The psychoanalytic approach was developed
from the work and theories of Sigmund Freud (1856), who proposed an
account of human mental activity which relied heavily on the notion of an
Towards the end of the nineteenth
century, science had been making huge advances and psychologists believed
that the time was near when a full understanding of human mental life and
behaviour would be reached. This
view was shared by Freud, a young physician working as a neurologist in
However, in the course of treating
psychiatric patients over many years, Freud became convinced that many of
the nervous symptoms displayed by patients could not be explained purely
from a physiological point of view. Nor
could the rational and systematic laws of science be applied to irrational
and self-defeating behaviours such as phobias and conversion hysterias
(physical complaints that have no apparent physiological cause).
It was against this background that Freud developed his now famous
psychoanalytic treatment of neurotic disorders. His therapeutic work led
to the development of a comprehensive theory of personality and child
development which focused largely on the emotional aspects of human
functioning. Thus the term psychoanalysis
can relate both to the treatment and to the theory.
Freud's starting point was a thorough analysis of his own personal
experiences and the development of case studies of his patients.
Below is a summary of some of the most
significant aspects of Freud's theory:
The human personality contains and is
greatly influenced by an unconscious mind harbouring repressed
('forgotten') memories which determine conscious thoughts and behaviour.
A third level of consciousness, the pre-conscious, contains
thoughts which may not be conscious at a given time, but which are
accessible to us.
Human beings are born with a number of
instinctual drives which regulate and motivate behaviour even in
childhood. The source of
these drives is psychic energy and the most powerful, the libido,
is sexual in nature.
Experiences gained in early childhood
have a crucially important influence on emotional and personality
The personality consists of three major
structures: the id, which is biologically determined and represents all the
instinctual drives which are inherited; the ego, which develops in order to help satisfy the id's needs in a
socially acceptable way and the superego,
representing the individual's internal framework (conscience and ego
ideal) of the moral values which exist in the surrounding culture.
Psychoanalysis as a therapy is widely
used in the treatment of neuroses and sometimes in the treatment of
non-neurotic disorders. There
is an assumption by psychoanalysts that it is in the unconscious part of
the personality that conflict occurs.
Therefore the aim of psychoanalysis is to explore the individual's
unconscious mind in order to understand the dynamic of abnormal behaviour.
During treatment the individual is encouraged to re-experience
traumatic events and feelings encountered in childhood, express them in a
safe context and then return them, devoid of anxiety, to the unconscious.
In classical psychoanalysis, therapy
involves transference - the
client's projection and displacement of thoughts and feelings onto the
analyst; free association,
where the client says whatever comes into his/her mind, no matter how
trivial or irrelevant it may seem; and
dream analysis, which involves the analyst, interpreting the content
of the client's dreams.
Though the psychoanalytic process may
sound quite straightforward, it usually difficult and time-consuming.
The psychoanalytic approach attracts both
wide acclaim and vigorous criticism.
Freud's theory has made a monumental contribution to our
understanding of the human personality.
His emphasis on the importance of early childhood for later
personality development and his attempt to account for individual
differences in development have stimulated a great deal of research.
His theory has also offered insights which have greatly influenced
disciplines such as art, English literature and history.
The psychoanalytic methods of treatment are still a significant
force in contemporary psychology and many of Freud's original ideas have
been adopted and in some cases modified by subsequent psychoanalytic
theorists, known as post-Freudians.
However there are many criticisms of the
psychoanalytic approach. Freud's
notion of infantile sexuality in particular outraged Victorian society and
is still controversial today.
Though there is an abundance of research
which claims to offer supporting evidence for psychoanalytic theory,
alternative explanations are often available to account for the findings.
Because many of the processes described by Freud, for example
instinctual drives and defence mechanisms, cannot be directly observed, it
is difficult to test and measure these processes.
Freud's use of the clinical case study method, unsupported by
quantitative data or statistical analyses, renders his theory vague and
difficult to verify. Also his
study of a limited sample makes it difficult to generalise his theory to
all human beings.
Attention has also been drawn to the
problems encountered in trying to assess the effectiveness of
psychoanalysis as a therapy, largely arising from the controversy over
what constitutes a 'cure'.