Freud And The Unconscious Mind

Feature, Modern Era

A Revolution in Our Knowledge of the Human Personality

Three great blows have been delivered in the course of history to Man’s self-esteem, his belief that he was the center of the universe, the darling of the gods, and the master of his fate. The first blow came from Copernicus who showed that the Earth was merely a speck in the Cosmos and revolved around the Sun, the second came from Darwin who proved that Man was not a distinct creation, but was descended from the animals, and the third blow, perhaps the heaviest of all, was struck by Sigmund Freud (1856-1938) who is a series of books published in the early years of this century showed that Man’s self, his Ego, is not master in its own house, but driven and controlled by unconscious instincts of which in everyday life he is not even aware.

This fact is now universally accepted and it represents a revolution in our knowledge of the human personality, for whereas before Freud the thinking mind was held to be supreme, he showed that the reverse was true, and. whereas at one time human behaviour could merely be observed and noted it can now to a great extent be explained. Since Freud we know not only what we do, but approximately why we do it. The consequences have been immense. There is hardly a sphere of modern life which has not been influenced by Freudian thought, sociology, social welfare, politics, the law, the family, education, the treatment of delinquency and mental illness, medicine, the arts, propaganda, advertising, entertainment and even religion. Modern psychiatry and our understanding of the human personality as both deeper and wider than we dreamed derive from Freud and it is he who has shown that its study can be carried out with something like scientific precision.

There is another reason why his work is so important. Human behaviour indeed seems unpredictable, swayed by unknown motives, no more coherent than the meanderings of a beetle, but Freud showed that it is possible to discern laws which govern people’s words, thoughts and feelings and that they do not behave arbitrarily, as it might seem, but in accordance with their own inner dynamics.

In other words, he has taught us that the key of science can be used to unlock the mystery of human beings and there are thus two reasons why he finds his place in this book: firstly because he evolved a new scientific method of studying the human mind and secondly because the application of that method yielded results which compel us to revise our ideas about personality.

Freud’s method was strikingly simple. As a neuropathologist and psychiatrist practising in Vienna in the last two decades of the nineteenth century he had to deal with a great many hysterical patients, that is, people whose ability to lead normal lives was severely impaired by symptoms such as acute anxiety and depression which were not under the control of their will. Ordinary conversation as a means of curing them was useless. There were emotional forces at work in them not accessible to their conscious minds. So Freud evolved the now well-known psycho-analytic technique. The patient lay on a couch, the psychiatrist sat behind him and the patient was asked to express the first thoughts or feelings, however absurd or seemingly irrelevant, that came to his mind on the subject of his troubles.

Freud did not attempt to interpret the material to the patient at this stage, but confined himself to helping him along when he got stuck, or encountered unconscious resistance, as he often did. Gradually the patient’s attention would concentrate more and more on the basic source of his illness and this would happen automatically, just as iron filings are drawn towards a magnet, the magnet in this case being the highly charged emotions which, out of sight in the unconscious mind, had given rise to the symptoms.

Here lay one of Freud’s key discoveries. The unconscious was nothing new to psychologists, its existence had long been assumed, but as a kind of waste-paper basket where memories were cast away and allowed to die as of no further interest. But the unconscious, as Freud discovered through his patients, was not like this. The emotions which it concealed were very much alive and they had great power, obviously, to affect people’s conscious behaviour.

In the course of the analysis, then, which took place by means of ‘Free association” on the part of the patient, aided by the doctor as necessary to maintain the flow, the origins of the hysteria were laid bare and, here was another discovery, it turned out that they always lay far back in real experiences of infancy and childhood. The child was indeed father to the man. There is no space to deal here with the nature of these experiences, but they all referred to the thwarting by parents or others of certain basic infantile drives concerned with the gratification of sensual appetites which Proud labelled generically “sexual”, hence the common saying that to Freud “everything is due to sex.”

Now as the patient fished the memory of these experiences out of his unconscious mind he would become more and more agitated, for the simple reason that infantile experiences are entirely emotional. and it was the emotions, not merely a cold recollection, which he was reviving, of frustration, for instance, coupled with rage, or acute feelings of guilt and rejection. But these emotions were originally attached to people and now, in the consulting-room, they once again became attached, this time to the psychiatrist, So there arose what Freud called a “negative transference” and this was a crucial stage in the treatment. Flattered at first to have the psychiatrist’s undivided attention which he would interpret as a form of love, the patient would start the treatment with pleasurable feelings. Now those feelings would be turned into their exact opposite, hate, suspicion, grievance. Freud himself, in fact, would be seen, not as the helper any more, but as the sole origin of all the patient’s troubles, until slowly the patient would come to feel a sense of release and to realize that these emotions were no longer justified in his present-day life. Then, remarkable fact, the symptoms which had brought the patient to Freud in the first place would tend to disappear.

