Psychoanalysis and Castration

Castration of male genital has long a history in mythology, religious rites, and as a means of controlling slaves. In contrast, Freud believed castration anxiety was an experience all boys went through. Like most psychoanalytic babel, the so-called universal experiences of infantile sexuality have no scientific basis and when the “evidence” to support them, i.e., mythology and ancient rites, is examined, Freud’s interpretations are illogical. In sum, mythological and religious depictions of castration demonstrate that penis’ are a vulnerability that some men are better off without.

Freud’s castration anxiety theories centres around a mental process he called the Oedipus Complex. In the case of men, Freud asserted that all boys experience sexual desire for their mother but this is repressed and displays itself in adulthood as ‘a sense of guilt for which he can discern no foundation’*. Supposedly the sexual desire in boys is so strong that they want to possess their mothers and irrationally fear that if their father were to find out he would take away what they love most, their penis; hence, all young boys develop castration anxiety.

In girls, the Oedipus complex is considered to be a reversal of a boy’s experience. While a boy wants to do away with their father and have their mother to themselves, a girl wants to be rid of their mother so they can have all of their father’s attention. The situation becomes more complex when a girl realises that she does not have a penis like her father, so she therefore becomes envious and resents her mother for her castrated state. Her only hope for reducing the tension brought about by penis envy is to substitute her desire for a penis with a desire for a baby.

Mythology

Two prominent castration myths stand out and are commonly referred to in psychoanalysis: The Egyptian story of Osiris and the Greek myth of Uranus and Aphrodite’s birth.

The basic outline of the Egyptian story is that a god named Seth was jealous of his brother Osiris being King so he kills him and takes the throne. When the Queen, Isis, finds out her husband is dead she is grieved and sets about finding Osiris’ body. Once located, she begins the process of bringing him back to life, however, she is interrupted. Seth steals Osiris’ body, cuts it up into fourteen pieces, then hurls the pieces throughout Egypt so Isis cannot bring him back to life. Isis transforms into a hawk kite and flies over Egypt collecting all the pieces but she could not find his penis because it was eaten by a fish. Therefore, Isis makes a substitute penis out of gold and uses her magic to become pregnant. Because Osiris is incomplete, he cannot stay alive and he descends to the underworld where he rules over the dead.

In the Greek myth, Uranus (the personification of heaven) is told of an oracle that predicts one of his children will overthrow him. Consequently, whenever his wife, Gaia (the personification of earth) has children he imprisons them. Gaia is not happy. A plan is set and put into action: Gaia’s youngest child, Cronus, castrates Uranus in an opportunistic moment and casts his genitals into the sea. Blood from the severed members become giants and Aphrodite rises out of the water from Uranus’ disembodied parts. Read on a symbolic level, Uranus’ castration gave birth to stupidity (giants are generally depicted as stupid) and the embodiment of beauty and sexual desire (Aphrodite’s characteristics). Alternately, the moral of the story could be interpreted as: “Don’t piss off your wife or she’ll chop your balls off”.

Cultic castration

Some devotees of Osiris cults castrated themselves in reverence for their deity, however, the Cybele cult is probably better known for this practice. The cult of Cybele focused around the Great Mother (Rhea in Greek). Priests of the order were eunuchs and some male followers also castrated themselves. The practice is speculated to be symbolic of a ‘Sacred Marriage’. There are differing accounts of how the festival-based ritual of removing male genitalia was performed. Sometimes the act was performed by the individual and other times it was done with assistance. While being a Roman cult, it has links to Greek mythology in which Cronus was instructed to castrate his father, Uranus (Heaven), by his mother, Gaia (Earth). In some instances Cybele cult clergy only removed their testicles and in others they completely removed all male genitalia.

Early Christianity

The practice of castration as a suitable means of avoiding unlawful sexual intercourse was expressed by many, including Philo of Alexandria (first century Jewish scholar) who said “it is better to make oneself a eunuch than to rage madly for unlawful sexual intercourse”#. Thus, cultural acceptance of castration combined with the following motivational verse from Saint Matthew’s gospel encouraged some early christians to perform the act:

For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it. 

Matthew 19:12 (KJV)

In Christianity castration is mostly associated with religious asceticism. For instance, Origen (c.184 – 253CE) who was born into Christian family in Alexandria was zealously devoted to Christianity and is reported to have self castrated to avoid feelings of lust towards women. Presumably, he wasn’t the only one because when Christian leaders meet in the third century Catholic to discuss and establish standardised codes of conduct (the Council of Nicaea), self castration was one of the hot issues on the agenda. It was decided, moreover, it became cannon law, that self castration was to be prohibited. Prominent figures like Saint Augustine objected to the literal interpretation of Matthew 19:12, albeit, Augustine still popularised the notion that sexual intercourse was connected to sin.

A depiction of Origen’s self-castration
Source: Wikipedia commons

Intermingled with the long history of castration practices is the concept of circumcision, the removal of the foreskin from the penis, which is hypothesised to be a tradition that evolved from expressing religious devotion via castration. Circumcision has been part of Judaism ever since the time of Abraham, who was commanded by God to circumcise all male babies on their eight day as a sign of the covenant between Him and the Jewish people (Genesis 17:10–14). The tradition then extended into Christianity and Islam. The connection between circumcision and castration is complicated by Abrahamic religions supporting circumcision but having no tolerance for castration: ‘No man who has been castrated or whose penis has been cut off may be included among the LORD’s people’ (GNV; Deuteronomy 23:1).

In 530 Emperor Justinian declared orders of celibacy for Christian clergy, however, these were not consistently followed. Priests were not officially forbidden to marry till 1139. Catholic priests today still take vows of celibacy on the grounds of it symbolising a commitment to God, while other Christian denominations (e.g. Lutheran, Protestant, and Anglican) allow priests to marry.

