Robert Todd Carroll
psychoanalysis & Sigmund Freud
Psychoanalysis is 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 neurochemical disorders, but narcissistic disorders. Autism and other brain disorders are not brain chemistry problems but mothering problems. These illnesses do not require pharmacological treatment. They require only "talk" therapy. Similar positions are taken for anorexia nervosa and Tourette's syndrome. (Hines, p. 136) What is the 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 homsexuality. However, he maintained that psychoanalysis would not work with schizophrenics because such patients ingnore their therapist's insights and are resistant to treatment (Dolnick, 40). Later psychoanalysts would claim, with equal certainty and equally lacking 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 (Dolnick, 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 traumatic or sexual (or both) childhood experiences which have been repressed or sublimated? Probably for the same reasons 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 for harm.
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, as is any evidence that conscious thought or behavior is influenced by repressed memories. (For those who did not read that last sentence too carefully, let me note that I am denying neither the existence of unconscious thoughts nor implicit memories.)
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 repressing 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 time.
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 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 caused the patient's problem) 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?
There are some good things, however, which have resulted from the method of psychoanalysis developed by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) 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, 120).
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Hines, Terence. Pseudoscience and the Paranormal (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1990). $23.95
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Storr, Anthony. Feet of Clay - saints, sinners, and madmen: a study of gurus (New York: The Free Press, 1996). $10.40
Robert Todd Carroll