Freud's early work in psychology and psychoanalysis endeavored to understand and cure the human mind by means of hypnosis. Freud's initial exposure to hypnosis in a clinical setting was over the winter of 1885-1886, when he studied in Paris with Jean-Martin Charcot, a renowned French professor of neurology. Charcot's work centered on the causes of hysteria, a disorder which could cause paralyses and extreme fits. He soon discovered that the symptoms of hysteria could be induced in nonhysterics by hypnotic suggestion and that the symptoms of hysterics could be alleviated or transformed by hypnotic suggestion. This ran contrary to the then-prevalent belief that hysteria had physiological causes; it suggested that a deeper, unseen level of consciousness could affect an individual's conscious conduct.

Freud subsequently collaborated with Josef Breuer, who applied hypnosis not just to cause or suppress the symptoms of hysteria but to actually divine the root causes. In his work with Anna O, he found that by tracing her associations in an autohypnotic state, he could not only find an original repressed incident, but could actually cure her of her symptom. When she related an event to a symptom while in a hypnotic state, her symptom would become terribly powerful and dramatic, but would then be purged, never to trouble her again. This powerful and often traumatic transfer of an memory from the unconscious to the conscious is known as catharsis, an effective method which also seems to corroborate Freud's theories on the mind.

However, Freud soon abandoned hypnosis in favor of conscious psychoanalysis, first for the technique of free association, then eventually for his well-known technique of observational, couch-based psychoanalysis.

Related material

Last modified 1998