Understanding The Unconscious Mind

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What Exactly Is the Unconscious?
The unconscious mind is defined in Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of personality as a reservoir of sensations, thoughts, desires, and memories that exist outside of conscious awareness.

Most unconscious contents, such as pain, fear, or conflict, are judged inappropriate or unpleasant by this understanding. Sigmund Freud thought that the unconscious continues to influence behavior even when people are ignorant of it.

How Does It Work?
When attempting to understand the unconscious mind, it can be helpful to compare the reason to an iceberg. Everything above the water signifies conscious consciousness, while everything below the water represents unconscious awareness.

Consider how an iceberg might seem if you could view it from all sides. Only a tiny portion of the iceberg may be seen above the sea. What you can’t see from the surface is the massive volume of ice that makes up the bulk of the iceberg, which is submerged deep beneath the surface of the ocean.

Things that reflect our conscious consciousness are only the “tip of the iceberg.” The rest of the information that is not conscious exists beneath the surface. While this knowledge may not be consciously accessible, it nonetheless has an impact on current behavior.

The Impact of the Unconscious on the Preconscious, Conscious, and Unconscious Thoughts, Beliefs, and Feelings Unconscious thoughts, beliefs, and feelings have the potential to produce a variety of difficulties, including:

Obsessive behaviors
Difficulties with social interactions
Relationship issues in distress
Many of our sensations, impulses, and emotions, according to Freud, are suppressed or held out of awareness because they are simply too scary. Freud felt that these concealed desires and wishes might occasionally be revealed through dreams and slips of the tongue (aka “Freudian slips”).

Freud also felt that the unconscious mind comprised all of our basic instincts and desires. Life and death instincts, for example, have been discovered in the unconscious. The life instincts, often known as sexual instincts, are those associated with survival. Thoughts of violence, trauma, and danger are examples of death instincts.

Such desires are suppressed because our conscious minds typically regard them as inappropriate or unreasonable. To avoid these drives from becoming conscious, Freud proposed that people employ various defense mechanisms.

Bringing the contents of the unconscious into awareness, according to Freud, was vital for healing psychological pain. Recently, academics have experimented with several ways to better understand how unconscious effects can influence behavior. Researchers can bring information from the unconscious into conscious awareness or study it in a variety of methods.

Association Without Restriction
Freud felt that using a technique known as free association might bring unconscious feelings into awareness. He instructed patients to relax and say anything that came to mind, regardless of how minor, irrelevant, or embarrassing it might be.

By tracing these streams of thought, Freud felt that he could discover the contents of the unconscious mind, which contained repressed desires and traumatic childhood memories.

Interpretation of Dreams
Freud also proposed that dreams were another way to access the unconscious. While he felt that information from the unconscious mind might sometimes appear in dreams, he also believed that it was frequently veiled.

As a result, according to Freud, dream interpretation would entail evaluating the literal content of a dream (known as the manifest content) to discover the hidden, unconscious meaning of the dream (the latent content).

Dreams, according to Freud, were also a type of wish fulfillment. He argued that they found expression in dreams because these unconscious desires could not be voiced in waking life.

Why Do We Wish for Constant Flash Suppression?
Modern cognitive psychology research has revealed that even unconscious impressions can have a powerful influence on behavior. Researchers can display an image without consciously seeing it because they are distracted by another visual display by using a technique known as continuous flash suppression. 1

According to research, when specific visual displays are coupled with a bad or less desired “invisible” image, people perceive them adversely (such as a picture of an angry face). Even if people are unaware that they see unpleasant pictures, exposure to them impacts their behavior and decisions.

Potential Drawbacks
The very existence of the unconscious has been a source of contention. Many researchers have challenged the idea, claiming that there is no such thing as an unconscious mind.

Researchers in cognitive psychology have recently focused on automatic and implicit processes to describe aspects traditionally attributed to the unconscious. Many cognitive functions, according to this viewpoint, occur outside of our conscious awareness. This study does not corroborate Freud’s concept of the unconscious mind, but it does provide evidence that things we are not aware of consciously can nevertheless influence our behavior.

One of Freud’s most significant flaws was his lack of scientific technique in the formulation of his theories.


Many of his concepts were based on case studies or observations of a single person. Unlike early psychoanalytic approaches to the unconscious, present cognitive psychology research is driven by scientific investigations and empirical data demonstrating the reality of these automatic cognitive processes.

The Unconscious’s History
For thousands of years, people have believed that there are forces outside of their conscious knowledge. The term “unconscious” was coined in the late 18th century by philosopher Friedrich Schelling and was later translated into English by poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

The concept of unconscious influences was mentioned by theorists such as William James and Wilhelm Wundt in psychology, but it was Freud who popularized it and made it a significant component of his psychoanalytic approach to psychology.

Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, also felt that the unconscious had a significant part in developing personality. However, he did believe in a personal unconscious comprised of a person’s buried or forgotten memories and urges, as well as what he referred to as the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious was supposed to hold inherited ancestral memories shared by all humans.

While many of Freud’s concepts have since fallen out of favor, current psychologists continue to investigate the effects of unconscious mental processes such as unconscious bias, implicit memory, implicit attitudes, priming, and nonconscious learning.

Verywell’s Opinion
While Sigmund Freud did not develop the concept of the unconscious mind, he popularized it to the point where it is now inextricably linked to his psychoanalytic theories. The idea of the unconscious remains important in current psychology as academics seek to understand how the mind acts outside of conscious consciousness.

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