Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud was a late 19th and early 20th century neurologist. He is widely acknowledged as the father of modern psychology and the primary developer of the process of psychoanalysis

Early Life

Sigmund Freud was born in Freiberg, Moravia in 1856, the oldest of eight children. His family moved to Vienna when Freud was four years old. He studied at a preparatory school in Leopoldstadt where he excelled in Greek, Latin, history, math, and science. His academic superiority gained him entry into the University of Vienna at the age of seventeen. Upon completion, he went on to pursue his medical degree and PhD in neurology.

Freud married Martha Bernays in 1886, and the couple had six children. The youngest of Freud's children, Anna Freud, became an influential psychologist and ardent defender of her father's theories. 

Professional Life

After working with Joseph Breur at the Vienna General Hospital, Freud traveled to Paris to study hypnosis under Jean-Martin Charcot. When he returned to Vienna the following year, Freud opened his first medical practice and began specializing in brain and nervous disorders. Freud soon determined that hypnosis was an ineffective method to achieve the results he desired, and he began to implement a form of talking therapy with his patients. This method became recognized as a “talking cure” and the goal was to encourage the patient to tap into the unconscious mind and let go of the repressed energy and emotions therein. Freud called this function repression and felt that this action hindered the development of emotional and physical functionality, which he referred to as psychosomatic. The element of using talk therapy eventually became the foundation of psychoanalysis.

Contribution to Psychology

Freud drew heavily upon the emphasis of philosophers such as Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and Kant. Freud’s theories continue to influence much of modern psychology, and his ideas also resonate throughout philosophy, sociology, and political science, with thinkers such as Jacques Lacan and Karl Marx drawing heavily upon Freudian theories. Freud's emphasis upon early life and the drive to pleasure are perhaps his most significant contributions to psychology. Even contemporary psychologists who disavow Freud's theories often take an interest in a client's early life and the relationship between child and parent. Some of Freud's most significant theories include:

  • The development of the unconscious and conscious minds. Freud argued that the mind consists of the conscious mind, which contains the thoughts and beliefs of which we are aware. The unconscious mind, by contrast, is a repository for repressed memories and unexpressed desires, and problems with the unconscious mind can lead to problems with behavior and emotional regulation. 
  • The structural model of personality. Drawing upon his theory of the unconscious mind, Freud developed the concepts of the id, ego, and superego. The ego is the everyday personality that we present to the world, but represents only a fraction of a person's true self. The superego, by contrast, serves as a sort of conscience and internalizes moral, social, and cultural norms. The id is a pleasure-seeking, primitive structure that is present at birth. It forms the foundation of a person's personality, and unconscious id desires can explain seemingly unexplainable behaviors. 
  • Stages of psychosexual development. These stages, which include the oral, anal, genital, latent, and phallic, represent different stages of child development during which a child has a major psychological task he or she must complete. The primary task of the anal stage, for example, is toilet training. Failure to competently complete a major developmental task can lead to later psychological problems related to that stage. For example, children who have trouble during toilet training may grow into anally retentive adults. One of the most popular and widely debated sub-theories within the stages of psychosexual development is the Oedipal complex. During this developmental challenge, a son is incestuously attracted to his mother and feels rivalry toward his father. He must resolve this challenge by identifying with his father. 
  • The concept of defense mechanisms. Freud's defense mechanisms—which are still a part of contemporary psychology—are tools of the unconscious mind that are designed to alter reality in order to avoid pain and suffering. Repression, for example, is the tendency to forget troubling events, while projection is the tendency to project one's own traits onto someone else. Freud's defense mechanisms were further developed and codified by his daughter Anna Freud. 
  • Dream interpretation. Freud believed that dreams could be interpreted to glean important information about a person's psychology and personality, and he believed that dreams frequently served as wish-fulfillment devices. 

Freud has played a seminal role in popular culture. Images of a patient lying on a couch, for example, are allusions to Freud. His remark, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” is still sometimes used to indicate that not every action has deep psychological meaning. In addition, Freudian slips occur when a person says what his or her unconscious mind is thinking or desires. For example, a woman might say, “I want my ex-boyfriend dead” when she meant to say, “I want my ex-boyfriend back.”  

Later Life and Legacy

Freud developed cancer in 1923 and passed away sixteen years later. His ideas are still debated today, and his techniques and interpretations are widely accepted as the basis of modern psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud is considered one of the most influential people in the history of psychology.

Books by Sigmund Freud

  • Studies on Hysteria (with Josef Breuer, 1895)
  • The Interpretation of Dreams (1899)
  • The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901)
  • Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905)
  • Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1905)
  • Delusion and Dream in Jensen's Gradiva (1907)
  • Totem and Taboo (1913)
  • On Narcissism (1914)
  • Introduction to Psychoanalysis (1917)
  • Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920)
  • The Ego and the Id (1923)
  • The Future of an Illusion (1927)
  • Civilization and Its Discontents (1930)
  • Moses and Monotheism (1939)
  • An Outline of Psycho-Analysis (1940)
  • The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess (1986)
  • The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (1999)

Last Update: 07-03-2015

Advanced Search
Subscribe to's Email Newsletter

Free Student Membership

Are you a college or university student? Sign up here for a free student membership with