A homage to Freud

Professor Martin Conway reviews an episode of 'Genius of the Modern World'.

In the final program of ‘Genius of the Modern World’, historian Bettany Hughes considered Freud. The program was something of a homage and Hughes did not seek to lock horns with Freud, as so many commentators in the past have. Instead there was appreciation that Freud had transformed thinking about psychological illnesses and the treatment of those who are suffering from psychological disorders. Moreover, there was acknowledgement that much of Freud’s thinking had permeated the modern world. Hughes herself seemed rather taken with the notion of a Freudian slip – as the famous joke has it: saying one thing when you mean your mother. All of which was good and there was some excellent archive footage to go with it. Predictably, there was criticism, particularly, on Freud’s thinking about sex. The philosopher A.C. Grayling was brought in to briefly and gently take on a few Freudian ideas.

Pleasant though this all was I felt an opportunity had been missed to explore how Freudian thought has powerfully influenced neuroscience especially in the relatively new area of neuropsychoanalysis. Understanding the psychological impact of brain damage, its disempowering effects and the patients’ attempts to defend against the loss of abilities, have all been fruitfully framed by Freud’s thinking and model of mind. Although Hughes did recognise that Freud was a neuroscientist (one of the first) his legacy in this now so modern of research areas went unappreciated. Freud always held that one day Psychology would be replaced by Biology and although I do not think he was correct in this – ‘augmented’ rather than ‘replaced’ might have been a better word – there is no doubt that he would have been fascinated by developments in neuroimaging and our rapidly developing understanding of genetics, and cells, and how the activities of biological molecules underpin all human behaviour from conception to thought and emotion.

For those who want a gentle introduction to one of the great thinkers and theorisers then Hughes’s program provides that, but for those who want something with a bit more meat on it then I’d recommend Frank Sulloway’s brilliant book Freud, Biologist of Mind.

- Professor Martin A. Conway, Department of Psychology, City University London

Watch the programme now on BBC iPlayer. Discover much more Freud in our archive, in particular these two special issues.


Sulloway, F.J. (1979, 1992). Freud, Biologist of Mind. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass.

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