The Preconscious, Conscious, and Unconscious Minds

The Structure of the Mind, According to Freud

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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, conscious, and unconscious. He believed that each of these parts of the mind plays 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 believed 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
Verywell / Joshua Seong

About Sigmund Freud

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.

Freud's Three Levels of Mind

Freud delineated the mind in the distinct levels, each with their own roles and functions:

  • 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. This also includes our memory, which is not always part of consciousness but can be retrieved easily and brought into 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.

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.

The Freudian Slip

One way to understand how the conscious and unconscious minds operate is to look at what is known as a slip 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.

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

An example of a Freudian slip is a man who accidentally uses a former girlfriend's name when referring to a current girlfriend. While most of us might believe this to be a simple error, Freud believed that the slip with the sudden intrusion of the unconscious mind into the conscious mind, often due to unresolved or repressed feelings.

To a Freudian psychologist, thoughts and emotions outside of our awareness continue to exert an influence on our behaviors.

Accessing Unconscious Thoughts

According to Freud, the unconscious continues to influence our behavior and experiences, even though we are unaware of these underlying influences. The unconscious can include repressed feelings, hidden memories, habits, thoughts, desires, and reactions.

If the conscious mind represents the tip of the iceberg, it is the unconscious mind that makes up the massive bulk what lies beneath. Memories and emotions that are too painful, embarrassing, shameful, or distressing to consciously face stored in the enormous reservoir that makes up the unconscious mind.

To identify the roots of a psychological distress, Freud employed techniques like dream analysis and free association (the sharing of seemingly random thoughts) to bring true feelings to light.

Role of the Preconscious Mind

The contents of the conscious mind include all of the things that you are actively aware of. The closely related preconscious mind contains all of the things that you could potentially pull into conscious awareness.

Preconscious memories are not the same things as memories that are readily accessed, such as remembering your way home. They are unrepressed memories that we extract for a specific purpose at a specific time.

The preconscious also acts as something of a guard, controlling the information that is allowed to enter into conscious 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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