What did this signify? Since earliest times the mentally sick or people who exhibited bizarre behaviour had been thought to be possessed by devils. Their afflictions, in other words, were deemed to come from the outside, as a punishment perhaps from heaven. But clearly this did not apply to Freud’s patients who at a certain stage in the treatment had recovered spontaneously. It seemed as though their symptoms (which often included physical disabilities) had served a purpose within the framework of the whole personality. What was the purpose? Clearly to keep the emotions at bay which in infancy had been so unpleasant and disturbing that they had been “repressed” (another Freudian term) into the un-conscious mind. Thereafter the symptoms had served as a kind of cork in the bottle, keeping the emotions repressed because they represented a threat to the personality.

Now all this had taken place unconsciously which showed that the unconscious possesses a dynamism of its own and behaves as it feels it must without reference to the thinking mind. This fact was induced, admittedly, from material provided by the mentally sick, but they had become sick for the very reason that they had been denied the normal development of their sexual drives and their experiences threw light not only on the operations of the unconscious in hysteria, but also on the nature of the drives themselves.

So from the experiences of neurotics Freud was able to build a comprehensive theory about the human personality. He said, in effect, that we are lived by our unconscious and its instinctual drives in the sense that they determine all human activities, including those of the adult. These drives are sexual in nature and obtain their energy from a fundamental source which he called the Libido. But we must remember that to Freud sex was not merely adult sexuality, the sense in which we usually understand it, but an instinct which seeks “pleasure from zones of the body”. Thus in infancy the child obtains gratification through the mouth and that is called the oral phase. This is followed by an anal phase when the child finds pleasure in the movement of its bowels and then interest is transferred to the genital organs. All this happens before the age of five.

A lull in childhood sexuality then occurs which lasts until puberty. But during this lull a new and perplexing set of emotions arises in boys and girls. In an almost literal sense the boy wants to possess his mother and develops acute jealousy of his father. The jealousy is combined, however, with a dawning admiration and a desire to emulate the father’s strength. So develops what Freud called the Oedipus Complex, from the Greek legend in which Oedipus murdered his father and married his mother. In the girl the corresponding development in which she forms a strong attachment to her father, becomes jealous of her mother and seeks to replace her is called the Electra Complex.

Both these complexes are sustained by powerful feelings of guilt, aggression, love and hate and being so highly charged they are eventually repressed in their entirety until at puberty all the previous phases, with their accompanying emotions, are temporarily revived in that period of turmoil when adult sexuality slowly develops and the boy or girl acquires emotional attachments to members of the opposite sex. It is at this time also that sexuality becomes partly sublimated so that the individual pursues interests and activities which have nothing directly to do with sex. But whether he develops creative talents in the artistic sphere, or becomes an engineer, an accountant or a market-gardener, the energy which supplies his drive in all these occupations is basically sexual according to Freud’s definition of the word.

This bare outline of Freud’s theory cannot do more than indicate its revolutionary nature, but it is enough to show why he is called the father of modern dynamic psychology which replaced the old static and mechanistic view that man’s reason was the controlling factor in his life and his conduct a more or less enlightened compromise between his selfish interests and the demands of society. We can see now that these interests are in themselves impossible to define except in vague terms of personal fulfilment and that in personal decisions it is instinct and not reason which decides our choice. We are like characters trying to control a team of fractious horses and the horses are not even pulling us in the same direction. This was another fact which Freud discovered, the dualistic nature of human instincts. The infant, for example, alternately feels love and hostility towards its mother depending on whether its needs are satisfied at once or satisfaction is postponed. Love and hate are, in fact, different aspects of the same coin and both are present in the child’s mind at different stages towards both its parents. Other pairs of opposites also exist concurrently: aggression and submissiveness, a life instinct which prompts us to build and to love and a death instinct which urges us to destroy. These, at any rate, were postulates of Freud and however the conflicting urges are defined introspection convinces us that we are all ambivalent creatures with a sort of inner pendulum which swings continually to and fro.

