Understanding Freud’s id, ego and super ego

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During the long stretch of time between Aristotle and Kant a new approach to philosophy appeared; a philosophy based on science. No longer did philosophers just ponder about theories and base their theories on observation. Scientific philosophy utilised the new information men were discovering about the human biology and about the world we live in.Their new philosophies were based on their knowledge of the human mind and how it functioned.

Sigmund Freud was one of the first men to delve into the science and philosophy of the mind, and in doing so revolutionised philosophy and psychology. His understanding of how the mind works and the structures of the mind replaced the idea of the soul and its functions. For Freud, the mind was central to human development and function, and his later theory of its three components, the id, ego and super-ego, shapes who we are and how we act. We are controlled by these three parts of the mind, and they control our varying levels of consciousness, as well as our desires. Questions arise about the validity of Freud's theory of the workings of the mind, but nevertheless the theory does remain one of the most influential ones of our times.

By first analysing how Freud understood how the mind operated, one can then further understand how the mind works and the implications it has on our actions. Freud did not originally conceive of the three structural concepts of the mind. He began by making a distinction between the conscious, preconscious and the unconscious.

The commonly used analogy is that of an iceberg, with only a tip above the surface. Our mind is only aware of this tip; there is so much in our memory that sometimes we are aware of and can recall (the preconscious), but much more that we have no clue exists. The conscious parts of our mind are the things we can instantly recall and remember, while the preconscious are things that we may not immediately recall, but can remember after reflection.

The unconscious are things that are deep in our mind, that we are unaware of. They can be memories and thoughts that have been so traumatic that the person has repressed them; by pushing them into the unconsciousness the person can forget the horror. But even though they may have been repressed, the unconscious forces in our mind can have a great influence on our behaviour, even though we are unaware of what the actual force is, or even that it is influencing us. According to Freud, the unconscious forces are those basic instincts are those from infancy (including the Oedipus theory) (Stevenson and Haberman, 2004 p.161).

It was in the 1920s that Freud gave the mind a structure and distinguished between its different functions (Stevenson and Haberman, 2004 p.161).The three parts were given ages, with the oldest part being the id. Freud says that in the id is "everything that is inherited the instincts" (Freud, 1940 cited in Stafford-Clark, 1997 p.133).

It seems that like Plato, Freud assumed that we have preexisting knowledge about how to live and how to be humans. The id controls our basic instincts, and seeks the satisfaction of pleasure. The id follows the pleasure principle and is regarded as a primary process. It is also unconscious (Kline, 1972 p.126). We do not know why the id seeks the pleasures it does. In fact, we are not even aware of it doing so. This pleasure it seeks is only short-term, immediate satisfaction, so therefore the id is like a child only seeing the now' result (Stevenson and Haberman, 2004 p.161).

The id and its instincts come from the somatic organisation of the mind and creates a recognition of the unknown physical world (Freud, 1940 cited in Stafford-Clark, 1997 p.133). The true purpose of a person's life is expressed in the power of the id, as seen in the satisfaction of its innate needs (Freud, 1940 cited in Stafford-Clark, 1997 p.135). The more pleasure instincts a person satisfies, the stronger the influence of the id.

The instincts the id seeks are not practical ones such as keeping out of danger, or the instinct for survival. That is left to the ego, which "was developed out the cortical layer of the id" (Freud, 1940 cited in Kline, 1972 p.126). The id is not influenced by the external world, so the ego was evolved to deal with it. This cortical layer was originally "equipped with the organs for receiving stimuli" (Freud, 1940 cited in Stafford-Clark, 1997 p.133) and acted as a shield against stimuli.

This new ego now acts as the intermediary between the id and the world around it. Since the ego developed with "sense perception and muscular action" (Freud, 1940 cited in Stafford-Clark 1997 p.134) it can make voluntary movements. It becomes aware of stimuli and stores up memories about them; it avoids strong stimuli, deals with stimuli and makes changes to the world to its advantage (Freud, 1940 cited in Stafford-Clark, 1997 p.134).

It also deals with the internal world, in terms of the id. The ego controls the pleasure instinct of the id, and decides whether this desire should be satisfied. The ego seeks pleasure and tries to avoid things that are unpleasant; therefore it can see the consequences of the id pleasure impulses and can decide whether it is advantageous for it to seek that pleasure at that time.

The ego follows the reality principle, by determining whether it is practical and safe (its main aim) for instincts to be carried out. While the id is unconscious and is a primary process, the ego can be conscious, preconscious or unconscious and is a secondary process. While the id instantly seeks out pleasure, the ego analyses the situation and decides whether to proceed with the action (Kline, 1972 pp.126-7).

