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Stories about the lives we've made

module:Measuring the unmeasurable

An introduction to psychology

page:Sigmund Freud and Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud completely revolutionised how the Western world thinks of the mind and human behaviour - and was the first European to investigate the concept of the unconscious. By using and developing techniques such as dream interpretation and free association, Freud is rightly called the founding father of Psychoanalysis, a term which he first used in 1896. This therapy is still widely used today.

Sigmund Freud, Austrian neurologist known as the founder of Psychoanalysis. c.1920s. picture zoom © Daily Herald Archive/Science and Society Picture Library

From 1882, Freud worked in psychiatric medicine. Over the course of his life, he investigated and documented the implications of our actions in childhood as being a possible explanation for our behaviour in our adult lives. He has been criticised for being unscientific: the majority of his concepts have not stood up to the scientific rigours of the laboratory. Further criticism has arisen through suggestions that his work is fundamentally sexist or simply wrong. Indeed, from the very moment Freud was surrounded by collaborators, disagreements began. Few figures have inspired such sustained controversy and intense debate.

But we cannot deny the influence Freud has had upon thinking in the 20th and 21st centuries. This has spread throughout Western culture and into the international creative arts. His thoughts can be observed in art, literature, cinema and the stage. Notions of identity, memory, childhood, sexuality, and of meaning have been shaped in relation to - and often in opposition to - Freud's work. No doubt this influence will continue into the future.

Freud’s concept of the mind

Freud's primary interest was in understanding how influential the mind may be in shaping our personalities and behaviours. His fundamental belief was that the mind was the most powerful influence on an individual's actions. Although this could not be studied in an objective and scientific way, he propounded the concept that our mind has three components:

  • The conscious: that part of the mind responsible for dealing with our everyday actions at any given moment of the present.
  • The pre-conscious: that part of the mind responsible for storing easily accessible memories and past events.
  • The unconscious: that part of the mind that stores all our experiences, especially those of a traumatic or unpleasant nature.

Freud believed that it is the unconscious that exerts the most influence upon our behaviour. Moreover he maintained that all the answers to our behaviour and actions lay in this hidden, inaccessible area that makes up four fifths of the mind.

Freud's concept of the unconscious

According to Freud, the unconscious contains so many traumatic and unpleasant experiences that we cannot enter this and investigate it easily. His methods attempt to use various psychoanalytic techniques to examine the powerful influence this part of the mind has on behaviour. These techniques will be explored in later sections of this learning module.

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Sigmund Freud, Austrian neurologist known as the founder of Psychoanalysis. c.1920s.
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