Electrophysiology and the basis for Unbewussten Denken (Unconscious Thought), Wunscherfullung (Wish-Fulfillment) and Verdrangung (Displacement & Repression)

decorated initial 'F'

rom Sigmund Freud's major biographer we learn that the future "Father of Psychoanalysis" in his first semester at the University of Vienna, from October 1873 to March 1874, elected to study twelve lectures in Anatomy and six in Chemistry per week, together with their respective practical courses. In the second semester he industriously (and over-ambitiously?) added Botany, microscopy, mineralogy; Biology and Darwinism; Physics; Brentano's empirical and philosophical psychology; Physiology with Brucke, and still more, (Jones, 1953, I: 4). From the subsequently matured student himself we discover that such wide-ranging early industry soon suffered a "Mephistophelian" lack of any due success (Freud, 1925. An Autobiographical Study, citing Goethe's Faust, Pt.1, Sc.4: "In vain you roam around scientifically. Everyone learns only what he can…").

Lithograph: portrait of E. W. von Brucke. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Fortunately for posterity the energetic and resourceful student - who had initially intended to study Law & Jurisprudence, followed by a political career - was once again and not for the last time, able to successfully change direction and emphasis. From 1875-76 we find Freud more selectively and intensively involved in Zoology and Anatomy with Prof. Carl Claus (1835-1899) of Gottingen and Vienna, and with the Physiology courses of Prof. Ernst Brucke (1819-1892) of Berlin, Konigsberg and Vienna. He also continued with the Psychology courses of Franz Brentano (1838-1917) of Wurzburg (1864-73) and Vienna (1873-95). The latter's Psychology From an Empirical Standpoint of 1874, crucially included the notion of "intentionality" in mental processes, and would in disguised form remain with Freud for the remainder of his life. [In September 1939 in London, as war descended once again, cancer-ridden Freud would instruct his friend and physician Max Schur to administer him a likely-lethal injection of morphine. "There is no sense to it all any more," he told Schur, whilst continuing to maintain his own intentionality.]

Of all Freud's illustrious early teachers the consensus of himself and his major biographers was that Brucke was the one for whom he held the greatest respect and esteem (Freud, 1925; Jones, 1953; Gay, 1988). Since 1842 Brucke had tirelessly produced original publications, in Archives fur Anatomie und Physiologie and elsewhere, and even more importantly he was one of the four pillars of a crucial nineteenth-century rational-scientific "School" of empirical researchers who unified many disciplines, including Physics/Optics and Ophthalmology; Electrical Chemistry and Physiology of nerve-function and muscle-activity; Energy Conservation/Thermodynamics and Physiology of Temperature control, and from this latter in particular came greater inclusive-holistic ideas of Constant Equilibrium, Homeostasis and in the Mental Sphere - Fechner's "Law of Constancy" to which Freud would allude in his own constructions of pleasure-unpleasure, avoidance and defence.

The Helmholtz School of Medicine, c. 1845-1875

Portrait of H. von Helmholtz. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (1821-1894) was Professor of Physiology at Konigsberg 1849, Bonn 1855, Heidelberg 1858, Berlin 1871. As a young man he had been fascinated by the illogical but widely-held belief in "perpetual motion" machines, when in July 1847 he presented his conclusions in Uber die Erhaltung der Kraft, Eine Physikalische Abhandlung… (On the Conservation of Force, A Physical Treatment, Berlin: Verlag von Reimer). Essentially this was a statement of the most fundamental law of Physics, the Conservation of Energy - that in a closed system Heat/Energy cannot be destroyed but merely transformed into an alternative entity such as mechanical force. This later became known as the First Law of Thermodynamics, preceded only by the work of French military-engineer Sadi Carnot (1796-1832) who had presented his On the Motive Power of Fire in French edn. 1824. Subsequent work would be led by German physicist Rudolf Clausius (1822-1888) who in 1850 announced the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that heat cannot pass unaided from a cooler to a hotter body; and by British physicist William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin (1824-1907), who in 1851 improved maths and understanding of these Laws and introduced the Absolute Scale of Temperature.

An example of "animal electricity": title page of Emil Du Bois-Reyand's book, a horse electrocuted by eels. Untersuchungung Uber Therische Elektricitat (Internet Archive book from the Royal College of Surgeons, England).

