Here at Science Everywhere, we like to take time to reflect on the work of the great scientists of the past. From Nettie Stevens to Stephen Hawking to some of the creepiest scientists around, we like to take time to recognize pioneers of science.

Like me, Dan Re

And today, we’re recognizing Sigmund Freud. A lot of people know a few things about ol’ Sigmund, including a bunch of terms most people use incorrectly, like “ego”, “id”, “psychoanalysis”, “Oedipus Complex”, “penis envy”, and “Freudian slip”.

Above: Freudian slip

And yet, not many are aware of his actual theories on psychological development, and the influence he’s had on modern psychology. And I’m here to correct that. Because if there’s one thing I hate, it’s not making jokes at the expense of people who died many decades ago. It’s also good to acknowledge revolutionary scientific work, I guess. But mostly the jokes.

This guy is about to get roasted

Sigmund Freud was born in 1856 in the Austrian Empire. This marked the last normal thing about Freud’s life. His parents moved him and his seven siblings to the UK, where he learned eight different languages by the time he finished high school.

By contrast, I had officially learned 0 languages by the end of high school, according to the regional school board

By 1886, he had opened his own private practice, where he studied hypnosis. He adapted the work of a buddy of his, Joseph Breuer, with the idea that hypnotism could cure mental illness. Somehow. It’s important to note that early scientific theories often look stupid through the lens of modern evidence-based methods.

For example, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s theory of evolution was that giraffes stretched really hard

To his credit, Freud realized hypnotism wasn’t as effective as just letting patients consciously ramble on about whatever popped into their heads, which he called “free association”. He also got into analyzing people’s dreams to explore their “unconscious material”. He came up with a term for his non-hypnotic methods – “psychoanalysis”.

Launching a thousand inaccurate depictions of therapists in TV and movies

Now, Freud deserves credit here. His version of psychoanalysis led to the modern version of psychotherapy that is practiced today. It takes an uncommon mind to think that up. Unfortunately, it also takes an uncommon mind to think that all human children have an innate sexual desire for their parents. He called this an “Oedipus Complex” after Oedipus, a mythological character who killed his father and married his mother.

It, uh, gets a little weird from here

I’m sure this theory requires no explanation, but I’ll bore you with one anyway. One day, Freud saw the play Oedipus Rex about the aforementioned Oedipus. Why anyone made a play about this is unclear and disturbing.  Freud saw the play and reflected on his own boyhood feelings for his mother. He figured since both he and Oedipus had this issue, everyone must, and posited that an Oedipal desire was a trait that evolved in the human lineage after diverging from apes.  He published this in The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899. Evolution had just been discovered 40 years before, so at least he was an early adopter, I guess.

“This…this really isn’t what I had in mind” – Charles Darwin, 1899

You may think I’m being reductive on Freud’s theories for the purpose of comedy. Allow me to counter with this line he wrote in a letter to his friend Wilhelm Fleiss, a German doctor:


I found in myself a constant love for my mother, and jealousy of my father. I now consider this to be a universal event in early childhood.” He went on to explain how this love was the “nuclear complex” of all neuroses.

Meanwhile, Wilhelm started to seriously regret becoming pen pals with Sigmund

Honestly, it would take a giant article to outline the entirety of the Oedipus complex, but here are the main points:


  • Ages 3 to 6 define the phallic stage of psychosexual development, when children become aware of their bodies, which I refuse to think about further.


  • Around the same time, the child develops the mental “libido” (sex drive) and “ego”, the part of the psyche that mediates the desires of the id (instincts) and super-ego (morals).


  • For boys, the libido drives affection for the mother, and the id drives jealous rage for the father, but the ego knows the father is stronger than the boy, and stops the boy from trying to kill the father.


  • The other thing stopping the boy from trying to kill the father is that the father might chop off the boy’s penis. This is called “castration anxiety”. Sweet mother of mercy.


  • Meanwhile, girls of the same age realize they don’t have a penis, and thus cannot possess mother. This is called “penis envy”, which I refuse to think about further.


  • The girl then turns her desire towards the father, making her a heterosexual female. This whole scenario is called the “negative Oedipus complex”, or “Electra complex”.


  • Internet bloggers write this insanity out in bullet points, hating the decision to ever write about Freud in the first place.
Attendees at a Freud lecture, 1910

It’s worth noting that feminists of the day weren’t thrilled with the idea that girls needed male sex organs to feel normal. Another psychoanalyst of the time, Karen Horney, said that men should have “womb envy”, since women can have kids and men can’t. In fact, she seems to have hated Freud all around, and critiqued him at every turn.

Freud responded by calling her “Horney Karen”

Of course, the idea of the ego, id, super-ego, and Oedipus complex are no longer taken as serious theories in modern psychology. But the idea of unconscious thoughts, and the effect of childhood events on adult life, are still very much psychological standards, and for that Freud should be applauded. He should be less applauded for getting so many people (and himself) addicted to cocaine, but hey, no one’s perfect, right?


Cocaine wasn’t his only habit

Freud died in 1939, from cancer, and not from a fight with his father. And so we celebrate Sigmund Freud, one of the baddest motherf***ers in the history of psychology.


Although that Oedipus complex is some pretty weird sh*t.

Research by Tamara Rosner


Dan wonders what the point of penis envy is if having one leads to castration anxiety. Email him or post on our Facebook / Twitter to see your topic covered here.

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Dan Re