35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud

Trista - March 23, 2019

Sigmund Freud was one of those iconic figures that everyone has heard of and knew something about, but few understand the contributions that he made to the field of psychology and just how wrong many of those contributions were. If you have hard a little bit about Freud, you probably think of some not-so-moral concepts that might seem crazy. However, there are over eight billion people in this world and we are all made a tad different. What makes us tick? Maybe Freud can help explain that a little bit. Keep reading to learn 35 things about this intelligent yet controversial figure.


35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud with his signature cigar. His son-in-law, Max Halberstadt, took this photo cirica 1921. Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

35. When People Think About Psychotherapy, They Tend to Think About Freud

Have you ever resisted the idea of getting therapy because your mind is plagued by images of laying on a leather couch while an elderly man smoking a cigar asks you to tell him how something made you feel? If so, you’re not alone. That old man with a cigar is probably Sigmund Freud, who both invented modern psychology and got a lot of things about it wrong.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud in 1905. Ludwig Grillich – Christian Lunzer (Hrsg.): Wien um 1900 – Jahrhundertwende, ALBUM Verlag für Photografie, Wien 1999/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

34. He Pioneered Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy

Freud lived from 1856 to 1939, a time when psychology was only beginning to be developed as a science. Many people who had what we would now recognize as mental illnesses or personality disorders would simply be institutionalized for their entire lives. Freud helped change that by developing psychoanalysis and psychotherapy to treat those conditions.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
A group photo in front of Clark University in 1909. Front row: Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, C. G. Jung; Back row: Abraham A. Brill, Ernest Jones, Sándor Ferenczi. Photo taken for Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts publication. Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

33. He Specialized in Nervous Disorders

Freud studied medicine at the University of Vienna, though his interest turned to behavioral issues, something that had previously been relegated to philosophy and theology. He was fascinated by people who had uncontrollable impulses, often attributed to what we now understand to be PTSD or a mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud as a young man. CBSNews.

32. Freud Observed Another Doctor Treat Patients With Talk Therapy

Josef Breuer was a physician at Vienna General Hospital who treated a patient, known only as Anna O., who had bouts of hysteria. To help her, he encouraged her to talk freely about her past traumatic experiences and how they affected her today. The more she spoke, the more her symptoms subsided. Freud was fascinated and used Breuer’s methods in his own psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
The Rorschach inkblot test is an example of free association. Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

31. Freud Used a Technique Called Free Association

He set up his private clinic in Vienna in 1886 to treat patients with “nervous disorders.” He used free association, which encourages patients to speak freely and without censorship of anything that is on their consciousness. In allowing his patients to talk uninhibited, he hoped to make connections between what they were saying about their pasts and the symptoms that they were currently experiencing.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
Freud’s book introduced psychoanalysis. Better World Books.

30. He Introduced His Theory of Psychoanalysis in 1899

Freud wrote a book called The Interpretation of Dreams, in which he used his findings from his private practice to show that dreams were manifestations of what occurred in people’s subconscious minds. He proposed a set of symbols to interpret people’s dreams, which, in turn, would unlock their subconscious minds and reveal everything that lay inside.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
Like an iceberg, most of the mind is underwater. Clor Studios.

29. Freud Introduced the Power of the Subconscious

Before Freud, psychology wasn’t even recognized as a legitimate endeavor. Sure, he got a lot of things wrong, but there is one thing he got right: we are very much influenced by mental processes that we are not aware of. The idea may seem common sense now, but to people at the turn of the twentieth century, it was paradigm-shattering. We weren’t as in control of our actions as we believed.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
Before Freud, mentally ill people spent their entire lives in institutions. Abbas Hajimohammadi Saniabadi/ TIME.

28. He Believed Mental Disorders Could Be Treated and Even Healed

Prior to Freud, people who were mentally ill usually spent their entire lives locked away in a sanatorium or, if they were wealthy enough, under the constant care of a private nurse who administered enough drugs to keep them in a zombie-like state. Freud introduced the idea that with therapy (usually involving psychoanalysis), people with mental illnesses could be treated and even healed. This was one of his most important contributions.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud was a prolific smoker. Flickr.

