The unconscious mind (often simply called the unconscious) is all the processes of the mind which are not available to consciousness. In Western culture the concept has its origins in the romantic era and gained prominence in the writings of the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. It might be defined as all those mental phenomena occurring within a person’s mind which the person is not conscious of. These phenomena include unconscious (often repressed) feelings, unconscious or automatic skills, unacknowledged perceptions, unconscious thoughts, unconscious habits and automatic reactions, complexes, hidden phobias and desires. Within psychoanalysis and analytical psychology the cognitive processes of the unconscious are considered to manifest in dreams in a symbolical form. Thus the unconscious mind can be seen as the source of dreams and automatic thoughts (those that appear without any apparent cause), the repository of forgotten memories (that may still be accessible to consciousness at some later time), and the locus of implicit knowledge (i.e. all of the things that we have learned so well that we do them without thinking). One familiar example of the operation of the unconscious is the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon wherein one fails to immediately remember a given word but then has a flash of insight providing a solution, later on in the day. In this case, it is not that the word is forgotten, but that it needs to be retrieved from the unconscious mind.
It has been argued that consciousness is influenced by other parts of the mind. These such parts include unconsciousness as a personal habit, being unaware, and intuition. Terms related to semi-consciousness include: awakening, implicit memory, subliminal messages, trances, hypnagogia, and hypnosis. Furthermore, although sleep, sleep walking, dreaming, delirium and comas may signal the presence of unconscious processes, these processes are not the unconscious mind itself, but rather symptoms.
The term unconscious mind was coined by the 18th century German romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling and later introduced into English by the poet and essayist Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Articulating the idea of something not conscious has been a process of human thought and interpersonal influence for millennia. For example, influences on thinking that originate from outside of an individual’s consciousness were reflected in the ancient ideas of temptation, divine inspiration, and the predominant role of the gods in affecting motives and actions. The idea of internalised unconscious processes in the mind was also instigated in antiquity and has been explored across a wide variety of cultures. Unconscious aspects of mentality were referred to between 2500 and 600 BC in the Hindu texts known as the Vedas, found today in Ayurvedic medicine.
Paracelsus is credited as the first to make mention of an unconscious aspect of cognition in his work Von den Krankheiten (translates as “About illnesses”, 1567), and his clinical methodology created a cogent system that is regarded by some as the beginning of modern scientific psychology. Shakespeare explored the role of the unconscious in many of his plays, without naming it as such. In addition, Western philosophers such as Spinoza, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, developed a western view of the mind which foreshadowed the famous theories of Freud. As psychologist Jacques Van Rillaer pointed out, “the unconscious was not discovered by Freud. In 1890, when psychoanalysis was still unheard of, William James, in his monumental treatise on psychology, examined the way Schopenhauer, von Hartmann, Janet, Binet and others had used the term ‘unconscious’ and ‘subconscious’”. Moreover, as historian of psychology Mark Altschule observed, “It is difficult – or perhaps impossible – to find a nineteenth-century psychologist or psychiatrist who did not recognize unconscious cerebration as not only real but of the highest importance”.
Unconscious processes and the unconscious mind
Some neuroscientific research supports the existence 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 thus hundreds of milliseconds slower than unconscious processes.
To understand this type of research, a distinction has to be made between unconscious processes and the unconscious mind (neuroscientists are far more likely to examine the former). The unconscious mind and its expected psychoanalytic contents also differ from unconsciousness, coma, and a minimally conscious state. The difference in the uses of the terms can be explained, to a degree, by our different hypotheses on its subject. One such conjecture is the psychoanalytic theory.
Freud and the psychoanalytic unconscious
Sigmund Freud and his followers developed an account of the unconscious mind. It plays an important role in psychoanalysis.
Freud divided the mind into the conscious mind (or the ego) and the unconscious mind. The latter was then further divided into the id (or instincts and drive) and the superego (or conscience). In this theory, the unconscious refers to the mental processes of which individuals 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. He interpreted such events as having both symbolic and actual significance.
In psychoanalytic terms, the unconscious does not include all that is not conscious, but rather what is actively repressed from conscious thought or what a person is averse to knowing consciously. Freud viewed the unconscious as 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. In a sense, this view places the conscious self as an adversary to its unconscious, warring to keep the unconscious hidden. 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 meditation, free association (a method largely introduced by Freud), dream analysis, and verbal slips (commonly known as a Freudian slip), examined and conducted during psychoanalysis. Seeing as these unconscious thoughts are normally cryptic, psychoanalysts are considered experts in interpreting their messages.
Freud later used his notion of the unconscious in order to explain certain kinds of neurotic behavior. Nevertheless, Freud’s theory of the unconscious was substantially transformed by some of his followers, among them Carl Jung and Jacques Lacan.
1. Match the terms with their definitions
the experience of the transitional state from wakefulness to sleep
Tip of the tongue phenomenon
Resulting from processes of which the individual is not aware; existing or operating below the threshold of consciousness
a sleep disorder characterized by walking or other activity while seemingly still asleep.
To search for, find,
a trancelike state that resembles sleep but is induced by a person whose suggestions are readily accepted by the subject
the subjective feeling that people have of being confident that they know the target word for which they are searching, yet they cannot recall this word
a mental state in which you are confused and not able to think or speak clearly usually because of fever or some other illness