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August 30, 2002

Sigmund vs. Science

Friedrich --

A levelheaded science column by Sharon Begley in today's Wall Street Journal (not online) about the unconscious. Of course there's a lot of mental activity that's unconscious -- but none of it bears much resemblance to "the unconscious" as Freud imagined it.

Some excerpts:

This isn't Freud's unconscious, that maelstrom of primitive emotions and repressed memories. Instead, the unconscious being excavated by scientists processes data, sets goals, judges people, detects danger, formulates stereotypes and infers causes, all outside our conscious awareness...

This sophisticated system operates under the radar of consciousness not because it has something to hide, as Freud argued, but for the sake of efficiency. We need to process so much information to survive that some of it has to occur unconsciously, much as a computer runs on machine language that no one wants to see on the monitor.

It's a practical matter!

I remember my amazement when I learned years ago that no scientific evidence whatsoever confirms Freud's version of the unconscious. What kind of baloney had been sold to us? Why had anyone accepted it? Why did anyone continue to stand for it?

Much science in fact directly contradicts the Freudian model. Example: "repressed memories." Studies strongly suggest that the more awful an event, the less (not more) likely you are ever to forget it. (Why should this "discovery" strike anyone as a surprise?)

Why are you resisting my theories?

How did the Freudian version of mental and emotional life get as far as it did? I suppose it's like asking why Marxism got as far as it did, and maybe the answer is the same: they were all-enveloping replacements for traditional religion at a time when many were losing their religious faith.

Freud and Marx both had a charismatic, prophetic fervor that came across in their visions and their writing -- they had a hypnotic effect, like cult leaders. You read them and you feel pumped. And they both offered redemptive goals that one could at least imagine achieving: Freud, to integrate one's personality; Marx, to overcome class divisions. Thank heavens: something to look forward to! A goal to pursue!

My contribution to this discussion is to suggest that Freudianism and Marxism were attractive because they made life seem dramatic. They gave it a storyline (however ludicrous). They added color, fire and spectacle, and many people seem to want those in their lives.

What a relief that both of these cults are losing their grip. (And how satisfying when science confirms one's own hunches!) Will academia ever catch on?

Have you read Frederick Crews's attacks on Freud? Fantastically satisfying (and impressive) displays of intellectual carving-up. The expressions of outrage and wounded dignity (usually in the form of thunderous personal attacks) from Freudians that followed publication of Crews' essays and books only added to the deliciousness of it all.



posted by Michael at August 30, 2002


Never studied psychoanalysis, I see.

The answer to your question, "How did the Freudian version of mental and emotional life get as far as it did?" is: Freud was right -- about almost everything.

You might find this of some interest.


Posted by: acdouglas on August 30, 2002 2:30 PM

That depends on one's definition of "almost everything."

Posted by: Joperd on March 9, 2004 9:10 AM

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