In Defense of Freud

A couple Science Bloggers have been giving Freud a hard time lately. In a post on Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, Jonah Lehrer of The Frontal Cortex wrote:

So why was Blink less than satisfying for me? Becase Gladwell ended up lumping together all sorts of research, from Damasio's Iowa Gambling Task to Ekman's cartography of facial muscles to brain scans of autistic people, that, at least from a neurological perspective, were totally unrelated. They all involved different brain regions that are activated by different stimuli. Gladwell got around this slight problem by never discussing the actual details. Instead, he wrapped this unrelated research in a neat bow of readable anecdotes, all of which revolved around a nebulous entity called the "unconscious".

Does this approach sound familiar? It should. Sigmund Freud was also a master prose stylist, wasn't particularly interested in the neurological foundations of his theories, and loved theorizing about the all powerful unconscious.

Later in the post, he describes Freud's theories as "oversimplified stories about the subterranean self we don't know." Then Dave Munger of Cognitive Daily, in a post titled "A guarded defense of Malcolm Gladwell" calls this comparison to Freud "the ultimate slam."

This sort of Freud-bashing is just wrong. For one, while Jonah attempts to criticize Gladwell for being too Freud-like in his discussion of the "adaptive unconscious" (another term for the "cognitive unconscious"), the very fact that contemporary psychologists have begun to show just how important unconscious processes are is, in a way, a vindication of Freud. As is the fact that we are just now beginning to understsand the interplay of affect, motivation, and cognition -- the very focus of Freudian psychoanalysis! And it wouldn't be a stretch to say that our contemporary scientific understanding of this interplay looks pretty damn Freudian. A reader acquainted with the works of Freud would be hard pressed not to notice ideas similar to his in the work of people like John Bargh on unconscious social attitudes, Antonio Damasio on the role of emotion in reasoning, or George Loewenstein on goals, motivations, and needs. It's undeniable that many of Freud's ideas are unusable in today's scientific psychology, but can you think of any psychologists writing at the turn of the last century about whom you could not say that?

On top of that, the substance of Jonah's comparison is unfair. I haven't read Gladwell's book, so I can't say how good or bad it is, but Jonah's descriptions of Freud are based on misconceptions. Freud's discussions of case studies and other "anecdotes" were highly systematic (and not always all that readable!), and his resulting theories were anything but "oversimplified" (sure, they were "simple," in a philosophical sense, but that's usually considered a good thing). And it's definitely not true that he "wasn't particularly interested in the neurological foundations of his theories." First, there was Freud's famous 1895 "Project for a Scientific Psychology," which actually laid out the beginning of a neurobiological theory of many of the targets of his later psychoanalytic inquiries. Granted, Freud abandoned the "Project," as it's often called, and it is now generally considered to be part of the "pre-psychonanalytic" stage of his career, but he never lost sight of the necessity of integrating his observations with the brain, writing of his work in psychoanalysis that "we shall have to find a contact point with biology"1. It is true that after his early work in neurobiology, he didn't place an emphasis on neuroscience, but neither do most cognitive psychologists today, and I don't think that's a valid criticism of their work (I know, of course, that many neuroscientists disagree). Freud, like cognitive psychologists today, recognized that there's work to be done before we get to the neuroscience, and in place of a neuroscience that hadn't (and hasn't), as of yet, reached a point technologically where it can catch up with psychology either theoretically or empirically.

But Jonah and Dave's attitudes towards Freud are not unusual. I probably don't have to tell you that Freud gets a bad rap in contemporary scientific psychology. Freud's reputation in the brain and behavioral sciences is so bad that authors often go out of their way to distance themselves from him. Hell, cognitive psychologists even coined the term "cognitive unconscious" to make sure that no one would associate it with Freud. But this reputation is completely undeserved.

Honestly, I think Freud's bad reputation is largely a result of the fact that most scientific psychologists have never read a single word of Freud's (I don't mean to imply that either Jonah and Dave have never read any Freud, of course). Instead, most psychologists today get their Freud from kooky modern-day psychoanalysts who probably haven't read all that much Freud either. Combine this with the extremely bitter fighting for control of psychology in the 1950s and 60s between psychoanalysists in the Freudian tradition and scientific psychologists just beginning to emerge from the iron grip of behaviorism, and you get a culture of Freud bashing.

I hope that someday in the near future we'll be able to let go of our collective animosity towards Freud, and begin to take him seriously enough to use him for inspiration in the way that many psychologists today use James or Lewin. I'd be willing to bet that as cognitive science continues to grow, and as affect and cognition are unified more and more in our theoretical and empirical work, Freud will have many insights to offer us, even if they are in a "primitive" form.

1As quoted in Schore, A.N. (1997). A century after Freud's Project: Is a rapprochment between psychoanalysis and neurobiology at hand? Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 45, 807-840.

UPDATE: I meant to include a link to this 1998 Psychologial Bulletin paper by Drew Westen, which provides an extensive review of the connections between Freud and contemporary psychological science.


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I wonder, too, how much of it might be that we're not usually told how much Freud's views went through refinement over his entire career. (He was one of the first to use recovered memories, for instance, and also one of the first to conclude that they weren't of much value -- the unconscious not being able to distinguish well between fact and vivid fiction.) So in the usual story we don't get much sense of the science of the man, his insistence on trying to keep theory in contact with facts, etc.; we just get some of the not-quite-right conclusions he came to (some of which he eventually became disillusioned with himself) given what he had to work with. But if coming to the right conclusions were the only mark of genuine science, there would be a lot of researchers who are going to be shocked when they come to the pearly gates and discover that, contrary to what they thought, they were never genuine scientists at all!