The prohibition of self castration did not eliminate its practice. In Russia, in the eighteenth century, a sect known as “Skoptsy” revived the tradition. The initiation process involved the testis being removed first, or in the case of women, the nipples, then the next stage was complete removal of the phallus or breasts.

Psychoanalysis

In Freudian psychoanalysis, castration anxiety is concerned with so-called instinctual impulses (the id) of an incestual nature, in which a boy must give up his sexual desire for his mother out of fear that an internalised Godly father figure (the superego) will castration him. The wanting to repress sexual desire out of Godly wrath may be viewed as having an alignment with the conscious decision making behind some religious attitudes and practices, (e.g., some Cybele, Osiris and early Christian devotees), however, this is not sufficient evidence to claim all young boys unconsciously experience castration anxiety. If myths, ancient texts, and religious practices are to be used as evidence (as psychoanalysis does) then it could be conjectured that all young boys experience unconscious castration desires because they want to demonstrate devotion to their internalised God figure and be more like their mothers.

In the case of girls, who Freud thought of as castrated beings with a weaker superego, rather than viewing myths as projecting connotations of inferiority, female deities could be viewed as powerful beings who are capable of restoring order when men act foolishly, as can be interpreted in the behaviour of Rhea (Cronus’ wife) and Isis. Subsequently, having a penis can be viewed as a sign of weakness and vulnerability. 

Overall, Freudian theories blur several factors such as mythological representation of castration and historical practices of castration, with young children’s curiosity about their own and other people’s bodies. The combining of these two factors is not conducive to understanding psychology. On one hand an appreciation can be given to the history of castration in mythology and ancient texts that express a broad range of attitudes, beliefs, and associated behaviours that are founded in cultural norms and customs. On the other hand, children, when learning about their bodily functions, require guidance to learn autonomy and social norms. 

After thoughts

From a contemporary perspective, the historical acts of castration as a religious practice may be viewed as having overlaps with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer (LGBQ) proponents. However, this consideration can’t be taken too liberally. Actual acts of sexual promiscuity, rape, and other sexual violence that may have occurred within ancient cultures may have been an incentive for castration (religious or other), however, this is challenging to comment on due to the lack of reliable records.

*Quote taken from page 2: Freud, Sigmund, Lecture Twenty-One: development of the libido and sexual organization, https://azkurs.org/from-lecture-twenty-one-development-of-the-libido-and-sexual-o.html (accessed 27 November 2020).

# Quote taken from page 402: Caner DF. The Practice and Prohibition of Self-Castration in Early Christianity. Vigiliae Christianae 1997; 51: 396–415.

Bibliography

Anwar MS, Munawar F, Anwar Q. Circumcision: a religious obligation or ‘the cruellest of cuts’? Br J Gen Pract 2010; 60: 59–61.

Baber H. Origen, radical biblical scholar. The Guardian, 10 June 2010, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2010/jun/10/origen-christianity-philosophy (10 June 2010, accessed 9 January 2021).

Bostock G. Allegory and the interpretation of the Bible in Origen. Literature and Theology 1987; 1: 39–53.

Francis AG. On a Romano-British Castration Clamp used in the Rites of Cybele. Proc R Soc Med 1926; 19: 95–110.

McLeod SA. Psychosexual stages. Simply Psychology, https://www simplypsychology org/psychosexual html (accessed June 19, 2017), https://www.simplypsychology.org/psychosexual.html (2008).

Mordeniz C, Verit A. Is circumcision a modified ritual of castration? Urol Int 2009; 82: 399–403.

Niehoff MR. Circumcision as a Marker of Identity: Philo, Origen and the Rabbis on Gen 17: 1—14. Jewish Studies Quarterly 2003; 10: 89–123.

Owen HL. When did the Catholic Church decide priests should be celibate. History News Network, https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/696 (2001).

Teitelbaum S. Castration. In: Leeming DA, Madden K, Marlan S (eds) Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion. Boston, MA: Springer US, pp. 126–128.

Wade J. The Castrated Gods and their Castration Cults: Revenge, Punishment, and Spiritual Supremacy, https://digitalcommons.ciis.edu/advance-archive/12/ (2019, accessed 16 December 2020).

Whitaker RJ. From virgin births to purity movements: Christians and their problem with sex. The Conversation, 2019, http://theconversation.com/from-virgin-births-to-purity-movements-christians-and-their-problem-with-sex-118327 (2019, accessed 16 December 2020).

The Big Bang Theory in Egyptian Mythology

According to the NASA website, the Big Bang Theory of how the universe started stipulates that in the beginning there was a very small single point that grew. Below is cut and paste of the process as theorised by Georges Lemaître and Edwin Hubble in 1927 & 1929 respectively.

When the universe began, it was just hot, tiny particles mixed with light and energy. It was nothing like what we see now. As everything expanded and took up more space, it cooled down.

The tiny particles grouped together. They formed atoms. Then those atoms grouped together. Over lots of time, atoms came together to form stars and galaxies.

The first stars created bigger atoms and groups of atoms called molecules. That led to more stars being born. At the same time, galaxies were crashing and grouping together. As new stars were being born and dying, then things like asteroids, comets, planets, and black holes formed!

Now what would you say if I told you that Lemaître’s and Hubble’s ideas were far from original? What would you say if I told you that the Ancient Egyptians said the same thing at least 5000 year ago? Well guess what, they did. Except the Egyptians used different wording.

