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Why Freud Still Matters, When He Was Wrong About Almost Everything

30.10.2014 00:59

Why Freud Still Matters, When He Was Wrong About


Almost Everything

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Hes been dead for nearly 70 years, but Sigmund Freuds provocative theories are still
a huge part of psychology, neuroscience, and culture this despite the fact that many
of his ideas were mindboggingly, catastrophically wrong. Heres why Freud just wont
go away.
Love him or hate him, theres no denying that Sigmund Freud was a giant in his field.
When it comes to his influence on psychology, psychoanalysis, and our theories of
mind, hes often credited for kindling a revolution; with Freud, its kind of a beforeand-after thing.
Freuds Century
Indeed, the 20th century has often been called Freuds century. His books landed
with the subtlety of hand grenades, featuring such seminal titles as The Interpretation
of Dreams (1900), The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), and his Introductory
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Why Freud Still Matters, When He Was Wrong About Almost Everything

30.10.2014 00:59

Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1915-1916).

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Freuds legacy has transcended science, with his ideas permeating deep into Western
culture. Rarely does a day go by where we dont find ourselves uttering a term drawn
from his work: Mommy and daddy issues. Arrested development. Death wishes.
Freudian slips. Phallic symbols. Anal retentiveness. Defense mechanisms. Cathartic
release. And on and on and on.

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Why Freud Still Matters, When He Was Wrong About Almost Everything

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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.
An Outdated Paradigm
But his legacy is a shaky one. Freud has, for the most part, fallen completely out of
favor in academia. Virtually no institution in any discipline would dare use him as a
credible source. In 1996, Psychological Science reached the conclusion that [T]here
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, its
pretty much dead.
Many of Freuds methodologies, techniques, and conclusions have been put into
question. Moreover, his theories have even proved damaging and even dangerous
to certain segments of the population. His perspectives on female sexuality and
homosexuality are reviled, causing many feminists to refer to him by a different kind
of F word. Some even argue that his name should be spelled Fraud and not Freud.
Freud is truly in a class of his own, writes Todd Dufresne, an outspoken critic.
Arguably no other notable figure in history was so fantastically wrong about nearly
every important thing he had to say. But, luckily for him, academics have been and
still are infinitely creative in their efforts to whitewash his errors, even as lay
readers grow increasingly dumbfounded by the entire mess.
Without a doubt, many of these criticisms and valid and totally justified. But a
renewed look at his legacy shows that Freuds contribution is far from over both in
terms of his influence on culture and science.
Yes, even for a guy who died in 1939, his work is incredibly out of date. Weve learned
much about the human brain and the way our psychologies work since that time
but he got the ball rolling. Much of todays work is still predicated on many of his
original insights. Some areas of inquiry have been refined and expanded, while others

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Why Freud Still Matters, When He Was Wrong About Almost Everything

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abandoned and dismissed altogether in favor of new theories. This is good. This is
how science advances.
Before we take a look at where Freud was right, lets consider where he went wrong.
Freudian Fallacies
The primary trouble with Freud is that, while his ideas appear intriguing and even
common sensical, theres very little empirical evidence to back them up. Modern
psychology has produced very little to substantiate many of his claims.
For instance, theres no scientific evidence in support of the idea that boys lust after
their mothers and hate their fathers. He was totally, utterly wrong about gender. And
his notion of penis envy is now both laughable and tragic.
Theres no proof of the id, ego, or superego. Theres also no evidence to support the
notion that human development proceeds through oral, anal, phallic, and genital
stages. Nor that the interference, or arresting, of these stages leads to specific
developmental manifestations.
For example, he theorized that homosexuality was a failure to reconcile the anal
phase, or the Oedipal phase. Which is nonsense. He also argued that only mature
women could orgasm from vaginal sex, and that women who could only climax via
clitoral stimulation were somehow stunted, stuck at a latent phase. Again, nonsense.
Indeed, as feminist Lili Hsieh points out, he had some very strange ideas about
gender and sexuality:
Much of the critique of psychoanalysis as phallocentric or heterosexist is tied
to the unfortunate conflation of femininity and sexuality; therefore, it is
important to review the slippage in Freud's theory between femininity as the
repertoire of sexed life and that as the logical complementarity to the
universal sexuality. Freud's view of femininity leans predominantly toward
the latter, as he decides in his early theorization that there is only one kind of
libido, i.e., the masculine one. By masculinity of the libido, Freud means
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Why Freud Still Matters, When He Was Wrong About Almost Everything

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mainly activity, hence he equates femininity with passivity.


Although boys are caught in the constant threat of castration, girls on the
other hand are in this sense already castrated, and thus are faced with an
irreparable damage they feel seriously wronged and fall victim to
envy for the penis...Freud suggests that for women there are two possible
ways out of penis envy besides the more strenuous ways such as neurosis
or masculinity complex one of them is a capacity to carry on an
intellectual profession...the other is having a baby. Both are thus substitutes
for the penis.
Theres also no evidence that Freudian psychotherapy (including psychoanalysis and
free association) is any better than others, including Skinnerian behavioral therapy
(which is diametrically opposed to Freudianism in terms of methodology), systematic
desensitization, or assertiveness training.
The Unconscious Mind
Okay, sure, Freuds got some problems. But he also nailed a few things.
For example, Freud was startlingly correct in his assertion that we are not masters of
our own mind. He showed that human experience, thought, and deeds are
determined not by our conscious rationality, but by irrational forces outside our
conscious awareness and control forces that could be understood and controlled by
an extensive therapeutic process he called psychoanalysis.
Freud didnt discover the unconscious mind, of course. That distinction goes to
French psychiatrist Pierre Janet. Freud was also influenced by his professor Jean
Martin Charcot, a famed neurologist who dabbled in hypnosis. But it was Freud who
took the concept to the next level by breaking it down even further and by applying
it to psychotherapy and free associating, where patients would openly talk about
their feelings and experiences regardless of how irrelevant, absurd, or upsetting it
sounded.
Today, very few would argue against the idea of the unconscious mind. Freuds claim
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Why Freud Still Matters, When He Was Wrong About Almost Everything

