Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is considered the father
of psychoanalysis, which may be the granddaddy of all pseudoscientific
psychotherapies, second only to Scientology as the champion purveyor
of false and misleading claims about the mind, mental health, and
mental illness. For example, in psychoanalysis schizophrenia and depression
are not brain disorders, but narcissistic disorders. Autism and other
brain disorders are not brain problems but mothering problems. These
illnesses do not require pharmacological or behavioral treatment.
They require only "talk" therapy. Similar positions are
taken for anorexia nervosa and Tourette's syndrome. (Hines 1990: 136)
What is the scientific evidence for the psychoanalytic view of these
mental illnesses and their proper treatment? There is none.
Freud thought he understood the nature of schizophrenia.
It is not a brain disorder, but a disturbance in the unconscious
caused by unresolved feelings of homosexuality. However, he maintained
that psychoanalysis would not work with schizophrenics because such
patients ignore their therapist's insights and are resistant to
treatment (Dolnick 1998: 40). Later psychoanalysts would claim,
with equal certainty and equal lack of scientific evidence, that
schizophrenia is caused by smothering mothering. In 1948, Frieda
Fromm-Reichmann, for example, gave birth to the term "schizophrenogenic
mother," the mother whose bad mothering causes her child to
become schizophrenic (ibid. 94). Other analysts before her had supported
the notion with anecdotes and intuitions, and over the next twenty
years many more would follow her misguided lead.
Would you treat a broken leg or diabetes with "talk"
therapy or by interpreting the patient's dreams? Of course not.
Imagine the reaction if a diabetic were told that her illness was
due to "masturbatory conflict" or "displaced eroticism."
One might as well tell the patient she is possessed by demons, as
give her a psychoanalytic explanation of her physical disease or
disorder. Exorcism of demons by the shaman or priest, exorcism of
childhood experiences by the psychoanalyst: what's the difference?
So why would anyone still maintain that neurochemical or other physical
disorders are caused by repressed or sublimated traumatic sexual
childhood experiences? Probably for the same reason that theologians
don't give up their elaborate systems of thought in the face of
overwhelming evidence that their systems of belief are little more
than vast metaphysical cobwebs. They get a lot of institutional
reinforcement for their socially created roles and ideas, most of
which are not capable of being subjected to empirical testing. If
their notions can't be tested, they can't be disproved. What can't
be disproved, and also has the backing of a powerful institution
or establishment, can go on for centuries as being respectable and
valid, regardless of its fundamental emptiness, falsity, or capacity
The most fundamental concept of psychoanalysis is
the notion of the unconscious mind as a reservoir for repressed
memories of traumatic events which continuously influence conscious
thought and behavior. The scientific evidence for this notion of
unconscious repression is lacking, though there is ample evidence
that conscious thought and behavior are influenced by nonconscious
memories and processes.
Related to these questionable assumptions of psychoanalysis
are two equally questionable methods of investigating the alleged
memories hidden in the unconscious: free association and the interpretation
of dreams. Neither method is capable of scientific formulation or
empirical testing. Both are metaphysical blank checks to speculate
at will without any check in reality.
Scientific research into how memory works does not
support the psychoanalytic concept of the unconscious mind as a
reservoir of repressed sexual and traumatic memories of either childhood
or adulthood. There is, however, ample evidence that there is a
type of memory of which we are not consciously aware, yet which
is remembered. Scientists refer to this type of memory as implicit
memory. There is ample evidence that to have memories requires extensive
development of the frontal lobes, which infants and young children
lack. Also, memories must be encoded to be lasting. If encoding
is absent, amnesia will follow, as in the case of many of our dreams.
If encoding is weak, fragmented and implicit memories may be all
that remain of the original experience. Thus, the likelihood of
infant memories of abuse, or of anything else for that matter, is
near zero. Implicit memories of abuse do occur, but not under the
conditions which are assumed to be the basis for repression. Implicit
memories of abuse occur when a person is rendered unconscious during
the attack and cannot encode the experience very deeply. For example,
a rape victim could not remember being raped. The attack took place
on a brick pathway. The words 'brick' and 'path' kept popping into
her mind, but she did not connect them to the rape. She became very
upset when taken back to the scene of the rape, though she didn't
remember what had happened there (Schacter: 232). It is unlikely
that hypnosis, free association, or any other therapeutic method
will help the victim remember what happened to her. She has no explicit
memory because she was unable to deeply encode the trauma due to
the viciousness of the attack which caused her to lose consciousness.
The best a psychoanalyst or other repressed-memory therapist can
do is to create a false memory in this victim, abusing her one more
Essentially connected to the psychoanalytic view
of repression is the assumption that parental treatment of children,
especially mothering, is the source of many, if not most, adult
problems ranging from personality disorders to emotional problems
to mental illnesses. There is little question that if children are
treated cruelly throughout childhood, their lives as adults will
be profoundly influenced by such treatment. It is a big conceptual
leap from this fact to the notion that all sexual experiences in
childhood will cause problems in later life, or that all problems
in later life, including sexual problems, are due to childhood experiences.
The scientific evidence for these notions is lacking.
In many ways, psychoanalytic therapy is based on
a search for what probably does not exist (repressed childhood memories),
an assumption that is probably false (that childhood experiences
cause the patient's problems) and a therapeutic theory that has
nearly no probability of being correct (that bringing repressed
memories to consciousness is essential to the cure). Of course,
this is just the foundation of an elaborate set of scientifically
sounding concepts which pretend to explain the deep mysteries of
consciousness and behavior. But if the foundation is illusory, what
possibly could be the future of this illusion?
are some good things, however, which have resulted from the method
of psychoanalysis developed by Sigmund Freud a century ago in Vienna.
Freud should be considered one of our greatest benefactors if only
because he pioneered the desire to understand those whose behavior
and thoughts cross the boundaries of convention set by civilization
and cultures. That it is no longer fashionable to condemn and ridicule
those with behavioral or thought disorders is due in no small part
to the tolerance promoted by psychoanalysis. Furthermore, whatever
intolerance, ignorance, hypocrisy, and prudishness remains regarding
the understanding of our sexual natures and behaviors cannot be
blamed on Freud. Psychoanalysts do Freud no honor by blindly adhering
to the doctrines of their master in this or any other area. Finally,
as psychiatrist Anthony Storr put it: "Freud's technique of
listening to distressed people over long periods rather than giving
them orders or advice has formed the foundation of most modern forms
of psychotherapy, with benefits to both patients and practitioners"
(Storr 1996: 120).
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