According to the Egyptians, the void of nothingness at the start of time had four pairs of qualities. The names of these qualities were Naunet and Nu who represented the primeval water; Hauhet and Huh who represented infinity; Kauket and Kek who represented darkness, and; Amaunet and Amun who represented the hidden unknowable nature of the void. In case you didn’t guess it, each of these qualities was personified as a Goddess or God. Moreover, each pair had a female and male component – to use a modern analogy, it was kind of like pairs of female and male electrical circuitry; nothing was literally feminine or masculine, we humans just sometimes use a boorish of way describing things that interlock with each. (Imagine the joy your mobile charger gets when its studly male part makes love to the sexy female socket every night while its charging, and you’ll get the idea that thinking of the Egyptian deities as literally having it on, is humorous.)

The Egyptians expressed their version of the time before the ‘big bang’ wonderfully in their pictorial writing style of hieroglyphics.

Erroneously, some people, e.g., Jordan Peterson, refer to this description of the beginning of time as chaos, moreover, a feminine chaos. There are many reasons why this assumption is wrong, one of which is that it neglects etymology. The original meaning of the word ‘chaos’ was void.

Etymology

Etymology is the study of the history of words. Language is constantly evolving which means the meanings of words is not static – like all of the universe, meanings are constantly expanding. Sometimes the meanings of a word get so big that they break into pieces and new words and new meanings are formed.

Common examples of words that have changed include ‘awesome’ and ‘awful’ which used to be synonyms that referred to fearful respect, i.e. ‘awe’ for God. Each word has slowly developed over the past few hundred years to point in which awesome means something wonderful and awful means something terrible.

Colloquially, ‘totally sick’ means something is great, but historically, a person would only use the term if someone was extremely ill.

Not so long ago, ‘gay’ meant happy or joyful, now it means homosexual. Imagine reading an Enid Blyton book and thinking the children were homosexual because you didn’t know the old meaning of the word. That is exactly the same situation we have with ‘chaos’.

Up until the 1600’s chaos had nothing to do with confusion or disarray. Hence, associating that meaning with the primeval waters of life is equally ridiculous. To use modern language, the primeval waters were a void.

Now, as the tiny particles, i.e. Naunet, Nu, Hauhet, Huh, Kauket, Kek, Amaunet, and Amun, got the jiggy on, excitement began to build. Georges Lemaître and Edwin Hubble phrase that this part of the process as leading to the creation of a big BANG. Personally, I think the Egyptian’s had a bit more class, they called it RA!

BANG or RA, or whatever you want to call it, it was BIG! And a great light appeared!

The Egyptians poetically describe this beautiful new light as blooming on a lotus flower. He sat there, ever so quietly, with His finger posed lightly upon His lips, in silence. Alas, the energy of this light was so powerful that it began to expand, and as it did Ra got excited; so excited in fact that He masterbated! Holy moly, the great God miraculously produced two offspring called Shu and Tefnut. Ra was new to this parenting thing; moreover, He was a single dad and wasn’t sure what He should be doing (I’m tempted to say Ra was a little bit Chaotic and struggled to find Order but I don’t want to get ahead of myself). So anyway, we’ll forgive Ra for not watching what the children were doing (some versions of the story say He lost an eye, so we’ll give the the poor man some empathy). While Ra was trying to get a hang on this parenting thing (if only He had some sex education before He masterbated!), there must have been a few moments where He wasn’t watching what the kids were doing because, lo and behold, the next thing you know, Shu and Tefnut are having kids with each other! Their offspring were called Nut and Geb. Please don’t judge Shu and Tefnut too harshly, they may have been siblings but their children were made with love, nonetheless. Besides, its not their fault Ra was an absent father figure who did not give any moral guidance (actually, I don’t think morals had been created yet – they came latter when the Goddess Maat arrived on the scene – bloody typical, the universe was immoral till a woman took on that leadership role). Family trauma set in quick. Nut and Geb had to be separated to stop the shenanigans. Nut was placed in the sky and Geb on the earth. The story goes on a bit with siblings having kids with each other (awkward, I know), and this keeps on going until Isis abstracts some of Ra’s power and begins the process of sorting out this family mayhem. Fortunately, after Isis has a child with her brother Osiris the incest theme dies down a bit. (The story of Isis is really cool, so I’m going to save the details for another time.)

Now I realise this Egyptian narrative is a bit raunchy and may not be appropriate for young children, so we’ll say the same thing in Lemaître’s and Hubble’s stiff upper-lipped scientific tone: Everything expanded and took up more space and then it cooled down. The tiny particles grouped together (that’s the incest part of the Egyptian story). They formed atoms (grand-kiddies were born!) Then those atoms grouped together (family tree was growing!) Over lots of time, atoms came together to form stars and galaxies.

I’m sorry, is it just me, or is the Egyptian version way more exciting? I know which drama enactment I’d buy tickets to see … I love learning but if the lesson is too boring then my attention is gone … just saying.

So there you have it. The Egyptian Big Bang theory. Presented to you in Renaissance Wellbeing’s style.

On a serious note, I have used some gender-stereotypes in my storytelling which are not necessarily part of the ancient Egyptian versions. Further, my stereotypes are not fair to real women or men. I mean no offence by my satirically expression. The point I’m making is that mythologies are an amalgamation of sociocultural influences and key concepts that have been personified. This is one of the reasons why there are so many different versions of the same myths. (FYI there are many variations of the Egyptian creation myth – what I’ve written here is a harmonisation of themes from serval versions.) Storytellers of different times and places imprinted upon narratives social codes and conventions that correlate to the cultures in which they are presented. Same thing happens in contemporary mediums of storytelling like novel writing and Hollywood movie scripts.

