A small dose of Freud

I’ve just finished listening to the unabridged audio version of the excellent Anthony Storr book Freud: A Very Short Introduction – a remarkably insightful analysis of the flawed father of psychoanalysis and his ideas.

Freud had huge numbers of ideas, hypotheses and theories that he formulated, rejected and revised over a forty year period.

You often hear people say that “Freud’s theories have been discredited”, as if he had only one central idea that has subsequently been disproved. These statements typically reflect ignorance about the extent of his work.

As it turns out, many of Freud’s ideas have not been supported by the evidence or were just plainly nonsense to begin with, but some have stood the test of time.

It seems that some of the techniques and clinical observations are still remarkably accurate and useful to the modern psychologist.

In general terms, the development of psychotherapy and the promotion of the idea of the unconscious were two incredibly important contributions to modern society.

More specifically, the process of ‘transference‘ is an impressive discovery that has been supported by experimental studies.

It describes the process where we re-experience certain feelings and relationship patterns we developed with important people in the past when we meet new people who share similarities with the original person.

A Science News article from last year reviewed the scientific studies on transference, and a recent study just reported that the effect is more pronounced when people are tired.

Unfortunately, it seems his explanations for his observations stretched from the insipid to the completely bizarre.

While he contributed a great deal to sexual liberation and openness his theories reflect a complete obsession with sex to the point where he was blind to other influences on behaviour.

Furthermore, his view of humans is both cynical (we are solely motivated by the need to satisfy or control selfish drives) and foolishly short-sighted, even by what was obvious at the time.

As Storr notes in the book, Freud was a master of selecting supporting evidence for his ideas, which were usually inspired by only a handful of cases or his own self-analysis, and incredibly poor at testing his ideas by searching for evidence which could disprove them.

In fact, he actively attacked people who challenged his ideas, and typically only allowed revisions or changes that he had thought up himself.

Freud probably suffers most from the fact that he claimed, right to the end of his life, that he was a scientist, and psychoanalysis was a science.

Had he claimed to be a philosopher, we could view him much more kindly, but he refused to be labelled as such, meaning that generations of scientists have delighted in pointing out the elephant in the room.

Storr was a respected psychotherapist in his own lifetime and the book is a wonderfully engaging and astute guide to Freud’s life and ideas. I also notice that the Amazon page for the book has a similarly positive review by a young Matthew Broome, now a psychiatrist and neuroscientist specialising in psychosis.

Link to book details (thanks Ceny!).

3 Comments

  1. Posted April 11, 2008 at 1:02 am | Permalink

    what is fascinating is how everyone and anyone feels free to comment on freud’s work like they studied him for years :D

  2. bowser
    Posted April 11, 2008 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    “It seems that some of the techniques and clinical observations are still remarkably accurate and useful to the modern psychologist”
    [p]Just a technical point here, but these techniques do not comprise a “theory”. They are just that, methods for observation. A method is not a theory.[/p]
    Also, I question that Freud’s ideas were theories, in the scientific sense of the word. A theory make predictions that can be measured, replicated, and verified. Indeed, that is what makes science what it is.
    Psychoanalysts are notorious for explaining away evidence contrary to the ideas of psychoanalysis by appealing to the ideas of psychoanalysis itself… Any scientist who does research and collects empirical data that refutes these “theories” is ‘suffering from a reaction formation’, etc.
    Freud’s ideas cannot be falsified because the objections to them are always dismissed by explaining them away in terms of the ideas themselves… any such body of knowledge that has these properties cannot be called a theory.
    Also, “It describes the process where we re-experience certain feelings and relationship patterns we developed with important people in the past when we meet new people who share similarities with the original person.”
    This doesn’t say that Freud was right about this, not in terms of what he claimed was the basis for this kind of behavior. As you say in your post, it “describes”, it doesn’t explain. I’d bet serious money that such studies explain such behavior by framing it in a context of learning, conditioning, etc. rather than any ‘psychosexual repression’ or other such, again, unrefutable, ideas. The contribution here is a term applied to a behavior, not an explanation or prediction of that behavior.
    Yes, had Freud been a philosopher, he would have been taken more seriously, but not many people in psychology and cognitive science take philosophers seriously these days anyway. Which in its own way, is rather sad.

  3. Hypatia
    Posted May 8, 2008 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Kramer as great (and seemingly similar) intro to Freud, def. worth reading:http://www.amazon.com/Freud-Inventor-Peter-D-Kramer/dp/0060598956


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