Freud Was Profoundly Right

Take Aways

  • All the great minds/books of the past knew nothing about how the brain causes behavior – now we do.
  • Freud was the first to systematically study how the brain causes behavior
  • His insights into unconscious control of behavior, the lifelong damage of childhood trauma and the notion of hysteria are being proven out by neurobiology.

We are the first people in human history to begin to know how behavior is caused. It is caused by our brains, of course. Each individual’s brain drives their behavior. This is not obvious.

They Knew Nothing
All the great minds and books of the past, combined, knew nothing about how behavior is caused by the brain and neurobiology.  Brain and behavioral science is brand new.  The technologies and tools for looking at the brain are really less than 10 years old.  A smart high school student now knows more about human behavior than all the great scientists, philosophers and academics of the past – combined. The Greek philosophers, the Renaissance thinkers, the Enlightenment philosophers, and English scientists, Newton, Darwin, Adam Smith, Marx, Einstein, etc. could only guess — they had no evidence, no tools or data.

I propose that off all the great thinkers, only Freud came close to accurate insights. His core insights may be profoundly correct. I maintain that the strong traditions of Jewish intellectualism are a critical foundation for modern day problem solving, especially the adoption of the new brain and behavioral sciences. Freud is the start of this work that is so vital to solving global problems.

Freud Knew Something: The Big Three
Two of Freud’s insights are being borne out by neurobiology, the medical and physiological study of the brain, in laboratories around the world. One,  is currently lost in obscurity but may be useful to revive.

The first remarkably correct and revolutionary idea, now supported by brain science, is the power of the unconscious. The second is the lifelong damage of childhood trauma, which was really only discovered in 2007.  The third is the notion of hysteria.  Hysteria is a very old idea and catch-all mental illness term which has been discarded but is a useful idea to revive in looking at fear-drive and “irrational” behaviors.

What is remarkable about Freud’s work is that he studied the workings of the brain without any tools and simply by endless talking to patients, scholarship and writing. He did seek to create a scientific basis for studying the brain and behavior, but he had no tools, few precedents and no colleagues.   As seems common for intellectual work – he toiled largely in solitude. Now, brain science is undertaken in medium sized labs, funded by governments and widely networked with similar workers around the world.

Freud was pretty much literally and figuratively alone in making his discoveries.  Einstein had the advanced work of fellow physicists to adopt, although his most brilliant work was alone and at a very young age.  Freud did adopt the earlier work of neurologists, like the Frenchman Janot, who had developed useful ideas based on keen insights derived from clinical work with hysterical patients.

Certainly, while the majority of Freud’s writings were on clinical matters they were much more literature than science. But, he was the first to delve deeply into the notion of no free will and no conscious control of behavior and evolve ideas from that starting point.   Looking for the unconscious causes of behavior in the brain Freud speculated that childhood sexual memories, real or imagined, were powerful lifelong forces causing behavior and mental illness.

We can speculate on how cultural factors may have shaped Freudian notions for sexuality, but it was a very powerful theme in popular conceptions and driving wide acceptance of his ideas. What current brain and behavioral research now tells us is that childhood trauma does indeed cause permanent brain damage and PTSD and is strongly predictive of all adult illnesses. This is a very new, and accidental, discovery since approximately 2007.

Finally, the notion of “hysteria” seems worthwhile to reintroduce. So many behaviors of individuals and groups of people seem hyper-fear driven, overwrought and immune to rationality or even thought. In a future post I will report on a study of anti-vaccine communications and marketing in the US which appears hysterical and causes further hysteria. Certainly, the media/political response to Ebola in the US could be cause hysterical.

Freud the, promoted some ideas that neurobiology is proving out and will contribute to our toolkit for addressing and preventing hysteria among other problems.  I also argue that Jewish intellectual traditions were the basis of much of his brilliance.

More to come….

About the Author
Elmer Rich is interested in evidence-based problem-solving in professional, business and policy work. With an M.S. in Lifespan Developmental Psychology from University of Chicago, he works as a professional marketer and communicator in B2B/technical topics in financial services.
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