How Sigmund Freud Worked

The Legacy of Sigmund Freud

Freud popularized the idea of the unconscious mind, something that's not disputed today. It may not work the way he said — there isn't any evidence for an id, ego and superego — but our brains process a lot of things without our realizing it. He was right about the existence of suppressed memories, too. We now know that memories are rewritten each time they are recalled. And all of us have used defense mechanisms like denial and displacement at one time or another.

Freud developed the idea of patients openly talking about their feelings and past experiences. And while he went overboard on the sex theme, he gets kudos for bringing up many sexually themed topics at a time when people simply didn't talk about those things. Similarly, we can't overlook his Oedipus Complex. No, it's not accurate, but a lot of us seek out counseling because of issues with our parents, so he was on to something there [source: Dvorsky].

Today neuroscience — the study of the brain and nervous system — is the dominant field in brain science, not psychoanalysis. Neuroscience focuses on the mechanics of the brain — how brains remember or how nerve cells communicate with chemical impulses. But, a newer intellectual movement is gaining traction: neuropsychoanalysis.

Neuropsychoanalysis attempts to link measurable brain activity with a psychoanalytic model of the mind. That is, it links subjective reports humans give with objective measurements. Those involved in this growing movement say neuropsychoanalysis could be used to further certain mental disorders.

Take anorexia, for one. A neurobiologist looking at the brain's neural circuits linking inhibitory and reward systems can't determine how someone with anorexia can overlook her body's pleasure and pain sensations. But by incorporating some psychoanalysis, a possible reason appears: There's an interconnection with physical sensations, emotions and anxiety, which can be studied through brain imaging.

"Psychoanalytic thought is fundamentally humanistic. It honors the unique experience of individual human beings — something often overlooked by the current medical approach to the mind," wrote Kat McGowan in an April 2016 article in Discover magazine. Indeed, not every person with depression is helped by medication. Most people find a combination of medication and counseling (psychotherapy) as well as developing healthy habits like exercising to be the key to taking care of this condition [source: WebMD].

In the same way, marrying psychoanalysis with cutting-edge research into brain activity might be very helpful for treating some people with mental illness. As someone who started out studying neuroscience, Freud would likely approve.

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