Unconscious Mind (Definition + Purpose)

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Published by:
Practical Psychology
Andrew English
Reviewed by:
Andrew English, Ph.D.

Let's discuss the Unconscious Mind. What’s in there? Does it influence our behavior and actions? And why could it tell you things you don’t want to hear? 

Many psychologists have attempted to answer these questions, but Sigmund Freud is the most famous. Let’s dive into his definition of the unconscious, how it plays out in behavior, and what psychologists after Freud have to say. 

What Is In the Unconscious Mind? 

The unconscious mind is a concept in which brain processes happen automatically or without thought. We are not aware of what’s going on in the unconscious mind. According to Freud, many things are happening, including memories, emotions, and desires.

The unconscious mind includes:

  • Id: basic instincts (including the death instinct and sex instinct) 
  • Superego: desires
  • Experiences from childhood
  • Trauma
  • Aggression 
  • Other information 

Why is there so much in the unconscious mind? Freud believes that we want a lot of stuff down there. These experiences or information are often too painful to  

According to Freud, the Id resides entirely within the unconscious mind and is the source of our most basic and primal instincts. It drives our innate desires and impulses, often seeking immediate gratification without consideration for reality or social norms. The Superego rests in both parts of the mind. It attempts to use values and morals to control the Id’s instincts. The Ego, existing mostly within the conscious mind, applies the “real world’s” rules. When the Ego confronts the part of the Id or Superego that would not “work” in the real world, it attempts to suppress that part and hide it from society. 

Unconscious Mind

Freud’s Map of the Mind

Consciousness is the awareness of ourselves and what is going on around us. Our conscious mind recognizes the stimuli in front of us, the feeling of our arms in our t-shirt, and the smells of a candle. Of course, the conscious mind can’t take everything at once, but we can shift our focus and become conscious of new feelings, stimuli, and sensations. 

Freud believed that consciousness was only the tip of the iceberg of our mind. It’s what we see above the surface, but it is far from the only thing influencing our behaviors and personality. Under the surface, he theorized, was the unconscious mind. 

Role of the Unconscious Mind in Freudian Slips

Can you think of a time when you let out a “Freudian slip?” 

Maybe you were trying to tell a friend that you loved asparagus but instead said, “I love you.” That’s awkward. How do you explain to your friend that you didn’t mean to say that? Does that mean that you do love your friend? 

If you’re Sigmund Freud, after whom the concept is named, the answer could be yes. Freud is best known for his work uncovering the unconscious mind. He might argue that your unconscious mind, filled with desires and love for your friend, influenced that simple slip of the tongue. 

Is he right? Do you love your friend? 

That’s a question you may have to explore on your own time. 

Storing and Maintaining the Unconscious Mind

How do our trauma and childhood memories get into the unconscious mind? Freud believed we repressed these experiences until they were hidden in the unconscious. Think of your mind like a pile of old clothes. The clothes you don’t want to see or wear continue getting pushed farther and farther down until you cannot see them. These unfavorable clothes are still part of the pile and contribute if you decide to weigh the pile. 

So those painful memories sit in the unconscious with primal instincts and desires that cannot be fulfilled. (It doesn’t sound like the nicest place to be, right?) 

Defense Mechanisms and the Unconscious Mind

Repression is one of the defense mechanisms that Freud said we developed to keep traumatic events in the unconscious mind. His daughter, Anna Freud, continued the work on defense mechanisms. She believed defense mechanisms maintain the unconscious mind's state and distort reality. These defense mechanisms include:

  • Displacement (taking out your emotions on a subject entirely different from your traumatic experiences)
  • Denial
  • Suppression
  • Sublimation (choosing another behavior to act on our emotions more acceptably) 
  • Projection (ascribing our bad habits and behaviors to another person) 
  • Intellectualization (attempting to take emotion out of traumatic experiences) 
  • Rationalization
  • Regression
  • Reaction formation (performing a behavior that reflects an opposite feeling or reaction) 

Can You Access the Unconscious Mind?

So we use all of these mechanisms to push trauma into the unconscious. And yet, the unconscious still influences our behavior, decisions, and personality. Until we recognize these influences, we are stuck performing harmful behaviors in a never-ending pattern. This could be getting angry easily, experiencing anxiety, or making impulse decisions.

How do we dig our unconscious back up and deal with it? 

Freud’s answers may be what he’s most known for outside of the psychology world. He suggested two methods of bringing the unconscious to the surface: free association and dream interpretation. 

Free association is a process that “allows” the unconscious mind to appear. The patient is told to relax and speak whatever comes to mind when given a certain word or stimuli. These connections, Freud said, could tell a lot about what the unconscious was hiding.  

When we dream, we enter a stage where we almost lose consciousness entirely. But our mind is still moving fast. Freud believed that our dreams were a form of wish fulfillment. Remember, the unconscious mind doesn’t just store trauma; Freud said it also stores repressed desires. In dreams, we fulfill those desires. By interpreting his patients' dreams, he could tap into those desires and see what was hidden in the unconscious.

