The Conscious and Unconscious Mind

The Structure of the Mind According to Freud

Freud's Three Levels of Mind
Illustration by Joshua Seong, Verywell

The famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud believed that behavior and personality were derived from the constant and unique interaction of conflicting psychological forces that operate at three different levels of awareness: the preconscious, the conscious, and the unconscious. He believed that each of these parts of the mind played an important role in influencing behavior.

In order to understand the ins and outs of Freud's theory, it is essential to first understand what he believe each part of personality did, how it operated, and how these three elements interact to contribute to the human experience. Learn more about each of these levels of awareness and the role that they play in shaping human behavior and thought.

Freud's Three Levels of Mind

  • The preconscious consists of anything that could potentially be brought into the conscious mind.
  • The conscious mind contains all of the thoughts, memories, feelings, and wishes of which we are aware at any given moment. This is the aspect of our mental processing that we can think and talk about rationally. A part of this includes our memory, which is not always part of consciousness but can be retrieved easily at any time and brought into our awareness.
  • The unconscious mind is a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that outside of our conscious awareness. Most of the contents of the unconscious are unacceptable or unpleasant, such as feelings of pain, anxiety, or conflict. According to Freud, the unconscious continues to influence our behavior and experience, even though we are unaware of these underlying influences. The unconscious can include repressed feelings, hidden memories, habits, thoughts, desires, and reactions.

Freud likened the three levels of mind to an iceberg. The top of the iceberg that you can see above the water represents the conscious mind. The part of the iceberg that is submerged below the water but is still visible is the preconscious. The bulk of the iceberg that lies unseen beneath the waterline represents the unconscious.

In order to better understand the conscious and unconscious mind, it may be helpful to take a closer look at the man who popularized the terms and his theories about how the mind works.

Sigmund Freud was the founder of psychoanalytic theory. While his ideas were considered shocking at the time and continue to create debate and controversy even now, his work had a profound influence on a number of disciplines, including psychology, sociology, anthropology, literature, and even art.

The term psychoanalysis is used to refer to many aspects of Freud’s work and research, including Freudian therapy and the research methodology he used to develop his theories. Freud relied heavily upon his observations and case studies of his patients when he formed his theory of personality development.

How Do the Conscious and Unconscious Mind Work?

What exactly happens at each level of awareness? One way to understand how the conscious and unconscious mind operate is to look at what are known as slips of the tongue. Many of us have experienced what is commonly referred to as a Freudian slip at some point or another. These misstatements are believed to reveal underlying, unconscious thoughts or feelings.

Consider this example:

James has just started a new relationship with a woman he met at school. While talking to her one afternoon, he accidentally calls her by his ex-girlfriend's name.

If you were in this situation, how would you explain this mistake? Many of us might blame the slip on distraction or describe it as a simple accident. However, a Freudian analyst might tell you that this is much more than a random slip of the tongue.

The psychoanalytic view holds that there are unconscious, inner forces outside of your awareness that are directing your behavior. For example, a psychoanalyst might say that James misspoke due to unresolved feelings for his ex or perhaps because of misgivings about his new relationship.

Freud believed that while the unconscious mind is largely inaccessible, the contents of the unconscious could sometimes bubble up in unexpected ways such as in dreams or inadvertent slips of the tongue.

As previously mentioned, the unconscious includes thoughts, emotions, memories, desires, and motivations that lie outside of our awareness, yet nevertheless continue to exert an influence on our behaviors. So by mistakenly calling his new girlfriend by his ex's name, James might be revealing unconscious feelings related to that previous relationship.

The Conscious and Preconscious: A Closer Look

The contents of the conscious mind include all of the things that you are actively aware of at any given moment. At this moment, for example, you might be consciously aware of the information you are reading, the sound of the music you are listening to, or a conversation you are having. All of the thoughts that pass through your mind, the sensations and perceptions from the world around you, and the memories that you pull into your awareness are all part of that conscious experience.

The closely related preconscious mind contains all of the things that you could potentially pull into conscious awareness. You might not be consciously thinking about memories from your high school graduation, but that is information that you could easily bring into the conscious mind if you needed or wanted to do so. The preconscious also acts as something of a guard, controlling the information that is allowed to enter into conscious awareness.

One thing to remember about the conscious and preconscious mind is that they represent only the tip of the iceberg. They are limited in terms of the amount of information they hold.

The Unconscious Mind: What Lies Beneath the Surface of Awareness

If the conscious mind represents the tip of the iceberg, it is the unconscious mind that makes up the massive bulk of the iceberg that lies invisible and unseen below the surface of the water. Memories, thoughts, feelings, and information that is too painful, embarrassing, shameful, or distressing for conscious awareness is stored in the enormous reservoir that makes up the unconscious mind.

While this information is not consciously accessible, Freud still believed that its influence could play a powerful role in conscious behavior and well-being. He linked psychological distress to unresolved feelings of conflict that were outside of awareness, and many of the therapeutic techniques he utilized focused on bringing unconscious urges, feelings, and memories into conscious awareness so that they could then be dealt with effectively. Techniques such as free association and dream analysis are centered on bringing unconscious influences to light. Freudian slips, or accidental slips of the tongue, are sometimes thought of as being a sign of unconscious thoughts and feeling bubbling up to the surface of awareness.

A Word From Verywell

While many of Freud's ideas have fallen out of favor in psychology, the importance of the unconscious has become perhaps one of his most important and enduring contributions to psychology. Psychoanalytic therapy, which explores how the unconscious mind influences behaviors and thoughts, has become an important tool in the treatment of mental illness and psychological distress.

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Article Sources
  • Carducci, BJ. The Psychology of Personality: Viewpoints, Research, and Applications. New York: John Wiley and Sons; 2009.
  • Corsini, R. J., & Wedding, D. Current Psychotherapies (9th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks Cole; 2011.