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Young Dr. Freud
Theories Perspectives Family
Analysis: Questions
Electrotherapy
Electrotherapy
(David Grubin Productions)
 
In the spring of 1886, in a small office in the heart of Vienna, Sigmund Freud began to practice medicine. His specialty was neurology, treating patients with both physical and so-called "nervous disorders." As a young researcher Freud had dissected the brain and studied its anatomy under a microscope. Now he was studying the mind, attempting to penetrate its mysteries with the scalpel of his own intellect.

As Freud began his work as a neurologist, he continued to be puzzled by the riddle of hysteria. Like other doctors of his day, he treated hysteria with discretely delivered jolts of electricity and hypnosis.

He urged his patients to shut their eyes, he applied the pressure of his hand to their foreheads, anything to get them to tell him what they remembered.
FREUD: "My therapeutic arsenal contained only two weapons, hypnotism and electrotherapy… Unluckily I was soon driven to see that [electrotherapy] was of no help whatever."

At first, like Breuer, Freud hypnotized his patients, encouraging them to tell their stories while under an hypnotic trance. But hypnosis wasn't helping them.

GAY: In an hypnotic trance people would talk about things that they couldn't talk about, wouldn't talk about under other circumstances and that could help. [But] it wasn't lasting. People would have momentary cures under hypnosis and then lapse right back into their illness again.

Freud's couch in his Vienna office
Freud's couch in his Vienna office
(Photograph by Edmund Engelman)
 
He urged his patients to shut their eyes, he applied the pressure of his hand to their foreheads, anything to get them to tell him what they remembered. Nothing worked. Gradually, Freud abandoned hypnosis altogether.

Then he hit upon a technique that became the cornerstone of his treatment. He simply asked his patients to talk. He would listen, encouraging them to let their thoughts drift, to "free associate."

BERGMANN: And that's how free association was born. All he asked for is that the patient pledge himself to say everything. Freud transformed the passive hypnotic patient to whom people were giving suggestion into a source of information.

GAY: It may be boring, it may be repetitious, it may make you feel silly and you may be ashamed to believe something or other. It may be very dirty, it may be criminal, doesn't matter.

Freud saw himself as a kind of archaeologist, digging deeper and deeper into the buried past.
 
Freud saw himself as a kind of archaeologist, digging deeper and deeper into the buried past. From fragments of the past, he struggled to interpret the present.

GAY: Freud learns that people seem to be guided by forces over which they don't have really complete control. And he begins to develop this idea that maybe this unconscious is worth studying in a more systematic way than it's ever been.

What his patients said mattered. Everything was important - even their dreams. Men and women had always wondered at dreams, imagined them as hidden messages, feared them as mysterious omens, invested them with prophetic powers. Doctors in Freud's day dismissed dreams as irrelevant nonsense. But Freud was curious.

BERGMANN: Somebody else would have passed dreams by. This was one of his genius ideas. Everybody dreams… So this was the huge step from a medical specialty to a discovery that matters to everyone.

EAGLE: If you take the simple hypothesis that dreaming is a continuation of thinking in the sleeping state, then looking at your dreams may well be a way of understanding your preoccupations, your concerns, what you're most upset by, what you're most preoccupied by, that may not be that easily accessible when you're talking to me awake.



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FEARS | HYPNOTISM




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