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Five Interesting Facts About Sigmund Freud That You Probably Didn't Know
His theories about the mind and the mysteries locked within it revolutionized the world. Dr. Sigmund Freud, in his prim suit, black-rimmed eyeglasses and goatee, speaking in a German accent and indicating a nearby couch in his Vienna office will forever conjure up the word psychiatrist in the minds of many. And though he has his detractors, his influence has been felt for a century.
We know all about the ego, the superego, and the id; about cigars sometimes just being cigars; and about the fact that there's really no such thing as a joke. Here are some fun and interesting facts about Sigmund Freud that you probably didn't know.
1. He Didn't Invent Psychiatry (or the Talking Cure or Free Association)
Accounts of people suffering from mental disorders are as old as the Bible, and for centuries society's solution for dealing with them was either to try to exorcise demons from them or to lock them away in an asylum so they wouldn't be a threat to anyone else. Often this meant chaining them or confining them to a dungeon-like room.
Beginning in the Eighteenth Century, however, some people, in keeping with the principles of the Enlightenment, started to view the mentally ill in a more humane way. One of these people was a Frenchman by the name of Philippe Pinel, who argued that even the mentally ill had dignity and that the best way to help them was to probe their mind and see how its inner workings might relate to physiological causes. Toward this end, Pinel introduced a number of reforms to European asylums, such as cutting the patients' chains and putting them into sunlit rooms rather than dungeons. For these efforts, he is regarded by some as the father of modern psychiatry.
This was the world Dr. Freud entered as a young neurologist. In Paris, he studied under Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière, one of the asylums where Pinel had introduced his reforms. Later, Freud worked with a physician named Josef Breuer who was treating a woman named Bertha Pappenheim for a number of ailments. (Pappenheim later became immortalized as the pseudonymous patient Anna O. who appears in Breuer and Freud's Studies in Hysteria, published in 1895.)
It was Pappenheim who coined the phrase "the talking cure" -- her term for Breuer's cathartic method of simply letting her talk about the things that were bothering her, a process which often relieved some of her symptoms.
As for free association, there is some evidence that Freud may have gotten the germ of that idea from an essay by Ludwig Börne entitled "The Art of Becoming an Original Writer in Three Days," which he'd read as a young man. In the essay, Börne suggested that a good way to generate ideas was to concentrate on various topics, and over the next three days write down anything that came to mind. From whatever source, Freud gradually incorporated free association into his own neurological practice when dealing with hysterical patients after finding that some of his earlier techniques -- hypnosis, coercion, and applying pressure to people's foreheads -- weren't always as effective as he first thought. He also had a patient, identified in his writings only as Fräulein Elisabeth, who specifically asked Freud not to guide or interrupt her as she revealed her innermost thoughts as part of what Freud called "Breuer's cathartic method."
2. He Didn't Come Up With the Id, Either
Freud was, of course, a pioneer. And when he started developing his general theory of the mind he was exploring uncharted territory. Others were doing similar work and it was only natural that at times their lives would intersect.
One such person was a physician by the name of Georg Groddeck who practiced in Baden-Baden and in 1917 introduced himself to Freud via letter. Groddeck is generally regarded as being one of the first to discover the effect of mental impulses and thinking processes on the body. Man, Groddeck said, was a creature who not so much lived but rather lived by unknowable mental forces over which he had little control. In some cases, these mental forces played out in the body, giving way to sickness or other physical problems. They could, in other words, be psychosomatic, to use the modern term.
In 1923 Groddeck published a book called The Book of the It (das Es, in German) in which he described these strong, unknowable urges. Freud thought das Es to be a suitable name for the impulses he was learning about also and incorporated the name into his own thinking. When he published his own Das Ich und das Es, he freely credited Groddeck with the discovery. In English the book became Latinized as The Ego and the Id.
3. He Once Treated Gustav Mahler
In the summer of 1910, while vacationing in Holland, Freud got a telegram from the composer Gustav Mahler, who asked if he could see him as soon as possible. Even though the two of them lived relatively near each other in Vienna, they had never met, and even though Freud preferred not to be disturbed while on holiday, he felt he could hardly refuse such a "name" patient. Mahler, too, seemed reluctant at first -- he cancelled on Freud several times -- but they eventually met at a hotel (though some sources say it was a restaurant) in the city of Leiden.
What followed was perhaps the most unusual therapy session that Freud -- or anyone else -- ever experienced. He ended up walking with the composer about the city for about four hours, during which time he asked Mahler questions to which Mahler gave responses. (It's not known precisely what ailment Mahler was experiencing that made him seek Freud's help, but it's generally believed to be impotence.) Fortunately, Freud said later, Mahler seemed to have an acute grasp of psychoanlysis so the two of them were able to use the short time productively. Apparently the intensive therapy worked. Mahler never came back -- although he died the following year.
4. He Knew Eight Languages
Being an Austrian, Sigmund Freud spoke German, of course, and being raised in a Jewish home, he also spoke Hebrew. He learned Latin and Greek through his classical education, but he also picked up French and English and taught himself both Spanish and Italian.
Of all the foreign languages he knew, English seems to have been one of his favorites. According to his biographer and colleague Dr. Ernest Jones, Freud once spent a week reading nothing but English books. Even though he studied in Paris, he seemed much less comfortable with French than he did with other languages. Often while living there he reverted to English or Spanish.
5. He Was Superstitious
There's no doubt that Sigmund Freud was a brilliant man, but even brilliant men have their idiosyncracies. One of Freud's was an obsession with numbers. Some of this may have stemmed from his knowledge of Jewish mysticism, or it could have been from his studying under Wilhelm Fliess, the discoverer of biorhythms, who himself saw almost magical properties in the numbers 23 and 28.
For a long time, when he was younger, Freud was obsessed with the number 51, believing it to be the age at which he would die. Later, after he surpassed that age, he became fond of 62, as he saw it recur throughout his life through dates, phone numbers, hotel room numbers, and so on. In the end, neither one of those numbers was particularly meaningful He died in 1939 at the age of 83.