Psychodynamic Approach

A film about Freud called A Dangerous Method will be released in 2011 starring strider from The Lord of the Rings as Freud. This is evidence of the continued influence of Freud on popular culture and interest in the psychodynamic approach.

The psychodynamic approach explains all behaviour (normal and abnormal) in terms of unconscious processes. People are not aware of why they do what they do. They may think that they know why they do what they do but they don’t. According to Freud abnormal behaviour is caused by unconscious conflict.

This unconscious conflict originates in early childhood. This conflict is partly between the Id, Ego, and Superego, and partly because of early traumatic experience. Freud proposed that at birth the child is amoral. The only mental structure at this stage is the Id. The Id is composed of instinctual drives, desires, and energy. This energy is directed towards the satisfaction of immediate desires. The baby wants satisfaction and wants it now.

The next mental structure to develop is the Ego. The ego develops out of the collision of the Id with reality. The Id cannot always achieve immediate satisfaction and the Ego mediates between the Id and external reality, harnessing it’s energy to achieve realistic goals (Freud compared the Ego to a rider controlling a powerful horse. The horse is the Id).

The Superego is the final mental structure to develop and emerges out of conflict between the child and the same sex parent for the affection of the opposite sex parent. It is initially the internalized ‘voice’ of the father (or mother) and represents the moral standards of the child’s culture. The infant is now no longer amoral but has developed into a moral being.

Freud argued that these mental structures are in conflict. The Id and the Superego are in direct conflict. The Id wants immediate gratification irrespective of social or moral constraints, the Superego as the mental structure that represents social and moral values restrains the Id in it’s drive for satisfaction.The Ego manages this conflict. If the Ego fails to develop it cannot control the conflicting demands of the Id and the Superego. This failure may lead to abnormal behaviour.

Freud also claimed that the young child was vulnerable to psychological trauma. The Ego is not well developed in the young child. It is not strong enough to help the child cope with emotionally intense experiences. The ego may defend itself against these emotionally intense experiences by using a range of defence mechanisms, especially ‘repression’. Painful and traumatic experiences, thoughts and feelings may be ‘repressed’. A similar experience in later life may ‘trigger’ these repressed memories, thoughts and feelings, leading to unconscious conflict and anxiety, and this conflict may lead to abnormal behaviour.

According to Freud the unconscious contains thoughts, desires, and memories that we cannot directly access. Freud claimed that these thoughts, desires, and memories were disturbing and had to be ‘repressed’ (‘pushed’ down into the unconscious and kept out of consciousness. We ‘forget’ but they are not ‘forgotten’. They continue to influence how we feel and think, therefore how we behave.). Many of these disturbing thoughts, desires, and memories are linked to our early childhood. Freud argued that the mind is like a castle, the unconscious is a prison in the basement of that castle. Disturbing thoughts, desires, and memories are locked into this prison and guarded by defence mechanisms. Repression is one of these defence mechanisms.
If defence mechanisms fail to keep disturbing thoughts, desires, and memories locked into the unconscious they may ‘escape’ into consciousness and cause intense anxiety which can lead to abnormal behaviour. If they are too successful in guarding the prison of the unconscious then this may also cause abnormal behaviour

Freud also argued that children pass through 5 stages of psychosexual development. Each stage is associated with a part of the child’s body. The first three are the most important for personality development and the development of abnormal behaviour in later life. Each stage presents the child with a significant developmental issue:

Oral Stage - issues of security.

Anal Stage - issues of control.

Phallic/Oedipal - issues of identity, especially gender identity.

The Oral Stage is associated with the mouth, sucking and feeding. Conflicts are centered on this area of the body. The major developmental issue associated with this stage is: Am I Safe.

The Anal Stage is associated with the anus. Conflicts are focused on toilet training. The major developmental issue is: Who is in Control.

The Phallic/Oedipal stage. Conflicts revolve around the same and opposite sex parent. The major developmental issue is: Who am I.

According to Freud if the child fails to resolve the conflict (and the developmental issues) associated with a particular psychosexual stage this may lead to abnormal behaviour in later life. The person may become ‘fixated’ at a specific stage of development. They may become ‘stuck’ at the Oral, Anal, or Oedipal stages of development. If the person is ‘fixated’ at an early stage of psychosexual development this may lead to a rigid (maladaptive) pattern of neurotic behaviour in later life: to abnormal behaviour.