The ego has a second component of the mind to take into account, the super-ego. The super-ego is formed in childhood, during which "leaves behind it a precipitate which forms within the ego a special agency in which the parental influence is prolonged" (Freud, 1940 cited in Stafford-Clark 1997 p.135). The super-ego is influenced by person's parents, and the "family, racial and national traditions handed on" (Freud 1940 cited in Stafford-Clark, 1997 p.135).

Not only do the parents influence the super-ego, but also people in the position of authority or of teaching the child. With the influence of the parents, the super-ego in the child carries on their role as guardians and moral guideposts. The super-ego monitors the actions of the ego and influences it with a moral viewpoint. The super-ego could more commonly be thought of as the conscience (Stevenson and Haberman, 2004 p.161-2).

Disharmony between the three parts of the mind can cause neurosis, which can manifest itself in physical reactions. The ego has to keep a balance between the id "I want" and the super-egos "this is the moral thing to do". If any part of the mind is stronger than the other it can lead to personality problems; if the id is too strong the person is selfish and interested only in self-gratification, if the ego is too strong the person is very rational and efficient, but negatively they will be unfeeling, distant and boring. Finally if the super-ego overpowers the other two, then the person would constantly feel guilty and would always be trying to be saintly.

The problem with Freud is that his research was based on observation, not on biological evidence. He could not, nor could anyone else, delve into the mind and see exactly how it worked. Even biological experiments on the actual brain itself could not yield these answers. Freud based his theories on psychoanalysis of his patients, usually women suffering hysteria'.

In light of his changing theories (from admitting that women actually were abused to changing his mind and saying these claims were fantasies) and of possible child abuse himself, his theories may not be as sound as they seem. If one also acknowledges that Freud was a man of his times, with extreme prejudices and limited knowledge of science and psychology, his theories could be discredited. But Freud's reputation could be saved; only recently evidence from Stanford University and the University of Oregon has suggested that there is a mechanism in the brain that blocks unwanted memories, in that when someone wanted to remember something the hippocampus in the brain was activated, and that when they wanted to suppress something the frontal cortex was activated and activity in the hippocampus was slowed (ABC Radio National, 2004).

Kline also mentions studies that support this evidence; in 1961 Grey-Walter suggested that the id was located in the mid*brain and that the ego was in the sensory cortex. Grossman (1967), MacLean (1949) and Papez (1937) attempt to discuss the role of the cortex, the hippocampus and the cingulate gyrus in emotion and try to assign these places as the location of the id, but unfortunately they cannot definitely prove Freud's theory.

The frontal lobes were suggested as the residence of the super-ego, due to observation that people who suffered from obsessional and anxiety states (controlled by the super-ego) were improved by having a lobotomy. However Kline discounts all this evidence and says that while one can suggest these locations, it cannot really be supported with evidence. At the time it was not possible to equate Freud's structure of the mind with any actual part of the brain (Kline, 1972 p.130).

Kline continues to give other evidence for the existence of the id, ego and super-ego. He says that there are conscious, preconscious and unconscious mental states, as observed in human behaviour. It seems that we do forget things, yet can recall them later, and there are memories that we do not recall at all, as seen in the works of James, Charcot and Janet.

However, these terms can only be proven because they were defined by Freud himself. As he had invented the terms himself, and given definitions to them based on human behaviour, they must be correct, according to what he says (Kline, 1972 p.129). Perhaps the evidence for the existence for the id, ego and super-ego can only be found by Freud's method, observation.

Quite a few studies have been based on the hypothesis that id, ego and super-ego factors occur in certain behaviour. IES tests were designed to measure the strength of impulses (id), ego and super-ego. However, Kline notes that the IES tests had not proven yet (in 1972) that Freud was correct, though they did hint that there was substance to his theories (Kline, 1972 p.137).

Freud's theory has given us a reason for why we act the way we do, it explains why we have impulses and have a moral conscious. In the new world, where science was replacing religion, scientific theories were needed to explain our behaviour. But does it really matter if Freud is proven correct? Do we really need validation that there is a tripartite of the mind? Will our moral behaviour change if it is found that Freud was wrong? Would we suddenly act immorally, would our values and judgments disappear? Do we really need to be told that our mind is divided into three and that these parts of the mind control each other and our behaviour?

We should not need evidence for these parts of the mind, or need existence of a soul to act morally. It doesn't matter if we know how our mind works; we don't need to know what makes us act morally. We should do it automatically, without analysing our actions. We should all have control of ourselves, and control our impulses and our moral behaviour. Freud's theory gives us an excuse to do so. We shouldn't need one.

All in the Mind 2004, radio program, ABC Radio National, Sydney 6 March.
Kline. P 1972, Fact and Fantasy in Freudian Theory, Methuen & Co LTD, London.
Stafford-Clark. D 1997, What Freud Really Said, Schocken Books Inc, New York.
Stevenson. L & Haberman. D.L 2004, Ten Theories of Human Nature, Oxford University Press.

More about this author: Kristina Manusu

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