Overall, interpreting any ancient mythology needs to be approached with care and consideration of its themes and context. Creativity also needs to be duly acknowledged. For these reasons, myths cannot be completely generalised to have universal meanings, however, there is the caveat that common themes, like world beginning with a void, and theological beliefs, like the four elements, that can appear across a number of cultures. The reason for this is that there was a lot of sharing of stories, especially at ancient libraries. For example, Philo (20BCE – c. 50CE) was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who harmonised Greek and Jewish themes into his writing. Likewise, Ovid (43BC – c.18CE) was Roman scholar who harmonised Greek and Roman mythology. And Iamblichus (245 – c.325CE) brought together Egyptian, Chaldean, and Assyrian beliefs. The extent that storytelling was shared between groups of people prior to written records is unclear. Although, there is evidence cross-cultural influences did occur, for example Egyptian artefacts have been found in Crete that date back to at least 1500BCE.

When mythology is viewed in appropriate sociocultural contexts, psychoanalytical theory that proposes myths have universal symbols looses validity. Psychoanalysis interpretations of mythology do not present genuine understandings of ancient stories nor do they reveal any unconscious truths about so-called archetypes. Freud’s invention of psychoanalysis is nothing more than surface level interpretations of mythological themes that reflect Victorian era values. They are not applicable to antiquity and they are not applicable to today’s societies. Moreover, the psychological effect of believing myths are literal truths about gender and behaviour can harmful to mental wellbeing. As individuals we are not doing ourselves justice if we compare ourselves to personifications of concepts. There are no ultimate masculine or feminine traits that anyone needs to affiliate with based purely on whether they are women or men. We are all human. We are all in a state of expansion, development, and creation, just like the universe.

To end, I’d like to thank Kathy for inspiring me to write this blog based on a social media comment that she made:

I wouldn't want to get lost in the idea that chaos is feminine when it is both. Much in nurturing is calming and bringing order. Nurturing has been stereotyped as a feminine role. So, that in itself is a contradiction to chaos as feminine.

Bibliography

chaos | Origin and meaning of chaos by Online Etymology Dictionary. (n.d.). http://Www.Etymonline.com. Retrieved November 14, 2020, from https://www.etymonline.com/word/chaos

NASA. (n.d.). What Is the Big Bang? | NASA Space Place – NASA Science for Kids. Spaceplace.Nasa.Gov. https://spaceplace.nasa.gov/big-bang/en/#:~:text=The%20Short%20Answer%3A

No Peterson, Chaos is not a universal feminine trait found across mythology.

I am not a fan of Jordan Peterson (I’ve written about him before here). In brief, he states half-truths as scientific facts. I find it frustrating to listen to him talk because one moment I’ll be agreeing with what he says and then the next I’ll be cringing at his inaccuracies. Essentially, the problem lies in his support of psychoanalytical theories which translate to personal opinions based on poor research practices.

Psychoanalysis is a belief system akin to religious doctrines. Its fundamental creed is that symbols in ancient mythologies have unconscious universal meanings. Freud was the inventor of the “holy scriptures” and his cult endures through personalities like Peterson.

Today I am inspired to say a few words in response to the YouTube: Jordan Peterson – Why is Chaos symbolised as feminine?

I’m going to keep my rebuttal short and sweet: the Greek personification of Chaos is MASCULINE or NEUTRAL. (In Latin, Chaos is neutral.) In creation mythology Chaos creates Erebus (darkness) and Nyx (night).

My knowledge of Greek linguistics isn’t fantastic but from my research it appears that χάος (chaos) is a masculine and χάους (chaos) and is the feminine. In early texts (Homer and Hesiod) Chaos is represented as a male deity and it is only in later texts (Orpheus and Aristophanes) that it is suggested that Chaos might be feminine.

Coincidentally, in the older Greek eras when stories were told by word of mouth, prior to 700BCE, there is evidence of matriarchal and/or egalitarian Greek societies. Whereas Orpheus and Aristophanes’ writings are dated later (c.600-400BCE) when Greece had become a patriarchal society. In other words, sociocultural structures influenced the presentation of themes presented in creation myths from one era to another.

This is not unusual. The identification of cultural codes and conventions in media productions is a well recognised aspect of contemporary analyses of narratives. All Peterson needs to do is google “Media Codes and Conventions” and he’ll find an abundance of academic literature about the subject.

Psychoanalytical theory loves to suggest metaphors are based on universal truths but this simply is not the case. The representation of concepts as personifications is complex, and nuanced by various factors of sociocultural considerations that should be addressed in case to case circumstances.

Peterson tries to support his arguments by promoting masculine mythological characters as representations of order, as he does in Jordan Peterson – Men as order and Women as chaos. Again, he is picking and choosing “facts” to suit his arguments.

In Greek mythology, Veritas is a goddess of truth, Eunomia is a goddess of law and legislation (her name literally means ‘good order’), Aletheia is a goddess of truth and sincerity, one of Athena’s virtues is practical reason, and Themis is a goddess of order, justice, wisdom, and good counsel. In contrast, Perses is a god of destruction, Ares is a god of war and violence, Apollo is responsible for plagues, and Dionysus is associated with drunken chaos.

Moving onto Egyptian mythology, Seth is a god of chaos, likewise Apep is a god of chaos and an opponent of Ma’at who is the goddess of truth and order. Thmei is also a goddess of truth and Merit establishes cosmic order with her music.

In Hindu mythology, Durga Devi is a goddess of moral order and Vritra is male demon (represented by a snake or dragon) who causes adversary. And let’s not forget that Christianity has Satan as it’s masculine representative of chaos.

Granted, there are some feminine deities who represent chaos, e.g. Eris (Greek), Kali (Hindu), and Kek (Egyptian; to be precise, Ancient Egyptian mythology refers to eight deities, four male, four female, that represent the primordial waters of chaos). Masculine deities who represent order include Weneg (Egyptian), and Vishnu (Indian), and Zeus (Greek; Zeus is also known to cause some chaotic situations, e.g. the story of Demeter and Persephone, but I’m putting him down because I’m having troubles finding a Greek god specifically dedicated to order – creating order and harmony appears to be a role dominated by Greek goddesses).