So, to sum up thus far, Freud discovered that the driving force in human beings comes from the unconscious mind which is full of conflicting and dynamic emotions of a biological and morally neutral character. These emotions are not normally open to our inspection and there is, indeed, a mechanism called the Censor which prevents them from reaching consciousness. But they are all-powerful and derive from the stages of infantile sexuality. Despite regression they cannot be destroyed and if they develop in a healthy fashion they combine into an effective force, enabling the individual to obtain fulfilment and satisfaction from life. Otherwise, in adverse circumstances, they can wreck him with a more or less severe neurosis.

But all this refers to the individual in isolation, apart from the social influences, the accepted conventions of morality and behaviour which also affect him. Our parents, however, are not merely mothers and fathers, but members of the community and from their parents they have inherited standards which they try and pass on to us. So, according to Freud, the Ego which comprises our conscious selves is not only driven by the unconscious mind, but moulded by the standards of society, the code of rights and wrongs, dos and don’ts which our parents are the first to teach us by their example and direct admonishment.

From the nursery upwards the whole weight of civilization, which is an artificial product based on an attempt to harness individual lives to the general welfare, is brought to bear on us so that we learn at an early age that we were not born simply to satisfy our own desires, but must integrate them acceptably in a shadowy realm consisting of other people.

This is a severe strain and for some people it continues throughout their lives, but the compulsion to conform is very strong and in Freud’s view there is a mechanism in the mind, half conscious and half unconscious, which absorbs the taboos of society and sets up a kind of independent conscience in each one of us, so that in later life we apply the rules we learnt from our parents as though we ourselves had invented them. This mechanism he called the Super-Ego or Ego-Ideal because it holds up to us a picture of the social individual we feel we ought, or even we would like to be.

Except in naturally timid conformists the Super-Ego is always somewhat of an intruder and in neurotic people it can become tyrannical to such a degree that all their energies are consumed in a war with themselves. This then was Freud’s new psycho-analytic approach to the human personality and the insights he achieved by means of it, which were also new. He gave us a key and showed us at least something of what lies behind the unlocked door. The figure of man which we glimpse appears extremely vulnerable in his mental equilibrium, highly susceptible to the conflicting forces which lie inside himself and to the demands of civilized community life. He can be moulded and actually helps to mould himself, but the instinctual drives can never be destroyed, and if, from the cradle onwards, his environment is hostile to their natural development and sublimation in adult life he will be a misfit, at odds with himself and society.

But there are many aspects of our present-day environment which are stunting in this way: the monotony of so many jobs, the uniformity of life, mass civilization which makes the individual feel insignificant, the aftermath of war, brutal ideologies which treat human beings as pawns in an economic game.

How can Freud help us here? Only perhaps in the negative way that he has taught us what to avoid in our organization of life, in child management, in education and in government. But we do know, or at least his theory implies, that there is only one worthwhile goal for any human being and that is to become strong and independent in his mental as well as in his physical life. In some degree, of course, he must always conform to society and fulfil its demands, but beyond that there is no recipe for fulfilment or usefulness to others except to know ourselves and be ourselves, all else is treason to the talents we were born with and to the human race. This brings us to a final point. Freud was a path-finder, but his theories by no means represent the ultimate in knowledge of the human mind. Many psychiatrists reject his psycho-analytic technique, though still admitting its value as a key to understanding. Other drives” have been detected in the unconscious besides sexual ones, even in Freud’s broad meaning of the term.

Certainly to a layman his theories seem too mechanistic and restricted to compass the mystery that lies in us all. We should not forget, either, that the unconscious which seems to be the villain in his piece because it is the source of neurotic conflicts is also the sole source of all inspiration, of Shakespeare’s plays, of Mozart’s music, of man’s links with the Eternal. No further insights to guide humanity in its path can come except from those deep-hidden sources.

So, turning to the dynamic unconscious which Freud was the first to explore, cultivating it and respecting it, we may hope that, as with Freud’s own patients, our anxieties and fears so powerfully generated by modern life may emerge interwoven, as it were, with the creative forces which will help us cope with the problems of the world. One might say that the follies and disasters of this century have sprung from a revolt of the unconscious against the artificial conventions of the previous age. May it not be that the same revolt will throw up new inspiration which will save us from ourselves?

The complete works of Sigmund Freud have been published by the Hogarth Press of which the following are among the most important:

  • Studies in Hysteria, 1895
  • The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900
  • The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, 1904
  • Three Contributions to the Theory of Sexuality, 1905
  • Totem and Taboo, 1913
  • Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1922
  • The Ego and the Id, 1927
  • The Future of an Illusion, 1928
  • Civilization and its Discontents, 1930
  • Civilization, War and Death, 1939