27. Freud Relied on Smoking to Stimulate His Thinking

Everyone has his or her own vices, and Freud’s main vice was smoking. He began relying on nicotine when he was 24 years old because he believed that it helped him to think better. This alleged muse led to his demise, as he developed jaw cancer later in life and underwent 30 painful operations. Still, he continued smoking.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
Freud’s coke-bottle glasses complemented his coke addiction. The Apricity.

26. Freud Also Had a Cocaine Addiction

As a young man in his twenties, trying to make a name for himself, Freud knew that he needed to go big or go home. Trying to stimulate his thinking, he turned to cocaine and was amazed at its effects. Freud touted it as a wonder drug and published a paper called “Uber Coca,” which was well-received by his colleagues. He believed cocaine was a wonder drug, but after developing health problems from abusing it for two years, he stopped talking about it.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
Modern personality theories developed from psychoanalysis. Anne Hoffman/ Fordham University.

25. The Legacy of Psychoanalysis is Psychodynamic Theories

Freud got a lot of things wrong, but he laid the groundwork for many later theories of human behavior. Psychodynamic approaches explain human personality and behavior mostly regarding invisible factors, such as unconscious beliefs and desires. They underlie modern therapy techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
Oedipus at Colonus. Jean-Antoine-Théodore Giroust/ alexmarie28/ Dallas Museum of Art/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

24. Freud Was a Dirty Old Man

Yes, most of Freud’s thought went down to his idea of penis envy. Infant boys were supposedly jealous of their fathers’ relationships with their mothers, resulting in the Oedipus complex. Young girls, who didn’t have penises, were supposedly jealous of boys, who did. According to Freud, all of these feelings created resentment and aggressive behaviors. Just about all of Freud’s ideas come back to the concept of penis envy.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
Freud proposed the id, ego, and superego to explain human personality. Depression-Guide.

23. He Developed the Idea of the Id, the Ego, and the Superego

Freud believed that the id, the ego, and the superego were the three components of human personality and determined their behavior. The concept has long since been proven false, but it lingers around in pop culture. And yes, it had a lot to do with his theory of penis envy.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
For Freud, actions are determined by the relationship between the id, ego, and superego. Press Rewind Blog.

22. Freud Believed Aggression Originated in the Id

He claimed that the id was the pleasure-seeking yet subconscious aspect of human personality, the most animalistic part that is fully present at birth. It explains why toddlers can throw violent temper tantrums when they don’t get their way. The id is another thing that Freud got severely wrong, but he was right about one thing: humans will go to any lengths to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
The superego is the conscience much like Jiminy Cricket in Disney’s Pinocchio from 1939.
Walt Disney Productions for RKO Radio Pictures/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

21. The Superego is the Moral Conscience

Throwing a temper tantrum because you want a snack may be okay when you are a toddler, but at some point, you have to grow up and learn to interact with a world that doesn’t care about what you want. Hence the superego develops as a person’s moral conscience. It is constantly battling with the id: seek immediate pleasure now (id) or have a meaningful role in society (superego).

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
Pinocchio lost the battle between his id and superego. Blogspot.

20. The Ego Mediates Between the Id and the Superego

The ego is like a referee who keeps the aggressive id and the morally-superior ego from murdering each other. It filters the id’s desires in ways that are socially appropriate so that people can have their desires (usually sexual) fulfilled without acting out on aggressive impulses (those impulses deriving from penis envy). Yes, Freud really was a dirty old man.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
Freud posing for a sculpture. novosib-room.ru.

19. Freud Got Human Personality Wrong

Modern psychology has long since disproved the notion of the id, the ego, and the superego. Things like infant sexuality (which coincides with the development of the id) have no place in modern theories of human personality. Though we are socialized to conform to certain norms and standards of behaviors (Freud’s idea of the ego), we now know that children are born with natural personalities that are primarily unchangeable.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
The right and left brain characteristics. Frank Diana.

