Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis.

Sigmund Freud was born in Moravia. When he was three years old, his family moved to Vienna, the city where he was to live until the last year of his life when he emigrated to England. At the age of 17, Freud entered the University of Vienna Medical School, where he pursued various research interests. Although primarily interested in physiological research, Freud was forced to enter clinical practice due to the difficulty of obtaining a university appointment; in his case, the difficulty was increased by anti-Semitic attitudes and policies. After additional independent research and clinical work at the General Hospital of Vienna, Freud entered private practice, specializing in the treatment of patients with neurological and hysterical disorders.


The Rat Man was a patient of Freud who came to him seeking treatment for obsessive thoughts. Many of these thoughts involved rats, which led Freud to refer to him as Rat Man in his 1909 case study entitled “Notes on a Case of Obsessive-compulsive neurosis.”

Freud writes that the patient was overwhelmed by persistent thoughts including an obsessive fear that something bad would happen to his father and his fiancé. He remarks on the puzzling frequency of the Rat Man's fears of his father's death, despite the fact that his father had been dead for several years.

The Rat Man recounts an episode that he says is the direct cause of his problems. One day, in the middle of military exercises, the Rat Man lost his pince-nez. Rather than stopping to look for them, he decides to send for a new pair. He recalls with difficulty a conversation he had shortly thereafter with one of his commanding officers. In this conversation the officer told him of a form of torture in which rats eat their way into the anal cavity of the victim. The Rat Man said he immediately had the obsessive thought that this would happen to someone he loved (namely his fiancéor his father—despite the fact that his father was already dead). When the pince-nez he ordered arrived, he was overcome with the obsessive thought that he must not pay for them, or else the rat fantasy would be realized. He does pay the money back, with considerable difficulties, which he recounts to Freud.

He then confesses to Freud a thought he had had six months before his father's death. He had the thought that he wished for his father's death so that he would leave him enough money to allow him to marry. Overwhelmed with guilt and shame, he then had the second thought that he wished his father would die and leave him nothing. He expresses shock at having such thoughts, saying that he loved his father more than anyone in the world.

The Rat Man describes violent obsessions, such as a sudden impulse to slit his throat with a razor, followed by the thought that he should kill his mistress's mother (whom she was caring for), followed by a third obsessive thought that he should “kill himself as a punishment for such murderous, angry cravings.” He later had an obsessive idea that he must lose weight, and while climbing a mountain to help achieve this goal he had the impulse to throw himself off the edge.

Freud interprets such obsessions as a depiction of the struggle between strong feelings of love and hate. He also blames what he sees as the Rat Man's sexual repression—a result of punishment for masturbating as a child. The obsession with the rat torture method described by the military commander is seen by Freud as an expression of an analerotic fantasy.

Freud also notes that rats are associated with disease, filth and decay. Once, when visiting his father's grave, the Rat Man tells Freud, he saw a large animal, which he took to be a rat running past the burial mound. The Rat Man thought that this rat had just come from his father's grave where it had been feasting on the corpse. He told Freud that he felt this was the most significant root of his rat obsession.

At the conclusion of his six-month treatment Freud declared the Rat Man cured of his obsessions, but reported that he later died in WWI. The Rat Man is one of the most famous of Freud's case studies.

By this time, Freud had worked out the essential components of his system of psychoanalysis, including the use of free association and catharsis as a method of exploring the unconscious, identifying repressed memories and the reasons for their repression, and enabling patients to know themselves more fully. The patient, relaxed on a couch in his office, was directed to engage in a free association of ideas that could yield useful insights, and the patient was asked to reveal frankly whatever came to mind. Through both his work with patients and his self-analysis, Freud came to believe that mental disorders that have no apparent physiological cause are symbolic reactions to psychological shocks, usually of a sexual nature, and that the memories associated with these shocks, although they have been repressed into the unconscious, indirectly affect the content not only of dreams but of conscious activity.


Cathartic treatment—
A method for expressing and thus minimizing the effect of repressed emotions.
A psychological disorder in which repressed emotions cause physiological symptoms. The controversial nineteenth-century concept of hysteria was associated specifically with middle-and upper-class women.
The act of suppressing a thought or emotion until it becomes unconscious and the person is unaware of it.

Freud contended that the human personality is governed by forces called instincts or drives. Later, he came to believe in the existence of a death instinct, or death wish (Thanatos), directed either outward as aggression or inward as self-destructive behavior (noted mainly as repetition compulsions). He constructed a comprehensive theory on the structure of the psyche, which he viewed as divided into three parts. The id, corresponding to the unconscious, is concerned with the satisfaction of primitive desires and with self-preservation. It operates according to the pleasure principle and outside the realm of social rules or moral dictates. The ego, associated with reason, controls the forces of the id to bring it into line with the reality principle and make socialization possible and channels the forces of the id into acceptable activities. The critical, moral superego—or conscience—developed in early childhood, monitors and censors the ego, turning external values into internalized, self-imposed rules with which to inhibit the id. Freud viewed individual behavior as the result of the interaction among these three components of the psyche.

At the core of Freud's psychological structure is the repression of unfulfilled instinctual demands. An unconscious process, repression is accomplished through a series of defense mechanisms. Those most commonly named by Freud include denial (failure to perceive the source of anxiety); rationalization (justification of an action by an acceptable motive); displacement (directing repressed feelings toward an acceptable substitute); projection (attributing one's own unacceptable impulse to others); and sublimation (transforming an unacceptable instinctual demand into a socially acceptable activity).

Freud continued modifying his theories in the 1920s and changed a number of his fundamental views, including his theories of motivation and anxiety. In 1923, he developed cancer of the jaw (he had been a heavy cigar smoker throughout his life) and underwent numerous operations for this disease over the next 16 years. Life in Vienna became increasingly precarious for Freud with the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, and he emigrated to London in 1938, only to die of his illness the following year. Many of the concepts and theories Freud introduced—such as the role of the unconscious, the effect of childhood experiences on adult behavior, and the operation of defense mechanisms—continue to be a source of both controversy and inspiration. His books include Totem and Taboo (1913), General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (1916), The Ego and the Id (1923), and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930).

See also Catharsis ; Consciousness ; Memory ; Psychosexual stages .



Burns, Tom, and Burns-Lundgren, Eva. Psychotherapy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated by A. A. Brill. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2015.

Lear, Jonathan. Freud, 2nd ed. New York: Taylor and Francis, 2015.

Rizzuto, Ana-Maria. Freud and the Spoken Word: Speech as a Key to the Unconscious. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Stevens, Anthony. The Talking Cure: Psychotherapy Past, Present, and Future, 2nd ed. Toronto: Inner City Books, 2013.