A wall of photographs at the Sigmund Freud house. Credit: Shadowgate, Creative Commons

It was quite a challenge to think of a suitable topic for the first real, post-introduction Literally Psyched column. So many works to choose from (Shakespeare? Each play can be a multi-year series. Dostoyevsky? Hard to come up with a more psychologically-minded writer. Something more modern? Something less literary? Something more fun, à la Sherlock Holmes?). So many directions to go. And a kind of weight that can come only with a fresh slate. What will my selection say? What tone will it set? Does it imply any future commitments?

At the end, the choice seems almost inevitable. Who else but the writer who has had the most profound influence on my own thoughts from the earliest age, W. H. Auden?

I first discovered Auden—and by discovered, I mean really discovered, beyond “Funeral Blues” and “Lullaby” and the handful of poems that have been anthologized so many times they seem familiar even to those who’ve never read a line on their own—my junior year in high school, when I decided (who knows what compelled me) to write about his love poetry for my final English paper. It seemed straightforward enough, and I had no idea just how much I’d bitten off. Far, far more than I could chew.

But I chipped away, piece by piece. I made diligent trips to the Boston Public Library (oh, the pre-Google days) and must have done more research for that single paper than I’ve done before or since. Little did I know that among all of the declarations, explanations, and expositions of love that I sifted through was one that I originally cast aside—it didn’t seem to fit the theme; or so I thought—but that I would later find myself returning to again and again, as perhaps the single best encapsulation of the legacy of one of the most important figures in the history of psychology: “In Memory of Sigmund Freud.”

Sigmund Freud is more than just a historical giant, intimately familiar to any student of the mind almost from the moment he first decides to study it (and sometimes, even before that). What’s surprising isn’t his fame or his ubiquity—indeed, Freud is one of those near-mythical figures that makes most any person think he knows something about his work no matter his background or actual knowledge—but how poorly known he is considering both his prominence and his contributions to the field. And by poorly, I mean incorrectly: we may think we know Freud, but that knowledge is often colored by misrepresentations and incomplete facts.

Sigmund Freud, holding his signature cigar. Credit: Aly Letteri, Creative Commons.

In one classic account, Freud is pitted against his behaviorist counterparts, most often B. F. Skinner. The one, the father of psychoanalysis. The other, one of the founders and most influential figures of behaviorism, a school of thought that looks at learning and behavior as a series of stimulus-response contingencies. The one, focused on our inner life and unvoiced thoughts. The other, on our measurable behavior and overt actions.

This juxtaposition—one often seen in introductory textbooks and heard in introductory lectures—has the behaviorists rising up in angry reaction to the unscientific nature of Freud’s observations. In the telling, Freud is often cast in the role of near-demagogue and enemy of real science (whatever that may be), whose methods were flawed through and through: from a lack of validity and reliability, to overreliance on self-report, without external data to back it up, to experimenter bias and demand characteristics, to an overall lack of proof of any therapeutic effectiveness whatsoever of his psychoanalytic techniques. Skinner, on the other hand, takes on the role of savior, who rescues psychology from pseudoscience and brings it back to the realm of the measurable, the objective, the knowable. In short, Skinner tends to come out well ahead.

But while not entirely incorrect—after all, Freud did rely a bit too heavily on self-report, and did lack what would be considered adequate measurable data, to cite just a few instances—this version is far from the complete truth. So steeped has Freud’s reputation become in attributions, misattributions, interpretations, reinterpretations, and misinterpretations that it is difficult to get at the actual picture. Where to turn? Away from psychology textbooks, for one—and back to that poem I had so thoughtlessly cast aside. For when I revisited it, many years later, I found that the words that had meant little to me on our first encounter now presented a nuanced, perceptive, and above all, well-rounded and complete understanding of the essence of Freud’s contribution to psychology and the world at large, going beyond even those more evenhanded accounts that I had read in the psychology literature.

A portrait of W. H. Auden. Credit: Chris Weige, Creative Commons.

