Einstein and Freud: the meeting of two universes of knowledge

    They only met once. It was during the New Year holidays in 1927 when Albert Einstein invited Sigmund Freud, who happened to be in Berlin, for a visit. At the time both were, in their own respects, already living legends. Einstein was approaching his fiftieth birthday and was perceived by the general public as the symbol of the scientific endeavor which at the beginning of the 20th century, had begun discovering that nature was much more mysterious and unusual than anyone could have ever imagined. Similarly Freud, who was more than seventy years old, was regarded as an immense authority in the field of humanities and social sciences. Even those who disagreed with his groundbreaking theories had no difficulties with using his newly established terminology.

    When a few weeks after the meeting took place an acquaintance asked Einstein whether he would consider undergoing psychoanalysis, he responded: “I regret that I cannot accede to your request, because I should like very much to remain in the darkness of not having been analyzed.” Freud was similarly reserved in his comments on meeting the great physicist. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: “He understands as much about psychology as I do about physics, so we had a very pleasant talk.”

    Even though at first it might seem that the revolutionary ideas of these pre-eminent scientists are so far-removed that they are alike only in their mutually immense significance to the thought of their time, there are still comparisons to be drawn between them.

    Einstein bends time and space

    With his theory of relativity Einstein turned upside down centuries of knowledge about nature, space, time, matter and energy. If, up to this point, science had believed that time and space provided an external framework in which events took place, Einstein’s revolutionary theory gave these notions a completely different meaning. Before, it was believed that events that took place in the world had no influence on the course of time or the nature of space. Even if there was something unusual going on somewhere in the universe, time was thought to run unhindered, in a steady flow, without submitting to any kind of disturbance.

    After Einstein’s revolution, time and space were no longer considered the mere passive background to events that taking place, but became responsive – changing and adapting to everything that happened in the world. In more technical terms, time and space bend according to the distribution of matter and energy. If energy is densely gathered in one place, time and space bend, and can in extreme conditions even “tear”. When this happens, a black hole is created.

    The scientific revolution brought about by Einstein’s theory of relativity is best summarized as a gigantic shift from the assumption that time and space were independent external parameters with which events might be measured and described, to the understanding that time and space are actually influenced by these phenomena. We now no longer see time and space as being impassive to or unaffected by things that happen in the universe, but instead respond to those occurrences by bending or changing form. Einstein’s principal achievement lay in describing this bending of time and space with mathematical equations which could predict, for example, exactly how a ray of light from a distant star would change the direction of its movement as it passed the sun. The sun bends the space in its vicinity, which means that light no longer travels in a completely straight line, but only in as straight a line as bent space will allow.

    Much as is impossible, despite all efforts, to drive in a straight line on an uneven road, rays of light travel through bent space-time along the straightest line they may. This means that they slightly deviate from their trajectories as they meet dents and bumps in the space they pass through. One of the more prominent curvatures or dents in the space-time continuum that surrounds us is created by the sun. This fact enabled Einstein, applying his equations, to calculate just how much the bent trajectory of light would cause stars to appear to move during a solar eclipse.

    According to the theory of general relativity, stars with light rays that passed near the sun would appear to have been slightly shifted because their light had been curved by its gravitational field. This effect is noticeable only during eclipses, since otherwise the sun’s brightness obscures the affected stars. The theory was first borne out when Arthur Eddington observed precisely this movement in the stars during a solar eclipse in 1919. The shift, which Eddington measured from a small island off the west coast of Africa, exactly confirmed Einstein’s predictions, and subsequently made him a star.

    Freud and the curvature of mental space

    What could be farther away from calculating the bending of time and space in the physical universe than delving into the unconscious structures of the psyche? Yet where Einstein understood events as altering the tissue of space and time, Freud realized how experience changes the fabric of consciousness. The work for which he made his name began with his observing anomalies in human thought and behavior which had hitherto either been dismissed or treated superstitiously. Troubling dreams, strange slips of the tongue, perplexing associations or reactions to seemingly innocuous ideas: these had previously been seen as minor ticks or disorders. To Freud, however, they suggested an entire dimension of the mind and the key to much mental illness. Much as light bends, in Einsteinian theory, around an invisible curvature in space created by the mass of an object; so too Freud observed human thought and expression warping and diverting around hidden anomalies in the psyche. Dreams, bizarre aversions and slips in speech were the expression of things distorted by bends in mental space. To Freud these bends in fact indicated the existence of an invisible region of the mind – the “unconscious” that he is credited with discovering.

