Unconscious Mind (Definition + Purpose)

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

Many psychologists have attempted to answer these questions, but Sigmund Freud is the most famous of them all. Let’s take a 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 processes of the brain happen automatically or without thought. We are not aware of what’s going on in the unconscious mind. According to Freud, there’s a lot of things going on, 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 is often too painful to  

The Id, according to Freud, lies completely within the unconscious mind. It contains primal instincts. The Superego rests in both parts of the mind. It attempts to use values and morals in order to control the Id’s instincts. The Ego, existing mostly within the conscious mind, applies the “real world’s” rules. When the Ego confronts a part of the Ego 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 in 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 that influences 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, “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 really do love your friend? 

If you’re Sigmund Freud, for whom the concept is named after, 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 does our trauma and childhood memories get into the unconscious mind? Freud believed that we repressed these experiences until they were hidden away in the unconscious mind. Think of your mind like a pile of old clothes. The clothes that you don’t want to see or wear continue to get pushed farther and farther down until you cannot see them. These unfavorable clothes are still part of the pile and contribute if you decided 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, does it?) 

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 that defense mechanisms maintain the state of the unconscious mind and also 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 in a more acceptable way) 
  • 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 our personality. Until we can 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 in which 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 stored repressed desires. In dreams, we fulfill those desires. By interpreting the dreams of his patients, 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 were based on his sessions with patients. That is, he never got in a laboratory and took data. Psychologists have “moved on” to work that can be backed up by data. A lot 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 as 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. A lot of this work looks at 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. For many years, Jung agreed with Freud and his theories about the unconscious. But in 1875, Jung started his own school of analytical psychology. (It’s here that 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 the fixations we have or the 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 may be able to 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 the way that we analyze film characters, create marketing campaigns for brands, and look at our results on personality tests. 

But Jung is not the only psychologist who looked at the way our unconscious shapes our behavior. 

Unconscious Phantasy 

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

Dual Processing Theory 

The psychodynamic approach has been highly influential, but it’s not the only approach that attempts to explain the presence or function of the unconscious mind. 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 out of cognitive psychology, a school of thought that evolved out of psychoanalysis and behaviorism. Cognitive psychology looks at how the mind uses attention, memory, and other processes to form perceptions and view the world around us. Elements of this school of thought have made their way into personality psychology, developmental psychology, and other topics. 

In 2011, cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote Thinking Fast and Slow. In the book, Kahneman defined and explained 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 in front of 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 you are 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. 

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 so 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. Even if his theories have made way for some other, more accepted ideas, his influence will remain crucial to the study of psychology.

Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.