Sigmund Freud: Theory, Influence, and Biography

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Psychology's most famous figure is also one of the most influential and controversial thinkers of the 20th century. Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist born in 1856, is often referred to as the "father of modern psychology."

Freud revolutionized how we think about and treat mental health conditions. Freud founded psychoanalysis as a way of listening to patients and better understanding how their minds work. Psychoanalysis continues to have an enormous influence on modern psychology and psychiatry.

Sigmund Freud's theories and work helped shape current views of dreams, childhood, personality, memory, sexuality, and therapy. Freud's work also laid the foundation for many other theorists to formulate ideas, while others developed new theories in opposition to his ideas.

Sigmund Freud Biography

To understand Freud's legacy, it is important to begin with a look at his life. His experiences informed many of his theories, so learning more about his life and the times in which he lived can lead to a deeper understanding of where his theories came from.

Freud was born in 1856 in a town called Freiberg in Moravia—in what is now known as the Czech Republic. He was the oldest of eight children. His family moved to Vienna several years after he was born, and he lived most of his life there.

Freud earned a medical degree and began practicing as a doctor in Vienna. He was appointed Lecturer on Nervous Diseases at the University of Vienna in 1885.

After spending time in Paris and attending lectures given by the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, Freud became more interested in theories explaining the human mind (which would later relate to his work in psychoanalysis).

Freud eventually withdrew from academia after the Viennese medical community rejected the types of ideas he brought back from Paris (specifically on what was then called hysteria). Freud went on to publish influential works in neurology, including "On Aphasia: A Critical Study," in which he coined the term agnosia, meaning the inability to interpret sensations.

In later years, Freud and his colleague Josef Breuer published "Preliminary Report" and "Studies on Hysteria." When their friendship ended, Freud continued to publish his own works on psychoanalysis.

Freud and his family left Vienna due to discrimination against Jewish people. He moved to England in 1938 and died in 1939.

Sigmund Freud’s Theories

Freud's theories were enormously influential but subject to considerable criticism both now and during his life. However, his ideas have become interwoven into the fabric of our culture, with terms such as "Freudian slip," "repression," and "denial" appearing regularly in everyday language.

Freud's theories include:

  • Unconscious mind: This is one of his most enduring ideas, which is that the mind is a reservoir of thoughts, memories, and emotions that lie outside the awareness of the conscious mind.
  • Personality: Freud proposed that personality was made up of three key elements: the id, the ego, and the superego. The ego is the conscious state, the id is the unconscious, and the superego is the moral or ethical framework that regulates how the ego operates.
  • Life and death instincts: Freud claimed that two classes of instincts, life and death, dictated human behavior. Life instincts include sexual procreation, survival and pleasure; death instincts include aggression, self-harm, and destruction.
  • Psychosexual development: Freud's theory of psychosexual development posits that there are five stages of growth in which people's personalities and sexual selves evolve. These phases are the oral stage, anal stage, phallic stage, latent stage, and genital stage.
  • Mechanisms of defense: Freud suggested that people use defense mechanisms to avoid anxiety. These mechanisms include displacement, repression, sublimation, and regression.

Sigmund Freud and Psychoanalysis

Freud's ideas had such a strong impact on psychology that an entire school of thought emerged from his work: psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis has had a lasting impact on both the study of psychology and the practice of psychotherapy.

Psychoanalysis sought to bring unconscious information into conscious awareness in order to induce catharsis. Catharsis is an emotional release that may bring about relief from psychological distress. 

Research has found that psychoanalysis can be an effective treatment for a number of mental health conditions. The self-examination that is involved in the therapy process can help people achieve long-term growth and improvement.

Sigmund Freud's Patients

Freud based his ideas on case studies of his own patients and those of his colleagues. These patients helped shape his theories and many have become well known. Some of these individuals included:

Anna O. was never actually a patient of Freud's. She was a patient of Freud's colleague Josef Breuer. The two men corresponded often about Anna O's symptoms, eventually publishing the book, "Studies on Hysteria" on her case. It was through their work and correspondence that the technique known as talk therapy emerged. 

Major Works by Freud

Freud's writings detail many of his major theories and ideas. His personal favorite was "The Interpretation of Dreams." Of it, he wrote: "[It] contains...the most valuable of all the discoveries it has been my good fortune to make. Insight such as this falls to one's lot but once in a lifetime."