Sheila, thanks for the link.

Brandon, excellent points. One of Freud's characteristics that I admire the most is his willingness to change his mind when he felt that the facts required him to do so. The example I immediately thought of was the shift from the pleasure principle to the death drive, which, it could be argued, resulted in a fundamental shift in his overall theory. Of course, this characteristic corresponds with one of his worst: his willingness to change his theories in response to largely political or social pressures. The fact that people are unaware of the changes over Freud's career (I mentioned another in the post) is yet another indication that they simply haven't read much Freud.

Also, I've often said that in a science as young as cognitive science, the chances are that most of the conclusions we arrive at today will be shown to be false by subsequent generations. I don't really think that's a bad thing. It's how we learn. Really, the best one can hope for is to be so influential that, generations after you're gone, people are still talking about your ideas, even if they believe them to be laughably "primitive." It's just a shame that people think that Freud hurt psychology more than he advanced it, because that's simply not true. Sure, the dominance of psychoanalysis in the U.S. in the 40s, 50s, and 60s hurt the advancement of the biological model, but that wasn't Freud's fault. In fact, I think that's largely a result of the fact that the people doing work on the biological side were just then learning to reliably distinguish their heads from their asses, metaphorically speaking.

In doing some prep for a memory course I was teaching recently, I was amazed to find out just how badly all the "repressed memory" warriors from the 80s and 90s had mangled Freud.

I had thought you could draw a straight line from Freud to the RM hysteria, but you really can't. He'd have slapped around most of those people from what I could gather.

I still find a lot not to like about old Sigmund, but I do find that I increasingly praise his broad emphasis on the unconscious as being well ahead of its time in my classes.

p.s. I think another reason he gets a bad rap is that experimental psychologists just get so sick of telling people we aren't therapists. And because of Freud's prominence in pop culture, and his sex-and-other-uncomfortable-topics focus, we get extra cranky about comparisons with him.


I wrote a post long, long ago in which I chapter of Freud's on repression, to show just how different his ideas were from those of the modern-day repressed memory camp. you're right, they really do mangle the concept of repression.

And I got so sick of telling people I don't do therapy that i stopped calling myself a psychologist, and started calling myself a cognitive scientist.

I think another reason he gets a bad rap is that experimental psychologists just get so sick of telling people we aren't therapists. And because of Freud's prominence in pop culture, and his sex-and-other-uncomfortable-topics focus, we get extra cranky about comparisons with him.

I'm only a second-year psych undergrad (with aspirations of going into research) and I'm already get annoyed with that!

Regardless of whether or not Freud's ideas were right, he did get the ball rolling for the study of psychology in general; he was like the greek philosophers that happened to spark the human conquest of science.

Ultimately, The most important and salient thing about his career is that he started the discussion.

By Eric Irvine (not verified) on 25 Jun 2006 #permalink

"And I got so sick of telling people I don't do therapy that i stopped calling myself a psychologist, and started calling myself a cognitive scientist."

I once decided I was going to go that route. But the very first person I tried it on replied "Oh, you're a psychologist then?" with the same tone that one might use on a garbage man who referred to himself as a 'waste disposal technician'.

So I just said the hell with it :) My family finally understands that I don't do therapy, so I just content myself with that small victory.

Ooh, I hate being asked to analyze people. I use "cognitive scientist" too, or just "I study cognition," and only mention psychology if pressed for details.
Poor jbark! people thinking cognitive science is just a PC name for psychology...

Speaking as a non-psychologist who has interacted significantly with psychologists in both clinical and academic settings, I think your making too much of a distinction.

Research based MD's are often in much the same position -- yes, I'm a doctor, but I don't see patients. A large portion of the medical profession still finds its useful however to have a dual emphasis in thier education system -- realizing that graduates will have alternative career opportunities.

Another issue is that currently (and for the forseeable future), only psychologists from APA approved programs -- and all psychologists from APA approved programs (with an intership year), are eligible to bill insurance/Medicare as a psychologist.

In all reality, I find the desire to go into clinical psychology a little questionable professionally. In today's environment, a psychiatrist can perform (if they choose) all of the services of a psychologist, finish training in about the same amount of time (7 yrs vs 5-7 depending on dissertation length), and its much easier to gian entrance to medical school.

I can't speak for everyone, but I make sure to say that I'm a cognitive scientist, and not a cognitive psychologist, in most social situations because I don't want to be thought of as a "shrink" or therapist. I've known people who actually are therapists (psychology PhDs) who, when I have told them that I'm a cognitive psychologist, ask whether I do cognitive therapy! That's just damn annoying.

As for PhDs vs. MDs, I have to admit I am on the side of PhDs. The usual argument is that MDs focus more on prescribing medication, while PhDs focus on talk therapy (and in practice, that's certainly true), but the reason I prefer PhDs to MDs is the focus on research. There are two types of PhD programs in clinical psychology these days: those with an emphasis on therapy, and those with an emphasis on research. Even the therapy-focused programs require some research, however. And PhDs in psychology are doing the best non-pharmaceutical research in clinical psychology as a result of this.

Chris -- I agree with you that the Ph.D. programs are probably better if your interested in research.

As for the clinical duties of the two disciplines, for an MD that is really optional. I've known MD's that perform therapy and testing. The reason this isn't common is reimbursement (and I would agree that today's training isn't as good as it was 30 years ago either).

An MD focusing on therapy/testing, will make probably 60-70% of his colleagues that focus on psychopharmacology and procedures (such as performing ECT). That said, they will still make 30-40% more than a psychologist doing the same work in many cases.