Psychodynamic theory studies the psychological forces underlying human behavior, feelings, and emotions.
Trace the evolution of psychodynamic theory
The psychodynamic perspective focuses on the dynamic relations between the conscious and unconscious mind and explores how these psychological forces might relate to early childhood experiences.
Psychodynamic psychology originated with Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century. Freud suggested that psychological processes are flows of psychosexual energy (libido) within a complex brain.
Freud's theory of psychoanalysis holds two major assumptions: (1) that much of mental life is unconscious, and (2) that past experiences, especially those from early childhood, shape how a person feels and behaves throughout life.
Freud's structural model of personality divides the personality into three parts: the id, the ego, and the superego. When these parts are in conflict, the imbalance manifests as psychological distress.
Freud also proposed the psychosexual theory of development, in which he asserted that children develop through different pleasure-seeking urges focused on different areas of the body, called erogenous zones.
Carl Jung expanded upon Freud's theories, introducing the concepts of the archetype, the collective unconscious, and individuation.
Modern psychodynamic theory is an evolving multidisciplinary field that continues to analyze and study human thought processes, response patterns, and influences.
A family of psychological theories and methods within the field of psychotherapy that work to find connections among patients' unconscious mental processes.
Psychodynamic theory is an approach to psychology that studies the psychological forces underlying human behavior, feelings, and emotions, and how they may relate to early childhood experience. This theory is especially interested in the dynamic relations between conscious and unconscious motivation, and asserts that behavior is the product of underlying conflicts over which people often have little awareness.
Psychodynamic theory was born in 1874 with the works of German scientist Ernst von Brucke, who supposed that all living organisms are energy systems governed by the principle of the conservation of energy. During the same year, medical student Sigmund Freud adopted this new "dynamic" physiology and expanded it to create the original concept of "psychodynamics," in which he suggested that psychological processes are flows of psychosexual energy (libido) in a complex brain. Freud also coined the term "psychoanalysis." Later, these theories were developed further by Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Melanie Klein, and others. By the mid-1940s and into the 1950s, the general application of the "psychodynamic theory" had been well established.
Freud's theory of psychoanalysis holds two major assumptions: (1) that much of mental life is unconscious (i.e., outside of awareness), and (2) that past experiences, especially in early childhood, shape how a person feels and behaves throughout life. The concept of the unconscious was central: Freud postulated a cycle in which ideas are repressed but continue to operate unconsciously in the mind, and then reappear in consciousness under certain circumstances. Much of Freud's theory was based on his investigations of patients suffering from "hysteria" and neurosis. Hysteria was an ancient diagnosis that was primarily used for women with a wide variety of symptoms, including physical symptoms and emotional disturbances with no apparent physical cause. The history of the term can be traced to ancient Greece, where the idea emerged that a woman's uterus could float around her body and cause a variety of disturbances. Freud theorized instead that many of his patients’ problems arose from the unconscious mind. In Freud’s view, the unconscious mind was a repository of feelings and urges of which we have no awareness.
The treatment of a patient referred to as Anna O. is regarded as marking the beginning of psychoanalysis. Freud worked together with Austrian physician Josef Breuer to treat Anna O.'s "hysteria," which Freud implied was a result of the resentment she felt over her father's real and physical illness that later led to his death. Today many researchers believe that her illness was not psychological, as Freud suggested, but either neurological or organic.
The Id, Ego, and Superego
Freud's structural model of personality divides the personality into three parts—the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is the unconscious part that is the cauldron of raw drives, such as for sex or aggression. The ego, which has conscious and unconscious elements, is the rational and reasonable part of personality. Its role is to maintain contact with the outside world to keep the individual in touch with society, and to do this it mediates between the conflicting tendencies of the id and the superego. The superego is a person's conscience, which develops early in life and is learned from parents, teachers, and others. Like the ego, the superego has conscious and unconscious elements. When all three parts of the personality are in dynamic equilibrium, the individual is thought to be mentally healthy. However, if the ego is unable to mediate between the id and the superego, an imbalance is believed to occur in the form of psychological distress.
Freud's theories also placed a great deal of emphasis on sexual development. Freud believed that each of us must pass through a series of stages during childhood, and that if we lack proper nurturing during a particular stage, we may become stuck or fixated in that stage. Freud’s psychosexual model of development includes five stages: oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital. According to Freud, children’s pleasure-seeking urges are focused on a different area of the body, called an erogenous zone, at each of these five stages. Psychologists today dispute that Freud's psychosexual stages provide a legitimate explanation for how personality develops, but what we can take away from Freud’s theory is that personality is shaped, in some part, by experiences we have in childhood.
Carl Jung was a Swiss psychotherapist who expanded upon Freud's theories at the turn of the 20th century. A central concept of Jung's analytical psychology is individuation: the psychological process of integrating opposites, including the conscious with the unconscious, while still maintaining their relative autonomy. Jung focused less on infantile development and conflict between the id and superego and instead focused more on integration between different parts of the person. Jung created some of the best-known psychological concepts, including the archetype, the collective unconscious, the complex, and synchronicity.
At present, psychodynamics is an evolving multidisciplinary field that analyzes and studies human thought processes, response patterns, and influences. Research in this field focuses on areas such as:
understanding and anticipating the range of conscious and unconscious responses to specific sensory inputs, such as images, colors, textures, sounds, etc.;
utilizing the communicative nature of movement and primal physiological gestures to affect and study specific mind-body states; and
examining the capacity of the mind and senses to directly affect physiological response and biological change.
Psychodynamic therapy, in which patients become increasingly aware of dynamic conflicts and tensions that are manifesting as a symptom or challenge in their lives, is an approach to therapy that is still commonly used today.