The Life and Theories of Sigmund Freud

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The Life and Theories of Sigmund Freud


Sigmund Freud, and his psychoanalytic theory of mental illness, was clearly one of the most significant figures of the 20th century. He changed the way people look at themselves and at each other, as well as the way that medical science looks at mental illness.

Formation of the Man

Sigmund Freud was born on May 6, 1856 in Freiburg, Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic). His father, Jacob, was a Jewish wool merchant, who married Amalie Nathanson as his second wife. Jacob already had two grown sons and a grandchild when he married Amalie, with whom he had eight more children, Sigmund being the oldest.

In 1860, Jacob Freud and his family permanently relocated to Vienna, then the seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1873, Sigmund Freud began his medical studies at the University of Vienna, finishing in 1881, three years longer than normal. His interests in medical school were histology (the study of organic tissues) and neurophysiology (the study of the nervous system). He actually wanted to be a scientist, not a doctor. However, two of his teachers, one the founder of Mechanism and the other, Hermann Helmholtz, its leading practitioner, told Freud that because he was Jewish, he would have difficulty succeeding as a scientist and suggested he become a doctor instead. Mechanism was a theory that suggested life should be investigated using the experimental methods of chemistry and physics.

Freud did some important pioneering work in the study of nerve cells. In 1882 he met and fell in love with Martha Bernays, who he later married. From 1882-1885 Freud went through a training period in clinical medicine at the Vienna General Hospital, after which he began a private medical practice. During the period of 1884-1887 he studied the effects of cocaine, believing it to be healthy to use as well as a cure for morphine addiction, with his first subjects being himself and his wife. He later used cocaine as a local anesthetic when operating on his father's eye. However, his reputation was almost ruined in 1886 when studies showed that cocaine was addictive and as dangerous as the opiate addiction he was trying to cure.

In 1885 Freud was awarded a 19 week study period in Paris with Jean Martin Charcot, a world famous neurologist and Director of the Salpêtriere Asylum. Charcot had proposed some radical ideas about the origins of hysteria, which many believed was only suffered by women. Charcot was a mechanist who believed hysteria was a neurosis which was suffered by both women and men. He felt that hysteria was a purely physical condition, and refused to allow Freud to ask questions about a possible psychological component.

On His Own

In April 1886 Freud began is own private practice in Vienna. Using his work with Charcot as a basis, Freud and his fellow psychologist and friend, Josef Breuer, continued the study of hysteria, proposing several key ideas: 1) hysterics suffer painful memories of a traumatic experience; 2) the pain does not dissipate because the traumatic memories remain in the unconscious and what is not remembered cannot be dealt with; 3) the negative energy from the experience is blocked, repressed, and converted into the physical symptoms of hysteria (paralysis, catatonia, etc.). Freud proposed that if the repressed feelings and memories of the traumatic experience could be remembered and released, the physical effects of the hysteria would disappear.

The Wheels Start Moving

By 1896 Freud had proposed his Seduction Theory, in which he said that: 1) most repressed memories led back to a seduction or molestation by a parent or other adult; 2) that the negative experience became a pathogenic (disease creating) idea which worked in a delayed way to cause hysterical symptoms after the onset of puberty. In 1896 Freud also coined the word "psychoanalysis" and developed his "pressure technique", in which he would have the patient lie...
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