The Role of the Conscious Mind

Why your conscious mind is just the tip of the iceberg

View of an iceberg above and below the water line
Paul Souders / The Image Bank / Getty Images

The conscious mind is one element of Sigmund Freud's topographic model of the mind. Freud was not the first theorist to describe consciousness or unconsciousness, but these elements played a fundamental part in his theories of human psychology.

This article discusses the conscious mind, including how it is defined, how it works, and why it is important in Freudian theory. It also covers how the conscious mind differs from the preconscious.

What Is the Conscious Mind?

The Conscious Mind

In Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory of personality, the conscious mind consists of everything inside of our awareness. This is the aspect of our mental processing that we can think and talk about rationally.

The conscious mind includes:

  • Fantasies
  • Feelings
  • Memories
  • Perceptions
  • Self-awareness
  • Sensations
  • Thoughts

Essentially, it is anything that is in your current awareness. The thoughts and feelings you are experiencing at the moment, and your awareness of your current environment are all part of your conscious experiences.

How the Conscious Mind Works

It isn't possible to keep every thought, memory, or feeling inside of conscious awareness at all times. So instead, certain information is maintained in awareness, other information remains outside of immediate awareness but still accessible, and other information is hidden from awareness.

Freud's topographic theory was a "map" of the different systems that make up the human mind. According to Freud, the mind is made up of three systems: the conscious (Cs.), the preconscious (Pcs.), and the unconscious (Ucs.)

These systems are controlled by what Freud identified as the primary and secondary processes

  • The primary processes are a way to discharge unacceptable urges that arise from the unconscious mind. It often involves creating a mental image to act as a substitute for acting on an unacceptable urge.
  • The secondary processes are how the mind deals with conscious urges through delayed gratification. For example, instead of acting immediately on a thought you just had, you wait for a more appropriate time to take action.

The topographic model of the mind is also part of Freud's larger structural model of personality, which includes the id, ego, and superego.

How the Conscious, Preconscious, and Unconscious Interact

Closely allied with the conscious mind is the preconscious (or subconscious). The preconscious includes the things we are not thinking of at the moment but can easily draw into conscious awareness.

Things that the conscious mind wants to keep hidden from awareness are repressed into the unconscious mind. While we are unaware of these feelings, thoughts, urges, and emotions, Freud believed that the unconscious mind could still influence our behavior.

Things that are in the unconscious are only available to the conscious mind in disguised form. For example, the contents of the unconscious might spill into awareness in the form of dreams. Freud believed that by analyzing the content of dreams, people could discover the unconscious influences on their conscious actions.

The Iceberg Metaphor

Freud often used the metaphor of an iceberg to describe the two major aspects of human personality. The tip of the iceberg that extends above the water represents the conscious mind. As you can see in the image on top, the conscious mind is just the "tip of the iceberg." Beneath the water is the much larger bulk of the iceberg, which represents the unconscious.

While the conscious and preconscious are important, Freud believed that they were far less vital than the unconscious.

The things that are hidden from awareness, Freud believed, exerted the greatest influence over our personalities and behaviors.

Conscious vs. Preconscious Differences

Conscious
  • Limited in capacity

  • Similar to short-term memory

  • Includes what you are currently aware of

Preconscious
  • Much larger in capacity

  • Similar to long-term memory

  • Includes information and memories you can recall

The conscious mind involves all the things you are currently aware of and are thinking about. It is somewhat akin to short-term memory and is limited in capacity. Your awareness of yourself and the world around you is part of your consciousness.

The preconscious mind, also known as the subconscious mind, includes things that we might not be presently aware of but that we can pull into conscious awareness when needed.

You might not presently be thinking about how to do long division, but you can access the information and bring it into conscious awareness when solving a math problem.

The preconscious mind is a part of the mind that corresponds to ordinary memory. These memories are not conscious, but we can retrieve them to conscious awareness at any time.

How the Preconscious Works

While these memories are not part of your immediate awareness, they can be quickly brought into awareness through conscious effort. For example, if you were asked what television show you watched last night or what you had for breakfast this morning, you would be pulling that information out of your preconscious.

A helpful way to think of the preconscious is that it acts as a sort of gatekeeper between the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind. It allows only certain pieces of information to pass through and enter conscious awareness.

Phone numbers and social security numbers are also examples of information stored in your preconscious mind. While you do not walk around consciously thinking about this information all the time, you can quickly draw it out of your subconscious when you are asked to relate these numbers.

In Freud’s iceberg metaphor, the preconscious exists just below the surface of the water. You can see the murky shape and outline of the submerged ice if you focus and make an effort to see it.

Like the unconscious mind, Freud believed that the preconscious could have an influence on conscious awareness. Sometimes information from the preconscious surfaces in unexpected ways, like in dreams or in accidental slips of the tongue (known as Freudian slips). While we might not be actively thinking about these things, Freud believed they still served to influence conscious actions and behaviors.

Recap

The preconscious (subconscious) plays an important role since it contains the information that we can quickly draw into the conscious mind when it is needed. It also acts as a control mechanism that helps keep certain information in the unconscious mind and out of conscious awareness.

A Word From Verywell

The conscious mind is an important part of Freudian theory. This component of the mind is critical for survival since it allows us to direct attention and perceive events that we need to respond to in the immediate environment. 

However, Freud also believed that the conscious represented only a tiny portion of the totality of the human mind. While a small portion of the mind is accessible to us through the conscious and preconscious, Freud believed that the bulk of our mind's contents is found in the unconscious. And while this was not directly accessible, tactics such as dream interpretation and free associations might be a way to bring this information into the conscious mind.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Freud's model of the human mind. Journal Psyche. (n.d.).

  2. Boag S. Topographical model. In: Zeigler-Hill V, Shackelford TK, eds. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer International Publishing; 2017:1-6. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1432-1

  3. Thornton SP. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  4. Tan PB. Evaluating the “unconscious in dream” between Sigmund Freud and the Buddhist Tipitaka. JIABU. 2016;9(1):36-46.

Additional Reading
  • Freud S. (1915). The Unconscious. Standard Edition, Volume 14.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.