Psychoanalysis as a discipline was founded by Sigmund Freud at the beginning of the nineteenth century as a method for investigating the mind. Freud revolutionised our understanding of who we are as human beings through his recognition of the unconscious and the way it shapes our lives. He stands alongside Darwin as one of the great minds that gave birth to contemporary Western thought and popular culture.
Psychoanalysis has developed in a number of directions from this initial impulse, but remains grounded in its research of unconscious phenomena, in individuals, in groups and in society.
Freud did not have the benefit of the technology that is now available to investigate our minds such as the tools of contemporary neuroscience, for example functional MRI scans. He brought his background as a scientist to carefully observe his patients with exquisite attention and then formulate hypotheses in an endeavour to make sense of what he was seeing. He k
ept reformulating and revising these hypotheses as he proceeded, and as his mind, the instrument of his observation, became more attuned to the minds of his subjects.
Over past hundred years in some quarters psychoanalysis has become deeply unpopular and subject to scathing attacks. At one time no psychology department would be without Freud’s extensive writings, but more recently they may be conspicuously absent! One way of understanding what might be understood as a hatred of Freud and his writings is that he is telling us things about ourselves we don’t want to hear. It is deeply unpopular to think we are less the masters of our own destiny than we would like to think, that we are shaped in all kinds of uncomfortable ways by what has happened to us over the course of our lives, and that we never entirely abandon the seething mess of our babyhood. He also placed our sexuality centrestage and this is also awkward!
Interestingly the findings of contemporary neuroscience have confirmed many of Freud’s ideas. It is now clear that most of the activity of our brains occurs outside our awareness – it is unconscious to us. According to Eric Kandel, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in neuroscience, despite all our advances in knowledge, “psychoanalysis is still the most coherent and intellectually satisfying view of the mind.”
There is now an enormous body of literature within the disciplines of psychoanalysis.