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Sigmund Freud

Sigmund FreudAKA Sigismund Schlomo Freud

Born: 6-May-1856
Birthplace: Freiberg, Moravia [1]
Died: 23-Sep-1939
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: Euthanasia [2]
Remains: Cremated, Golders Green Crematorium, London, England

Gender: Male
Religion: Atheist
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Psychiatrist

Nationality: Austria
Executive summary: Die Traumdeutung

The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud is best known for his tendency to trace nearly all psychological problems back to sexual issues. Although only parts of his theory of psychosexual development are still accepted by mainstream psychologists, Freud's theory of the Oedipal Complex has become a cultural icon nevertheless. Other now-famous Freudian innovations include the therapy couch, the use of talk therapy to resolve psychological problems, and his theories about the unconscious -- including the role of repression, denial, sublimation, and projection. Initially a Viennese medical doctor, Freud was trained in neurology, and he originally drew inspiration from the work of Charles Darwin which explained behavior in evolutionary terms. But Freud's introduction to hypnotherapy and to the stunning revelations it elicited from mentally ill patients led him to develop a revolutionary theory of the mind and of the dynamics underlying human behavior. While Freud's theories have always been controversial, his work forms a major portion of the foundations of modern psychology, with considerable modification by later theorists.

Sigmund Schlomo Freud was born May 6, 1856 in Freiberg, Moravia. Then located in the Austrian Empire, the region is now part of the Czech Republic. Sigmund Freud's father, Jacob, was a Jewish merchant of limited means, and a former widower. And his mother, Amalia, was Jacobís second wife. She was at least twenty years younger than her husband, and was in fact close in age to Freudís two stepbrothers -- part of Jacob's numerous offspring from a previous marriage. Amalia also bore several children, eight including her first born and favorite, Sigmund. He distinguished himself with intellectual brilliance from an early age, routinely excelled in school, and was aided by his parents in pursuing every educational advantage that they could afford. He was overall, their most favored child. Nonetheless, Freud recalls being extremely sensitive to any outburst of criticism from his father, however rare, and to any other act of his fatherís that impugned young Sigmund's sense of worth (for example, refusing to answer back to anti-Semitic remarks when the two were together).

From the age of four onward, Sigmund Freud grew up in Vienna. By age eight he was reading Shakespeare. At age seventeen he began attending the University of Vienna, graduating in 1881 with a degree in medicine. Freud's key interest however was in the workings of the brain, with his perspective deriving from Darwinís work on evolution. Thus Freud started out with the belief that physiology and evolution determined behavior. He felt that the secrets of behavior dysfunction therefore, were likely to be revealed through a physical, scientific study of the brain and its related systems. And he was eager to further explore this area.

However, positions for conducting pure research, upon a paid basis, were limited, so Freud took up work at Theodor Meynert's Psychiatric Clinic. It was during this period that he began his studies into a promising new drug, cocaine, which he believed would become a common treatment for depression -- and perhaps even for other ailments, including indigestion. He himself became an enthusiastic user of cocaine, also handing it out to colleagues and relations (including his sisters) and praising its merits in various scholarly papers. He even sent a bit of cocaine to his fiancť Martha Bernays "to make her strong and give her cheeks a red color." Meanwhile, Freud's friend Wilhelm Fleiss was utilizing the drug, sometimes in concert with surgery, to treat patients for "reflex nasal neuroses." That is, he hoped to cure them of their mental ills by stimulating or modifying the sinus area -- an approach that can only vaguely be likened to modern reflexology. Freud occasionally referred patients to Fleiss for this procedure, most notably Emma Eckstein whose treatment went tragically awry.

But Freud himself was beginning to move away from a purely medical approach to psychiatry. In 1885 he had received a brief scholarship to Paris' SalpetriŤre. And it was there that he became immersed in Jean-Martin Charcot's studies on hysteria. Hysteria (now called conversion disorder) most typically afflicted women and was marked by a variety of physical and behavioral symptoms, for which physicians were unable to find any medical cause. It is worth noting that hysteria, in women, became a particularly common diagnosis in Victorian times, and it has been speculated that many of these women may have been suffering from extreme sexual frustration -- a theory lent credence by the fact that a goodly number of these women gained temporary relief from their symptoms by visiting the physician for clitoral "massage."

