The First Building Blocks of Psychoanalysis

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

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer realized the need for an approach to help people suffering from mental illnesses. It was seen that talking about what was happening to patients would make their symptoms disappear. Read on to know more about how this knowledge brought about changes in the field of psychology.

Painting of Jean-Martin Charcot hypnotizing a woman in front of a group of attentive men.
Jean-Martin Charcot is depicted hypnotizing a woman suffering from hysteria.
(Image: André Brouillet/Public domain)

The Emergence of Talk Therapy

Sigmund Freud was an Austrian physician who was interested in brain-based medical research and how the brain problems led to various illnesses. He understood that while dissecting brains at the hospital led to interesting findings, it did little to cure those who were suffering. He believed a different approach was needed, and this was provided by one of his senior colleagues, Josef Breuer.

Photograph of Josef Breuer.
Josef Breuer (shown here) provided Freud with a different approach to treat mental illnesses. (Image: Institute for the History of Medicine, Vienna, Austria/Public domain)

One of Josef’s Breuer’s patients, under the pseudonym Anna O, was a compelling case. She had a variety of symptoms that appeared intermittently, like periods of blackouts, losing her ability to move her limbs or speak, and loss of vision. When Breuer talked to her, the symptoms would go away. He realized that talking about what was happening to patients would help patients by changing what was happening to them.

Breuer talked about Anna O with Freud. This case presented a considerable paradigm shift to Freud. He had subscribed to the notion that to cure the mind, a mechanical approach had to be taken. He believed that the malfunctioning segments of the brain were responsible for mental problems. But now, the psychological symptoms were improved by addressing the mind through talking. A new horizon had presented itself: talk therapy.

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

Hypnosis sheds New Light on the Human Brain

In the late 18th century, Franz Mesmer, a German Physician, studied the influence of magnets on humans. He realized that dangling a magnet in front of a person would make them enter a strange mental state. This is where the word “mesmerize” comes from. Then it turned out that the magnet was not essential, and he could do it without the magnet. He thought that his internal magnetism was leading to that state. But his ideas were discredited, and mesmerization or hypnosis was considered hogwash. Scientists were discouraged from investigating it, or they were considered swindlers.

But in the waning years of the 19th century, Jean-Martin Charcot became interested in it. Interestingly, Lou Gehrig’s disease was initially called Charcot disease because he had investigated it. Being the giant that he was in French medical circles, he was allowed to enter fields nobody was allowed to. So, he started to consider hypnosis as a legitimate psychological phenomenon and a possible strategy to treat mental illnesses. He found that there were totally sane women who suffered from hysteria and episodes of paralysis. He postulated that a traumatic event was responsible for that kind of hysteria.

This proposition was revolutionary as it moved the focus from brain injury to mind injury as the cause of the mental illness. Although he believed there was a physiological aspect that made certain women susceptible to hysteria, their experiences also played a role in the problem. These women could be hypnotized, and the result of hypnosis could help them.

He believed that hysteria was the underlying factor that made these women capable of being hypnotized, and that other people could not be hypnotized. Susceptibility to hypnosis was both a symptom of hysteria and its potential cure.

Learn more about science versus pseudoscience.

The Discovery of a Repository Inside the Human Mind

Photographic portrait of Sigmund Freud.
Sigmund Freud developed the talk therapy. (Image: Max Halberstadt/Public domain)

Freud went to Paris to learn about Charcot’s findings. When he returned to Vienna, he found that hypnosis was less systematic than he thought. It didn’t happen in all women suffering from hysteria. It was helpful for some and didn’t affect others. Although he lost his enthusiasm about hypnosis, it did provide him with a new picture of the human mind.

Freud found a fascinating point about hypnosis. The women who were hypnotized could remember things that they couldn’t recall while conscious. He concluded that the mind has a storage area where memories are kept, and people do not have access to it in normal circumstances.

Freud concluded that hypnosis, like free association or dream analysis, was another way to get to this repository. He posited that hypnosis is not a byproduct of mental illness. Instead, it is a path to a part of mind that is present in all humans, but is normally inaccessible.

Charcot hypothesized that mental illnesses were partly the result of experienced trauma. Breuer’s findings on the influence of talking about experiences on improving symptoms showed that there was more to mind than what people thought. Some traumatic events are stored in the inaccessible repository and cause mental illnesses. These memories remain in this subconscious part because they are so painful that one cannot confront them. Instead, people work hard most of their lives to suppress them. This suppression is done subconsciously, but this mental struggle demonstrates itself in other ways, which can be impossible to explain.

Learn more about working memory.

Common Questions about the First Building Blocks of Psychoanalysis

Q: What did Anna O suffer from?

Anna O had a variety of symptoms that appeared intermittently, like periods of blackouts, losing her ability to move her limbs or speak, and loss of vision. When Breuer talked to her, the symptoms would go away.

Q: Who invented talk therapy?

Sigmund Freud invented talk therapy. He realized that by talking to a patient, the symptoms would vanish.

Q: How did Franz Mesmer supposedly develop hypnosis?

Franz Mesmer realized that dangling a magnet in front of a person made them enter a strange mental state. This is where the word “mesmerize” comes from.

Q: What did Sigmund Freud study with Jean-Martin Charcot?

Sigmund Freud and Jean-Martin Charcot studied hypnosis together. Charcot believed that hysteria made patients susceptible to hypnosis. Freud realized that hypnosis was a path to the repository inside the human brain.

Keep Reading
Nature and Nurture: The Root of Human Behavior
Evolutionary Psychology and Fundamental Human Needs
Self-Awareness and Psychology: Navigating Human Mysteries