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Psychoanalysis - Psychoanalytic Theory Of Mind

freud unconscious energy discharge

In Studies on Hysteria, Freud wrote that "hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences," and with those words summed up the fundamental insight of psychoanalysis. Through his work with his neurotic patients, and later, through his own self-analysis, Freud became convinced that the symptoms from which they suffered—which ranged from hysterical blindness to obsessive thoughts and behaviors, to near-catatonic states—were the result of conflicts in the mind between unacceptable ideas and wishes that sought expression, and forces in the mind opposing that expression. Unable to find an outlet in consciousness, these unacceptable, "repressed" wishes manifested themselves in other, compromised ways, in neurotic symptoms, slips of the tongue, and dreams. To explain how this came about, Freud devised a revolutionary concept of how the mind works.

Freud was influenced by the biological and physical sciences of his time, and his first theory of the mind was governed by a principle of energy discharge. Conceiving of the mental apparatus as an organism, Freud postulated a system whose purpose, as in a biological nervous system, was to maintain its equilibrium by reducing energy (or tension) in it—an imperative Freud called the pleasure principle.

Later, based on this model, Freud distinguished two modes of thinking, which he termed the primary and secondary processes, which were identified respectively with free and bound energy (with energy ultimately coming to mean libidinal, or sexual energy), and the workings of the pleasure and reality principles. These antagonistic pairs were the starting point for the conflictual, dynamic perspective from which Freud consistently viewed mental processes.

Conscious, preconscious, and unconscious.

To demonstrate his theory of mental functioning, Freud devised a topographical model made up of three connected systems—conscious, preconscious, and unconscious—which set up a stratified, differentiated relation among psychic contents, on a continuum from surface/conscious to depth/unconscious. The unconscious represents the largest set, comprising all sensory perceptions, both internal and external. The preconscious encompasses all those perceptions that have been perceived but not excluded from consciousness by repression. Finally, conscious perceptions are those that have come into awareness.

In this first model, the unconscious is identified with the primary process, whose purpose is the free discharge of energy; the preconscious/conscious system (the two agencies were often functionally united), on the other hand, is identified with the secondary processes, and with the binding of energy. Freud supposed that mental conflict was the result of antagonism between unconscious psychic contents pressing for discharge (according to the pleasure principle), and the censorship "guarding" the preconscious/conscious system (reality principle). When successfully kept out of consciousness, the repressed impulses continued to seek discharge, eventually succeeding through the "compromise formations" of dreams, slips of the tongue, and neurotic symptoms.


Repression was the name Freud gave to the defensive warding off of unacceptable thought contents from consciousness. This process was the result of the dynamic conflict within the mind between opposing forces of instinct and "reality," and the agencies that housed them: the unconscious and the preconscious/conscious systems.

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud likened the agent of repression to a censor. The function of this censor—and of repression itself—is to keep from consciousness psychical contents that, though in their discharge (or expression) are pleasurable in themselves, must come into conflict with other exigencies, typically those that proceed from the external world, morality, or the person's own wishes.

Freud came to regard neurotic illness as the result of conflicts between the drive of unconscious products toward expression and their repulsion by the defenses of censorship. He saw repression as the cornerstone of all these defensive processes, and considered other defensive processes to be derived from it. It thus became the essential task of psychoanalysis to undo the effects of repression, to bring the unacceptable unconscious contents into awareness, and through this discharge to free up the psychical energy that was absorbed in the prevention of that discharge (in neurotic symptoms).


In his earliest work with the neuroses, Freud supposed them to originate either in constitutional factors or in the traumatic effect of actual sexual seduction. In 1897, however, Freud concluded that the majority of the accounts of seductions he had from his patients had little basis in reality. To account for this conclusion, to the existing two "predispositions" to neurosis Freud added a third cause: repressed wishes for instinctual gratifications, which manifested themselves in fantasies. These fantasies, typically sexual (and incestuous) in nature, which Freud initially took for real events, actually belonged to the province of psychical reality and had the traumatic force of "material" reality. Because of their unacceptable nature, these fantasies, originating in the unconscious, threw the psychic apparatus into turmoil when they came up against the censor and were repressed, able to assert themselves only in the compromise formations of dreams and neurotic symptoms. Freud came to believe that it was these fantasies of unacceptable wishes that were the determining factor in the majority of neuroses.

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