The story of modern psychology is anything but simple. For its proponents to reach scientific breakthroughs, there have been several episodes of trial and error that have come with human experimentation. One of the most controversial moments in psychology occurred 130 years ago and featured a character who is now famous in pop culture: Sigmund Freud, the man who created the theoretic basis for psychoanalysis and has left an incredible mark in art, philosophy, and contemporary thought.
In 1855, two years after the birth of Freud, the substance known as coca became widely popular in Europe, after its active ingredient was isolated. This lead to the creation of cocaine, an alkaloid extracted from the South American coca leaf, with powerful mental and symptomatic effects that provide the person ingesting it with an energy boost.
For thirty years, cocaine was analyzed by chemists and other scientists, with no conclusive study on the consequences it would leave on the human mind or body. The drug then became popular in the United States and was produced for mass consumption. It was advertised to the public as a revolutionary medication, able to cure an endless array of ailments. It was used in food products, drinks, cigarettes, and other daily products until the first quarter of the twentieth century.
By that time, Freud was starting to experiment with the substance and create a series of studies to prove cocaine’s therapeutic properties. At the same time, ophthalmologist Carl Koller began to be interested in Freud's development, and through the Austrian psychoanalyst’s research, he found out cocaine can be a pain-killer medicine.
Freud’s methods always included one individual as the main test subject: himself. Between 1884 and 1887, he wrote several papers on the drug. He would track the origins of the plant and its uses in Peru and Europe, its effect on animals, as well as the possibility of being a breakthrough for pain management.
After using the drug and doing his research, Freud tried to help his friend and colleague Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow, who suffered from intense pain as a consequence of losing part of his thumb during a body dissection. The accident caused him to consume morphine to the point of becoming addicted to the drug.
Freud decided to put in practice his own methods and attempted to use cocaine as a possible cure for his friend’s morphine dependency. However, the drug only led his friend on a downward spiral towards an even stronger addiction to this substance.
Still suffering from pain and despair, Fleischl-Marxow soon abandoned the psychoanalyst’s proposed therapy. He eventually passed away in deplorable conditions. When Freud heard about the death of his friend in 1891, he was consumed by a devastating sadness that lasted for months. Yet he was never able to accept the failure of his therapy or write a case study on it. He never mentioned it in public, since it’s possible he believed it would affect his rising career.
Despite his faults, we can't deny Freud provided several insights into the human mind that resulted in modern psychology and understanding of human behavior. Have you ever realized the connection between the psychoanalyst and a particular Wes Anderson film? Can his theories explain why you might get back together with your ex?
Translated by María Suárez