What Is the Unconscious?

Iceberg Underwater in Ililussat
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What Is the Unconscious?

In Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory of personality, the unconscious mind is defined as a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that outside of conscious awareness.

Within this understanding, most of the contents of the unconscious are considered unacceptable or unpleasant, such as feelings of pain, anxiety, or conflict. Freud believed that the unconscious continues to influence behavior even though people are unaware of these underlying influences.

How It Works

When conceptualizing the unconscious mind, it can be helpful to compare the mind to an iceberg. Everything above the water represents conscious awareness while everything below the water represents the unconscious.

Consider how an iceberg would look if you could see it in its entirety. Only a small part of the iceberg is actually visible above the water. What you cannot see from the surface is the enormous amount of ice that makes up the bulk of the iceberg, submerged deep below in the water.

The things that represent our conscious awareness are simply "the tip of the iceberg." The rest of the information that is outside of conscious awareness lies below the surface. While this information might not be accessible consciously, it still exerts an influence over current behavior.

Impact of the Unconscious

Unconscious thoughts, beliefs, and feelings can potentially cause a number of problems including:

  • Anger
  • Bias
  • Compulsive behaviors
  • Difficult social interactions
  • Distress
  • Relationship problems

Freud believed that many of our feelings, desires, and emotions are repressed or held out of awareness because they are simply too threatening. Freud believed that sometimes these hidden desires and wishes make themselves known through dreams and slips of the tongue (aka "Freudian slips").

Freud also believed that all of our basic instincts and urges were also contained in the unconscious mind. The life and death instincts, for example, were found in the unconscious. The life instincts, sometimes known as the sexual instincts, are those that are related to survival. The death instincts include such things as thoughts of aggression, trauma, and danger.

Such urges are kept out of consciousness because our conscious minds often view them as unacceptable or irrational. In order to keep these urges out of awareness, Freud suggested that people utilize a number of different defense mechanisms to prevent them from rising to awareness.

Uses

Freud believed that bringing the contents of the unconscious into awareness was important for relieving psychological distress. More recently, researchers have explored different techniques to help see how unconscious influences can impact behaviors. There are a few different ways that information from the unconscious might be brought into conscious awareness or studied by researchers.

Free Association

Freud believed that he could bring unconscious feelings into awareness through the use of a technique called free association. He asked patients to relax and say whatever came to mind without any consideration of how trivial, irrelevant, or embarrassing it might be.

By tracing these streams of thought, Freud believed he could uncover the contents of the unconscious mind where repressed desires and painful childhood memories existed.

Dream Interpretation

Freud also suggested that dreams were another route to the unconscious. While information from the unconscious mind may sometimes appear in dreams, he believed that it was often in a disguised form.

As such, from Freud's point of view, dream interpretation would require examining the literal content of a dream (known as the manifest content) to try to uncover the hidden, unconscious meaning of the dream (the latent content).

Freud also believed that dreams were a form of wish fulfillment. Because these unconscious urges could not be expressed in waking life, he believed they find expression in dreams.

Continuous Flash Suppression

Modern cognitive psychology research has shown that even perceptions that we don't consciously attend to can have a powerful impact on behavior. Using a technique called continuous flash suppression, researchers are able to display an image without people consciously seeing it because they are instead distracted by another visual display.

Research has shown that people will rate certain visual displays more negatively when they are paired with a negative or less desirable "invisible" image (such as a picture of an angry face). Even though people have no conscious awareness of even seeing those negative images, exposure to them still has an effect on their behavior and choices.

Potential Pitfalls

The very idea of the existence of the unconscious has not been without controversy. A number of researchers have criticized the notion and dispute that there is actually an unconscious mind at all. 

More recently in the field of cognitive psychology, researchers have focused on automatic and implicit functions to describe things that were previously attributed to the unconscious. According to this approach, there are many cognitive functions that take place outside of our conscious awareness. This research may not support Freud's conceptualization of the unconscious mind, but it does offer evidence that things that we are not aware of consciously may still have an influence on our behaviors.

One of the major pitfalls of Freud's work is his lack of scientific methodology in the development of his theories. Many of his ideas were based upon case studies or observations of a single individual. Unlike early psychoanalytic approaches to the unconscious, modern research within the field of cognitive psychology is driven by scientific investigations and empirical data supporting the existence of these automatic cognitive processes.

History of the Unconscious

The idea that there are forces outside of conscious awareness has existed for thousands of years. The term "unconscious" was first coined by the philosopher Friedrich Schelling in the late 18th-century and was later translated to English by poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 

Within the field of psychology, the notion of unconscious influences was touched on by thinkers including William James and Wilhelm Wundt, but it was Freud who popularized the idea and made it a central component of his psychoanalytic approach to psychology.

The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung also believed that the unconscious played an important role in shaping personality. However, he believed that there was a personal unconscious that consisted of an individual's suppressed or forgotten memories and urges as well as what he referred to as the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious was said to contain inherited ancestral memories common to all of humankind. 

While many of Freud's ideas have since fallen out of favor, modern psychologists continue to explore the influences of unconscious mental processes including related topics such as unconscious bias, implicit memory, implicit attitudes, priming, and nonconscious learning.

A Word From Verywell

While Sigmund Freud did not invent the concept of the unconscious mind, he did popularize it to the point that it is now largely associated with his psychoanalytic theories. The notion of the unconscious continues to play a role in modern psychology as researchers strive to understand how the mind operates outside of conscious awareness.

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