18. But He Kind Of Got It Right

Freud recognized the human personality is vastly complex, and that our behaviors are more influenced by past experiences and beliefs about ourselves and the world around us than people previously thought. While modern psychology looks on his theory of the id, the ego, and the superego as primitive and incoherent at best, for his period, it was revolutionary. It changed the way that people understand the mind and human personality.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921. Ferdinand Schmutzer/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

17. Mainstream Scientists Did Not Respect Freud

One of Freud’s contemporaries was Albert Einstein. Einstein worked more in the “hard” science of physics, and he disliked the idea of quantum physics, partially because he felt it was too “soft” and subjective (think of his famous quote “God does not play dice”). Psychology was considered a “soft” science that was less grounded in falsifiable theories than in Freud’s own ideas about how he thought people’s minds worked. And let’s face it, people didn’t like the idea of infant sexuality.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
Karl Popper in 1990. Lucinda Douglas-Menzies/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

16. Freud Was Indirectly Responsible for the Scientific Method

Another important figure who was a contemporary of Freud was Karl Popper, an Austrian-born philosopher who was deeply troubled by the rise of what he called “pseudoscience.” He wanted to figure out a systematic means of weeding out Freud’s “pseudoscience” and distinguishing it from great minds like Einstein’s. He developed the scientific method, which laid out the need for generating testable hypotheses, doing research, and performing experiments that can be duplicated with similar results.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
The scientific method explained in a diagram. Kbagdanov.

15. Freud’s Psychology Does Not Hold Up to the Scientific Method

In a lot of ways, Freud’s ideas tell us more about how he saw the world than about how human personality was believed to function at the turn of the twentieth century. He developed “theories” that were not falsifiable; in other words, everything that he looked at could be seen as evidence for his theories. His theory of “penis envy” was constructed in such a way that every single problem that girls face ultimately had to do with jealousy over the male sexual organ. The scientific method requires that you be able to prove your hypothesis wrong. Since Freud could not (really had no interest in) finding means to prove his ideas wrong, they are relegated to “pseudoscience.”

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) in his office in Vienna, circa 1937. Photo taken by Princess Eugenie of Greece, daughter of Marie Bonaparte. (Photo by Bourgeron Collection/RDA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

14. Modern Psychology is Not Pseudoscience

Sure, there are plenty of ways that cognitive biases of psychologists and researchers filter down into how they understand the human psyche. But today, thanks to the scientific method, psychology does require the formation of testable, falsifiable hypotheses. You have to be able to prove something through experiments with multiple subjects for the theory to be valid. Even though Freud was unable to accomplish this task, he laid the groundwork for it occurring as psychology moved from pseudoscience to hard science.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
Childhood trauma drastically impacts adult behavior. Feel Guide.

13. There Are Some Things Freud Got Right

For example, Freud was one of the first to realize that traumatic experiences, especially in early childhood, had a profound effect on the development of the person’s psyche and could lead to neurotic behaviors. Those traumatic events may become buried in the person’s subconscious, but they are still present, much like an app on your phone or tablet that is running in the background.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
The founder of the psychoanalytical school of psychology, Freud, in the 1930s. David Webb from Alicante, Spain – Sigmund Freud Uploaded by Viejo sabio/ All About Psychology/ Wikimedia.

12. Freud Wanted To Better Understand The Relationship Between Childhood Experiences And Adult Behavior

Recognizing that there was a significant link between childhood experiences, particularly trauma, and the way that people acted as adults, Freud dedicated much of his life to better understanding this relationship and figuring out ways to treat it. Unfortunately, much of his knowledge had to do with so-called traumas related to infant sexuality and penis envy, things that are not only not traumatic but are nonexistent.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud working in his office in Vienna. Luxfon.

11. Freud Identified Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms are basically ways that we prevent ourselves from having to engage with a painful part of the world that we experience or inhabit. Freud recognized defense mechanisms such as repression, denial, projection, displacement, regression, and sublimation. The idea of defense mechanisms is very much accepted by modern psychology, but again, they have nothing to do with infant sexuality.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
Sigmund and his daughter Anna Freud. US Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division/ Wikimedia Common/ Public Domain.

10. Freud Developed the Oedipus Complex

The Oedipus complex is based on the ancient Greek Play Oedipus Rex, in which a fortune teller told a young Oedipus that he would kill his father and marry his mother. He didn’t know who his parents were, and one day, he shot a stranger on the road and later married the stranger’s widow. Unbeknownst to him, that widow was his mother. Freud believed that this explained the heart of childhood trauma in boys: they are jealous of their fathers and want to engage in sexual behavior with their mothers.

9. The Oedipus Complex Also Explained Religion

Believe it or not, Freud was so convinced that his Oedipus complex explained every aspect of the world that he even applied it to the study of religion. He was a nonpracticing Jew himself and developed the idea that his own son killed Moses in the Hebrew Bible (Torah) as killed by his people, just like Oedipus’ father. He elaborated this theory in his book Totem and Taboo.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
A meme featuring a cartoon Freud explaining Freudian slips. Pinterest.