Some of Freud's major books include:

  • "The Interpretation of Dreams"
  • "The Psychopathology of Everyday Life"
  • "Totem and Taboo"
  • "Civilization and Its Discontents"
  • "The Future of an Illusion"

Freud's Perspectives

Outside of the field of psychology, Freud wrote and theorized about a broad range of subjects. He also wrote about and developed theories related to topics including sex, dreams, religion, women, and culture.

Views on Women

Both during his life and after, Freud was criticized for his views of women, femininity, and female sexuality. One of his most famous critics was the psychologist Karen Horney, who rejected his view that women suffered from "penis envy."

Penis envy, according to Freud, was a phenomenon that women experienced upon witnessing a naked male body, because they felt they themselves must be "castrated boys" and wished for their own penis.

Horney instead argued that men experience "womb envy" and are left with feelings of inferiority because they are unable to bear children.

Views on Religion

Freud was born and raised Jewish but described himself as an atheist in adulthood. "The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life," he wrote of religion.

He continued to have a keen interest in the topics of religion and spirituality and wrote a number of books focused on the subject. 

Psychologists Influenced by Freud

In addition to his grand and far-reaching theories of human psychology, Freud also left his mark on a number of individuals who went on to become some of psychology's greatest thinkers. Some of the eminent psychologists who were influenced by Sigmund Freud include:

While Freud's work is often dismissed today as non-scientific, there is no question that he had a tremendous influence not only on psychology but on the larger culture as well.

Many of Freud's ideas have become so steeped in public awareness that we oftentimes forget that they have their origins in his psychoanalytic tradition.

Freud's Contributions to Psychology

Freud's theories are highly controversial today. For instance, he has been criticized for his lack of knowledge about women and for sexist notions in his theories about sexual development, hysteria, and penis envy.

People are skeptical about the legitimacy of Freud's theories because they lack the scientific evidence that psychological theories have today.

However, it remains true that Freud had a significant and lasting influence on the field of psychology. He provided a foundation for many concepts that psychologists used and continue to use to make new discoveries.

Psychoanalysis

Perhaps Freud's most important contribution to the field of psychology was the development of talk therapy as an approach to treating mental health problems.

In addition to serving as the basis for psychoanalysis, talk therapy is now part of many psychotherapeutic interventions designed to help people overcome psychological distress and behavioral problems. 

The Unconscious

Prior to the works of Freud, many people believed that behavior was inexplicable. He developed the idea of the unconscious as being the hidden motivation behind what we do. For instance, his work on dream interpretation suggested that our real feelings and desires lie underneath the surface of conscious life.

Childhood Influence

Freud believed that childhood experiences impact adulthood—specifically, traumatic experiences that we have as children can manifest as mental health issues when we're adults.

While childhood experiences aren't the only contributing factors to mental health during adulthood, Freud laid the foundation for a person's childhood to be taken into consideration during therapy and when diagnosing.

Literary Theory

Literary scholars and students alike often analyze texts through a Freudian lens. Freud's theories created an opportunity to understand fictional characters and even their authors based on what's written or what a reader can interpret from the text on topics such as dreams, sexuality, and personality.

A Word From Verywell

While Freud's theories have been the subject of considerable controversy and debate, his impact on psychology, therapy, and culture is undeniable. As W.H. Auden wrote in his 1939 poem, "In Memory of Sigmund Freud":

"...if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd,
to us he is no more a person
now but a whole climate of opinion."

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Who was Sigmund Freud?

    Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist who founded psychoanalysis. Also known as the father of modern psychology, he was born in 1856 and died in 1939.

  • What was the main difference between Sigmund Freud and the neo-Freudians?

    While Freud theorized that childhood experiences shaped personality, the neo-Freudians (including Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and Karen Horney) believed that social and cultural influences played an important role. Freud believed that sex was a primary human motivator, whereas neo-Freudians did not.

  • What did Sigmund Freud do?

    Sigmund Freud founded psychoanalysis and published many influential works such as "The Interpretation of Dreams." His theories about personality and sexuality were and continue to be extremely influential in the fields of psychology and psychiatry.

  • Where was Sigmund Freud born?

    Sigmund Freud was born in a town called Freiberg in Moravia, which is now the Czech Republic.

  • How did Sigmund Freud die?

    It's likely that Freud died by natural means. However, he did have oral cancer at the time of his death and was administered a dose of morphine that some believed was a method of physician-assisted suicide.

  • What type of treatment did Sigmund Freud use when treating his patients?

    Freud used psychoanalysis, also known as talk therapy, in order to get his patients to uncover their own unconscious thoughts and bring them into consciousness. Freud believed this would help his patients change their maladaptive behaviors.

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