Psychoanalysis as a healing method was developed, as you may know, by Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist who had noticed an interesting phenomena while working with his patients. He noticed
that those of them who had a habit of talking about themselves and their lives during doctor’s visits got rid of their neurological symptoms faster than those who didn’t do it. This discovery lead Freud and his colleague Breuer to developing a new healing method that one of their patients famously called a “talking cure”.
Psychoanalysis is enormously broad and complex by the number of theories and methods it contains and I won’t get into all of it for the purpose of this website. I will just try to explain its major theoretical foundation upon which it bases its practice.
The major theoretical assumption of psychoanalysis is that most of human behavior is unconscious, that is to say that most of the time people are unaware of their true intentions that cause them act one way or another and that there is a big discrepancy between what they know about themselves consciously and all their emotional and mental processes they are unconscious of. Psychoanalysis argues that, as long as the person is unconscious of many of their mental processes, they don’t have the ability to make rational informed choices and therefore cannot truly exercise their free will. Therefore, the major goal of psychoanalysis is to make unconscious mental material conscious and it attempts to do so through a variety of methods such as free associations (when the patient is supposed to say everything that comes to mind), interpretation (when the analyst interprets what the patient is saying trying to uncover its unconscious meaning), analyzing transference (when the analyst interprets the patient’s thoughts and feelings about the analyst) and some other methods.
Another major assumption of psychoanalysis is that much of the unconscious behavior stems from early childhood experiences and how we dealt with them as children. It argues that, as adults, we often automatically repeat the patterns of our childhood behavior, which may not always serve us well in our adult life. In order to change the behavior, however, we have to become aware of why we behave the way we do and how it serves us, because as long as we unconsciously believe that our behavior serves us somehow, we will keep repeating it even if we consciously may see the self-destructiveness of our actions.
The critics of psychoanalysis assert that its major assumptions are baseless and not scientifically proven. Nothing can be further from the truth. While it is true that no broad research has ever been conducted across human demographics to test the accuracy of psychoanalytic assumptions, the empirical data collected by many professionals, not only psychotherapists, that supports the importance of early childhood experiences is overwhelming. As was mentioned earlier, psychoanalysis as a healing method emerged as a result of empirical observation of patients who were getting better the more they were allowed to talk about their daily problems in a non-judgmental environment. The correlation between talking to someone who listens without judgment and the reduction of symptoms was observed first before psychoanalysis got developed as a theory, therefore it is by no means baseless, as it did have the initial empirical foundation.
Without a doubt, the research in this area is badly needed. But the very absence of the will to conduct such research is very telling. For those who are skeptical of psychoanalytic theories, demanding more research in this area seems like the most logical thing to do. Yet, the critics don’t seem to be very interested in further scientific exploration of this topic. Could it be because they are secretly afraid that the research may actually discover that some of the psychoanalytic assertions are correct? I will leave this up to your speculation, as I believe that it’s often more important to pose a question than to answer it.
To be clear, a lot of criticism of psychoanlysis is legitimate when it comes to assertions that have not been confirmed by empirical observations, but a complete dismissal of all psychoanalytic premises as utterly baseless is just an expression of willful ignorance of clear undeniable facts of human development and the latest discoveries in neuroscience. A vehement rejection of psychoanalysis in its entirety looks more like an emotional reaction to something one doesn’t like personally as opposed to a critical analysis of facts. As a result, the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater, which doesn’t benefit consumers of mental health services.