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What is Psychoanalysis?

Michael Pollick
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Psychoanalysis is one method by which trained psychologists or psychotherapists attempt to get at the root cause(s) of a patient's current behavior or actions. This is usually done through a number of sessions in which the patient recalls specific memories of life-altering events -- a process known as free association. Practitioners of psychoanalysis hope to use this information along with other observations to formulate a possible course of treatment for certain mental illnesses or other self-limiting neuroses or irrational fears.

Before the eminent Austrian psychologist Dr. Sigmund Freud developed psychoanalysis in the late 19th century, there were many theories but little scientific knowledge about the inner workings of the human mind. People were believed to behave the way the did for numerous reasons: the will of the gods, demonic possession, inherent good or evil from birth, imbalance of 'humours' and so forth. Criminals who committed crimes against society or those who demonstrated bizarre behaviors were simply removed from society, with little hope for meaningful rehabilitation.

Dr. Freud determined that many current behaviors and actions are actually triggered by earlier traumas to the psyche. Freud hypothesized that the human mind was much more complex than previously assumed, and it was this complexity that drove many people to form socially unacceptable thoughts or make dangerous decisions. Freudian psychoanalysis in its original form concentrated heavily on the patient's repressed sexual fantasies and early childhood experiences. Freud hoped to help his patients confront traumatic memories in a safe environment in order to understand their current difficulties.

Since the time of Freud, psychoanalysis has undergone some changes. Modern practitioners tend to find the 'talking cure' aspect of Freud's methods to be the most useful tool, while avoiding the overuse of psychosexual trauma experiences for diagnosis. During present day psychoanalysis sessions, patients discuss their innermost thoughts and experiences with a trained psychotherapist. The therapist's role is to guide the conversation towards specific conflicts of thought.

If the patient himself can recall a painful experience and apply that memory to a current situation, he could possibly 'cure' himself over time. For example, if someone suffering from severe social anxiety could remember a particularly humiliating incident from elementary school, this might help him or her to put present day events in perspective. Successfully addressing a repressed thought or fantasy can end a conflict between the mind and body.

Freud's most famous psychoanalysis model divided the human mind into three separate elements -- the id, the ego and the superego. The id is the primitive driving force behind our basest needs, such as sexual satisfaction and social advancement. The superego is packed with all the moral codes imprinted on us since birth. The ego is our waking mind which motivates us to make decisions based on our specific drives and needs. Because the superego and the id are constantly in conflict, many people are driven to psychoanalysis by an overworked ego struggling to make sense of the world around it. Using this psychoanalysis model, criminal behavior occurs when the id becomes too dominant and ultra-rigid moral behavior is triggered by an unchecked superego.

Many modern psychotherapists have embraced a different psychoanalysis model based on the idea of conflict. All of us have a moral code which determines the rightness or wrongness of a particular act. By the same token, our bodies have needs of their own which are not easily controlled by rational thought alone.

A married man may meet an attractive woman at work, for example. He may understand that pursuing an illicit relationship would be morally wrong, but he still feels the physical effects of a sexual attraction. Even if he retreats from the encounter and nothing physical occurs, the conflict between mind and body may still exist. Over time, all of these conflicts can overwhelm the human psyche, creating the need to safely vent those feelings and repressed fantasies. Psychoanalysis strives to provide a directed form of venting which should ultimately reduce the level of conflict between fantasy and reality.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick , Writer
As a frequent contributor to The Health Board, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Discussion Comments

By anon323820 — On Mar 07, 2013

Can peer pressure be solved using psychoanalysis?

By anon100398 — On Jul 29, 2010

"How would psychoanalysis explain criminal behavior? Are we born evil or is it a learned behavior?"

This a subjective question because there exists no definitive answer. The answer depends upon your psychological perspective. There are several approaches available to choose from. The humanistic approach argues all people are inherently good and barring a negative environmental stimulus, will remain that way.

Freud would likely explain that criminal behavior is the result of an over-developed id, and underdeveloped ego and superego.

If the ego is not functioning, there will be no balance between the innate selfish desires of instant gratification and the conscience or superego.

Behaviorists assert that all behavior, criminal or otherwise, is learned. The question is really a debate between nature vs. nurture.

My personal belief is that there is a fine balance between nature and nurture. An individual must be genetically predisposed to negative behavior then experience trauma or other circumstance within his or her life to trigger the negative response.

Not all individuals predisposed to any problem will develop the problem. And not all people raised in a negative environment will become criminals. The balance must be tipped on either end for these results.

By anon84614 — On May 16, 2010

Not all people are the same. Some were born into criminal families. The mother and father had a criminal mind, so now does the child. They are conditioned at an early age.

The child is told what to do by the parent and does it accordingly. Sometimes by force and sometimes not. In most cases, one of the parents has a criminal mind. The mother will take the child shoplifting with her or, the older sister, brother or friend will persuade a young child into shoplifting, or bullying another child at school.

Children who come from loving homes, who rebel and act out in criminal ways, are usually antisocial, borderline or may be schizophrenic or may have been, to a small or large degree, sexually violated by another adult. Trauma is the leading cause of children becoming criminals when reaching adulthood.

Knowing right from wrong has not been taught in the home. The child mirrors his family, or in some cases, rebels.

Peer pressure is a big reason why children do drugs, steal and create violence in and outside the home. That's why it is always important to know what kinds of friends your child has.

So to answer the question, "How would psychoanalysis explain criminal behavior? Are we born evil or is it learned behavior?" No one is born evil -- it is almost always learned behavior.

In some cases, children may be diagnosed with some type of hyperactive condition, that may cause the child to act out.

The frontal temporal lobe doesn't stop developing until the child is at the age of sixteen, so the ability to think things through may be difficult at times for the child. There is a saying I heard once, "hurt parents, hurt children, then hurt children, hurt others." Take care.

By whitlock — On Jan 31, 2008

How would psychoanalysis explain criminal behavior? Are we born evil or is it a learned behavior?

Michael Pollick

Michael Pollick


As a frequent contributor to The Health Board, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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