Unlike those accounts that jump immediately to judge, to compare, to sum up, Auden first takes a step back to remember a point so basic that it also becomes easiest to forget or ignore altogether: that we are living in a world that had been very different before Freud stepped on the stage. That the psychologist’s thinking didn’t just open a new field; it created a new way of being. “They are still alive,” Auden writes of the people Freud had studied and wanted to understand, “but in a world he changed simply by looking back with no false regrets.” And there, in one sentence is that simple truth that Freud’s critics would like to forget: that a post-Freud world and a pre-Freud world are altogether different beasts.

Freud’s legacy has been subsumed so entirely in the current landscape that it is difficult to imagine a world without it. We can’t envision any alternative. But just try to think of a psychology without an understanding of desires, thoughts, and memories that aren’t accessible to the conscious mind. Or a psychology without the conception of internal and external needs that don’t coincide. Or one where we don’t understand that our past, our experiences, our perceptions can influence us in ways that we don’t understand. It wouldn’t really be psychology as we conceive it—but it was, for the most part, psychology before Freud.

And that, in essence, is the contribution that changed the world so much that its prior incarnation—a return to a pre-Freudian society—has become impossible to imagine: Freud radically altered our self-conception and our relationship to ourselves, by forcing us to acknowledge how much our internal life affects our external one, how great a contribution comes from elements that we don’t understand or know. Auden sums it up:

He wasn't clever at all: he merely told

the unhappy Present to recite the Past

like a poetry lesson till sooner

or later it faltered at the line where

long ago the accusations had begun,

and suddenly knew by whom it had been judged,

how rich life had been and how silly,

and was life-forgiven and more humble,

able to approach the Future as a friend

without a wardrobe of excuses, without

a set mask of rectitude or an

embarrassing over-familiar gesture.

The precepts of psychoanalysis, in three quatrains. And what’s more, written in a matter-of-fact way that underscores how entirely we now take them for granted. Of course the present is influenced by the past. Of course it is difficult to move on unless you understand what is holding you back. Of course we like to generate internal excuses that gloss over our weakest elements, hiding them even from ourselves.

No. Not of course. Or at least, of course now—not of course then. Why is it so easy to forget that, no matter what Freud did wrong, he did something so very right?

And lo and behold, even the behaviorists, those stimulus-response robots who (theoretically, at least) dismiss the black box of the mind as unknowable and therefore not worthy of study, agree with Auden—a point that tends to be forgotten in the rush to set up conflict and highlight a tale of starkly opposing schools of thought. John B. Watson—the first behaviorist, not to be confused with the John H. Watson I’ve written about in my Lessons from Sherlock Holmes series—wrote in 1916, in the Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, “I have been for some years an earnest student of Freud … [and] I am convinced of the truth of Freud’s work.” And Skinner himself was much more open to psychoanalysis than legend would have it. He even wanted to be analyzed, but was rejected because of too many hopefuls. Apparently, he didn’t quite make the cut – although he did test himself on Rorschach ink blots on several occasions. The rejection, however, didn’t make him less open to its ideas. In a 1954 critique of psychoanalysis—which, to be fair, also included a number of less than flattering points—Skinner wrote,

Freud demonstrated that many features of behavior hitherto unexplained—and often dismissed as hopelessly complex or obscure—could be shown to be the product of circumstances in the history of the individual. Many of the causal relationships he so convincingly demonstrated had been wholly unsuspected—unsuspected, in particular, by the very individuals whose behavior they controlled. Freud greatly reduced the sphere of accident and caprice in our considerations of human conduct.

Convincing. Visionary in his explanations; indeed, demonstrating things that had been wholly unsuspected before him. Someone who reduced the influence of accident and caprice in the study of the mind. It sounds like a recommendation more than a condemnation, something much more in line with Auden’s memoriam than present-day accounts.

Indeed, it is easy to forget that where Skinner showed how measurable behavior could be a path toward a deeper understanding of the mind, he owed a large debt to Freud, who had asserted far earlier that it was possible to study the mental in a rigorous, scientific manner formerly reserved for the laboratory sciences. And, Freud was first to attempt to trace behavior to the unknowable, the subconscious mind—a precursor of Skinner’s assertion that environmental contingencies shaped behavior outside our knowledge, another, more readily visible form of subconscious influence.