Freud meanwhile, mired in the perspective of his era, was mystified and intrigued by these women and their "hard to explain" sufferings. But Charcot's work with hypnotherapy, indicated a pathway of exploration, a potential means to glimpse into the otherwise hidden realm of the unconscious to find clues to the source of dysfunction. Armed with this insight, Freud returned to Vienna where he established a private practice specializing in nervous and brain disorders. Inspired by Charcot's example, as well as the work of friend and fellow practitioner, Josef Breuer, Freud introduced the use of hypnotherapy to his own patients. Freud and Breuer discovered was that, having been guided into a relaxed mental state, the patient's mind would then gravitate toward the troubling experience or belief that was causing dysfunctional symptoms --especially if prodded by the right kind of questions. More importantly, once the patient had recalled and verbalized the particular problematic experience or belief, the symptoms disappeared.

This experience with hypnotherapy made Freud a staunch proponent of this catharsis or "talking cure", as a way to alleviate or remove hysteria and neurosis. But he soon found that actual hypnotism was unnecessary with most patients. Rather, he came to develop his own distinctive approach. As part of this he invented a "therapy couch", a comfortable bed-like piece of furniture, on which the patient could recline and deeply relax, while the therapist sat close by for conversation and note taking. This was used as substitute for the relaxing properties of hypnotherapy. In addition he developed the now famous technique of "free association" -- encouraging the patient to speak aloud about any thoughts or images that drifted into their awareness. To this he later added the use of dream analysis, the use of journals or diaries, and even what we now call "the Freudian slip" -- i.e. the notion that slips of the tongue, or forgetful lapses, are far from random and accidental, but are instead manifestations of the unconscious mind at work. As such, these slips were yet another clue about the particulars of repressed conflicts and experiences. Similarly, even jokes were not safe from Freudian analysis. In his view, everything we said or didnít say had some tidbit to suggest about the activities of the unconscious portion of the mind.

But even as he was inventing and refining this new field of "psychoanalysis", Freud was becoming increasingly convinced of the connection between neurosis and sexual conflict -- not surprising given that a large portion of his patients probably were suffering from sexually related conflicts. In fact in general sexual repression, and sexual ignorance, were rampant in Europe and the U.S. during the Victorian period, and no less so in Vienna. But Freud took this localized truth and relied upon it to make generalized theories about human behavior. Thus it was that he became convinced of the overwhelming importance of the sex drive, both in shaping personality and in contributing to neurosis and psychological dysfunction. When he published his theories he shocked the world by claiming that even infants had a sex drive and that (as in the Oedipal Complex) little boys become emotionally and sexually fixated on their own mothers -- while viewing their fathers as hated sexual rivals to be defeated or killed off.

But Freud's view of sexuality, and of the libido in general, were far more complex -- and far less surreal -- than a quick summary of the Oedipal Complex would suggest. To begin with, he accepted the idea that all human beings come into the world as potential bisexuals. And he theorized that our first sensuality was not genital but oral. This "oral stage" was marked by the infant's preoccupation with sensations experienced with the lips and mouth. Later, as a toddler, the child entered into an "anal" phase where the emphasis was on the sensations and accomplishments surrounding bowel movements. A phallic stage came next in which the sensations of the genitals, experienced in the context of holding in or releasing urine, came into prominence. (Note that Freud proposed the clitoris as the female equivalent of the penis; thus girls too experienced a phallic stage.)

After these simplistic sensate focused stages, identified with early childhood, came the childís emergence into a broader social awareness. The father becomes significant at last (in the era before dadís did diapers or administered bottles), and becomes seen as a rival for the motherís love and attention. But as the childís maturing social awareness grows further, assimilating the norms and limitations of society, sexual feeling enters a latency stage. In short, the child realizes that booting Daddy out the door and growing up to marry Mommy is a big social no-no. Sexual feeling is, according to Freud, repressed until reawakened by puberty, at which time is becomes directed at more appropriate love objects. There follows a stage of adolescent awkwardness as this biologically fueled imperative awaits an approving nod from society -- that is, until the individual reaches the age for marriage.