8. We Live In A Freudian World

Have you ever heard the term “Freudian slip?” It refers to accidentally saying or misusing a word or phrase other than how you meant to use it or how it is supposed to be used. The idea came from Freud, who believed that such slips of the tongue were revealing about our inner anxieties, which lay within our subconscious and were continually trying to break free.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
Subliminal messages are everywhere from TV commercials to music and beyond. onderpolis.org.

7. Subliminal Messaging Is Also From Freud

Freud developed the idea of sublimation, which is today used in what you may know of as subliminal messaging or subliminal advertising. It is a sneaky way that companies try to get us to buy a product by introducing it at a level that is beyond our conscious minds. For example, if Beyonce is wearing a milk mustache, we subliminally come to associate milk with Beyonce. Since everyone (supposedly) wants to be like Beyonce, we realize that we should buy milk.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
A portrait of Charles Darwin taken in 1868. Julia Margaret Cameron – Reprinted in Charles Darwin: His Life Told in an Autobiographical Chapter, and in a Selected Series of His Published Letters/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

6. Charles Darwin Influenced Freud

Charles Darwin lived at about the same time as Freud, and he developed the idea of evolution via natural selection. His theory became particularly important to European academia at the turn of the twentieth century, and the concept of natural selection influenced thinkers who didn’t work in biology. You can see it in some of Freud’s ideas about how the strong survive (and of course, he was referring to infant sexuality).

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
Freud was an Austrian Jew. Hulton Archive/ Getty Images/ Independent.co.uk.

5. Freud Had To Flee The Nazis

Austria in the 1930s was a dangerous place to be Jewish, even if, like Freud, one was not a practicing Jew. In 1938, he fled Austria for the United Kingdom. Much of his family had already fled by this time, and he was unable to leave because of significant legal challenges and extortion because he was a Jew in a Nazi-occupied land.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
Freud was a lifelong smoker. loc.gov/ One Dio.co.

4. He Died Of Jaw Cancer

Freud was already in his eighties when he fled Nazi-occupied Austria, and he had been a lifelong smoker. He had cancer of the jaw and had already undergone multiple painful operations, but at the time, the relationship between smoking and cancer was not yet recognized. He died the year after he arrived in London, in 1939.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud voluntarily underwent a morphine overdose.. freudnediyor/ One Dio.co.

3. Freud Underwent Voluntary Euthanasia

The pain caused by Freud’s cancer was so severe that he turned to his doctor, Max Schur, who was also a refugee from the Nazis and pleaded with him to help him end his life. Because his disease was known to be terminal and he was in constant pain, Dr. Schur agreed. He administered lethal doses of morphine on September 21 and 22, 1939, and Freud died on September 23.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
You can go visit his ashes. Anorak.co.uk.

2. Freud’s Ashes Are On Display

Three days after his death, Freud’s body was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium in the northern part of London. His son, Ernst, who was also in London as a refugee from the Nazi regime, designed a plinth to hold the ashes on display for anyone who might wish to visit them. They are still on display today, for any of his fans who might want to visit.

35 Things Most People Don’t Know About Sigmund Freud
The statue of Sigmund Freud in London. Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net)/ Wikimedia Commons.

1. His Legacy Is Extensive

Freud got a lot of things wrong. In fact, he got just about everything wrong. But the thing about Freud is that even though he got a lot of things wrong, he helped develop the modern field of psychology by showing the critical ways that human behavior is connected to personality and childhood experiences, as well as other unconscious or subconscious mechanisms. For these contributions, psychology will always owe him a debt.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Introduction to Psychology,” by Crash Course. (video)

“Karl Popper, Science, and Pseudoscience: Crash Course Philosophy #8,” by Crash Course. (video)

“The Interpretation of Dreams.” Wikipedia.

“Sigmund Freud.” BBC.

“Sigmund Freud.” Wikipedia.

“Psychodynamic Theory.” Chegg Study.

“How a Young Sigmund Freud Researched & Got Addicted to Cocaine, the New ‘Miracle Drug,’ in 1894.” Open Culture. April 3, 2014.

“Sigmund Freud,” by the editors of biography.com. Biography.com. January 15, 2019.