Unconscious mind

This article refers to the psychological concept. For the band, see Subconscious (Band).

The unconscious mind (or subconscious) is more than simply the aspect or aspects of the mind of which we are not directly conscious or aware. Freud's concept was a more subtle and complex psychological theory. Consciousness, in Freud's topographical view (which was his first of several psychological models of the mind) was a relatively thin perceptual aspect of the mind, whereas the subconscious (frequently misused and confused with the unconscious) was that merely autonomic function of the brain. The unconscious was indeed considered by Freud throughout the evolution of his psychoanalytic theory a sentient force of will influenced by human drives and yet operating well below the perceptual conscious mind. Hidden, like the man behind the curtain in the "Wizard of Oz," the unconscious directs the thoughts and feelings of everyone, according to Freud. This unconscious mind is the primitive instinctual hangover we all suffer from and which we must overcome in a healthy way in order to become fully and normally developed ie not neurotic or psychotic but merely unhappy (See Frank Sulloway's "Freud, Biologist of the Mind," Basic Books, 1983).

The unconscious mind should not be confused with "being unconscious" and unconsciousness which is loss of consciousness.



The idea originated in antiquity, and its more modern history is detailed in Henri F Ellenberger's Discovery of the Unconscious (Basic Books, 1970).

Certain philosophers preceding Sigmund Freud such as Leibniz and Schopenhauer developed ideas foreshadowing the subconscious. The new medical science of psychoanalysis established by Freud and his disciples popularized this and similar notions such as the role of the libido (sex drive) and the self-destructive urge of thanatos (death wish), and the famous Oedipus complex wherein a son seeks to "kill" his father to make love to his own mother.

The term was popularized by Freud. He developed the idea that there were layers to human consciousness: the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious. He thought that certain psychic events take place "below the surface", or in the unconscious mind. A good example is dreaming, which Freud called the "royal road to the unconscious".

In another of Freud's systematizations, the mind is divided into the Conscious mind or Ego and two parts of the Unconscious: the Id or instincts and the Superego. Freud used the idea of the unconscious in order to explain certain kinds of neurotic behavior. (See psychoanalysis.)

Carl Jung developed the concept further. He divided the unconscious into two parts: the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. The first of these corresponds to Freud's idea of the subconscious, though unlike his mentor, Jung believed that the personal unconscious contained a valuable counter-balance to the conscious mind, as well as childish urges. As for the collective unconscious, which consists of archetypes, this is the common store of mental building blocks that makes up the psyche of all humans. Evidence for its existence is the universality of certain symbols that appear in the mythologies of nearly all peoples.

There are other views. Jane Roberts (in the Seth books) presents a rich portrait of consciousness in which the unconscious mind is described as being clairvoyant and in communication with all other minds. The self that each of us experiences day-to-day is described as being but one facet of a richer and very complex multi-dimensional entity.


Many modern philosophers and social scientists either dispute the concept of an unconscious, or argue that it is not something that can be scientifically investigated or discussed rationally. In the social sciences, this view was first brought forward by John Watson, considered to be the first American behaviourist. Among philosophers, Karl Popper was one of Freud's most notable contemporary opponents. Popper claimed that Freud's theory of the unconscious was not falsifiable.

Still, many, perhaps most, psychologists and cognitive scientists agree that many things happen in our mind that we aren't conscious of.

John Watson criticizes the idea of an "unconscious mind," because he wanted scientists to focus on observable behaviors, seen from the outside, rather than on introspection. Karl Popper objected not so much to the idea that things happened in our minds that we are unconscious of; He objected to investigations of mind that were not falsifiable. If Freud could connect every imaginable experimental outcome with his theory of the unconscious mind, then no experiment can refute his theory.

The argument seems to be about how mind will be studied, not whether there is anything that happens unconsciously or not.


