Saturday, 7 April 2012

Sigmund Freud: Unconscious Mental Processes

"We are effectively cognitive icebergs with most of our 'thoughts' occurring below the water line."

Treating neuroses

Frau Emmy von N. was one of the earliest patients to be treated with the nascent techniques of psychoanalysis. Frau Emmy suffered from a series of tics, some facial, the most obvious of which was a loud 'clacking' noise. To Freud the symptoms she showed were typical of hysteria and he soon set about treating her with his strange new methods.
"Talking to a patient? What good could that do?"And what strange methods they were. He talked to her. Talking to a patient? What good could that do? He hypnotised her and soon she began to speak of her frightening experiences - being a maidservant in an asylum, nursing her dying brother. Then Freud did something more unusual. He let her give full vent to her emotion. Later, after she had calmed down a little, she seemed better...
What then did these past events in Frau Emmy's life signal to Freud? What was the connection to her current symptoms? At this time Freud had begun to develop a theory that physical symptoms could be caused by thoughts not available to the conscious mind. His treatment - the talking, the hypnosis, the hand on the forehead, the free association, the couch - all were designed to try and access this so-called 'unconscious' world, to find the root-cause of distress. Once this root-cause could be identified and explained, Freud thought, the physical and psychological symptoms would be alleviated (Breuer & Freud, 1893).

The cognitive unconscious

"We are effectively cognitive icebergs with most of our 'thoughts' occurring below the water line."It was in Freud's work 'Project for a Scientific Psychology' (Freud, 1895) that he first laid down the radical (at the time) idea that cognitive processes are intrinsically unconscious. We are effectively cognitive icebergs with most of our 'thoughts' occurring below the water line, out of conscious perception.
The fact that this idea is no longer considered radical is testament to the last few decades of research which have shown the importance of unconscious processes. We now have abundant evidence for unconscious processes in the operation of memory, affect, attitudes and motivation (Westen, 1998).
And so, far from being unscientific and untestable, Freud's theory of unconscious mental processes was incredibly prescient. It laid the ground for some of the most important lines of research in psychology today. Research that tells us more and more about what it means to be human.

 These videos are from a documentary about his work and life:

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