As for Taoism, which Peterson bases his arguments upon, an alignment of masculine as order and feminine as chaos can be read into the philosophies of yin and yang. However, generalisations of symbolic codes and conventions for concepts is not universal across all ancient belief systems.

Moreover, the spiritual psychology of yin and yang is not as simple as Peterson proposes. Personally, I find Sachiko Murata’s discussions much more thorough and detailed but I’ll avoid going off on a tangent and discuss Murata’s work in a future blog.

In sum, interpreting mythology is not always a simple, straightforward task. Generalising is thwarted with challenges and the results are prone to error if sociocultural considerations of when, where, why, and how stories are told are not taken into account. Further, the polarisation of concepts distracts from what myths are often trying to convey, that being the variability and shades of grey between black and white, male and female, good and bad, chaos and order.

Confronting misinterpretations of ancient myths is an important step forward in developing sound psychological theories. Likewise, psychoanalytical mythology and misogynistic stereotypes disguised as “science” need to be recognised as being nothing more than Freudian fables.

More about Chaos and Order in ancient myths: The Big Bang theory and Egyptian mythology

UPDATE 11/1/22: I’ve written an article about Eris. She is mostly associated as being the manifestation of strife and discord which, in a way, could be interpreted as causing chaos: Exploring Ancient Myths: Defining Beauty, According to Homer’s Helen of Troy.

Hysteria to PTSD: Freud’s hypnotism still has some people in a trance

“… [the victim] needs to stop thinking about themselves as nice and harmless because it is the nice and harmless person that is exploitable by the malevolent psychopath and that’s not moral virtue, that’s just weakness, that’s all it is. It’s naivety, it’s the maintenance of a child-like viewpoint of the world that’s past its expiry date … “

JORDAN PETERSON, 2017

Jordan Peterson* is a controversial fellow and it’s not too difficult to work out why. In a nutshell, I appreciate some aspects of his intellect but he misses the mark completely when it comes to understanding emotional aspects of being human and trauma. This is can be seen in comments like those above when he is discussing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I found it quite shocking to hear him speak of someone struggling with trauma as being weak, naive, and childish. My encounters with people with PTSD indicate that they are strong, resourceful, intelligent people who live in a state of hyperviligance. They are constantly in fear that they will meet malevolence around every corner. Further, they don’t think of themselves as nice and harmless. Many are riddled with self-blame and low self-esteem. Peterson’s attitude that trauma victims should toughen up and move on is old fashioned and scientifically unsound. It is highly alarming to see a professional, high-profile psychologist perpetuating myths about PTSD.

Peterson also promotes the view that malevolence can be placed on a scale from relatively insignificant through to extreme. Accordingly, lesser traumatic experiences should be dismissed (Peterson uses the example of child being sexually assaulted by their sibling) and only “extreme” traumatic experiences are of any real significance. Such opinions ignore fundamental aspects of the traumatic experience and promote dissociation.

In the past thirty to forty years, a lot of breakthroughs in research have lead to amazing insights about PTSD. Peterson is in the psychology industry, how could he not be aware of the latest studies? Why is he dispensing out dated psychoanalysis ideas? I can understand why the general public aren’t aware of new research but Peterson has no excuse.

Suggesting PTSD is a sign of weakness, an inability to let go, an indulgence of emotions, or any other belittling connotation can be dangerous because doing so diverts people from getting the support that they really need. Moreover, it constitutes victim-blaming. It appears that Peterson is basing his approach on out-dated information; his views may be seen as aligning with erroneous Freudian psychology.

“Freud was wrong on many accounts, especially in regards to trauma.”

Many history books bestow Freud with the glorified title of “father of modern psychoanalysis”. Some even go so far as to praise Freud as the “father of modern psychology”. Both titles suggests that he was intelligent man who should be looked up too. This perception is very misleading. Putting it bluntly, Freud was wrong on many accounts, especially in regards to trauma. Nevertheless, his influence was great and many people don’t realise the potential negative consequences of his contributions. The aim of this blog is to explore Freud’s theories so as the errors can be identified and relinquished by community (and Peterson) consciousness.

Firstly, it needs to be explained that Freud never spoke of PTSD. He spoke of hysteria. The term PTSD first became an official diagnosis in 1980 when it was published in the third version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III)**. Prior to 1980, individuals who presented with symptoms associated with what we now call PTSD were referred as having hysteria, neurasthenia, shell shock or battle fatigue***. Hysteria is the oldest term and it has an extensive history.

Clarifying what is PTSD

Before getting into the heart of the discussion, it’s useful to give a brief overview of PTSD. Traumatic occurrences that can lead to the condition include events, such as rape, assault, war, domestic violence, abuse, natural disasters, vehicle accidents, or smaller, repeated stressful events, such as being bullied, called names, ostracised, neglected, and witnessing others experience trauma (vicious trauma). Other forms of traumas includes physical illness, birth trauma (i.e. significant medical intervention), intergenerational trauma (i.e. negative experiences passed from parent to child via DNA), and collective trauma (i.e. racism, sexism, climate crisis issues, etc.). More information about trauma can be found here.

PTSD symptoms can vary from person to person, however, the following is a general outline of common traits: confusion, irrationality, anxiety, fear; withdrawal from others; mood swings; heightened startle response to stimuli; low self esteem; feeling hopeless, helpless, guilt, shame, numb, and overall sadness. The impact of PTSD can be crippling and it lowers quality of life tremendously.

Regardless of whether a person has several smaller traumatic events or if they have experienced large ones, the effects of PTSD on the body and mind can be equally difficult. Judgments about what the trauma was from are irrelevant; the impact that trauma has on an individual is what matters.