Somewhat related to the unconscious are nonconscious psychic events. The term nonconscious seems to be used in various ways – some appear to use the term to avoid the somewhat value-laden term “unconscious” or “subconscious” (but basically for the same purpose); some use it to refer to events that can only be observed indirectly (e.g. certain acts of short-term memory); some use it to point to events such as brain activity controlled mostly by the autonomic nervous system (e.g. emotional reactions to certain smells). Not surprisingly, there are no sharply delineated conventions for distinguishing exactly between the nonconscious and the unconscious – partly because they interact with each other, and partly because, as is so often the case, psychologists are unable to agree on the definitions.

A distinction needs to be made between The Unconscious (or the unconscious mind, or the subconscious), which are concepts in psychoanalysis and related fields, and unconscious or nonconscious events in the mind, which are of great interest in cognition and perception. There are connections and similarities between the two but it would be quite wrong to use these two concepts interchangeably.

Unconscious mental processes

(Note: The next section does confuse the two but has not been removed because of the interesting examples that it gives)

The unconscious is arguably not the most intuitive idea, so why bother with it? What's the evidence? What might the unconscious explain?

  • The fact that most bodily processes are not consciously controlled eg breathing, blood circulation, blinking
  • The fact that something - not the conscious mind - creates the dreams that we wander around in at night
  • The mind spontaneously moving from one idea or recollection to another
    • Creative ideas that do not appear to come from conscious thinking
    • Waking up in the morning with an insight or solution to a problem
    • All memory is unconscious. The act of remembering something means bringing the information stored outside our conscious mind into awareness.
    • The fact that we forget certain things but later spontaneously recall them
    • Intuition
  • That we learn certain skills so that they become largely automatic eg driving a car, playing a sport
    • The fact that we can run downstairs without thinking where we place each footfall
  • The instincts, such as self-preservation and sex, originate on an unconscious level
  • The origin of all the bodily urges, such as hunger and thirst, lies outside the conscious mind
  • Physical reflexes
  • Subliminal perception. It is known that only a very tiny proportion of our bodily stimuli actually reach consciousness. Otherwise we would be swamped by billions of stimuli.
  • Perception - a baby is not born able to recognise shapes but has to build up what is called perceptual stability during the first six months of life.
  • The mental reaction of responding to a stimulus is not conscious but a pattern that is part of our conditioning eg our response to music
  • Hypnosis and trance
  • Psychological processes such as denial, introjection and psychological projection
  • Our own motivation tends to be something we are not consciously aware of, a good example of which is: Falling in love
  • With perhaps a few exceptions, nearly all our emotions are caused without our being aware of why at the time, though we may analyse them later
  • We speak our native tongue without looking for words or consciously constructing grammatical phrases - this is done for us on an unconscious level
  • Since without memory both thinking and learning would be impossible, the importance of the unconscious is far greater than may appear.

Questions about Unconscious mind

The subconscious is not directly accessible to ordinary introspection, but it is capable of being "tapped" and "interpreted" by special methods and techniques such as random association, dream analysis, and verbal slips (commonly known as a Freudian slip), examined and conducted during psychotherapy. Thoughts, feelings and urges that are repressed are all present in the subconscious mind and "issues" need to be "worked out" with professionals skilled in the field of mental health and mental illness.

Is the unconscious altogether inaccessible, or is it just hard to access?

As some of the above examples indicate, material is constantly moving from the conscious mind to the unconscious and vice versa. The conscious mind only holds a small amount of information at any given time. In many cases information - especially easily accessible memories - can be called into awareness at will.

Some psychics also believe that the unconscious mind possesses a kind of "hidden energy" or "potential" that can realise dreams and thoughts, with minimal conscious effort or action from the individual. Some also believe that the subconscious has an "influencing power" in shaping one's destiny. All such claims, however have so far failed to stand scientific scrutiny.

Application of unconscious

Knowledge of the unconscious has been exploited by marketing strategists employed by corporations to either play on hidden fears and secret desires buried in the common subconscious. Teams of psychologists are hired to do market research and understand the psychology of buying in order to use subliminal messages in advertising campaigns.

See also

External links

de:Unterbewusstsein et:Alateadvus es:Inconsciente fr:Inconscient nl:Onderbewustzijn pt:Inconsciente


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