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Sigmund Freud is regarded as the founder of psychoanalysis and, of course,  as one of the most  important figures of the Modern age; he was an Austrian neurologist  who developed a revolutionary  theory about the human mind and behaviour, based on the concept of the unconscious which he explained in his major work, “The interpretation of dreams”.

According to Freud, we are not completely aware of what we think of, and we often act for reasons that have nothing to do with our conscious thoughts; in this way Freud challenged  the idea, typical of Positivism, that people gain  real knowledge about themselves and about the world they live in through rationality.

However, the unconscious was not discovered by Freud: he took this idea from philosophers like Cartesio, Locke and Leibniz, developing it further and concluding  that human thoughts and actions are always influenced by unconscious fears and wishes.

But what is the unconscious? This is how Freud explained this concept: throughout their life,  people tend to “remove” (i.e. forget) painful memories and experiences from their consciousness. However, these painful memories do not disappear completely, but stay in the unconscious part of our mind and can come back in certain situations which remind us of the past experience. This process doesn’t depend on our will and is different from one person to another.

In “ The interpretation of dreams”, Freud divides the human consciousness into three parts: the unconscious, the pre-conscious and the conscious.

  • the unconscious includes all of our secret desires, hopes, urges and memories which are not controlled by a rational process; at this level of the mind, the idea of time and contradiction don’t exist (so opposite elements can coexist) ;
  • the pre-conscious, which is somewhere between the unconscious and the conscious, contains those memories that the individual, with a little effort, can bring back to his/her consciousness;
  • the conscious which is controlled by logical processes and that is shaped on external reality

A very famous image to understand Freud’s ideas is the comparison of the human mind to an iceberg floating in an ocean (the unconscious); the tip of the iceberg, that is visible above the water represents only a tiny portion of the mind, while the wide surface of ice hidden under water represents the more consistent part of the unconscious.


In his later work, “The Ego and the Id”, Freud suggested another model (which is however not in contrast with the first one) in which he divided the human psyche into three levels: the “Id”, the “Ego” and the “Superego”.

  • the Id (‘the It’ or ‘the Thing’) represents man’s primitive urges to achieve pleasure;
  • the Superego is the part in opposition to the Id  and is represented by the rules, moral principles and conventions imposed, since we were children, by our parents and society;
  • the Ego is between them and  tries to balance the impulses of the unconscious with the strict morality of the Superego.

As a result, mental disturbances according to Freud depend on a conflict between these opposite mental forces, like the impulse for  life (Eros) and death (Thanatos); the aim of the psychoanalytical method is to solve this contrast by exploring the unconscious through dreams, free associations of ideas and the analysis of acts like mistakes, lapses, oversights and so on.

Talking about psychoanalysis as a medical therapy it’s interesting to introduce Freud’s notion of mental illness: according to him, the conflicts that take place in the mind of insane people are the same that happen in normal minds, with the difference that in the pathological case they are so frequent that they totally influence the individual in his/ her private and social life.

Today, some people practice traditional Freudian psychoanalytical method  believing in its effective curative powers, while some others consider psychoanalysis not as a treatment for an illness, but simply as a process of self-discovery; clinical psychologists approach Freudian psychoanalysis in different ways: some of them have modified it by developing other therapies; others refuse Freud’s model of the mind, but they have adopted his therapeutic method.

And what about you? Do you agree with Freud’s description of the human mind and behaviour?


  1. Wow! The human mind is so powerful! Reading about the comparison between the human mind an an iceberg floating in the ocean (the unconscious) and the way we humans tend to remove painful memories which do not disappear completely has made me want to know more about Freud’s theories, Thank you for posting such an interesting article!

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