The unconscious mind might be defined as that part of the mind which gives rise to a collection of mental phenomena that manifest in a person’s mind but which the person is not aware of at the time of their occurrence. These phenomena include unconscious feelings, unconscious or automatic skills, unnoticed perceptions, unconscious thoughts, unconscious habits and automatic reactions, complexes, hidden phobias and concealed desires.
The unconscious mind can be seen as the source of night dreams and automatic thoughts (those that appear without apparent cause). It can be seen as the repository of memories that have been forgotten but that may nevertheless be accessible to consciousness at some later time. It can be seen as the locus of implicit knowledge, i.e. all the things that we have learned so well that we do them without thinking. A familiar example of the operation of the unconscious is the phenomenon where one thinks about some problem, cannot find a solution but wakes up one morning with a new idea that unlocks the problem.
Observers throughout history have argued that there are influences on consciousness from other parts of the mind. These observers differ in the use of related terms, including: unconsciousness as a personal habit; being unaware and intuition. Terms related to semi-consciousness include: awakening, implicit memory, the subconscious, subliminal messages, trance, hypnagogia, and hypnosis. Although sleep, sleep walking, dreaming, delirium and coma may signal the presence of unconscious processes, these processes are not the unconscious mind. Science is in its infancy in exploring the limits of consciousness.
The idea of an unconscious mind originated in antiquity and has been explored across cultures. It was recorded between 2500 and 600 B.C in the Hindu texts known as the Vedas, found today in Ayurvedic medicine. In the Vedic worldview, consciousness is the basis of physiology and pure consciousness is “an abstract, silent, completely unified field of consciousness” within “an architecture of increasingly abstract, functionally integrated faculties or levels of mind”.
Paracelsus is credited as providing the first scientific mention of the unconscious in his work Von den Krankeiten (1567), and his clinical methodology created an entire system that is regarded as the beginning of modern scientific psychology. Shakespeare explored the role of the unconscious in many of his plays, without naming it as such. Western philosophers such as Spinoza, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, developed a western view of mind which foreshadowed those of Freud. Schopenhauer was also influenced by his reading of the Vedas.
Articulating the idea of something not conscious or actively denied to awareness with the symbolic constructs of language has been a process of human thought and interpersonal influence for millennia.
The resultant status of the unconscious mind may be viewed as a social construction – that the unconscious exists because people agree to behave as if it exists. Symbolic interactionism goes further and argues that people’s selves (conscious and unconscious) though purposeful and creative are nevertheless social products.
Unconscious processes and the unconscious mind
Neuroscience supports the proposition of the unconscious mind. For example, researchers at Columbia University Medical Center have found that fleeting images of fearful faces – images that appear and disappear so quickly that they escape conscious awareness – produce unconscious anxiety that can be detected in the brain with the latest neuroimaging machines. The conscious mind is hundreds of milliseconds behind the unconscious processes.
To understand this type of research, a distinction has to be made between unconscious processes and the unconscious mind: they are not the same. Neuroscience is more likely to examine the former than the latter. The unconscious mind and its expected psychoanalytic contents are also different from unconsciousness, coma and a minimally conscious state. The differences in the uses of the term can be explained, to a degree, by different narratives about what we know. One such narrative is psychoanalytic theory.
Freud and the psychoanalytic unconscious
Probably the most detailed and precise of the various notions of ‘unconscious mind’ — and the one which most people will immediately think of upon hearing the term — is that developed by Sigmund Freud and his followers. It lies at the heart of psychoanalysis.
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 was that merely autonomic function of the brain. The unconscious was considered by Freud throughout the evolution of his psychoanalytic theory a sentient force of will influenced by human drive and yet operating well below the perceptual conscious mind. For Freud, the unconscious is the storehouse of instinctual desires, needs, and psychic actions. While past thoughts and memories may be deleted from immediate consciousness, they direct the thoughts and feelings of the individual from the realm of the unconscious.
Freud divided mind into the conscious mind or Ego and two parts of the Unconscious: the Id or instincts and the Superego. He used the idea of the unconscious in order to explain certain kinds of neurotic behavior.