Brief History of Hysteria to PTSD

The word hysteria stems from the Greek word ‘hysterikos’ which refers to a woman’s uterus. The Ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato, Aristotle, and Hippocrates, believed that a woman’s uterus could wander around her body, thus was the cause of heightened and excessive emotional behaviour. Whenever I read this explanation of hysteria I want to laugh. I’m certain that it must be an ancient joke and us modern people are too daft to see the proverbial tongue in cheek. Surely, it’s the same as contemporary satire about men having two brains: one their head and the other in their sexual organs? The Greek philosophers were phenomenal thinkers of mathematics, science, politics, the arts, and yet they believed that a woman’s womb could wander around her body and that sex was required to keep it in the right place! Hmm, maybe this proof that some men think more with their lower brain than the higher one in their head 🙂

Hysteria’s stigma of being a women’s disease has prevailed for millennium. Notions of “crazy” women who are too “weak” to control their emotions often come to mind. (Peterson’s views echo this notion.) The Middle Ages added to the negative connotations by suggesting hysteria was a sign of demonic possession. Links between witchcraft and hysteria have been identified by some historians.

The Renaissance period was an era in which westernised cultures reflected back upon Ancient Greek philosophers. Therefore, a renewal of the connection between hysteria and the sexual behaviour of women had a resurgence. The moral codes of the renaissance differed from that of Ancient Greek, therefore, the apparent need for women to excrete their sexual juices in order to prevent hysteria caused some dilemmas. Nevertheless, hysteria was predominantly viewed as a woman’s issue that was associated with too much or too little sexual activity.

During the seventh century, some significant developments concerning the understandings of hysteria took place. In particular, Rene Descartes (1596-1650), suggested that there was a connection between the mind and the body which caused symptoms. Thomas Willis (1621-1675) suggested the nervous system played a role, and Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689) suggested that the male equivalent of hysteria was hypochondria. Perhaps if psychology had continued to follow these lines of investigation we may have arrived at our contemporary understandings of PTSD sooner? Alas, this did not occur.

“Freud’s defining of trauma experiences can be summarised in his Oedipus theory.”

In the late nineteenth century, the unconscious mind and hypnosis dominated psychology and steered understandings of hysteria back to antiquated premises. It is during this era that Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) became a prominent figure.

Freud, identified hysteria as being caused by traumatic experiences in one’s childhood which resulted in emotional distress in adulthood. Freud’s defining of trauma experiences can correlates with his Oedipus theory. This theory suggest that all children between the ages of 3-6 unconsciously desire their opposite-sex parent (girls supposedly have the additional problem of penis envy) which causes jealousy and anger toward his or her same-sex parent. The tension of these lustful impulses is, according to Freud, traumatic and can lead to adult hysteria. Closely associated with the Oedipus theory is the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy in which Freud suggests that erectile dysfunction is caused by a man’s desire for a nurturing figure but when they encounter this in a real women they are reminded of their mothers, so therefore need to degrade her to a whore level. To support his views, Freud referred to mythological stories as evidence. Freudian theory goes on to presume absolute authority on how symbols in mythology are to be interpreted and how themes of myths are mirrored in an individual’s life which, of course, is mostly of a sexual nature. Anyone else see any problems with these theories? I’ll unpack some of my interpretations shortly.

Freud’s work then continues with his development of the “talking cure” known as psychoanalysis. The process of psychoanalysis involves allowing a client to talk freeing, in particular, about their dreams and childhood memories whilst the therapist looks for reoccurring themes and/or evidence of a sexual-based dilemmas. The process is founded on the premise that making unconscious desires and lusts conscious through “free association” is cathartic. Interestingly, Freud developed psychoanalysis techniques so as he could help clients who he was not able to hypnotise.

Freudian ideas about psychoanalysis were challenged by his peers but many people still supported them. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Freud, few can argue that his work was highly influential. The spreading of Freudian ideas throughout society occurred through artistic movements such as surrealism, movie references, and the notion of a “Freudian slip of the tongue”. Subsequently, while science rejected most of Freud’s work, pop-culture enabled him to become an icon of how the unconscious mind supposedly works.

“The occurrence of wars such as World War One, World War Two, and the Vietnam war also impacted the trajectory of psychology”

As the twentieth century progressed, many other individuals made significant contributions to various aspects of psychology, including Carl Rogers, Burrhus Skinner, Jean Piaget, Ivan Pavlov, John Dewey, Donald Winnicott, Aaron Beck, and more. Theories concerned with behaviour, attachment, social issues, developmental factors, education, and cognitive functioning spread the field of psychology into new domains. Intertwined with psychology research were significant changes in politics, culture, and social values. The occurrence of wars such as World War One, World War Two, and the Vietnam war also impacted the trajectory of psychology; when returned service men displayed emotional dysregulation like that traditionally only seen in hysterical women, theories of mental health issues were investigated from new perspectives.

Other factors that contributed to developments in psychological research included the consolidation of scientific procedures, the creation of mood and thinking based measurement scales, the invention of brain scanning technology, the discovery of pharmaceuticals that can alter mental and emotional states, and the application of higher ethical standards in research protocols.

A particularly significant development in psychology occurred within the field of neuroscience. This formally began in the 1960’s when the use of the term “neuro + science” was first used. In brief, neuroscience is a specialised area of psychology that focuses on the nervous system and its related influence on the body, brain, and human behaviour. Its findings have shed much light on mental health conditions which previously mystified professionals. Insights into PTSD have been obtained from sources such as brain scans using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electrocephalogram (EEG) technology.

