In Freudian Psychoanalysis, sublimation is the transformation of unacceptable sexual desires into mental achievements or culturally accepted behaviors. Sublimation is one of the mature defense mechanisms of the Ego. Freud believed that human culture as a whole is a result of sublimation. He sees especially in artistic expression and scientific research the conversion of base desires to a higher realm.
In their review of recent studies in social psychology for evidence relevant to seven Freudian defense mechanisms, Baumeister, Dale and Sommer (1998)
have found nothing at all to suggest that people can defend themselves
against unacceptable feelings or desires by transforming them into
socially desirable activities, thereby producing superior achiement in
those activities. The best available data concern education and sex,
and those findings consitently fail to support sublimation theory (and
in some cases are in the opposite direction). At present, our best
educated guess is that sublimation is not a genuine or effective
defense mechanism, and it seems doubtful that anything resembling
sublimation occurs at all.
The question "What is the effect of sexual abstinence on intellectual and artistic achievment?" has specifically been answered by studies on celibacy, which show either no or a negative effect (Baumeister, Dale, & Sommer, 1998).
- Baumeister, R. F., Dale, K., & Sommer, K. L. (1998). Freudian defense mechanisms and empirical findings in modern social psychology: Reaction formation, projection, displacement, udoing, isolation, sublimation, and denial. Journal of Personality, 66, 1081–1124. doi:10.1111/1467-6494.00043 Available online at http://www2.sunysuffolk.edu/vollarj/baumesiter%20roy%20-%20freudian%20defense%20mechanisms.pdf