Psychoanalysis is an umbrella term that refers to various methods, techniques and theories created by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), as well as other reputable contributors / practitioners. As the founder of psychoanalysis, Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud was the first to hypothesize that certain mental disorders and diseases could be treated by talking to patients. After becoming aware of the important role that unconscious mental activity played in triggering specific symptoms, Freud coined the term psychoanalysis in 1896 and spent the following four decades describing its founding principles, goals and methodology, to the extent that psychoanalysis is now widely perceived as a scientific discipline by most experts and scholars.
As simple as his proposed approach may sound, his theories were based on sound scientific principles, which he used to explore the human psyche and identify the causes and dynamics of depression, anxiety disorders, as well as other common mental disorders. Psychoanalysis is based on a number of assumptions:
Psychological issues can only be resolved by addressing their roots, which are situated in the unconscious mind.
Each manifest symptom stems from hidden issues that need to unveil through adequate treatment.
Numerous mental disorders and disturbances derive from repressed / forgotten traumatic events occurred in infancy and / or childhood.
In order for the patient to be able to resolve their issues, it is crucial that the psychoanalyst should employ appropriate methods to bring the repressed memories and experiences to consciousness.
As explained by the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis (1998), the main purpose of psychoanalytic treatment is to reveal how the uncurious mind affects individuals’ actions, decisions, thoughts, relationships and mental health. By allowing practitioners and patients to trace certain behavioral patterns and disorders to their unconscious origins, psychoanalytic therapies have the power to show how various disturbances have evolved over time, thus assisting patients in overcoming their challenges.
In An Outline of Psychoanalysis, Freud (1949) explains that the physical apparatus is governed by three main forces, namely the id – which is the unconscious mind where one’s basic instincts, needs, desires and inherited memories reside, the ego – i.e. the conscious mind that filters and controls one’s unconscious demands, and the superego, which suppresses the other two forces and is strongly affected by one’s morals and views on what is right and what is wrong. In order to gain a better understanding of how these three forces affect our behavior, suffice to say that the id demands instant satisfaction (e.g. I am at the restaurant and I want another glass of water), the ego helps us deal with reality (e.g. the person sitting next to me has a glass of water, but I am going to wait for the waiter to come back in order to get a refill – this way, I will not embarrass myself), and the superego makes decisions based on judgements and moral values (e.g. stealing someone else’s water is wrong and drinking from someone else’s glass may be perceived as rude).
Freud argued that since the id is what affects human behavior, psychoanalysts should focus on their patients’ basic instincts and desires in order to identify the causes of their disorders. He also acknowledged that every action is either triggered by love (commonly referred to as Eros) or death, which are people’s most basic instincts. While the love instinct aims to maintain unity through one’s relationships, the death instinct prompts individuals to “destroy” their connections and relationships (Freud, 1949, p. 19).
With regards to sexual perversions and homosexuality, Freud (1949, p. 27) observed that these “distortions” derive from errors and issues that interfere with the correct development of the sexual function. Specifically, Freud (1949, pp. 23-25) identified four stages of sexual development:
The oral phase, when infants take pleasure from biting, sucking and chewing, as their mouths are a source of satisfaction
The sadistic-anal phase, when individuals associate pleasure with defecation and aggression / pain
The phallic / Electra phase, when boys begin fearing their fathers and have sexual thoughts about their mothers, while girls develop hostile attitudes towards sex as a result of the so-called penis envy
The genital phase, when one’s sexual function is fully developed and organized.
Due to the presence of natural defense mechanisms in the unconscious mind, it can be quite difficult for a psychoanalyst to access their patients’ unconscious and preconscious ideas, which is why psychoanalysis tends to be a long and complex process that often involves frequent weekly sessions for several years.
In spite of their unquestionable contribution to our understanding of the human psyche, Freud’s theories and techniques have been criticized on multiple occasions. For example, Grünbaum (1986, p. 220) pointed out that the validity of Freud’s clinical data may have been compromised by his suggestions and expectations, Greenberg (1986, p. 240) argued that Freud failed to reveal the outcome of his therapies as his main goal was to illustrate his theoretical principles, and Colby (1960, p. 54) considered Freud’s methodology to be flawed due to the fact that he did not use a control group to test his hypotheses. Moreover, the fact that the same phenomenon may be interpreted in different ways by different psychoanalysts clearly indicates that psychoanalysis cannot be regarded as a scientific practice (Colby, 1960, p. 55).
Many others argued that the main problem with Freud’s principles is that they are based on the assumption that the human psyche is governed by deterministic forces that can be explored through scientific tools. As Popper (1986, p. 254) observed, psychoanalysis should not even be regarded as a scientific enterprise as besides being unfalsifiable, it revolves around predictions concerning individuals’ hidden motives, whose invisibility to the human eye makes them untestable. Last but not least, recent research has revealed that homosexuality, sexual perversions and certain mental disorders stem from factors that are different from the ones identified by Freud.
- American Psychoanalytic Association (1998, January 31). About psychoanalysis. Retrieved from
- Colby, K. M. (1960). An introduction to psychoanalytic research. New York: Basic.
- Freud, S. (1949). An outline of psychoanalysis. New York: Norton.
- Greenberg, R. P. (1986). The case against Freud’s cases. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 9, 240-241.
- Grünbaum, A. (1986). Précis of The foundations of psychoanalysis: A philosophical critique.
Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 9, 217-284.
- Popper, K. (1986). Predicting overt behavior versus predicting hidden states. Behavioral and Brain
Sciences, 9, 254-255.