The human nervous system is a pathway of nerves which runs throughout every part of the body; energy impulses travel along the nervous system and convey messages back and forth between our senses and our brain. The major conduit of this process occurs via what is called our ‘vagus nerve’. The vagus nerve runs down our spine and spreads out like tree branches throughout our abdominal; finer branches spread throughout our limbs. The vagus nerve connects to all major organs, i.e. in our abdominal it connects to our heart, lungs, and stomach, and in our head it connects to our brainstem. Nerve impulses travel throughout our brain which is divided into three main parts; the hindbrain, midbrain, and forebrain. The signals between sensory organs and the brain operate via two-way messaging. In other words, sensory organs send messages to the brain and parts of the brain can send messages to parts of the body. PTSD disturbs the functioning of the nervous system.

Contemporary Psychology

While studies of hysteria were prominent around the turn of the nineteenth century, the main focus of contemporary psychology could be said to be trauma. These may be viewed as one and the same thing with the caveat that hysteria was traditionally a woman’s diagnosis whereas PTSD diagnoses are gender neutral. PTSD may slightly differ in how it presents in men and women; however, the cause, discomfort, and curative approaches are the same for all genders.

Many experts such as Judith Herman, Peter Levine, Bessel Van Der Kolk, Pat Ogden, Stephen Porges, Gabor Matè, Diane Heller, and Brene Brown are actively raising society’s awareness about the implications of unhealed trauma as presented in PTSD symptoms. While each of these aforementioned people approach trauma and healing from slightly different angles, collectively, they are educating society about trauma and the need to address it in a compassionate manner. Further, it is becoming universally accepted that it is not specific aspects of traumatic events that lead to PTSD, rather, it is the imprint that these experiences leave on the physical body.

“Sensations get trapped in the nervous system – these typically present as fight, flight, freeze, and fawn reflexes”

Contemporary psychology, as supported by neuroscience, views PTSD as a normal response to traumatic experiences. When traumatic or stressful events go beyond an individual’s capacity to cope and/or they don’t have the necessary support to help them recover, then long term PTSD symptoms may develop. Sensations get trapped in the nervous system – these typically present as fight, flight, freeze, and fawn reflexes – and the energetic charge needs to be released.

Contemporary PTSD treatments are often based on somatic understandings of mind-body connections. In other words, in order to heal trauma symptoms, the physical attributes of a dysregulated nervous system needs to be addressed through embodied approaches so as to improve cognitive functioning. Simultaneously, cognitive processes need to be addressed so as to support the processing of nervous system sensations. Emotions are the key player of the halfway point between bottom-to-top and top-to-bottom trauma therapies.

A person’s ability to overcome adversity without developing PTSD is dependent upon many factors; most prominently, their access to empathetic support. Invalidating a person’s experience and making judgments about them being physically and/or mentally weak, does not help the condition. Moreover, such attitudes are counterproductive and can lead to perpetrating symptoms by promoting shame, guilt, and self-blame.

Freud’s Legacy

On the whole, contemporary psychology research undermines the validity of Freudian theories, from his suggestions of what causes hysteria through to his psychoanalysis practices. It could be argued that contemporary psychoanalysis’ do not follow Freud verbatim, and that attacking Freud when many others have thought along similar lines to him, is a little harsh. In due respect of these considerations, the problem lies in people not taking the time to thoroughly investigate what psychoanalysis is really about (as I didn’t till recently) and the snippets of information that are given constitute a kind of social conditioning that leads to misinformed thinking and behaviour.

It is not possible for Freudian ideas about hysteria and modern theories of trauma to both be correct. They are opposing hypothesises. Ultimately, there is more scientific evidence to support mind-body theories of PTSD.

In the broad scheme of things, I can see how Freud’s theories came about and that they may have even been a necessary step in the process of understanding a PTSD. I can happily give him credit for identifying for that hysteria is based on traumatic childhood experiences that impact adult behaviour. I also appreciate that he saw a link between some physical ailments and the mind and emotions. My homage to Freud ends there. He was only a quarter right in his research and after those points he made several to mistakes and oversights. I therefore question why he is still considered to be such a great man? And do others realise how much he got wrong? Or is Freud’s circle of influence so vast that many great thinkers have accidentally been lead astray? There are many people (including some professionals, like Peterson) who don’t seem to understand how, when, and why Freudian theories are invalid.

Freud’s theories are predominantly based on clinical records of female clients as detailed in a book titled Studies of Hysteria. Despite the fact that there was talk amongst Freud’s academic peers that hysteria could be identified in men, and that Freud himself is reported to have expressed an understanding that hysteria was not exclusively a female condition, his studies were, nevertheless, solely based on women. Putting it simply, Freud’s research is contaminated by a bias population sample. By today’s rigorous scientific standards, his case studies would be rejected and condemned for having weak inductive arguments.

Freud’s premises for the curative elements of his talking cure are highly questionable. In the process of psychoanalysis, the therapist takes on a “superior” role to the “naive” patient so as to explain to them the “reality” of their world in which they are too “sick” to see. The process is based on hypnotic principles of suggestion and submission. (The notion of therapists having “superiority” over “naive” clients is reflected in many of Peterson’s remarks.)

Freud’s adamance of the accuracy of psychoanalysis was primarily based on his personal beliefs, not empirical findings. Such can be seen in Freud’s expressed frustration at his client’s who were, to his mind, not always forthright with admitting their “passions”. Rather than accepting that his clients might be telling their truth and that his theories may be wrong, thus looking for other variables and explanations, Freud maintained the belief that sexual urges were the cause of hysteria regardless of client’s responses. Further, when his client’s reported sexual abuse and incest, he routinely dismissed their claims as being fantasy.

