Is Psychoanalysis Still Relevant Today?

Is psychoanalysis still used today?
Freud may be dead, but is psychoanalysis still alive and kicking?. Public Domain photo by Ferdinand Schmutzer/Wikimedia Commons

When you ask people to list the things that spring to mind when they think about psychology, Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis pop up quite frequently. Psychoanalysis, both as a therapeutic approach and theoretical outlook, has certainly left its mark on psychology.

While there are a few people still left who take a purely psychoanalytical point of view, most psychologists today employ a more eclectic approach to the field of psychology.

In fact, many contemporary psychologists view psychoanalysis with skepticism. Some even feel derision for Freud's school of thought. But is this fair? In a world of psychology where the emphasis on cognitive processes, neuroscience, and biopsychology dominates, is there still room for psychoanalysis?

Is Psychoanalysis Still Relevant in Today's World?

There have been a few recent reports on the general decline of traditional psychoanalysis:

  • A report published by the American Psychoanalytic Association found that psychology departments typically treat psychoanalysis purely as a historical artifact, while subjects such as art, literature, history, and other humanities subjects were more likely to teach psychoanalysis as an ongoing and relevant topic.
  • A 2007 article in The New York Times also noted the decline of psychoanalysis within psychology.

So why exactly has psychoanalysis fallen by the wayside as an academic topic within psychology?

Part of the problem stems from psychoanalysis's failure to test the validity of its therapeutic approach and failure to ground the discipline in evidence-based practices.

Support and Criticism of Psychoanalysis

Part of the reason many are so skeptical of psychoanalysis today is that the body of evidence supporting its effectiveness tends to be relatively weak.

However, some of the research on the effectiveness of psychoanalysis has yielded limited support for this treatment modality. One meta-analysis found that psychoanalysis could be as effective as other therapy approaches. Others studies suggest that psychoanalysis may be effective in the treatment of depression, drug dependence, and panic disorder.

Another issue is that psychoanalysis is generally a long-term proposition. We live in a time when people seek fast-results and approaches that yield an effect in days, weeks or months - psychoanalytic therapy often involves a client and therapist exploring issues over a period of years.

"Using the criteria established for evidence-based treatment, traditional psychoanalysis alone does not, in fact, pass muster as a method of therapy for the large majority of psychological disorders," explains psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne in an article for Psychology Today. "However, to dismiss Freud’s contributions as irrelevant to psychology, as [the New York Times article] implies, is an oversimplification."

Psychoanalysis Then and Now

Many of Freud's ideas have fallen out of favor in psychology, but that certainly does not mean that his work is without merit.

His approach to therapy - the suggestion that mental illness was treatable and that talking about problems could bring relief - was a revolutionary concept that left a lasting mark on how we approach the treatment of mental illness.

And research has supported at least some of Freud's original ideas. "Recent reviews of neuroscientific work confirm that many of Freud's original observations, not least the pervasive influence of non-conscious processes and the organizing function of emotions for thinking, have found confirmation in laboratory studies," explained Peter Fonagy in an article titled "Psychoanalysis Today" published in World Psychiatry.

It is also important to remember that Sigmund Freud was also very much a product of his time. While he was known for his oftentimes audacious theories (considered especially shocking during the Victorian period), his view of the world was colored by the time in which he lived. So what path would psychoanalysis take today if Freud were alive in our time?

"If Freud were alive today," writes Fonagy, "he would be keenly interested in new knowledge about brain functioning, such as how neural nets develop in relation to the quality of early relationships, the location of specific capacities with functional scans, the discoveries of molecular genetics and behavioral genomics and he would surely not have abandoned his cherished Project for a Scientific Psychology, the abortive work in which he attempted to develop a neural model of behavior."

One important thing to note, explains Krauss, is that while psychoanalysis might be on the decline, it does not mean that the psychodynamic perspective is dead. "Psychologists today talk about the psychodynamic, not the psychoanalytic perspective," she writes, "As such, this perspective refers to the dynamic forces within our personalities whose shifting movements underlie much of the basis for our observable behavior. Psychoanalysis is a much narrower term referring to the Freudian-based notion that to understand, and treat, abnormal behavior, our unconscious conflicts must be worked through."

Psychoanalysis as Freud conceived it might certainly be on the decline, but that doesn't mean that the psychodynamic perspective has disappeared or that it will be going anywhere soon.

The Future of Psychoanalysis

So what can psychoanalysis do to ensure its continued relevance in the world of psychology?

  • According to Fonagy, an emphasis on science is the key.
  • Empirical research and evidence-based treatments need to be explored in greater depth.
  • Fonagy also suggests that improved data-gathering methods, consideration of other possible explanations for behavior, and active collaboration with other mental health professionals can improve the legitimacy and relevance of psychoanalytic methods.

Clearly, Freud's mark on psychology is still being felt today. Talk therapy may be best associated with psychoanalysis, but therapists often utilize this technique in a range of other treatment approaches including client-centered therapy and group therapy. Psychoanalysis might not be the force it was back in 1910, but Freud's theories have had a lasting influence on both popular culture and psychology.

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