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for the central role of the unconscious mind in human actions was recently explored
by experimental psychologists in a collection of essays called Frontiers of
Consciousness.
For sure, we now know that the unconscious brain doesnt exist or function in the way
that Freud suggested but we know it does in fact exist. The brain performs a myriad
number of tasks in the background, particularly in managing our autonomous bodily
processes, the way it affects our conscious, cognitive functioning, and how we
interpret our surroundings.
He says human beings can keep no secrets, says Michael Roth, an expert on Freud.
They reveal their innermost selves with their clothes, with their twitches, with their
unconscious mannerisms; that whatever we do, we're expressing things about
ourselves, for people who have eyes to see and ears to hear. And I think that this is
really the fundamental orientation of Freud.
The Mind Consists of Parts
Another astounding revelation offered by Freud is the idea that the brain can be
compartmentalized. Brain function, both in terms of its biology and the emergent
mind, can be broken down into individual parts. His take on this, of course, was
incredibly primitive. Freud spoke of the ego, id, and superego ideas we dont really
accept any more.
But his larger idea has gone to influence such thinkers as the cognitive scientist
Marvin Minsky, who talks about the society of mind, and philosopher of mind Daniel
Dennett, who argues on behalf of the idea that there are multiple models of
consciousness working in parallel.
Memories, Defense Mechanisms, and Dreams
Freuds take on memories continues to be interesting particularly suppressed
memories. We now know that memories are selective, and that theyre constantly
being rewritten each time theyre recalled. People retain memories of events not as
they happened, but rather in the way they are active when memories are being
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Why Freud Still Matters, When He Was Wrong About Almost Everything

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reformed.
And 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.
Whats more, as regards Oedipal and Electra issues, few would deny that theres at
least some modicum of truth to the idea that many of us carry so-called mommy and
daddy issues. Human psychology is a very complex and fuzzy thing, and its not
always easy for science to definitively prove or compartmentalize something that just
feels right.
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 its obvious Freud was onto something. To deny this would be hallucinatory,
ludicrous and completely unfair to his legacy.
Context Matters
Its also important to keep some of his ideas in context.
Take his views on homosexuality, for example. Though many critics are loathe to
admit it, he was actually very progressive for his time. Unlike most of his peers, Freud
believed that homosexuality resulted from arrested development but he refused to
characterize it as an illness, and did not believe that it should be criminalized.
In a letter written to an American mother who asked him for advice about her sons
homosexuality, Freud wrote:
Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of,
no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to
be a variation of the sexual function produced by a certain arrest of sexual
development. Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern
times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest among them (Plato,
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Why Freud Still Matters, When He Was Wrong About Almost Everything

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Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.). It is a great injustice to persecute


homosexuality as a crime, and cruelty too.
Tell Me About Your Mother
As for Freudian psychotherapy, it lives on but barely. These days, only 1 in about
20,000 Americans still use it. But thats not to imply it doesnt work, or that its not
valued by those who depend on it. Elyn Saks, a law professor who suffers from
schizophrenia, says that without it, her mental health would be seriously
compromised.
Its also important to remember that we live in the age of Prozac; its much easier to
send a patient home with a bottle of pills than to talk things out.

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Image: Ambrophoto/Shutterstock.
Its also important to remember that psychoanalysis is not about making patients
normal, or even about curing them. Rather its about revealing deeper insights into a
persons psyche. Then, armed with that information, they can make desired changes.
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Why Freud Still Matters, When He Was Wrong About Almost Everything

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Its as the old adage says, Know thyself.


Psychologist Drew Westen describes his experience with psychotherapy:
People do sometimes describe feelings or behaviors in therapy that conform
remarkably to aspects of Freud's psychosexual theories (such as a patient of
mine with erectile problems whose associations to a sexual encounter led to
an image of having sex with his mother, followed by some unpleasant anal
imagery). Nevertheless, psychotherapists who rely on theories derived from
Freud do not typically spend their time lying in wait for phallic symbols.
They pay attention to sexuality, because it is an important part of human life
and intimate relationships and one that is often filled with conflict.
In summation, Westen says there are five broad areas in which the work of Sigmund
Freud remains relevant to psychology: the existence of unconscious mental processes,
the importance of conflict and ambivalence in behavior, the childhood origins of adult
personality, mental representations as a mediator of social behavior, and stages of
psychological development.
[Sources not cited: Is Freud Still Alive? No, Not Really,John Kihlstrom; The
Scientific Legacy of Sigmund Freud, Drew Westen; Psychoanalysis Is Dead ... So
How Does That Make You Feel?, Todd Dufresne; Freud: He Wasnt All Wrong,
Robert Matthews; Finding Out, Meem et al.]

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