In Berlin, Helmholtz, Brucke and Emil Du Bois-Reymond (1818-1896), the latter working with Prof. of Physiology Johannes Muller, had in 1845 formed the "Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft" or German Society of Physics, though with a strong emphasis on integration between applications of Physics-Physiology-Chemistry and Medicine, all with a view to finally overthrowing all residual "Vitalism." Du Bois-Reymond soon published his own groundwork for an Electrophysiology, namely Untersuchungung Uber Therische Elektricitat (Investigations of Animal Electricity, Pt.1, 1848, Berlin: Verlag Reimer). This covered muscle-activity, chemical changes in tissues, and nerve studies by faradic stimulation. In 1858 the author would replace his departed teacher as Prof. of Physiology at Berlin. Part 2 of his "Electrophysiologie" appeared in 1884.

Other publications from this talented "school," and doubtless seen or abstracted by Freud the medical-student in the late-1870s to 1880s, included his mentor Brucke's work leading to the ophthalmoscope: >Anatomische Untersuchungung Uber die Sogennanten Leuchtenden Augen bei den Wirbelthieren (Anatomical Investigation on the So-called Luminous Eyes in Vertebrate Animals, Archive fur Anat. Physiologie und Wissenschaftliche Medicin 387-406). Helmholtz, from 1858 at Heidelberg Medical School, produced much work on "physiological optics", here in his eventual book of 1867. Handbuch der Physiologischen Optik (Leipzig: Leopold Voss). This revived the earlier 1807 work of English physician Thomas Young (1773-1829) on the theory of colour vision - now the Young-Helmholtz Theory. See also Helmholtz's Popular Lectures on Scientific Subjects, transl. E. Atkinson (London: Longman, Green & Co., 1873).

Brucke's mature work is available at www.University & State Library Dusseldorf: Physiologie der Nerven und der Sinnesorgane und Entwickelungsgeschichte (Physiology of Language and Electrophysiology of Muscle, 1876). A further work was Brucke's Lectures on Physiology of 1874. The fourth "pillar" to these illustrious minds was Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig (1816-1895), Prof. Physiol. at Leipzig 1865-1895, who invented a variety of processes and devices for internal physiological measurement, e.g. the Kymograph of 1847 for recording blood pressure, pulse, respiration using a stylus on a rotating drum - a recording manometer.

The importance of the Helmholtz School's teaching for Freud, as expressed through the Lectures and practical studies set by his major teacher, Ernst Brucke, was the over-riding message and belief that by the application of empirical methods all the human body's physical and nervous-system mysteries could be studied and explained. There were to be no prohibited areas, intransigent to such appropriate empirical studies. Freud's life-long curiosity on dreams, sex and other human puzzles had received a powerful ally.

As early as 1842 Brucke and Du Bois-Reymond had "pledged a solemn oath to put into effect this truth [that]…No other forces than the common physical-chemical ones are active within the organism…the chemical-physical forces inherent in matter, reducible to the forces of attraction and repulsion…" (Jones, quoting Du Bois-Reymond). From this universal dyad of forces - attraction and repulsion - Freud would draw his early ideas of pleasure-unpleasure, and his early concept of defence theory in his first post-hypnotic Theory of Mind.

Title page of a copy of Claude Bernard's Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (Internet Archive book from the University of Leeds).

Whilst opposing forces may typically often produce conflict, the required necessity and ideal for Life in general and for Mental health here in particular was for harmony, equilibrium and a constant internal environment in the face of constant external changes. Freud's youthful studies had included Latin and Greek and he would have known - along with knowledge of Homer, Troy and Oedipus Rex - the advice that "You will go most safely by the middle way" (Ovid, Metamorphoses), and possibly even "the eightfold path of Buddhism" with its middle way between indulgence-asceticism. Mid-nineteenth century medical science had elsewhere also been making relevant advances, with French physiologist Claude Bernard (1813-1878), who had studied in Paris with Francois Magendie at College de France from 1841, and who succeeded his teacher as Professor of Experimental Physiology in 1855. Apart from his extensive researches into digestive processes, Bernard also researched the vasomotor nerves which control dilation-contraction of the blood vessels and thus regulate body temperature to maintain the essential equilibrium. Bernard's classic work was Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1865), for which he is widely known as "Father of Experimental Medicine." A younger researcher was Walter B. Cannon (1871-1945), an American student at Harvard Univ. where he also taught and researched physiology from 1899-1942. Cannon made notable advances in hormones and nerve-transmission, haemorrhage and shock, and to him the world owes the crucial and more developed concept of Homeostasis.

