Sigmund Freud’s Tripartite Theory of Mind

From the Lecture Series: Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Sigmund Freud was introduced to hypnosis by Jean-Martin Charcot. He realized that some patients would recall some memories during hypnosis that they couldn’t recall in other situations. Hypnosis helped Freud develop a theory that shaped the history of psychology.

The image shows a silhouette of a man with brain shown as the space filled with stars.
Freud posited the mind has three parts: the Id, the Ego, and the Superego.
(Image: Triff/Shutterstock)

The Ego, the Conscious Mind

The idea of past experiences forced into the subconscious repository led to the development of a tripartite theory of mind. According to this theory, the human mind has three parts. The first part is the ego or the conscious mind. When we consciously make a decision, like choosing the type of ice-cream we want to order, we are dealing with this part of our mind. We are inclined to think that our mind is all this, and there is nothing more to it. However, the ego does many other things like reasoning, arguing, planning and organizing, deliberating, and making sense of our experiences.

Learn more about the rediscovery of the mind.

What is the Id?

The second part of the mind is the repository of our urges and desires: the id. While we identify ourselves with reason, the urges and desires are blamed on external factors. For example, we have historically externalized actions for satisfying physical desires as the work of the devil. We move bodily wants outside of the self and keep the self in that part of the mind which is safe and rational.

The id is always with us. In fact, in childhood, before we are taught self-control, id is the only part that is present. Freud had long studied the brain, focusing on cerebral palsy and other problems that occur in childhood. Having studied the child’s mind for a long time, he believed that when we are cultured, we mitigate id. But what about the times when we engage in uncultured behaviors? Take jokes as an example. Some jokes are indeed very clever, but a large portion of the jokes are dirty ones.

The image shows an illustration of brain nervous system in a child's head.
The id is the conscious mind. (Image: sutadimages/Shutterstock)

The whole human species enjoy jokes that involve sexuality. According to Freud, we have a natural sexual drive that is a part of our animal side and an active part of the id. We are always trying to repress it to show that we are acculturated. Freud contends that we try our best to keep this desire under control, but these jokes provide a safe space for us to release this energy. We express this energy in the form of laughter, which is accepted both by the culture and the ego.  

This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Superego

How does the ego know what is allowed and what is not? The superego determines that. Almost all human beings are raised by their parents, who teach them what is right and wrong and how to function and behave in the society.

Why do we have to learn these? Because they are unnatural. The expectations of society are not in line with our natural desires. So we repress what we naturally want, and do what we are expected to. If we violate these rules of etiquette, our parents reproach us. The father is traditionally in charge of disciplining the child. It is the father who enforces these laws and punishes if required. In time, we internalize the rules, making the father redundant. In addition to the rules, we also internalize the disciplinary role of the father: the superego, or the conscience.

The image shows the brain divided in two parts: the right creative hemisphere and the left logical hemisphere.
The superego disciplines human beings. (Image: Triff/Shutterstock)

Since we always want to establish ourselves as purely rational beings with free will, we externalize the superego exactly the way we do with the id. The devil is the externalized embodiment of the id, and that of the superego is God, who is the heavenly father. He establishes rules and sets rewards and punishments. We then try to present the superego as something more than a mere product of acculturation by our parents and give it more power and authority. So, we call these rules the divine commandments that, if not followed, will place us into eternal torture.

So, the human mind is in a constant battle between the id and the superego. We think we decide on our own free will, but our decisions and actions are actually the winning side of this battle. Even healthy minds undergo this kind of battle. But, there are some cases in which traumatic experiences are firmly seated in the subconscious. The mind is constantly trying to repress these traumas, eating away at the person’s natural resources. They lead the id to urge certain actions that are not even allowed to be considered by the superego.

When we posit that the mind is more than the mere ego, we can find rational explanations for mental problems. So, hysteria is cured by uncovering traumatic experiences through psychoanalysis. The psychoanalyst is like a plumber who goes to the depths of the subconscious to expose those experiences and release them. If these experiences are not dug out, they remain buried in the psyche, creating huge damages to the person and the people around him.

Learn more about working memory.

Common Questions about Sigmund Freud’s Tripartite Theory of Mind

Q: What is the ego?

The ego is the conscious mind. It is the part of the mind that is at play when we make a conscious decision.

Q: What is the id?

The id is the subconscious part of the mind that is responsible for driving us towards pursuing our physical desires. It is the part that we learn to repress through the process of acculturation.

Q: What is the Superego?

The superego is the subconscious part of our mind that is responsible for directing us towards doing the right things.

Q: What is the tripartite mind?

The tripartite mind is a theory put forth by Sigmund Freud. He contended that our mind has three parts: the ego, the id, and the superego.

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