The Unconscious

29.04.2020 |

Episode #2 of the course The theories of Sigmund Freud by Psychology Insights Online


“The unconscious is inadmissible to consciousness.” ―Sigmund Freud

Welcome back! Today, I am going to discuss one of Freud’s most significant intellectual contributions, the ability of the unconscious mind to influence our emotions and behavior.

During a campaign speech in the 1988 US Presidential election, George H.W. Bush described his tenure as Vice President of the United States by stating, “We’ve had triumphs. Made some mistakes. We’ve had some sex … uh … setbacks.” Clearly, this isn’t what Vice President Bush meant to say, yet it just seemed to slip out. Has something similar ever happened to you? This is considered a classic example of a Freudian Slip. Why does this occur? Freud would argue that these slips of the tongue are the manifestation of wishes or desires that are deeply rooted in the unconscious mind.

In contrast to many theorists of his day, who focused more on mental processes that could be objectively measured, Freud contended that forces were at work below our conscious awareness that drive our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Although Freud was not the first person to describe the unconscious, his thinking and writings on the subject were the most extensive.

Early in his career, Freud was influenced by Jean-Martin Charcot’s use of hypnosis to treat patients with symptoms of hysteria. While under hypnosis, Freud noticed that these patients harbored painful memories that could be brought to the surface. Experiencing and discussing the emotions linked to repressed memories would then subsequently help alleviate symptoms. He believed that these memories reside in a dynamic unconscious and remain largely inaccessible to the person unless elicited and interpreted by a psychoanalyst.

Ultimately, Freud argued that the mind had three levels: the conscious, the preconscious, and the unconscious.

The conscious is what you are currently thinking with. It is the smallest structure of the mind and is mostly responsible for interpreting information that is accessible in the here and now.

In contrast, the preconscious holds memories and thoughts that are below the surface but can be quickly accessed. For example, your home address is not top of mind but can be brought into conscious awareness quickly when prompted.

Lastly and most critically, the unconscious mind contains the isolated memories that have been driven out of consciousness.

According to Freud, painful memories are stored in the unconscious through a defense mechanism called repression. Traumatic memories, many of which originate in childhood and involve sexual or aggressive undertones, are repressed into the unconscious. I will cover Freud’s beliefs about defense mechanisms later in a separate lecture.

Why would we bury uncomfortable or inappropriate memories? Freud believed that by repressing traumatic memories and socially unacceptable desires, people can better function in their daily lives. Paradoxically, he also believed that repressed memories are connected to memories held in consciousness. Simply thinking of a conscious memory (e.g., your neighbors’ dog) can unearth a memory previously repressed in the unconscious (e.g., being chased by a dog as a child). Furthermore, repressing memories is stressful and can subsequently lead to the formation of real symptoms such as anxiety and neuroses. In Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory, the unconscious, not the conscious, is ultimately our psychic reality.

Today’s task: After reading this, what are your impressions? Do you think Freud was correct in saying that we have an unconscious reservoir of thoughts and feelings that influences our lives? Take a few minutes to ponder this in more detail. If you reflect on your own life, do you believe that you have experienced emotions that were buried in the unconscious? Have they ever made their presence known in a memory, dream, or Freudian slip?

In tomorrow’s lesson, I will delve deeper into Freud’s views of the unconscious mind and describe how these ideas led to the development of psychoanalysis.

See you tomorrow!


Recommended book

Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow


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