What’s the difference between ‘unconscious’ and ‘subconscious’?

Freud was extremely sensitive to ambiguity, both as a clinician and a theorist. He rejected the word ‘subconscious’ because he thought it could lead to misunderstandings:

  • First of all, ‘subconscious’ could be understood literally as ‘beneath consciousness’: a layer that just sits fairly dormant at the bottom of the mind, doing its own thing, with consciousness happening up above. As such, it overlooks one of the essential characteristics of the unconscious: that it is active, constantly interfering with consciousness and being kept back by defensive efforts.
  • A second literal reading of the word ‘subconscious’ would give us a second consciousness underneath the main one, like a little person inside our heads. This reading preserves the idea of conflict, but it leaves us with a kind of ‘split personality’: two consciousnesses jostling for control of the same person, a notion that Freud firmly rejected.

Freud preferred the term ‘unconscious’ because it ruled out both of these potential misunderstandings.

What is the unconscious made of?

The unconscious is a very slippery thing and nobody really knows what it’s made of, but Freud observed that it had a lot to do with speech and language.

Very early on, he observed that in the relationship between a baby and its caregiver, the caregiver not only attends to the baby’s bodily needs, but also names the baby’s cries, assigning meanings to its various bodily experiences, disturbances, satisfactions and drives. In this process, sensations in the body get tangled up with traces of speech, which leave an imprint on the psyche.

Later on in his work, Freud returned to this theme, describing the unconscious as a system made of ‘representatives’ of powerful bodily drives pushing for satisfaction, because of which he gave them the status of ‘wishful impulses’.

Is the unconscious irrational?

The unconscious is commonly thought to be an irrational side of us, but Freud described a complex and highly organised system that works according to laws.

It seems irrational because these laws are very different to the ones we’re used to and associate with rational conscious thought. Freud showed that even when we do things that seem totally irrational to our conscious minds, there is a process of reasoning going on.

Is the unconscious like an iceberg?

Freud’s account of the mind is sometimes compared to an iceberg, but this is quite misleading.

Ice is solid and inert, but the Freudian unconscious is always on the move. It is constantly trying to burst out, constantly being kept at bay by a kind of censorship, and constantly finding expression in distorted forms.

It’s true that Freud thought most mental processes take place ‘beneath the surface’, but the iceberg model overlooks the dynamic nature of the Freudian unconscious.

What is the collective unconscious?

The ‘collective unconscious’ is a term coined by Freud’s one-time student Carl Jung, who was an important member of the psychoanalytic movement before going on to develop the separate field of analytical psychology.

According to Jung, there are two layers to the unconscious: the personal and the collective. Jung saw the collective unconscious as beyond the experience of the individual, and linked it to what he believed to be collective motifs that he called ‘archetypes’. Jung claimed that archetypes are particularly evident in myths and religions, but he also thought that they could manifest themselves in a subjective way in the life of any given individual.

Significantly, Jung chose the word ‘collective unconscious’ rather than ‘universal unconscious’: for him, it was essentially a racial category. Freud firmly rejected the term.

Do animals have an unconscious?

Freud speculated that a superego (a part of the mind that obliges the ego to carry out repression) could theoretically develop in any animal that undergoes a long period of dependency in its infancy. However, he also observed that shame – one of the most obvious signs of repression – seemed to be absent in animals.

It’s difficult to say whether or not animals have an unconscious in the Freudian sense, since strictly speaking the Freudian unconscious can only be accessed through dialogue. Animals communicate, but they do not have language in the sense that humans do:

  • Language does not seem to be imposed on animals from the outside
  • Animal communication does not seem to allow for slippages of meaning

For some psychoanalysts, these two characteristics of language, otherness and indeterminacy, are preconditions for any talk of the unconscious.

Is there any scientific evidence for the unconscious?

Decades of research conducted beyond the couch have lent overwhelming support to the notion that most mental processes take place outside of conscious awareness.

Opinion is divided as to whether there is any scientific evidence for the Freudian unconscious, or indeed what would constitute evidence for something that, by definition, cannot be observed.

Some scientists working in the field of psychological research have produced findings that seem to corroborate aspects of Freud’s theory, but many psychoanalysts reject the idea that the unconscious is an entity that can be observed in test conditions. Like the ‘dark matter’ of theoretical physics, it is a necessary inference rather than an observable phenomenon.

