Book Commentary: Freud for Beginners

evanstiegel's picture

 As the semester has passed, I have believed more and more that most of our behavior has a neurobiological basis.  In the therapeutic setting, I am well aware of the current struggle between the fields of neuroscience and psychoanalysis.   Having never taken a psychology course, I felt I needed to see things from the other perspective.  Therefore, I decided there is no better place to start than the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud.  However, as psychology novice, I was nervous jumping right into one of his works for fear of them being a bit too inscrutable to me.  However, I was lucky enough to stumble upon a book called Freud for Beginners by Richard Appignanesi and Oscar Zarate.  The book, with its inquisitive text and vivid illustrations, was a great introduction to the man, his influence, and work.  Most importantly, though, the book effectively simplified Freud and his thoughts without trivializing him.  Although, Freud's idea of psychoanalysis describes behavior in a clashing way to neurobiology, I observed many connections to what we have learned during our course.

 Psychoanalysis is devoted to studying human behavior as a function of the mind.  The dichotomy between the mind and the nervous system is central to Freud's thoughts and to this book.  The book does a great job in depicting Freud's mechanistic influence, especially from individuals like Ernst Brucke, Theodor Meynert and Jean Martin Charcot who Freud studied under. Mechanism suggests that life should be studied and understood through chemistry and physics.  Moreover, mechanism implies that behavior is a result of biological functions.  Freud's original divergence from the mechanistic path occurred with his study of hysteria with physician friend Josef Breuer.  Hysteria, originally thought to exclusive to women, was taught to Freud as having a purely physical basis.  Through his work with Breuer on a patient called Anna O., Freud concluded that hysteria is the repression of traumatic memories which results in a pathogenic influence of the physical processes of the body. 

 Incorporating his conclusions on his hysteria and more conclusions thereafter on dream analysis, Freud fleshes out his idea about the unconscious mind.  The unconscious mind consists of mental processes of which an individual is unaware.  He then expands on this definition by describing two kinds of unconscious processes.  One part of the unconscious mind is capable of becoming conscious easily while the other is subject to repression.  In this portion of the book, I began to compare Freud's idea of the unconsciousness mind to certain ideas we learned in Neurobiology and Behavior.  Does Freud's view of the unconsciousness mind have any relationship to the unconscious part of the nervous system that creates our personal reality?  We learned that a significant portion of the nervous system elicits certain behaviors without us, or our conscious, being aware.  For example, our brain creates a picture of what we see as evident through the X and dot activity. Is the same unconscious that creates white space (in the X and dot example) exist as the storage area for traumatic memories? Perhaps, but, to my dismay, the book failed to provide an architectural model for how this works (Freud may or may not have in one of his works). 

 The book continues to expand on many of Freud’s ideas including the Oedipus Complex and psychosexual development.  The Oedipus Complex is when a child desires  the parent of the opposite sex and possesses hatred for the parent of the same sex.  We are told of Freud’s idea that sexual curiosity is distinctly human and that stages of sexual development consist of three stages, oral, anal, and phallic.  Many conclusions are made and connections drawn between certain neurotic symptoms and improper sexual development.  I have problems with many of these conclusions because they seem to lack a basis in most circumstances.  My frustration was evident in the example of Freud’s patient who is dubbed Little Hans.  Little Hans had a horse phobia which Freud concluded was due to a fear of his father.  According to Freud, Little Hans feared his father because he was frightened that his father might threaten castration because he lusted for his mother.  Freud’s conclusion may have been the reason for Hans’ phobia, but in my opinion, there are several reasons why a child could have had a fear of horses.  I feel that Freud’s use of sexuality is often too extreme, and that he fails to incorporate biological, environmental, or social influence to many neuroses.

 After having read this book and receiving my introduction to Freud and his ideas, I feel unfavorably about psychoanalysis.  I find it difficult to trust these psychological theories that lack a biological basis.  Maybe I have been “trained” to think this way, but I often found myself frustrated for the explanations Freud gives for neuroses.  Psychoanalysis feels more like an interpretation of biological phenomena than its own unique therapeutic tool.  Today’s technology, much of which did not exist yet during Freud’s days,  has elucidated many functions of the nervous system that challenge psychological theories.  Functional MRI for example, can provide images of neural activity provided many new observations about behavior.  I would be interested to see how Freud would have made sense of the observations of today’s technology.  Our brain’s plasticity provides one way in which many of Freud’s theories could manifest themselves.  Our brain’s plasticity suggests that all the experiences we have change the arrangement of the neurons, or input-output boxes, in our brain.  Therefore, I could see how certain experiences (whether they are sexual or not) during our youth could result in neuroses during adulthood.  Overall, though, I recommend this book to anyone who, like me, is curious about Sigmund Freud and his ideas, but is hesitant about reading one of his works.  The book kept me entertained while educating me on Freud and some of his “out-there ideas”. 

Appignanesi, Richard, and Oscar Zarate. Freud for Beginners. Pantheon, 1990.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Freud and the brain

The very significant role that the unconscious plays in human behavior was probably Freud's most important "out there" idea, and it is obviously not so out there any more. Why Freud got so interested in sex is an interesting question, and while the jury is indeed still out on that one, its probably fair to say that sex plays a more significant role in behavior than people were inclined to grant at the time Freud was writing (and perhaps still?). The relation between the neurobiological and the Freudian unconscious is one of the most interesting areas for exploration at the neurobiology/psychoanalytic interface. For more on that see

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