Attempting to quantify Sigmund Freud’s impact upon psychology is a bit like trying to describe the significance the wheel has had on the motor vehicle — to wit, there is little purpose in discussing one without the other. Along with Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud is considered a father of modern psychology. Long before Freud became a household name inextricably linked with the practice of psychoanalysis as we understand it today, he was simply an Austrian doctor intent on helping others understand the mind as a constantly evolving apparatus, capable of so much more than simply sustaining life. As Freud saw it, the brain was not a fixed object, but rather a labyrinthine structure formed in unequal measure by one’s innate sensibilities and the world in which they lived.
Bucking cultural norms, Freud’s approach to psychological theory, and, in turn, treating his patients, and was decidedly lacking in the prudishness that colored the atmosphere of late-19th century Vienna. While many parents at the time were still raising their young under the assumption that children operated in a similar manner to adults, although with limited faculties, Freud was among the first of his contemporaries to put forth the notion that a child’s mind and an adult’s are different animals entirely, and should be treated, and studied, as such. From this basic, yet somehow novel notion, Freud’s groundbreaking theory of psychosexual development was born, calling into question how the early stages of childhood inform adult practices as the child moves through the oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital phases.
In Freud’s study of how the mind evolved from the highly malleable form it takes in infancy and early childhood to the often neurotic, preoccupied form of consciousness that plagued many of his patients, he often made pronouncements about what methods best fostered child development, something the work-obsessed society of his time was not ready to hear. During a period when children were routinely forced to work as soon as they could lift a shovel, Freud’s ideas about the beneficial aspects of play and, in simplistic terms, the ability to have a “true” childhood unburdened by adult pressures, did not always win the doctor allies. Nor, for many families, were the ideas that little Billy wanted to do away with daddy and live happily ever after with mommy, thanks to his raging Oedipus complex, and that little Suzie’s obsession with obelisks may be an indication of a deeper fixation.
Freud’s lexicon has become such a deeply ingrained part of the fabric of the modern world that it is often hard to discuss matters of the mind without making use of his language. From his drive theory, which lends us the idea of the drive for Eros, or sex, a force Freud posited as a contrasting force to Thanatos, the drive toward death, we get the modern concept of the “sex drive.” From Freud’s structural model of the psyche, we derive the concept of the id and the ego. Without Freud, concepts like the unconscious, regression, and free association, would have no cultural significance. Were it not for Herr Doktor, the Freudian slip might be little more than a Viennese negligee.
The practice of modern psychotherapy has been influenced more by Freud’s early practice of psychoanalysis than by any the work of any psychologist or psychiatrist since. Despite the prevalent assumption that Freud’s method of psychoanalysis was limited to sessions during which the patient disclosed intimate details of his or her life to a silent doctor, scribbling furiously away, Freud is widely credited with helping promote the use of techniques including play therapy and group therapy, in addition to advocating for interaction between patient and therapist during individual sessions.
Freud’s impact on psychology is difficult to quantify because Freud’s theories have permeated the boundaries of his profession and significantly colored culture as a whole for generations since his death. Whether you’re struggling to understand why you’re no longer your child’s favorite parent or watching “Annie Hall,” Freud’s influence is everywhere — in theory, in practice, and even in the words we use to describe parts of our lives we can’t imagine being touched by a long-dead neurologist. As Freud himself described, “The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing.”
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