Sigmund Freud, 80 years after his death, is still, arguably, the most well-known name in psychoanalysis in the world. Considered the father of modern psychology, his theories and ideas on the connections that exist between the conscious mind, the subconscious mind, the body, and the world around us are still as widely known as they were when he first espoused them at the turn of the 20th century. However, as we have had, now, a century-plus of building off of Freud’s theories, how relevant are his ideas with what we now understand about both the human mind and the way in which we can (and maybe should) go about treating the illnesses contained within it? Are the foundations of psychoanalysis that Freud established still the foundations that modern psychotherapy should be built off of, or do his ideas lack the nuance that modern mental health care and analysis demand? Or, simply put—how often are cigars truly just cigars?
Freud Is an Outdated Fossil
It’s important to remember that psychoanalysis is about revealing deeper insights into a person’s psyche, and this is vastly different from how we view the modern methodology and usage of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Especially for those working in the field and engaged in the process itself, the idea of basic id/ego/superego breakdown and dream analysis are deeply simplistic techniques and ideas that will do little in the way of addressing the issues that modern mental health care exists to address.
Many of Freud’s methods, techniques, and conclusions have been put into question, even to the point where some of his theories have even become viewed as damaging—and even dangerous—to certain segments of the population, such as his views on homosexuality and women.
The trouble with Freud is that, while his ideas appear intriguing and even appeal to our common sense, there’s very little scientific evidence to back them up. Modern psychology has produced very little to support many of his claims in the decades since their initial presentation. For instance, there’s no scientific evidence in support of the idea that boys lust after their mothers and hate their fathers. Also, there’s no proof of the id, ego, or superego, and their respective aspects of control over the human psyche, much as we still like to use those terminologies today. Freud was totally, utterly wrong about the differentiation of psychology of gender. And his notion of “penis envy” is now both laughable and tragic.
And this is just a small sampling of his theories and ideas that have been debunked in the decades since their presentation.
Freud is Still Relevant, But Only as a Reference Point
Freud’s legacy has transcended science, with his ideas permeating deep into Western culture. As psychologist and Freud critic John Kihlstrom himself admits, “More than Einstein or Watson and Crick, more than Hitler or Lenin, Roosevelt or Kennedy, more than Picasso, Eliot, or Stravinsky, more than the Beatles or Bob Dylan, Freud's influence on modern culture has been profound and long-lasting.”
But, Freud has, for the most part, fallen completely out of favor in academics. Simply put, no one taking psychology seriously would use him as a credible source. In 1996, Psychological Science reached the conclusion that, “There is literally nothing to be said, scientifically or therapeutically, to the advantage of the entire Freudian system or any of its component dogmas." As a research paradigm, it’s pretty much dead.
But wait, how does that mean he’s still relevant? Well…
Freud was absolutely correct in his assertion that we are not masters of our own mind. He showed that human experience, thought, and deeds are not exclusively driven by our conscious mind, but by forces outside our conscious awareness and control—ones that we could eventually understand through the therapeutic process he called, “psychoanalysis.” Today, very few would argue against the idea of the unconscious mind, and Freud’s claim for the central role of the unconscious mind in human actions is as relevant to psychology today as it was then (see the following collection of essays called Frontiers of Consciousness).
Freud also argued for the idea that the brain can be compartmentalized, that brain function can be broken down into individual parts. His take on this, of course, was incredibly primitive, as Freud mostly spoke of the ego, id, and superego—ideas we don’t really accept any more, as mentioned above. But, his larger thesis of psychic compartmentalization has gone to influence such thinkers as the cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky, who talks about the society of mind.
As well, Freud's take on defense mechanisms still holds relevance. Few people, including psychologists, would deny that we all too regularly employ such defenses as denial, repression, projection, intellectualization, and rationalization. The same can be said for his ideas on transference and catharsis. And though we no longer subscribe to Freudian dream interpretation, some of our dreams are so blatantly driven by our conscious and subconscious desires and fears that it’s obvious Freud was onto something with that idea, too.
Ultimately, Freud’s modern contributions apply more to attitudes than any actual therapeutic methods, though this is not a bad thing. He established foundations that modern mental health care are built off of, and the modern attitude of those engaging in the mental health care process certainly seem to stem from his main thesis statement as to what patients should be getting out of therapy, which, simply put, is, “Know thyself.”
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