In the midst of all this psychosexual development, said Freud, the mind develops a tripartite structure: the id, the ego, and the superego. The id (a term derived from the Latin word for "it" and borrowed from the work of physician Georg Groddeck) represents our earliest way of relating to the world, an unselfconscious desiring for fulfillment of our basic needs. But as the child develops he becomes more aware of himself as separate and distinct from other human beings and from the other "objects" that satisfy his desires. This self-aware aspect of the psyche is the ego. The ego is in touch with what Freud called "the reality principle". More simply put, the ego understands about limitations and about strategies for overcoming limitations. The focus of awareness has expanded from "what I want" to "how I can get it."

But of course limitations are often socially imposed. Young children soon learn that nose picking, eating double helpings of chocolate cake, or jumping up and down on the furniture will elicit a negative response from adult authority figures and others of significance. In short, the child may be punished or emotionally rejected. Thus the psyche gives rise to that aspect Freud called the superego. The superego is the internalized sense of right and wrong, the conscience. And in contrast to the id, which is very inward focused (with its cues coming from the needs of the self), the superego is very outward focused, with its priorities driven in large part by the needs of others: oneís parents, teachers, the community.

Freud was fascinated by the interaction of these various aspects of the psyche -- and the way that they sometimes come into stark conflict. That is, it is left to the ego to successfully meet the needs of the id, while staying within the limits imposed by the superego. Naturally, as everyone has experienced, this is not an easy job. For example: an individual may have a body based yearning for sexual gratification, but have an internalized moral belief that says sex is dirty and sinful. The conflict between innate desire (id) and conditioned beliefs (superego) may manifest in such symptoms as anxiety, guilt, and frustration. Meanwhile, in the struggle to keep the inner peace, to cope with and balance the dictates of the superego with the demands of the id, the ego may resort to one of a variety of defense mechanisms. Amongst these are denial, repression, sublimation, intellectualization, compensation, and reaction formation. They vary in detail, but each is employed to reduce the conscious emotional tension that would otherwise be experienced by the ego. Thus the sexually conflicted individual may, for example, use rationalization to convince themselves of the moral superiority of "waiting for marriage." And the more strongly the id cries for sensual satisfaction, the more of a talking to the individual will have to give themselves, and the more he/she will feel the need to extol the virtues of virginity to others.

But as one might imagine, the underlying desires and awareness do not truly disappear -- not unless some kind of neurological damage occurs. Instead the thoughts and feelings are merely pushed into the background -- a kind of "white noise" as it were. But ironically, as Freud discovered, such repressed knowledge can still continue to influence behavior. Hence strange dreams, peculiar verbal slips of the tongue, and a variety of seemingly "irrational" behaviors. Individuals may even find themselves unable to consistently do what they believe they should -- or at the very least, find themselves feeling strangely unhappy even though they have done what they consciously believe is right.

Freudís exploration of such phenomenon, and his assertions about the nature and functioning of the unconscious mind, remains one of Freud's major contributions to the field of psychology. By contrast, prior to this work, most people believed in a kind of "positivism." That is that individuals, and by extension whole societies, could simply choose to do "the right thing." For example: to live moral lives informed wholly by the Bible (or wholly "rational" lives informed by science). Meanwhile the glaring fact that people often gave in to selfishness, base impulses, or "irrational" behavior was attributed to weakness of character, racial inferiority, insanity, or ignorance (a.k.a. "stupidity"). But of course such labeling had little to offer in the way of a constructive solution -- except perhaps eugenics. Freud on the other hand offered a method through which the individual could uncover the root source of the dysfunction and, ideally, heal it, thus becoming freer to make better, more satisfying choices.

But Freud's theories were not immediately embraced. Other medical doctors were a particular source of ridicule. And indeed even today, many in the field of psychiatry lean toward a more biochemical view of both the source of dysfunction and treatment. But in the 1890s and turn of the century, a significant number of others slowly began gravitating toward Freud's point of view as word of his findings circulated, through both his lectures and his publications. By 1906 he had collected a small inner circle that met regularly to discuss this new field of psychoanalysis. This group included Alfred Adler, Carl Jung, Otto Rank, Abraham Brill, Eugen Bleuler, and William Stekel. A worldwide organization eventually emerged in 1910, the International Psychoanalytical Association. And a magazine devoted to the psychoanalytic field came along in 1912. But despite the fact that Freud himself would come to be a major totem figure within the field of psychology as a whole, dissension was already thinning the ranks of his disciples. Most notably, both Adler (1911) and Jung (1913) left to found their own schools of psychoanalytic theory.