In this theory, the unconscious refers to that part of mental functioning of which subjects make themselves unaware.
Freud proposed a vertical and hierarchical architecture of human consciousness: the conscious mind, the preconscious, and the unconscious mind – each lying beneath the other. He believed that significant psychic events take place “below the surface” in the unconscious mind, like hidden messages from the unconscious – a form of intrapersonal communication out of awareness. He interpreted these events as having both symbolic and actual significance.
For psychoanalysis, the unconscious does not include all that is not conscious, rather only what is actively repressed from conscious thought or what the person is averse to knowing consciously. In a sense this view places the self in relationship to their unconscious as an adversary, warring with itself to keep what is unconscious hidden. The therapist is then a mediator trying to allow the unspoken or unspeakable to reveal itself using the tools of psychoanalysis. Messages arising from a conflict between conscious and unconscious are likely to be cryptic. The psychoanalyst is presented as an expert in interpreting those messages.
For Freud, the unconscious was a repository for socially unacceptable ideas, wishes or desires, traumatic memories, and painful emotions put out of mind by the mechanism of psychological repression. However, the contents did not necessarily have to be solely negative. In the psychoanalytic view, the unconscious is a force that can only be recognized by its effects — it expresses itself in the symptom.
Unconscious thoughts are not directly accessible to ordinary introspection, but are supposed to be 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 psychoanalysis.
Freud’s theory of the unconscious was substantially transformed by some of his followers, among them Carl Jung and Jacques Lacan.
Jung’s collective unconscious
Carl Jung developed the concept further. He divided the unconscious into two parts: the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. The personal unconscious is a reservoir of material that was once conscious but has been forgotten or suppressed.
The collective unconscious is the deepest level of the psyche containing the accumulation of inherited psychic structures and archetypal experiences. There is a considerable two way traffic between the ego and the personal unconscious. For example, our attention can wander from this article to a memory of something we did yesterday.
Lacan’s linguistic unconscious
Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory contends that the unconscious is structured like a language.
The unconscious, Lacan argued, was not a more primitive or archetypal part of the mind separate from the conscious, linguistic ego, but rather, a formation every bit as complex and linguistically sophisticated as consciousness itself.
If the unconscious is structured like a language, Lacan argues, then the self is denied any point of reference to which to be ‘restored’ following trauma or ‘identity crisis’. In this way, Lacan’s thesis of the structurally dynamic unconscious is also a challenge to the ego psychology of Anna Freud and her American followers.
Lacan’s idea of how language is structured is largely taken from the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson, based on the function of the signifier and signified in signifying chains. This may leave Lacan’s entire model of mental functioning open to severe critique, since in mainstream linguistics, Saussurean models have largely been replaced.
The starting point for the linguistic theory of the unconscious was a re-reading of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. There, Freud identifies two mechanisms at work in the formation of unconscious fantasies: condensation and displacement. Under Lacan’s linguistic reading, condensation is identified with the linguistic trope of metaphor, and displacement with metonymy.
Lacan applied the ideas of de Saussure and Jakobson to psychoanalytic practice. For example, while de Saussure described the linguistic sign as a relationship between a signified and an arbitrary signifier, Lacan inverted the relationship, putting in first place the signifier as determining the signified, and so being closer to Freud’s position that human beings know what they say only as a result of a chain of signifiers, a-posteriori. Lacan began this work with the case of Emma from Freud, whose symptoms were disenchained in a two-phase temporal process. Lacan allowed many young people, by this bias, to begin re-reading Freud as more akin to modernity than cognitive psychology. For Lacan, modernity is the era when humans begin to grasp their essential dependence on language.
Today, there are still fundamental disagreements within psychology about the nature of the unconscious mind. It may simply stand as a metaphor that ought not to be refined. Outside formal psychology, a whole world of pop-psychological speculation has grown up in which the unconscious mind is held to have any number of properties and abilities, from animalistic and innocent, child-like aspects to savant-like, all-perceiving, mystical and occultic properties.