Freud’s Theories and Psychodynamic Approach 

Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams has remained a very famous book. Universities still assign it as required reading. But Freud’s legacy hasn’t exactly skyrocketed since his fame in the early 1900s. 

Most of the work that Freud has done on dreams and the unconscious mind was based on his sessions with patients. He never utilized a true scientific lab and collected objective data. Psychologists have “moved on” to work that can be backed up by data. Many of Freud’s theories have also been quite controversial, which hasn’t helped his case. 

Even if his theories are not widely accepted anymore, Freud remains one of the most influential psychologists in modern history. His work inspired a whole approach to psychology: the psychodynamic approach. This school of thought encompasses Freud’s work and the work done by those who came after him. Much of this work examines the unconscious and its role in our behavior. The psychologists who take this approach may not agree with everything that Freud had to say, but the general ideas of psychoanalysis are often present. 

When you read about the Psychodynamic Approach, you’ll probably see the following names:

  • Carl Jung
  • Erik Erikson
  • Melanie Klein 

Let’s talk about a few theories of the unconscious that exist within psychodynamic theory. 

Collective Unconscious 

Carl Jung started his work as a psychologist alongside Sigmund Freud. Jung agreed with Freud and his theories about the unconscious for many years. But in 1875, Jung started his school of analytical psychology. (Here, the work that inspired the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator took place!) 

Carl G Jung

Jung’s split from Freud reflects one of the greatest debates in social psychology: nature vs. nurture. Do we develop a personality and perform behaviors because it’s in our nature? Or do our environment and experiences shape the person that we become? 

Freud believed that we were mostly a product of nurture. Our childhood experiences shape our fixations or desires and memories stored in the unconscious. But Jung thought differently. 

Jung believed that the unconscious was made up of information that comes from nature. These experiences are passed down through generations, much like genes. This makes up the Collective Unconscious. While this theory has mainly been written off as pseudoscience, Jung may be onto something here. He theorized that the Collective Unconscious may contain imagery or experiences that create phobias. With this information, we can explain why an infant or a young child may have an unexplained phobia. 

Not everyone’s unconscious looks the same, but there are similarities. These similarities include archetypes and instincts. The archetypes are images of roles that we play in society (“the mother,” “the hero,” “the rebel,” etc.) that shape our thoughts and behaviors. We may hold several of these archetypes in our unconscious at one time. 

Jung’s archetypes do not have a set number, and these images and motifs often overlap. The idea of archetypes has strongly influenced how we analyze film characters, create marketing campaigns for brands, and look at our results on personality tests. 

However, Jung is not the only psychologist who looked at how our unconscious shapes our behavior. 

Unconscious Phantasy 

Melanie Klein is most well-known for her work with object relation theory, an extension of psychoanalysis. The theory looked at the ways children experienced different relationships with others and how those experiences shaped the formation of one’s personality. Within this theory is the idea of unconscious phantasy. The unconscious consists of instincts, the phantasy, and what is tested in the real world. Klein believed that our thoughts and perceptions are derived from testing the phantasy against the outer world. If the child receives proper care from their parents, the phantasy and upbringing will contribute to their overall development. 

Dual Processing Theory 

The psychodynamic approach has been highly influential, but it’s not the only one attempting to explain the unconscious mind's presence or function. Dual processing theory has been more accepted in the past few years, but this theory is still a work in progress. 

Dual processing theory comes from cognitive psychology, a school of thought that evolved from psychoanalysis and behaviorism. Cognitive psychology examines how the mind uses attention, memory, and other processes to form perceptions and view the world. Elements of this school of thought have entered personality psychology, developmental psychology, and other topics. 

In 2011, cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote Thinking Fast and Slow. In the book, Kahneman defines and explains the dual process theory in cognitive psychology. He theorized that when making decisions, the mind undergoes two processes. These processes are also known as System 1 and System 2. 

System 2 consists of conscious reasoning. Let’s say you were standing before a new car deciding whether or not to buy it. The thoughts you have in your head during this process are a part of System 2. You think about the cost of the car. The safety ratings. How often are you taking road trips vs. commuting to work? System 2 pulls from explicit memory to form logic-based rational decisions. 

But what about System 1, the “unconscious” system? 

This is where our “gut feelings” come from. This system involuntarily pulls feelings and intuitions. If you were to look at the car, daydream about yourself cruising down the highway in it, and immediately hand over your credit card, one might say System 1 took over. 

person protecting themselves with their brain

Books on the Unconscious Mind 

Again, Thinking Fast and Slow was published in 2011. There is still a lot more to say about the dual process system. Like all theories about the unconscious, it’s hard to study a subject that is abstract and hard to locate. 

Additional books on the unconscious mind, as recommended by Reddit, include:

  • Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious by C. G. Jung
  • Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reason We Do What We Do by John Bargh
  • Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

We would not have talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy without the work of Sigmund Freud and his theories on the unconscious mind. His influence will remain crucial to studying psychology even if his theories have made way for other more accepted ideas.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2020, April). Unconscious Mind (Definition + Purpose). Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/unconscious-mind/.

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