I recently led a discussion with the Beverly Hills Great Books Group on the above work by Sigmund Freud. The leader of the group had invited a college class from Los Angeles to attend the group. After reading what Freud had to say, in conjunction with my own training as a clinical psychologist, I realized that most of what I had prepared to offer to the group was not going to be positive. My hope, however, was that I would stimulate some interesting discussion, especially with the students attending, by the Socratic method of questioning. Unfortunately, only one student made it to the discussion. Indeed, this probably changed the dynamic of the meeting because those who attended were for the most part, devotees of Freud, a factor I had not considered: That is, people that attend a lecture about a past famous figure will probably be followers of that person.
Prior to formally discussing the work, I told the group that this particular monograph was difficult to discuss from a psychological or philosophical framework because in essence Freud was writing it to state his case for how the unconscious and repression operate within a normal population.
I began the talk by stating that Freud was really the first one to establish what we may consider a school of psychotherapy. I then proceeded to ask the group what they believed to be the most important factor that influences the treatment process during psychotherapy. Some people responded but no one quite had the answer I was in search of: The quality of the patient/therapist alliance and not the school or theory of psychotherapy. In this sense, the psychoanalytic school that Freud founded was the first practicing school of what we now would call psychotherapy. I had hoped that by establishing this fact it would make it easier to point out the many shortcomings in Freud’s view of looking at the human mind. However, I was badly mistaken.
I then proceeded to talk about repression and the unconscious pointing out that the main issues Freud was addressing in his monograph were really these two points, and how they affected forgetting and verbal errors that subsequently came to be knows as Freudian slips. I made the observation that Freud’s idea of the unconscious was not novel and gave the example of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novella: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that was written in 1886 before the Psychopathology of Everyday Life and Freud’s major work on dreams and the importance of the unconscious had been published. A participant responded that Freud was the first to treat the unconscious as a means of treating people, a comment of which I agreed.
Other Freudian believers argued that he was a great scientist. But was he? Although most of his works may be considered literary masterpieces, I countered that I did not believe his theories would meet the standards imposed by scientific criteria. After all, the steps of the scientific method are the following:
Ask a Question
Do Background Research
Construct a Hypothesis
Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment
Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion
Communicate Your Results
Although Freud may have made observations of human behavior, he really did not go through the procedure of testing his observations, that he wove into theories, by doing experiments. This criticism is not a new one and has been often made vis-à-vis the social sciences, among which psychology is included.
I then proceeded to discuss the fact that modern linguists see verbal mishaps much like a banana peel in the path of a sentence or accidental shifts of linguistic units. I pointed out to the group that linguists have shown that language is connected by three networks of the brain: semantic, lexical and phonological. When Ted Kennedy said the “breast and the brightest” this could simply be a slip known as an anticipation or forward error and not a Freudian slip. According to Daniel Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard, two conditions that increase the risk of making a Freudian slip are: 1) The thought you’d rather suppress and 2) A stressor, a distraction, time pressure or a competing mental agenda. I further pointed out to the group that people who are sleep deprived, under the influence of alcohol or some other drug and/or are aging are more likely to make verbal slips than others.
When challenged by some of the audience members to define unconscious, I defined it the way Fischer and Pipp did: “The unconscious is a type of process or way of constructing perception, memories and other kinds of cognition that changes systematically with development. It is not a portion of the mind.” This is a much less static view of the mind that Freud had postulated. One participant contested what I had said because she asserted that Freud had changed his views later on. But did he alter his view of the id, ego and superego the determinants of human behavior with the ego being the only part of our mind that is within our consciousness? I don’t think he abandoned these concepts that he believed shared portions of the mind. These ideas are very much heuristic but by no means can be taken to be empirical.
I concluded my comments by citing the work of Daniel Siegel, who has written two important works: 1) The Developing Mind and 2) Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology. Siegel states that the “mind is both embodied and embedded in our relational worlds. It is created in both the body and interactions with others and our environment. This emergent process arises from energy and information flow across time. Mental life is an emergent, self-organizing process of this embodied and relational flow of energy and information.” One of the Freudian devotees in the audience then asked me what you call a psychologist that studies the brain. I replied a neuropsychologist. He did not challenge me on my response. However, I met with much resistance (and not the type that Freud spoke of) to the examples I provided in how present day thinking has disputed many of Freud’s theories.
At the end of the talk, the student that attended the discussion group (who had never come before) walked up to me and thanked me for the information that I had presented. She was perhaps not so stuck in her thinking like some of the regular participants who have been out of school for some time. Great damage to our clients can be done if you fit each and every one of them into a Procrustean bed. When therapists apply psychoanalytic methods to every client they see, they may lose both a flexible and personalistic appproach, two ingredients that contribute to the quality of the therapeutic relationship.