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How Freud & Psychoanalysis Are Still Relevant

Sigmund Freud and the tradition of psychology he pioneered, psychoanalysis, are the bete noire of the social sciences — one of the most polarizing academic traditions to emerge in modern times. Detractors may go as far as stating there is nothing academic about it.


Yet, psychoanalysis as a whole, and Freud as a figure, still loom large. Not only in academia but also in culture. Concepts like “mommy issues”, “daddy issues”, and Freudian slips; the notion that everything ultimately boils down to sex, and even the popular notion of what therapists do – sit you down on a couch and get you reminiscing about your childhood, are all, in some respect, Freud’s gift to culture.


How Freud & Psychoanalysis Are Still Relevant.    Freud with laser eyes, showing his overpowered and outsized influence in modern psychology and pop culture; despite being called unscientific, he touched on some undeniably universal themes and traits of the human condition

Why, despite various “scientists” and skeptics braying into the moonlight the term pseudoscience, does psychoanalysis have such a stranglehold in culture? Popular culture is one thing, but psychoanalysis also is widely popular in literature, cultural studies, gender theory, critical theory, and even in some corners of those academic disciplines valuing themselves as being more “scientific”, like political science, sociology, and of course, psychology.


How?


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In a nutshell, psychoanalysis is the study of the unconscious and all the ways it interacts and affects the conscious, and affects our behaviours. Freud achieved fame and notoriety when he published his work The Interpretations of Dreams in 1899. It introduced many concepts that he would later go on to refine and elaborate upon in works like Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), and The Ego and the Id (1923), among others.


Naturally, his theories and views evolved with time. However, now a century since the publication of The Ego and the Id, the hallmarks and the précis of his thought go as follows. This is a rough sketch:



Dreams are the way for one’s unconscious mind to express one’s desires and anxieties; they are, in fact, always somehow related to the real-life predicaments the person is going through. People are essentially motivated by two drives, sex (libido) and aggression; also called the pleasure principle and the death drive respectively. Freud conceived the mind itself as a tripartite model, with the Superego being the morality and values one has; the Ego being the rational part of our minds (the part that navigates life, one’s own thoughts and feelings; kind of like the CEO of the mind); and like the submerged body of the iceberg, the Id is the irrational unconscious, juvenile and chaotic, the receptacle of all our deepest darkest desires.


Of course, Freud’s biggest notoriety came with his theory of the Oedipal Complex. One that still makes many squeamish to this day. He conjectured that in the psychosexual development of boys during pre-puberty they are sexually attracted to their mothers and feel antagonistic towards their fathers. Later, Carl Jung would conceptualize the Electra Complex as the corresponding condition for the psychosexual development of pre-pubescent girls – feeling sexually attracted to their fathers and antagonistic to their mothers. In fact, psychoanalysis was one of the first traditions that emphasized childhood experiences as a source for adult behaviours and pathologies.


Despite the controversial and disconcerting effects of such theories, they have all been run through the ground in pop culture. Novels, cinema, art, and even everyday language now reference these ideas.


Psychoanalysis continued to have a legacy larger than its founding father. Although he later broke away from the tradition and had a bitter feud with Freud, Carl Jung is also known to have theorised about the human mind having both a feminine and a masculine side, the anima and the animus respectively; he also went deep into storytelling and mythology, notably studying recurring character archetypes across cultures, like the wise old man or the trickster archetypes and what they tell us about the collective unconsciousness and psyche of a people. Jacques Lacan, another psychoanalytic heavyweight, employed ideas from linguistics and anthropology to psychoanalytic concepts; concepts like how people form the conception of their own egos or their notion of “I”, concepts like phallic symbolism, the relationship between drive and desire, were some of Lacan’s major contributions to the tradition.


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All this may sound very enticing and exciting, but it doesn’t sound very scientific. Or scientific as the “professionals” would like you to believe. The social sciences in general, and psychology in this particular case, sought to become more rigorously scientific around the mid-20th century.


The scientific method, the way it was grafted onto the social sciences, demanded volumes of empirical evidence, and falsifiable hypothesis testing. Controlled experiments wherever it was viable, ethical, or just possible like Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment of obedience, or Philip Zimbardo’s infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. Whatever the case, schools like behaviouralism and cognitive psychology gained eminence mid-century, due to their adherence to empirical testing.


The philosopher Karl Popper made his bones by putting forward the concept that the scientific method entailed using only those theories that could be empirically tested and were falsifiable. He found Freud’s theories to be formulated in a perfect way to prove his point; they were unfalsifiable and impossible to experiment with.



The psychoanalysts, on the other hand, remained focused on case studies, using interpretive methods like free association, transference analysis, and dream analysis. Furthermore, psychoanalysts remained aloof to calls of trying to make their theories more “scientific”. The gulf between them and the rest of the scientific community continued to grow.


By the last decade of the 20th century, the school of thought that had taken the world by storm was embroiled in another storm. Frederick Crews’ The Memory Wars: Freud's Legacy in Dispute published in 1995 anthologized a series of essays and letters aiming to discredit the Freudian school of thought as pseudoscientific. John Forrester’s book Dispatches from the Freud Wars: Psychoanalysis and its Passions published in 1997 took a more holistic and nuanced perspective; one that examines how and why the legacy of Freud and psychoanalysis continues to endure, despite being indifferent and at times antagonistic to the “scientific method”.


