This is the first article in our series on history of psychology. This post will look at the development of S. Freud's early ideas about human psychology and the discovery of the unconscious mind.
At the beginning of his scientific career Freud had been greatly influenced by Charcot, the French psychiatrist he collaborated with at the Salpétrière. At the time Charcot was working with patients who, through the use of suggestion and hypnosis, could be made to lose their physical symptoms, even if these were thought of having neurological basis. The impact of the experience in working with Charcot had been fundamental to the history of psychoanalysis, as Freud came to the idea that neurological disturbances could have psychological origins.
After a few months, Freud returned to Vienna and started collaborating in 1885 with the Viennese physician and physiologist Breuer, who was also interested in understanding hysteria and its symptomatology. In Studies on Hysteria (1892-1895), a jointly written work, the term unconscious appears in its psychoanalytic connotation for the first time.
At this stage of his thinking Freud was already convinced that the division of conscious and unconscious parts of the mind occurred in everyone. The neurotic symptoms were seen as arising when thoughts and feelings linked to a real traumatic experience were unacceptable to the patient’s moral mindset. These intolerable affects were thought of as having been repressed from the consciousness. The treatment, which he called 'cathartic method', was based on the use of hypnosis. The therapeutic procedure was to invite the patient to recall and relive all the occasions in which he experienced the symptoms, so the emotions associated with them could be released by bringing them into consciousness.
During this time Freud’s curiosity for a 'Psychology for Neurologists' was quite significant. In 1895 he was absorbed by his interest to elaborate a psychological theory established on neurobiological foundations. The result of his intense dedication to this study is Project for a Scientific Psychology. However, Freud's enthusiasm for the Project soon turned into frustration. Eventually he decided not to finish the work and even wanted it to be destroyed.
At this point in his career Freud started to focus on the intrapsychic psychological functions and processes, which started to coexist with his neurological background. This is because his theory of repression and the cathartic method, used to explain and treat patients presenting hysterical symptoms, claimed a psychological explanation.
Eventually, within a few years, Freud completely abandoned both the neurological theory and the affect-trauma theory in writing his masterpiece The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), which marked the beginning of psychoanalysis. The experiences that led Freud to this change were mainly connected with his self-analysis. Here there is no reference to neurology and no attempt to apply neurological theories to psychological functions. Whereas in the first frame of reference Freud was mainly concentrated on the adaptation to experiences related to external reality, now the focus is on the subject’s internal dynamics. In this paper he demonstrated the existence of unconscious mental activities, investigated how the unconscious operates and explored its relations and differences with the other parts of the psyche.
Between 1900 and 1915 Freud elaborated an account of the unconscious mind. In A note on the unconscious in Psychoanalysis (1912), he discussed the descriptive, the dynamic and the systemic concepts of the unconscious. He revisited this distinctions in his paper The Unconscious (1915), part of the series Papers on Metapsychology.
According to Freud, there are various meanings of the word unconscious, as a metapsychological description of mental processes requires their discussion from different perspectives.
- In its descriptive sense, the term unconscious refers to all those features of mental activity that are not present in the system of consciousness at a given time.
- The word dynamic unconscious is used to denote all those mental processes and contents that have to be kept away from the consciousness as a result of conflicting attitudes.
- The system unconscious comprises repressed contents, organized by specific principles such as condensation and displacement, which are different from those of the conscious mind. This connotation of the term unconscious will later be abandoned and replaced by the structural model of the mind.
The next article of this series will focus on Freud's structural model of the mind.