The notion that dreams and projective drawings hold universal insights into the subconscious mind via objective meanings has been critically evaluated in studies and found to hold little merit. (As an art therapist, I’ve gone to extreme lengths to research whether or not such theories hold merit and have come to the conclusion they do not.) While symbols, signs, and motifs may have significance, it is the individual’s interpretation of such that is deemed most important^^. Personal experiences, cultural considerations, social conditioning, religious standing, and several other factors mean that subjective interpretations of unconscious material is predominately more accurate than so-called “objective” projections given by the therapist. (These findings also reflect doubt on Carl Jung’s theories of there being a universal collective consciousness in which there are absolute meanings behind archetypes^^^.)

In my research, I was further surprised to discover that Freud had a serious cocaine habit and he regularly promoted the substance to his clients, which lead to the death of one – they overdosed by following Freud’s prescribed intake because Freud incorrectly believed that humans had a high tolerance level to the substance. In a compassionate mind-frame, I wonder if perhaps Freud’s drug habits are reflective of him self-medicating to address undiagnosed personal trauma? Be that as it may, as I shift between being highly critical of the man and trying to retain an open minded, the bottom line is that I don’t believe Freud is a very good role model. There are too many points to question the accuracy of Freud’s work for him to be entitled to the celebrity status that is bestowed upon his legacy.

“Freud’s greatest claim to fame could be that he hypnotised the world into believing his fallacies”

Okay, so Freud was a man of his time, so he can be forgiven for not knowing any better. But why are the Jordan Peterson’s of the world still quoting Freudian ideas as facts when there is ample evidence to indicate otherwise? Ironically, it almost appears as though Freud’s greatest claim to fame could be that he hypnotised the world into believing his fallacies.

Peterson’s approach to psychology echoes Freudian theories and is therefore prone to errors. Specifically, Peterson’s solution to PTSD being that people should simply be less naive and accept that there is malevolence in the world is unjustifiable. His suggestion of preventing PTSD by having individuals toughen up is blatantly disregarding ethical and evidence-based practice. Interestingly, at no point does Peterson recommend that people who are inclined to be malevolent should change, rather, he glorifies malevolent behaviour as being intelligent and suggest the ultimate solution is for “naive” and “child-like” people to change their perspectives. Somatic considerations of PTSD and the challenges of processing of difficult emotions are not mentioned either. I concur with Gabor Mate^ in agreeing that Peterson’s lacks a comprehensive understanding of trauma and his advocation of repressing emotions is unproductive. Sorry to say this Peterson, but I think you are a victim of Freud’s hypnotism.

Conclusion

Prior to investigating the history of PTSD, I had limited understanding of Freud and the potential negative impact that his work has had on shaping contemporary society. Like many, I knew of him as the father of psychoanalysis/psychology and, therefore, assumed the praise he is often given must be substituted. Further, as a lover of surrealistic art styles, I have appreciated his influence in enabling the development of great works like those done by Salvador Dali, James Gleeson, Jeffery Smart, and others. Now, however, my critical evaluation of his work leads me to wonder if he would be better known as the greatest hypnotist of the twentieth century?

Personally, I would like to see some other psychologists get a bit more public attention. In regards to historical characters, I’d vote for Carl Rogers (1902-1987).

“… [Rogers] believed that understanding the individual and their perspective of the world was the most important aspect of therapy.”

Rogers’ approach to psychotherapy is known as humanistic or client-centred. He believed that understanding the individual and their perspective of the world was the most important aspect of therapy. His promotion of building a positive relationship between consumer and therapist has been clinically proven, time and time again, to be the single most important factor underpinning all successful therapy. Further, it aligns perfectly with what is known about the nervous system and human social engagement. Rogers’ theories sit at the heart of trauma-informed practices.

Rogers’ is most renowned for promoting the importance of giving unconditional positive regard to all individuals. Now that is the type of father figure I’d like to look up to!

In reflecting back over the past hundred years of western society I can’t help but wonder how different the world would be if psychology, education systems, medical models, politics, media messages, and so forth, echoed more of Rogers’ theories and less of Freud’s? Unconditional positive regard to individuals has the twofold potential of helping people with PTSD recover and preventing some cases of trauma from occurring in the first place.

* Jordan Peterson: How to Heal from PTSD/Trauma https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Snke9v4S2rU and PTSD, Political Beliefs, Malevolence and Dealing with Psychological Traumas https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PaJ5tMoilvM

** The DSM is a publication by the American Psychiatric Association that categories mental health conditions; the current version is referred to as the DSM-5. PTSD is also recognised in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10) which is published by the world health organisation. The ICD distinguishes between PTSD and C-PSTD. The latter, complex-post traumatic stress disorder, is a term coined by Judith Herman in her book: Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. C-PSTD is distinguishable from PTSD in that it acknowledges continued, ongoing sources of trauma opposed to single traumatic events. Presently, the DSM does not have these two categories. Nevertheless, in simple terms, both PTSD and C-PTSD may be viewed as encompassing the same or similar symptoms and requiring similar healing approaches. More information about the types of trauma can be found here. For the ease of reading, the term PTSD is used exclusively throughout this text; however, it can be inferred that comments about PTSD are equally relevant to C-PTSD.

*** Researching historical terms and definitions for mental illness is an interesting activity in itself, for example, schizophrenia used to be called dementia praecox because it was viewed as early onset of dementia.

^ Gabor Maté on Jordan Peterson https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tt-ppQitxU8

^^ A core consideration in art therapy practice is to never to project personal interpretations onto someone’s artwork. An individual’s interpretation of their work is the authority.

^^^ Fun fact: standard history lessons credit Jung as developing the concept of archetypes; however, the word and concept of archetypes can be traced back to Ancient Greek. Essentially, Jung took the existing word “archetype” and redefined its old meaning to his liking. This is a topic worthy of exploring in more detail in the future.

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