Freud argued in Mourning and Melancholia (1915) that depression can be caused by significant trauma, especially the loss of a parent in early life, and is a form of maladaptive grieving. He claimed that people who experienced problems at the oral stage of development were more vulnerable to depression in adulthood. A significant loss in later life causes the individual to regress (return to) the oral stage of development as a ‘defence’ against overwhelming distress. They may also, through the process of ‘introjection’, direct their feelings for the lost love object onto themselves. These feelings may include anger and hatred at being abandoned, rejected, unloved and unsafe, and may also involve the person in blaming themselves for the loss. This may lead to the abnormal behaviour associated with depression

Most textbooks (and students) state that Freud was obsessed with sex, based his theories on an unrepresentative sample, is culture bound (a child of its time), and has little if any empirical support. They may add that it has been influential in that Freud’s theory was one of the first attempts to explain mental illness in psychological terms.

It seems difficult on the basis of these criticisms to explain why Freud was, and continues to be, so influential.

Many people who write about Freud remember the sex bit of ‘Infantile Sexuality’ but forget the infantile bit. Freud was not writing about adult sexuality. His concept of infantile sexuality was more like ‘sensuality’. The infant interacts with the world (and people around them) and their own body in a sensual way. Libido for Freud is also much more than ‘sex drive’. It is the biologically derived source of energy that enables the person to engage with the world and achieve important objectives, such as the satisfaction of basic needs (survival), and the fulfillment of desires. Observe any mother washing or caring for a child and the central importance of this sensual engagement with others is clear.

Freud may have based his theories on a biased sample. However, a lot of empirical psychological research has used students, Americans, and males as participants. It could be argued that this represents a biased sample and undermines the external validity of this research as well.

Freud derived his theories from many sources of evidence not just case studies based on his patients. Literature, art, and history all informed the development of his structural theory (Id-Ego-Superego) and developmental theory (Oral-Anal-Phallic/Oedipal stages of psychosexual development). It is not an accident that he called the most important stage in psychosexual development the Oedipal stage (and was very interested in Hamlet).

It has also been argued that Freud’s theory is unscientific. Karl Popper stated that only theories that can be tested and refuted (tested empirically and no support found) are true scientific theories. He claimed that Freud’s theories could not be tested empirically and were therefore pseudoscientific (rubbish). However, attempts have been made to investigate key Freudian concepts experimentally and recent research has found significant support for psychodynamic psychotherapy. A
recent study published in February 2010 in the American Psychologist" found that psychodynamic psychotherapy based on Freud's ideas was very effective in treating a wide range of mental health problems including depression. Dr Shedler who conducted the research stated:

“The American public has been told that only newer, symptom-focused treatments like cognitive behavior therapy or medication have scientific support,” said study author Jonathan Shedler, PhD, of the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine. “The actual scientific evidence shows that psychodynamic therapy is highly effective. The benefits are at least as large as those of other psychotherapies, and they last.”

Also, new brain imaging technologies have made it possible to test scientifically key Freudian ideas and have led to the development of a new scientific discipline: Neuro-psychoanalysis. The initial aim of neuro-psychoanalysis is to establish the physical (neurological correlates of psychoanalytic theory: basically which bits of the brain and its chemistry are responsible for repression, regression, dreaming etc). If this is established then neuropsychoanalysts can translate Freudian theory into a series of testable hypotheses. Eric Kandel (Kandel is one of the worlds leading neuroscientists and a winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology) has recently written in the American Journal of Psychiatry that “psychoanalysis still represents the most coherent and intellectually satisfying view of the mind we have” and has argued that the integration of psychoanalysis and neuroscience represents a “new intellectual framework for psychiatry” in the twenty-first century (Kandel,1999).

It is often overlooked that Freud began his career as a scientist and a neurologist. He only abandoned the attempt to establish the neurological basis (physiological basis of psychoanalysis) of psychoanalysis because of the limited neurological and physiological understanding of the period. It is also easy to forget that the methods available to scientifically investigate the mind in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century were primitive. It was for these reasons Freud sought alternative methods to investigate the mind and invented psychoanalysis. In this sense he, like all psychologists, is a child of his time.

You can read "The efficacy of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy" here:

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