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Sigmund Freud

(1856—1939) founder of psychoanalysis


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(1856–1939)

Austrian psychiatrist and founder of psychoanalysis. Freud developed important theories about the structure and functioning of the mind and the desires, conflicts, and motives in human behaviour. He devised psychoanalytical techniques for analysing normal and abnormal behaviour and showed that many illnesses with no apparent organic cause could be treated by psychoanalysis. Although many of his ideas have been revised and modified since his death, they have been a major influence in psychiatry and have had wide application.

Freud was born in Freiberg, Moravia (now in the Czech Republic), and began to study medicine in 1873 at the University of Vienna. In 1882 he gave up his research and began to work at the General Hospital of Vienna to qualify for private practice, hoping to be able to afford to marry. In the hospital psychiatric clinic he studied under Theodor Meynert; his work on hallucinatory psychosis (Meynert's amentia) led to his hypothesis on the wish fulfilment mechanism. In the same year he began collaborating with the Viennese physician Josef Breuer (1842–1925), who was treating a girl with complex psychosomatic symptoms that interested Freud. While she was recounting her symptoms to Breuer, they gradually eased and disappeared and Breuer supplemented this ‘talking cure’ with hypnosis. Freud discussed the case repeatedly and eventually went to Jean Charcot (1825–93), the French expert on hypnosis, to discuss it. Charcot was able to induce the same types of symptoms under hypnosis, proving that if they could be induced and removed by thought, they must have a psychogenic origin. As a result Freud formulated the principle of ‘conversion’, suggesting that hysterical symptoms are caused by suppression of thoughts from conscious influence so that the ‘mental energy’ suppressed is diverted to cause bodily disorders. In 1893, he and Breuer published The Psychical Mechanism of Hysterical Phenomena, later expanded into Studies in Hysteria (1895).

Between 1892 and 1895 Freud developed his techniques of analysis using methods of free association, i e by encouraging his patients to pursue aloud a particular train of thought. In 1897 he began to analyse himself and suggested that many of his own psychoneuroses had their origin in events in his childhood. In support he found that many of his patients stated that a parent had attempted seduction when they were children; he postulated that this was really a fantasy of the child who had sexual desires towards the parent of the opposite sex. This led him to formulate the concept of the Oedipus complex (Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, 1903), which so shocked the medical world. In 1899 he published one of his most important books, The Interpretation of Dreams, in which he analysed dreams in terms of unconscious experiences and desires that originated in childhood. He developed further his theory that neuroses have their origins in suppressed sexual desires and real or imagined sexual experiences in childhood. His insistence that mental disorders had a sexual aetiology rooted in infancy caused considerable controversy and was a major cause of his estrangement from many of his colleagues, including Breuer. In 1902 Freud formed the Psychological Wednesday Circle, in which a number of colleagues met at his home to discuss psychological matters. In 1910 the enlarged group became the International Psycho-Analytical Society. Many members of the group, including Alfred Adler and Carl Jung, became increasingly opposed to Freud's theories and left the circle to form their own highly influential schools of psychology.

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