04/15/2024, 02:43, Vienna  DEUTSCH / ENGLISH

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THE VIENNA PSYCHOANALYST wants to give not only already internationally established psychoanalysts, but also still unknown psychoanalysts the opportunity to post a self-written and not yet published article on the FrontPage of our online magazine!

Our Users then can leave comments, ask questions or discuss the articles in our forum. Our aim is to provide an international platform where for the first time anyone interested in psychoanalysis can exchange ideas on certain topics.
Articles are welcome in German and/ or English.

If you are interested, please send your article to

(For reasons of readability, the male form is used with personal names, however the female form is also always intended.)

What are the limits of scientific curiosity?

Author: Sabrina Zehetner (TVP)


On famous psychoanalysts and their study of parapsychology.

“You will learn nothing from this paper of mine about the enigma of telepathy; indeed you will not even gather whether I believe in the existence of “telepathy” or not.” (Dreams and Telepathy, Sigmund Freud, 1922)

As connoisseur of ancient Greek language and literature, Sigmund Freud must have had a nodding acquaintance with “Philopseudes” by the satirist Lucian of Samosata (the inspiration for “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), in which the sharp-tongued author wittily ridicules those who believe in the supernatural. The fascination for the supernatural is as old as mankind and it comes as no surprise that even great intellectuals and scientist regularly fall under its spell. Still, most are reluctant to broach the issue about past flirtations with the psychical within psychoanalytical circles. Not without reason - It’s a touchy subject since psychoanalysts who today seek to add psychic practices to their psychoanalytic treatment undoubtedly cast a shadow on the profession. Why is psychoanalysis frequently associated with the transcendental?

To put it simply, psychoanalysis seeks to find hermeneutic explanations to human experiences that used to be administered by religion or other types of spirituality. Most people’s paranormal delusions are based on unconscious primary processes and present themselves as outlets for very real, unprocessed psychological conflicts. Psychoanalysis seems to be caught between the devil and the deep blue sea in this regard as both the paranormal (be it occultism, telepathy or other types of psychical research) and psychoanalysis are associated with the unconscious. The problem for the profession arises when psychoanalysts themselves blur the lines, and much like today’s esoterics, believe they possess god-like powers.  Further speculation is inspired by the fact that psychoanalysis is at odds with institutionalization and is made up of various schools dedicated to individual psychoanalysts that are often worshipped. While today “occultism or the “paranormal” is absent from most psychoanalytic practices, the realm of new age-like “spirituality” has emerged. Institutes with business savvy self-help gurus promote “Psychotherapy, Coaching and Spirituality” and offer yoga and meditation supplementary to psychoanalytic therapy appear to spring up like mushrooms.

Is this a recent phenomenon?

No. The association with the occult and the supernatural within psychoanalytic circles has a long and complex history. Georges Devereux managed to collect 31 documents on the issue which he published in 1953. In the 19th and early 20th century, occult practices – meaning early parapsychology, tarot readings, telepathy, fortune-telling, astrology and other areas of psychical research – were, despite their societal stigmatization, considered en vogue and to a certain degree even part of the intellectual mainstream, similar to yoga and meditation these days. The fin de siècle experienced a “mystical comeback” hat had its roots in the Victorian era. Freud himself was extremely ambivalent about the occult and supernatural in relation to psychoanalysis and frequently changed his opinion on the subject. While he had passionately disregarded it at first, he was later overcome by a scientific curiosity for the topic. He himself was a member of the Cambridge-based Society for Psychical Research (SPR) and its subsidiaries in Greece and the US, and published several papers on the issue, e.g. “The Occult Significance of Dreams” (1925) or “Dreams and Telepathy” (1922).

Sigmund Freud seemed to be particularly impressed by the works of Gilbert Murray, the former President of the SPR (Society for Psychical Research). The Oxford-educated classist conducted more than 800 psychic experiments on telepathy, or “thought transference”, as those psychoanalysts – like Sàndor Ferenczi - who strived to include the supernatural in their psychoanalytic treatment liked to call it.  Like most experiments on telepathy, Murray’s experimental accounts were incomplete and the methodology thoroughly unscientific. Murray was related to most of the participants and the experiments’ execution was sloppy - flaws which Freud seemed oblivious to at that time. Still, even though Sigmund Freud, a staunch atheist himself, was interested in telepathy, he worried about psychoanalysis’ reputation within the scientific community. Initially, he viewed occultism and psychoanalysis as potential allies as both practices were heavily stigmatized. His disputatious friend, Ernest Jones, strongly advised him against getting involved with the paranormal, and later portrayed him as a secret fan of the occult in a rather exaggerated way. Helene Deutsch, who published “Occult Processes Occurring during Psychoanalysis” in 1926, and Dorothy Burlingham , were among the female psychoanalysis heavily invested in the subject.

When Ferenczi, who was particularly fascinated with thought-transference and whose first publication was dedicated to the spiritual, and Anna Freud wanted to publish their findings on thought transference, Freud discouraged them: “I advise you against it. Don’t do it…With it you are throwing a bomb into the psychoanalytic edifice, which will certainly not fail to explode.” In a correspondence with Freud, Ferenczi even claimed to be able to read his patients’ thoughts: “I am reading my patients´ thoughts (in my free associations)”. It is difficult to judge whether this declaration was intended as a joke.  Ferenczi even invited a telepath to one of the Viennese Psychoanalytic society’s meetings and jokingly referred to himself as “court astrologist of psychoanalysis”. While Sigmund Freud, for the most part, tried to separate a private interest in the paranormal from psychoanalysis as a therapeutic treatment, Jung radically and controversially blurred the lines between mysticism and the human psyche, which would later become one of the reasons for his well-known break with Freud.

Despite the justified criticism, it is possible that telepathic experiments provided the impetus for the theoretical development of the concept of transference, and that this dubious fascination represented a kind of game encouraging epistemic creativity, which eventually led to sound therapeutic insights. What is your opinion on psychoanalysts and the illustrated fascination with the occult? Do yoga and other Eastern, spiritual practices have a likewise influence on psychoanalysis today?

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