What Is the Unconscious? (In modern psychology)
In Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of personality, the unconscious mind is defined as a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that are 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 many problems including:
Difficult social interactions
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. To keep these urges out of awareness, Freud suggested that people utilize many different defense mechanisms to prevent them from rising to awareness.
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.
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.