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Tuesday 17 April 2012

Sigmund Freud and Psychology 100

Long, long ago in a forgotten corner of the galaxy far, far away –

Okay, it was London Ontario. But it WAS long ago … I taught Psychology 100.

In almost every university, Psych 100, or its equivalent, is one of the most-taken courses. For one thing, it has a reputation as a “bird course” (hard to fail). And every undergraduate is of the not-entirely-unjustified opinion that he or she has a mind, so surely the course will be of interest.

These are setups.

The Department of Psychology at most universities steadfastly wants to defend the field’s seriousness, so the course is typically marked harder than students expect. And the syllabus usually covers the full range of the field, including animal learning, sensation and perception, the inner workings of neurons, and the mechanism of classical conditioning.

In other words: Many of the students who take Psych 100 find it more difficult than anticipated, and dead boring to boot.

Now imagine being the instructor. You have a few students who harbour a deep interest in the subject, and a lot more who compete for the back rows of seats, falling asleep and reading the student newspaper (or, these days, texting), and feeling resentful that for the monumental effort of showing up for lectures they are not being granted an “A”.

You need jokes. In Psych 100 they are few and far between. Rare is the section of this course that doesn’t hear what is perhaps the only joke in all of neurobiology: the “Four F’s of the hypothalamus:  Feeding, Fighting, Fleeing, and Mating.”

That’ll get you through one lecture. But what about the others?

That’s where Sigmund Freud comes in. You’re at the clinical end of the course, which you’ve saved for last. Your students are now thoroughly disillusioned and many of them dislike you for dragging their GPA down. You need to get them through the last few weeks and then you’ll all be free.

And there he is, smoking his pipe, with his Austrian accent, and holding endless psychoanalytic sessions with the matrons of Vienna, frowning at you across a gulf of a hundred years. He’s dead, so he can’t talk back. Why not make fun of him?

It’s not that difficult. You can entertain your students with his theory of psychosexual stages: oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital. Let’s face it: they’re just out of high school. All you have to do is say the word “anal” and they’re entertained for the rest of the hour.

Or you review the Oedipus complex – the desire of the young boy to kill off his father and marry (and sleep with) his mother. Uncomfortable giggles and loud cries of “gross” fill the room, but at least they’re awake.

Freud is routinely treated this way, but if you give instructors a good dose of sodium pentothal and ask them, they’ll admit to feeling a bit unclean and dishonest doing it.

Part of the problem is that Freud is seldom read in any depth, so the bare highlights are about all that many instructors know. It’s a bit like a literature instructor teaching King Lear based on hearing that it’s about an old king who retires.

But part of it is the nature of Freud’s work: The less detail you give, the more ridiculous it sounds. A quick survey of Freud will almost inevitably make him sound like a sex-obsessed lunatic.

And, truthfully, part of it is that Freud’s thinking was grounded in his world and time. His thinking about women was influenced by the thinking of the age. And in a late-eighteenth century culture of largely-absent fathers it was perhaps not so implausible that some boys might think “Just who is this guy who comes by now and then and treats my mother like dirt; I treat her better than he does and I seem to like her more, so why doesn’t he just drop dead?”

Instructors often get a tad more serious when they discuss Freud’s ideas of the unconscious, but even then there’s a temptation to play up the woo-woo aspects of it. “We’re controlled by forces of which we are entirely unaware.” It makes the whole thing sound like a pseudoscientific form of demonic possession.

Some of the worst culprits are people like me, who think of ourselves as proponents of evidence-based methods like cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT): so much clearer, so much more rational, so much more scientific than the armchair musings of cigar-smoking Viennese psychiatrists. “The unconscious,” we are tempted to snort, “What nonsense.”

We’d much rather talk about the ways that we interpret the world around us, how these are learned at an early age when people have the minds of children, and become so automatic that they are used, unwittingly, in new situations where they no longer prove helpful. And why does this happen? Well, because we make use of prior learning without, uh, conscious awareness. Which is totally different than saying there’s an unconscious mind. Somehow.

Make no mistake: The field has come a long way since Freud. Casting the man’s ideas in stone and treating them as dogma turns him from thinker into deity, his books into Bibles. We’ve learned a lot since his day. His therapeutic method still lacks something in the empirical-support department, and has largely been supplanted by strategies that are a lot more focused and that work a lot faster.

But trashing Freud for not getting it all correct is a bit like trashing Captain Cook for drawing maps that turned out to be a little inaccurate, or snorting at Darwin for not understanding DNA. Freud thought and wrote at a time when knowledge about psychological development and disorder was at a minimum. That he got as far as he did is miraculous. We don’t need to make him the head of a religion, but maybe making him the butt of every psychological joke is a little too easy.

So: Sorry Sigmund. I too have fallen prey to temptation, on occasion. Including a few times when trying to corral unruly undergrads. I won’t promise to adopt your methods, or wade through absolutely everything you wrote. But I’ll try not to score cheap points off you in future. Deal?

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