An Essay Evolves / Freud and Science
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Freud and Science

Page history last edited by PBworks 14 years, 10 months ago

Freud's theory and modern science

A further irony in the evaluation of Freudian theory is the sidelining of psychoanalysis in favour of the pharmacological treatment of emotional distress. It’s ironic because historical evidence exists suggesting that Freud would have been open to this approach, to the direct control of our primitive energies by “particular chemical substances.” But although psychopharmacology has revolutionized therapeutic intervention, it has not led to the formulation of a more comprehensive theory of personality. Perhaps this is why modern neuroscientists such as Pfaff & Panksepp have chosen to revisit some of Freud’s notions, among them the concept of libido. Findings to date have provided support for the idea that we are motivated by primeval urges. Contrary to Freud’s theory, though, four rather than two basic instinctual circuits have been identified; the reward system, motivating pleasure-seeking; the anger-rage system, motivating angry aggression; the fear-anxiety system; and the panic system, governing more complex instincts such as social bonding. Disappointingly, no studies of possible sublimatory mechanisms have so far been found.
Perhaps the biggest untestable area in psychoanalytic theory lies in Freud’s explanation of the formation of personality. He suggested that this takes place during the first six years of life, through a series of so-called psychosexual stages. These are characterized by the investment of libido in particular areas of the body which vary according to the stage currently being negotiated. Famously, the oral stage is followed by the anal stage, when the ego is born, which then gives way to the phallic stage. This is followed by latency, and then, under the influence of hormones at puberty, true mature genitality. Freud thought that under certain circumstances, eg. excessively strict potty training, fixation of libido could occur. Subsequent development would then be centred around a particular bodily zone, resulting in certain exaggerated characteristics in the adult. So, strict potty training would produce a classic anally retentive adult displaying extreme thrift, discipline and difficulty with self-expression. The definitive test of a causal link such as this one claimed by Freud is the randomly allocated controlled experiment. Ethically, it would be indefensible to carry out an experiment in which participants run the risk of being given a neurotic condition. It is, therefore, probably impossible to confirm or refute this aspect of Freud’s hypothesis.
Despite this, it is interesting to note that trait theory offers some support for the concept of an anal personality. Trait theory’s strength is that it provides an objective methodology for measuring individual differences in aspects of personality which are thought to be common to all humans. It has, however, been relatively weak in formulating a coherent account of the ‘deeper’ aspects of personality. Myers (2000) brings together the Freudian idea of repression as a defence mechanism with the observation that repression is such a strong coping style in certain individuals that it can be considered a personality trait. Using this concept, her experimental observations concur with Freud’s theory on three key points. She reports that not only do ‘repressors’ experience significantly less anxiety than others – repression in this context fulfilling the Freudian definition of a defence mechanism - but that there is objective evidence that their childhoods were marked by paternal antipathy (so they have something legitimate to repress). Also, they tend to have worse physical health than those who do not habitually use repression as a coping strategy. This would seem to support not only the notion of repression as a defence, but also vindicates Freud’s idea of the dynamic unconscious; that repressed material exerts an influence over other areas of being.


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