Originally published 21 January 2016
Telling people that you are a psychologist (or even a psychology student) tends to evoke two responses in others: curiosity or hostility.
The curiosity almost always takes the form of the rather hopeful exclamation, “Oh my God! Can you tell what I am thinking? I bet you’re analysing me right now!” This response is so common that there are memes, articles and merchandise based around it. For the most part the curiosity is funny and light-hearted and leads to a normal conversation that sits appropriately in the realms of polite social interaction. It’s the hostility that catches you off guard. During my training I had started a new job, unrelated to psychology, in a corporate environment. My new colleague asked me what I was studying. I told her. She said with a snarl, “I would never go to see a therapist. It’s a sign of weakness. I think you should be able to deal with things by yourself. My dad bought me up to be a strong person and not have to rely on other people for help.’ I said, “Okaaaaaay…”
I get it. Our mental and emotional worlds are bizarre but deeply personal places and people either want to invite you in so that you can help make sense of them, or to keep you out at all costs. Sometimes, mindful of not wanting to betray their hostility, people dress it up in intellectual clothes. I was out at a club once and on hearing what I do for a living the man I was talking to said something about it being complete nonsense. I thought to myself ‘Seriously. We’ve just met and you’re telling me my vocation is worthless? And when I was polite enough to not even mention your dance moves? Is this really happening? Am I…am I being negged?’ But I didn’t say that. I asked him what he meant. You know, because I'm a professional. He made a comment about Freud’s theories of infantile sexuality being false and irrelevant. He didn’t put it like that though, of course, because he hadn’t read the theories. He apparently had only read or heard someone else’s detracting statements on them. What he said was, “Well I certainly don’t want to have sex with mother. That’s disgusting.” I let out a laboured sigh. Honestly? Honestly?! This is your well thought out counter-argument to over 100 years of psychoanalytic thought? It doesn't feel nice? Really? Not even an attempt at a supporting reference? Just your subjective report of a thought you haven’t had about something that was never actually said? Good grief. I could have let it go; it was late, I was having a nice time but I had just come from work and, well, he started it. I had to take a moment to educate the man.
Here’s the deal. This guy was of course referring to the much misquoted Oedipus Complex. First, a little bit of background. Sigmund Freud was a doctor and a neurologist. I make this point in an attempt to demonstrate that the man was primarily trained in the rational, natural sciences. The observable and the objective were the basis of his work and his research. During his clinical practice he became intrigued by a curious phenomenon which he referred to as ‘Hysteria’ but what modern medicine calls Psychosomatic Illness, Somatisation or the more politically correct ‘Medically Unexplained Symptoms’. It is the observation that people frequently present with physical symptoms for which no biological basis can be found. The NHS reports that up to 20% of GP consultations in the UK are for these kinds of symptoms (1). That, according to the British Medical Association(2), accounts for some 68 million consultations. That’s a huge proportion and it made Freud wonder, what, if not physical, was creating these symptoms and, crucially, why?
Through many observations and in treatment with his patients Siggy deduced that there was something psychological at play and something of which his patients were not themselves aware.
The ‘unconscious’ is the term given to the processes that go on in our minds automatically and outside of our conscious awareness. If you see a ball coming rapidly towards your face you do not think to yourself ‘Incoming threat to facial integrity. Aversion procedure: close eyes. Turn away. Cover face with hands.’ If you did you would be out cold on the floor with a broken nose before you could say 'Have you had an accident that wasn't your fault?' But you do the actions anyway, evidence of an automatic (unconscious) response to the external stimuli. Far from necessitating blind faith, neuroscience now provides a compelling case for the brain basis of the unconscious (3). Neuroscientist and author Sam Harris is one of the more recent and recognisable to say ‘Free will is an illusion’ (4) so compelling is the case, he says, for power of the unconscious.
The unconscious, Freud believed, played a huge part in determining our behaviours, beliefs and personalities and the Oedipus Complex was the metaphor that he used to describe some of the behaviour that he observed in children and the child-like aspects of his adult patients. That’s right, it was a metaphor. An allegory. Freud used the very entertaining (you should read it) Greek tragedy ‘Oedipus Rex’ as a symbol of the intense feelings that a child experiences for the opposite sex parent. He did not say that children want to have sex with their parents. Children at the age he was describing do not (or should not) have any notion of what adult sex is. What does happen, to which many parents will attest, is that children will talk of deep love for their parent. Little boys who want to ‘marry mummy’ are so common that there are adorable (and of course wholly innocent) YouTube videos posted about it. This is what Freud was talking about, that intense love that children feel that means they want to have that parent all to themselves, exclusive of the other parent. Matrimony is what little children understand love and ‘exclusive possession’ to mean. No sex but deeply intense feelings that are as close as sex gets for little children. That said, the child comes to understand, or so the theory goes, that these feelings are unacceptable or dangerous and that they should be abandoned. They are pushed away into the far recesses of the mind not to be thought of again. Having forgotten about the intensity of their childhood feelings and overlaying their adult knowledge people hear the word ‘sex’ in the context of their parents and freak out: ‘I don’t want it be true. It can’t be true. It’s nonsense!’ The powerful social and biological incest taboo (Freud talks about that too) means that we won’t even allow ourselves to think about those infantile feelings, employing all sorts of defences to deny, suppress or repress them. Inevitably though, what cannot be thought about will find its expression in some other way.
That’s why I chuckled to myself when I read an article from the popular science blog ‘IFLScience’ which listed statistics from PornHub, the world’s most popular porn website, on the UK’s most popular porn searches (5). Three of the top five searches by men were for mother figures: ‘step-mom’ (sic) was top, followed by ‘milf’ (mother I'd like [to] f**k) and ‘mom’ at positions three and four, respectively. ‘Step mom and son’ also made an appearance at number nine. Freud was not right about everything and there were a few important things that he abandoned due to social pressure. But it looks like he was on to something with this one.
1. NHS Choices – Medically Unexplained Symptoms. http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/medically-unexplained-symptoms/Pages/Somatisation.aspx
2. British Medical Association. Media Brief. http://www.bma.org.uk/-/media/files/pdfs/news%20views%20analysis/press%20briefings/pressbriefinggeneralpracticeintheuk_july2014_v2.pdf
3. The Neural Basis of the Dynamic Unconscious. http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/philo/faculty/block/papers/BerlinTreatment.pdf
4. How Free Will Collides With Unconscious Processes. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-free-will-collides-with-unconscious-impulses/
5. IFLScience – Here Are The Most Common Porn Searches In The UK http://www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/here-are-pornhub-search-habits-british-public
6. Metro (online) - Lesbian, British and step mum among top PornHub search terms this year. http://metro.co.uk/2015/11/18/lesbian-british-and-step-mum-among-top-pornhub-search-terms-this-year-5509619/