Discussing its enduring legacy, as written in the introduction of the book, Forrester states:

"We have to take seriously…that debates about psychoanalysis…not be couched in the form: is it an art or a science? But rather: what changes…are required by recognizing that [it] is both an art and a science? Not just…old-fashioned sense of art…when we say…medicine is an art and a science…to remind ourselves that, no matter how scientific medicine becomes, its primary obligation is always to curing the individual, which requires…practical wisdom…But also the recognition that psychoanalysis has produced in the analyst a cultural figure whose work is aesthetic as much as it is investigative…and has made available to the patient the opportunity to render his or her life a work of art, a narrative of chance and destiny as well as a thriller, whether psychological or otherwise."

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The emphasis on the unconscious, and childhood experience, as sources of psychological patterns and behaviours itself puts psychoanalysis, at least historically, up there in the echelons of psychology. The details today may be up for scientific debate, and newer theories may hold more scientific validity, but psychoanalysis was the first to give the world a modern research programme in studying many of these areas.


The psychoanalysts championed the stereotypical therapy sessions, a close one-on-one session where the patient is allowed to vent. And the results may vary but it nonetheless remains a powerful mode of therapy; for even by design, ideally it allows the patient to vent and narrativize their life to an empathetic ear. A preoccupation with the unconsciousness, with childhood experiences and our innermost desires, psychoanalysis treats what is often treated as immature and irrational seriously. Irrationality and emotions make up a large part of the human condition, something that is often swept under the carpet in an age of “rationality”.


While other schools of psychology, like the cognitive or even the more bio-physiological, also deal with the irrationally emotional, and the unconscious; they either treat it as something negative in and of themselves or with a detachment reducing them to fountains of pathologies needing solving. Psychoanalysis centres them; and while it does not treat them as sacrosanct, being beyond reproach, this centring validates something innate about the human condition.



Art, music, literature and even cinema are expressions of creativity, but also expressions of the human condition. Storytelling itself has been an older form of meaning-making, of making sense of the world around us, and of sharing and passing down the knowledge to others. Creativity deals with the uncanny, the weird and the fantastical. It holds a mirror into the human psyche. Psychoanalysis is one of the original traditions of psychology, through its esoteric interpretive ways, that entertains these aspects of the human condition.


Freud himself took queues from literature, including writers like Shakespeare and Dostoevsky. His most infamous theory, that of the Oedipal Complex, is of course named after Sophocles’ tragic play Oedipus Rex. Carl Jung blew up the magnitude to which stories, myths, and the human unconscious could be examined. And when myths and stories are universally loved and read, say an Odysseus or a Mahabharata or a Hamlet, doesn’t it speak to some validity of their themes irrespective of the statistical significance and hypothesis testing?


Ultimately, stories and narratives carry more currency in our minds than timid falsifiable hypotheses; perhaps one of the most egregious and dangerous examples was seen during the Covid-19 pandemic. Science itself is an imperfect and messy process; the patience and fortitude required in figuring out the solution to the pandemic did not extend to the general public, sections of whom got washed away in currents of anti-vaccine rhetoric, anti-mask rhetoric, conspiracy theories of government finally taking its Big Brother form. There is definitely a Jungian analysis of all that madness.


But to revert back to the question of science, the reason psychoanalysis just doesn’t die is because extrapolating from the messy interpretive and subjectivity-laden world of psychoanalysis is finding tentative validation in some of the new emerging research. Although, as is always the case with the scientific method, more studies and replication would be required.


The emerging field of neuropsychoanalysis combines neurological techniques with psychoanalytical theories. While the mid-century psychoanalysts eschewed all calls for moving towards being more scientific, the current generation of researchers is making use of contemporary techniques of brain mapping to study the unconscious, something which gives better credence to which of the psychoanalytic theories are completely fantastical and which have potential.


Jaak Panksepp’s Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions (2004), for example, finds parallels between Freud’s conception of the libido and the dopaminergic reward system. The interactions between the limbic system (associated with emotions) and the more executive “rational’ parts of the brain (like the pre-frontal cortex) have echoes of the tussle between Freud’s Id and Ego.


The Nobel Laurette Dr Erik R. Kandel, a major proponent of neuropsychoanalysis, wrote in his article “Biology and the future of Psychoanalysis: A new intellectual framework for psychiatry” published in The American Journal of Psychiatry in 1999 laid down the case for psychoanalysis having a productive relationship with neurobiology. He states that while the mid-20th century psychoanalysts had an almost antagonistic relationship with the scientific community, leading to a decline in the tradition’s standing in academia, there are now new avenues for reconciliation.


As he quotes Freud from Beyond the Pleasure Principle at the beginning of the article:


"The deficiencies in our description would probably vanish if we were already in a position to replace the psychological terms with physiological or chemical ones...We may expect [physiology and chemistry] to give the most surprising information and we cannot guess what answers it will return in a few dozen years of questions we have put to it…"

As with all things, Freud may have been wrong with the details, but somehow or the other he always found a way to just about right enough to be undeniable.

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