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Sigmund Freud: Theories of the Unconscious Mind

Updated on May 23, 2015
Sigmund Freud Theories
Sigmund Freud Theories | Source

Sigmund Freud and the creation of his theories

In the beginning of the 20th century, a significant expansion of the scientific conception of human took place. Through Freud’s psychoanalysis and through the slightly deviant theories of Adler and Jung, a view upon the depths of the human was opened. The rationalistic characteristics of human which European civilization had perhaps finally consolidated were suddenly subject to massive threat.
In some sense, there was nothing new about Freud’s discoveries. Nietzsche had mentioned the “wild dogs in the cellar”, Kierkegaard had revealed the “demonic” opportunities of human, and a great number of poets had caught a glimpse of the unknown irrational forces in the depths of our soul. But these forces became subject to scientific, methodical exploration, and it was done by a psychiatrist whose original and genius brilliance positioned him above most others.

The starting point for Freud was the clinical treatment of neuroses. He discovered, that the neurotic was forced into neurotic behavior due to experiences he could no longer memorize, but which still somehow affected the patient. Through several therapeutic methods, the so-called psychoanalysis, it was possible to track down the experiences; and if one succeeded in completely revealing them to the patient, it almost always resulted in recovery, if not cure, of the patient.
Therefore it had to be the fundamental, but forgotten experience, which was the cause of the neurosis.

In order to explain how experiences could be forgotten and yet maintain a potentially harmful effect on the patient, Freud proposed a number of theories regarding the human psyche. They are very accurately prepared and were continuously revised under his new impressions, but the pattern remained the very same: His fundamental thought was, that the deepest driving force in human was the need of satisfaction, which he called libido; this was primarily the sexual drive – but one must maintain that his definition of sexuality was very wide and diverse.

An Illustration Explaining the Id, Ego and Superego
An Illustration Explaining the Id, Ego and Superego

Id, ego and superego

The individual who is being brought up quickly discovers that not all types of satisfactory needs are being fulfilled. It collides with the environmental factors and it is forced to repress certain needs. Because of this, an instance called the ego attempts to cause order and balance amongst the drives and the surroundings.
Now, the requirements and rules of the surroundings, which initially are external, suddenly become imprinted in the mind, and another layer, the superego – a judgmental and censorious instance, which is conceived both as the ego itself and something unfamiliar, a conscience which cannot simply be negotiated with, or – in religious language – The voice of God Within. It is the interaction between these three layers: the impersonal it or "id", the conscious ego and the censorious super-ego which constitute the inner drama of the human.

Seen from another perspective this means that human is only aware of a very small part of its own psyche. Just like one tenth of the iceberg is above the surface of the ocean, only a fraction of the psyche reaches into the area of consciousness. Underneath it is the preconscious – that which can possibly be brought to the conscience. On top of it is the layer of unconscious forces, which human does not know anything about, but which in reality are the center of the driving impulses.

The experience that creates the neurosis, trauma, is a collision so powerful between the individual and its surroundings, that the individual must repress it in order to save itself. The impulse is stored in the unconscious layer, and it is forgotten – but it is not gone. It would continue its life and search for a way out; it was quite impossible for it to express itself directly, but it sometimes disguised itself, symbolically, through actions which were rationally meaningless, but nonetheless necessary for the neurotic.

The typical neurotic is a person, who in certain situations feel inevitably forced to perform certain and completely nonsensical actions, or is assaulted by a crippling anxiety, when he must perform something rationally innocent: walk through a door, cross an open space etc. Freud’s discovery was that the irrational action was in fact a symbolic expression for something totally different than itself.
If the patient could be brought to the realization of the causes, the problem could be solved, the knot could be untied.

Carl Jung (1912)
Carl Jung (1912) | Source

A small knowledge of our mind

Now, the crucial thing is, that everything Sigmund Freud discovered did not only concern neurotics, but in fact all people. Through this realization, we gained a frightening insight in how little we know about ourselves in reality. The clear motives and rational considerations have only a tragically small influence on our actions. The driving forces are buried deep down, and they play their game without us being aware. The logically functioning sense is a fragile tool and a powerless protection compared to the forces we do not want know of, but which we cannot remove.

It must be recognized, that Sigmund Freud’s theories of libido being the strongest drive in human, was not left uncontradicted. Freud himself proposed another parallel drive: the death drive or the destructive drive. Adler used the will to power (see link at bottom of page), the need to gain power and control of others, and the neurotic counterpart the inferiority complex.

The unconscious might contain more than just the experiences of the invididual. Jung uses the term collective unconscious. By this he means the experiences that humanity has collected in general, and which now somehow should continue their life as an unconscious foundation in the mind, and performs their influence on the development of the invidiual. These experiences have supposedly collected themselves into certain patterns called the archetypes, which could express themselves in many ways. One can think of certain geometrical shapes, which have been determining for the plans by which cities have been built, but at the same time correspond to the drawings mystics have been using. Or one could think of the conceptions of dragons, snakes, evil spirits, fairies etc who still appear in dreams and are present in fairytales and myths from all cultures. The theories have proven to be fruitful concerning the exploration of all these phenomena; often it has been possible through profound and thorough analyses to determine the hidden conceptions which symbolically hide themselves behind them.

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