm. The ego is often considered weaker than the id, with man’s desire for pleasure overruling all else, but the egos’ role is to attempt to control the id and ensure that they come to no harm
- The superego is the conscience of the unconscious. It takes on societal norms and assimilates them to develop a sense of what is considered to be morally right or wrong. The superego contains a vast number of codes, or prohibitions, and is the part of the psyche most likely to tell you not to do something. The superego develops during early childhood, which is why positive early year experiences are so vital to the development of a healthy psyche
The basic rule of the psyche is that all three elements are incompatible with each other: this leads to inner conflict, because you can rarely satisfy the id, the ego, and the superego at the same time. Often in response to an imbalance within the psyche, humans will develop visible defence mechanisms: a child might revert to sucking their thumb, for example, or project your own negative emotions onto someone else (believing that someone hates you, for example, when the reality is that you dislike them).
Theory of personality
Freud’s theory of personality is another term for his theory of the psyche. Beyond simply understanding the role of the id, the ego, and the superego, personality theory provides a core concept of how personality is structured and how it develops. Each component will have its own unique contribution to the way the personality develops, and explains why there are so many different personality types: because everyone’s id, ego, and superego will interact differently. The main take home from this theory should be that certain aspects of your personality are more primal than others. This means that they may pressure you to act on your basic urges, and if the more sophisticated elements of your personality have not developed properly then you will be more inclined to give in to your base demands. Maladaptive personalities are a direct result of an imbalance between the id, the ego and the superego. Individuals with an overly dominant id are more likely to be impulsive, out of control, and even more inclined to take part in criminal activities. By contrast, individuals with an overly dominant superego are more likely to be judgmental, overly moral, and difficult to spend time with as a result.
The influence that Freud had not only on the field of psychoanalysis but on the wider world is immeasurable. Every day people understand their own actions and behaviours, and how and why they interact with the world around them in the way that they do, thanks to Freud. Whilst not all of his theories have stood the test of time, his influence and reputation will continue to be significant.