    Despite this analogy between their endeavors, the problem Freud faced was more or less the inverse of Einstein’s. Whereas Einstein had to prove that the curvature of space-time created by mass and energy really was there. Freud, however, had to discover the powerful objects and events in the space-time of the psyche which were creating the anomalies his patients reported. Freud, so to speak, could see the light curve; what he missed was the planet or sun in the unconscious which was causing it. The seminal technique he developed to bring these psychological bulges and rifts to light was psychoanalysis. But psychoanalysis gave the practitioner more than a power of observation alone. In cases where these bends caused suffering, psychoanalysis could be used to modify the layout of a patient’s mental space.

    Freud traced these curves in the mind to experiences of huge and frequently traumatizing emotional power, suppressed from conscious memory but still active at an unconscious level. They were revealed by situations or words which provoked distress, evasion or some other anomalous reaction in the patient. The goal of psychoanalysis, through an exchange of words between analyst and patient, was to trace the associations leading back from this reaction – be it a dream or a slip of the tongue – to the unconscious idea causing it. Freud’s theory was that when someone brought a suppressed memory to light, or realized the hidden meaning of a dream, the disturbance in their mind would be resolved. If psychoanalysis did not smooth out the distortion in the psychic space-time of the mind, the person would at least understand why it was there.

    In Freud’s case, the crucial dream on the basis of which he formed his seminal hypothesis on the nature of dreams and the unconscious took place in July 1895. He dreamed about a young girl called Irma, a patient he was treating at the time. The dreams themselves are fairly complicated and in his writing Freud describes them extensively. To summarize, the story goes as follows: He meets Irma in a large ballroom. While other guests are arriving he talks to her and learns that she is suffering from a pain in her throat and her stomach. He worries that, as her doctor, he might have missed a physical (not mental) illness. After several other events take place he discovers that his friend Otto, also a doctor, had given Irma an infected injection, the true cause of her health issues.

    Later Freud used a psychoanalytic method of free association to uncover the latent meaning of his dream. He remembered that, a day earlier, he had met Oscar Rie, a pediatrician who was also treating Irma. Rie told Freud that Irma was improving, but had not yet completely recovered. Freud took these words as a criticism of his work, suggesting moreover Oscar and not he was capable of treating Irma properly. Freud then immediately suppressed the feeling of wounded professional pride.

    The method of treatment Freud in time developed into psychoanalysis always created a close bond between analyst and patient. In this case, at a stage when Freud was still unaware of the strength of that bond, Oscar’s comments stirred powerful and possessive emotions in Freud. These Freud buried in his unconscious, unwilling to acknowledge how sensitive he was about the patient and her case, expressing them instead in the dream in which “Oscar” Rie became Otto, the poisoner of Irma, whose neurotic symptoms became physical. Through this “dream-work” Freud laid the blame for his sense of failure and guilt onto Otto/Oscar. In a way, the dream was a form of revenge against Oskar’s nettling remarks, as Freud realized when he used free associations to map the uncomfortable curvature they had left in his mind. The cause he discovered for this warp lay hidden in the unconscious: inability to treat Irma’s disease as a doctor triggered feelings of anxiety, so he had transferred this guilt onto another party, in this case the colleague who had seemingly criticized him.

    The analogy between Einstein’s time-space and Freud’s unconscious is of course a loose one; but it can provide a tangible way of assessing the scale of Freud’s momentous discovery. Even after a century the public perception of his work has often been based on poor and sometimes misleading interpretations.

    Freud, who as a doctor and neurologist had a strong background in the natural sciences, gave considerable thought to the possible analogies his work in psychology suggested with other scientific endeavors. In one of his more technical works, intended mainly for colleagues, he wrote: “A psychoanalyst understands he is working with explosive forces and has to be as careful and meticulous as a chemist.”

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