Although Freud's work introduced and popularized a number of concepts and techniques that are still in use today, the work of peers like Adler and Young and of later theorists like Abraham Maslow, Erik Erikson, Wilhelm Reich, and Erich Fromm -- to name but a few -- have dramatically altered the role of Freud's theories within the overall field of psychology. But his most enduring contributions have been the use of talk therapy and the notions of the unconscious. More recent understandings of child development, gender issues, and the other drives -- beyond sex -- that shape human behavior have drastically overhauled our understanding of psychology and the formation and treatment of dysfunction. Of course, just as in Freud's day, there is still no single point of view. And some schools of thought continue to incorporate more of Freudís ideas than do others.

Interestingly such diversity of opinion was something Freud himself seems to have had but little tolerance for. In fact he eventually fell out of touch with Adler and various of the others that left his inner circle to form their own groups. And he arranged for there to be only limited access, after his passing, to his private papers and unpublished manuscripts -- possibly to better preserve orthodoxy. But of course all materials contained in the Sigmund Freud Archives were made available to official biographer Ernest Jones. However at least twice during his lifetime Freud had destroyed a great amount of personal material, including a significant amount of diary material that he had used for self-analysis. Like many famous thinkers, he preferred the emphasis to be on his work, not on his personal experience.

His public writings however have been carefully preserved and most significant among these are The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), Totem and Taboo (1913), and Civilization and Its Discontents (1929). In his later years Freud focused a great deal on the role of religion in civilization, a role he viewed rather pessimistically, and he produced two notable works in this vein: The Future of an Illusion and Moses and Monotheism.

Ironically, although Freud himself was an atheist, his Jewish ancestry put him in peril as Nazi expansion engulfed Vienna and the rest of Austria during World War II. Knowing that his high profile could only offer scant protection from Nazi persecution, Freud opted to emigrate from Austria to England. He died several years later, after suffering from cancer of the jaw and throat. Although he had battled the disease for sixteen years he never gave up the huge cigars with which he became so identified. He was 83 years old when he asked his doctor to end his life, and died of a physician-assisted morphine overdose in London on September 23, 1939.


[1] Freiberg is now known as PřŪbor, in the Czech Republic.

[2] Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for our Time (1988), citing a work by Freud's personal physician Max Schur, "The Medical Case History of Sigmund Freud", 27 February 1954. From a subsequent lecture given in 1964 by Schur, "On September 21st [Freud] indicated to his doctor that his suffering no longer made any sense and asked for sedation. Given morphine for his pain, he fell into a peaceful sleep and then lapsed into a coma and died at three o'clock in the morning of September 23rd."

Father: Jacob Freud (wool merchant, b. circa 1815, d. 1896)
Mother: Amalia (b. 1835, d. 1930)
Wife: Martha Bernays (b. 1861, m. 1886, d. 1951)
Son: Martin
Son: Ernst
Son: Oliver
Daughter: Sophie (b. 1893, d. 1920)
Daughter: Mathilde
Daughter:
Anna Freud (child psychologist, b. 1895, d. 1982)

    High School: Leopoldstadt Gymnasium, Leopoldstadt, Austria (1873)
    Medical School: MD, University of Vienna (1881)
    Professor: Neuropathology, University of Vienna (1902-38)

    Vasectomy 1923 (partial)
    Proxy Baptism: Mormon per 2-May-2001 Deseret News article
    Asteroid Namesake 4342 Freud
    Jewish Ancestry
    Risk Factors: Smoking, Cocaine, Throat Cancer

Author of books:
The Interpretation of Dreams (1900, psychology)
The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901, psychology)
Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905, psychology)
Totem and Taboo (1913, psychology)
On Narcissism (1914, psychology)
Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920, psychology)
The Ego and the Id (1923, psychology)
The Future of an Illusion (1927, psychology)
Civilization and Its Discontents (1929, psychology)
Moses and Monotheism (1939, psychology)


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