Medicine and Disease


What did Freud believe?

The Austrian neurologist believed that human behavior and all mental states are influenced by repressed and forgotten impressions, many of them from childhood. Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) further believed that by uncovering these impressions (collectively called a complex), he could effect a cure for his patient. Freud regarded infantile mental processes, including infantile sexuality, of particular importance to the unconscious, and therefore influential to human behavior.

While he initially used hypnosis (a sleeplike state in which the patient is open to suggestion) as a method of revealing the unconscious, Freud later turned to a new form of treatment called free association. By this method, a patient talks about whatever is on his or her mind, jumping from one idea to the next. The memories and feelings that surface through free association are then analyzed by the therapist to find the root of the patient’s mental or emotional problem. Freud also interpreted his patients’ dreams, which he believed are unconscious representations of repressed desires. Free association and dream analysis are the cornerstones of psychoanalysis.

In analyzing human behavior, Freud came to the conclusion that the mind (or psyche) is divided into three parts: the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is the source of instincts; the ego is the mediator between those instincts and reality; and the superego is the conscience. The superego functions to reward or punish through a system of moral attitudes and a sense of guilt. The theories of psychoanalysis hold that if the parts of the mind oppose each other, a mental or emotional disorder (called a neurosis) occurs.

Freud’s theories revolutionized the fields of psychiatry and psychology. They also influenced methods and philosophies of child-rearing and education. While psychoanalysis has been credited with helping millions of mentally ill patients, Freud’s theories have also been rejected or challenged by many.


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