Still, don’t imagine for a moment that things are all rosy. That would be taking it too far in the opposite direction. But they are certainly more complicated than a classic account would have you believe—something that Auden, in all his homage, understood all too clearly. Don’t think that the poet glorifies or idolizes the psychologist. Quite the contrary. He doesn’t create some imaginary perfect scientist. Instead, he gives us Freud’s full legacy, in all its wisdom and all its absurdity:

if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd,

to us he is no more a person

now but a whole climate of opinion

under whom we conduct our different lives:

Like weather he can only hinder or help,

the proud can still be proud but find it

a little harder, the tyrant tries to

make do with him but doesn't care for him much:

he quietly surrounds all our habits of growth …

Freud erred—sometimes to the point of the absurd. The Interpretation of Dreams? With precious little evidence to support its claims. The omnipresent power of sexuality? Something that has been taken to a nonsensical extreme. Freud may have started with what he considered an empirical approach—and accomplished more with that approach that most thought possible—but he did take his conclusions to lengths that were far outside the realm of the provable. (As, incidentally, did Skinner, that most objective of behaviorists, with Verbal Behavior, his treatise on language that Noam Chomsky later tore apart in his seminal work.)

But does going one—or several—steps too far and erring, however glaringly, in some areas negate Freud’s accomplishments? Absolutely not. As Auden says, Freud is “no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion.” And that climate should never obscure what the person has brought to light.

And that, perhaps, is Auden’s most far-reaching conclusion. Through his memorial to Freud, he teaches us how to approach psychology and science more broadly, beyond the subject of his poem. The most important element in evaluating any contribution, any person, any era is to take all research—and every researcher—on its own terms, not those of another area, another time, another approach, another mentality. It’s all too easy to let that subsequent climate of opinion cloud the essence of what came before—but it’s fair neither to the person nor to the work that is being evaluated.

It’s a lesson as applicable to evaluating contemporary research as it is to determining contributions from another time. Take the case of fMRI, a technique that looks at blood flow in the brain to detect areas of neural activity, to name but one prominent modern issue. Debates abound as to its usefulness and its proper function: what can we infer from imaging data? What can we conclude? How helpful is it in answering questions about cognitive processes?

The proponents and critics go back and forth in joust after joust. Is fMRI a panacea? Or, something that can tell us nothing and so to be abandoned? Neither. It should be taken on its own terms: as a methodology that is still in its early stages, that can tell us some things but not others. We should not ask questions of a method that it is not ready to answer, nor should we impute capabilities to it that aren’t there—just like we can’t ask Freud to account for developments that occurred long after his time or to justify directions where his work may have veered off course. Just because fMRI can’t tell you what love is or give you a definitive answer on the existence of free will—just like Freud wasn’t the be all and end all of the subconscious—doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. Psychologist John Caccioppo put it best: “Just because you’re imaging the brain doesn’t mean you can stop using your head.”

And that’s one thing that Auden understood. You can never stop using your head, no matter how controversial or galvanizing the figure (or technique, or whatever) you examine may be. No matter what opinions may or may not have been given after the fact. Never do you have an excuse to stop thinking for yourself. And never are you allowed to judge Freud if you haven’t actually read his work or understood his contributions for what they are—secondhand accounts don’t count (just as I would never in my right mind listen to someone expounding for or against fMRI who hasn’t properly understood the technique itself; again, secondhand accounts just don’t cut it).

If Auden does anything, it is to remind us—and by us, I mean writers, readers, scientists, and thinkers alike—of the necessity to never stop thinking: to make sure we stop and reflect, ask the right questions and frame the right story, before we jump to judgment, be it of Freud, of brain imaging, or of whatever else.

Acknowledgments: I owe many of the Freud and Skinner quotes in this article to Geir Overskeid’s overview of Skinner and Freud, “Looking for Skinner and Finding Freud.”