Fechner's Law of Constancy

Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801-1887) in G. Stanley Hall's Founders of Modern Psychology (1912), facing p. 125 (Internet Archive book from the Francis A. Countway Library at Harvard Medial School).

Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801-1887), was a German physicist who also made, as did Helmholtz, contributions to early experimental psychology, especially optics. In this he employed early intimations of the "neurone theory" [later attributed to W. Waldeyer in 1891], and of economic/quantity considerations in neural transmission, much as had Helmholtz with his use of the idea of conservation of energy (early thermodynamics). Fechner, G.T. Elemente der Psychophysik (Elements of Psychophysics, 1860 (Leipzig: Breitkopf u. Hartel). Freud would later acknowledge Fechner's "Law" on more than one occasion, and clearly kept up his wide reading. In Freud's now little-known early Project For a Scientific Psychology of 1895, written for his correspondence with his friend Wilhelm Fliess, we meet Freud's attempt to produce an initial "psychology for neurologists" couched in appropriate empirical terminology. He introduces the quantitative notion of nerve activity - "Q" - which will be subject to the general laws of motion; and he employs the new designation "neurone" - already sensed in his own prior neurological researches - for the material/anatomical particles. The major tenet of Freud's introduction here is that "neurones tend to divest themselves of Q"; this "appeared to comprise the entire function," and inertia is thus the desired neuronal state. Hence, constancy and the germ of a future Wish-fulfilment/Pleasure Principle in a Psychology of Primary Process Thinking (Primarvorgang) and Psychology of Dream Processes (Traumvorgange, Freud, 1900). Over two decades later, in his mature structural model, Freud would continue to acknowledge the importance to him of "Fechner's principle of constancy" (Freud, 1923). In this apparent preference among his mentors, we perhaps see Freud's final preference for Psychology over Medicine and Physiology.


For those who may desire/need/benefit from a wider panorama of post-Helmholtz School forces of fundamental attraction-repulsion we may add the following. All exist in a Cosmos where universal expansion-repulsion is balanced by gravitational attraction; when matter forms naturally from energy, molecules from hydrogen to uranium present positively-charged nuclei in harmony and cohesion with negatively-charged electron shells; and in the fluids of our biological tissues, interactions and nerve-transmissions are the membrane-controlled domains of positively-charged sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium ions/particles, balanced by negatively-charged chloride, hydroxyl and other ions. The large protein molecules, themselves of structures and enzymes, employ secondary and tertiary molecular-folding, guided by electrostatic positive and negative attractions and repulsions, in order to achieve their exquisite and necessary three-dimensional conformations. Existence and Life follow the Helmholtz-Du Bois doctrine, and Freud here followed Helmholtz and Brucke et al. Small wonder that on a number of occasions the father of psychoanalysis was able to declare that his new psychology needed no new "world view" (Weltanschauung) of its own, since it shared the existing Weltanschauung of Science (Freud 1913, 1933). Whilst modern trends in Group Psychotherapy and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy etc. - often for economic reasons of time/cost - are increasingly replacing classical Freudian Psychotherapy, Freud's theoretical edifice, through continual and on-going advances, still may be said to be securely based, with acceptable ratings for philosophy and logic; validity, reproducibility and similar cognate and popular mathematical-statistical indices of worth.


Freud, Sigmund. "Project For a Scientific Psychology". 1895. In S.E., Vol. I.

_____. The Interpretation of Dreams. 1900. In S.E., Vols. IV and V.

_____. The Claims of Psycho-Analysis to Scientific Interest. 1913. In S.E., Vol. XII.

_____.The Ego and The Id. 1923. In S.E., Vol. XIX.

_____.An Autobiographical Study. 1925. In S.E., Vol. XX.

_____. Sigmund.'The Question of a Weltanschauung', New Introductory Lectures. Lecture XXXV. 1933. In S.E., Vol. XXII.

_____.Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. S.E.. 1953-74. Edited by James Strachey, Anna Freud et al. In 24 vols. London. Hogarth Press & Institute of Psychoanalysis. New York. Internat. Univ. Press.

Gay, Peter.Freud: A Life For Our Time. New York. Random House. 1988.

Jones, Ernest. The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud. London & New York, Hogarth Press and Basic Books. Vol. 1. 1953.

Created 11 February 2021