Psychoanalysis, pioneered in the 1890s by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), is both a method of treating people with mental illness and a theory about why people act the way they do. Psychoanalytic theory holds that unconscious, irrational drives cause human behaviors, and that many desires are repressed, having been formed during childhood and later become hidden in the human subconscious. People can overcome their psychological problems by understanding what their minds have repressed and by accepting their unconscious desires. Freud said, “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge ofthe unconscious.”
Freud developed psychoanalysis as he studied people with “nervous ailments,” such as “hysteria.” He developed a comprehensive method of understanding human behavior and personality, and their root mental and emotional causes, while also developing a therapeutic method that psychologists could use to treat people suffering from such conditions. Freud’s methodology and ideas became so renowned that his name is still largely synonymous with psychoanalysis.
As one of the first scientific methodologies aimed at dealing with mental illness, psychoanalysis paved the way for a much broader understanding of the human mind. While many of Freud’s psychoanalytic theories have been criticized and dismissed by modern psychologists and medical professionals, his work provided new insights into human nature itself. Psychoanalysis showed that what we think about ourselves can be greatly influenced by forces outside our control, and that our strongest beliefs about ourselves may not be reflective of reality.