Where in the brain is the unconscious?

It would be absurd to deny that unconscious processes are somehow linked to the brain, but it would be equally strange to try to localise it in some particular region of the brain.

Perhaps a more interesting (and analytic) question would be: ‘where in the unconscious is the brain?’: what is it about this powerful organ that arouses our curiosity and fascination? What does it represent in our fantasies?

How can I find out what's in my unconscious?

The unconscious can’t be revealed through introspection, or through a dictionary of symbols.

It can only be accessed through dialogue. In a psychoanalytic session, careful attention is paid to the types of relationship the patient unconsciously attempts to build with the analyst, which may be glimpsed by listening carefully to the words that pass from the patient to the analyst.

Psychoanalysis is sometimes said to work by making the unconscious conscious. In a sense, we can ‘get to know’ the unconscious by undergoing psychoanalysis, but only up to a point. It will subvert the very knowledge we construct to make sense of it, and we can never be rid of it. Something about it will always remain irreducibly disturbing, and approaching it will always be anxiety-provoking.

Is the unconscious good or bad?

The unconscious can’t be said to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – it doesn’t have any kind of built-in moral compass.

Moral judgements are only passed on unconscious ideas insofar as they cross into the preconscious or conscious systems. Unconscious ideas can influence people to act in ways that might be regarded as immoral (such as shoplifting in order to get caught and punished), but they can also be seen at work behind acts that are regarded as morally virtuous (such as devoting one’s life to helping the poor in order to compensate for one’s father’s failure to achieve his ambitions of wealth).

Is the unconscious smart or dumb?

The unconscious is smart! When the unconscious makes itself felt, it can be experienced as a disruption of a world where things seem to make sense. When we wake up from a bad dream, it is reassuring to think that it was just a silly piece of ‘nonsense’. But on closer examination, it often turns out that the dream has woven together all sorts of aspects of our lives in an incredibly complex and creative way.

From a Freudian perspective, the unconscious is constantly outwitting us: ‘all dreamers,’ he wrote, ‘are unsufferably witty. And they need to be because they are under pressure and the direct route is barred to them.’

Is the unconscious structured as a language?

In his early work, Freud observed how his patients’ symptoms would sometimes ‘join in the conversation’, implying that a symptom is tantamount to a verbal message.

He described the work of analysis as a collaborative task in which the patient, with the aid of the doctor, tries to decipher the lost language that is being spoken in his or her symptoms.

The unconscious can be said to be structured like a language up to a point: the ‘ideational representatives’ described by Freud are roughly the equivalent of ‘signifiers’ in linguistics, and the mechanisms of condensation and displacement that Freud identified at work in it can be compared to the linguistic processes of metaphor and metonymy.

However, Freud observed that the unconscious also has another dimension, linked to the drives, that resists symbolisation, cannot be represented in language, and has an intrusive, traumatic quality to it. Freud called this dimension ‘the id‘.

Does the unconscious have free will?

No. It would be a contradiction to speak of free will that isn’t supported by a conscious, decision-making process.

The unconscious cannot be said to have free will because it is not conscious. Strictly speaking it doesn’t have any kind of will at all, free or otherwise.

It’s a difficult idea to get your head around, but it’s vital to understand that for Freud the unconscious is a bit like a set of thoughts without a thinker. There isn’t a little person in there!

One of Freud’s followers described it as ‘headless knowledge’.

Does the unconscious change during your lifetime?

It’s unlikely that the unconscious would change of its own accord without some intervention from the outside world, but not impossible. If it wasn’t possible to change the unconscious, there would be no point undergoing psychoanalysis!

Psychoanalytic work can bring about a change in the unconscious, often bringing a great deal of relief in the process, but the couch is not the only setting where the something can have an impact on the unconscious.

The unconscious is receptive to everything that happens around us, so it follows that all kinds of things could bring about a change in how it regulates desire, enjoyment and anxiety.

What is the effect of culture on the unconscious?

The unconscious and culture are closely intertwined. After all, the conventions and traditions of a culture are often transmitted to us by our parents.

The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan discussed a patient who complained of all sorts of symptoms related to one of his hands. During the analysis, it emerged that his father had lost his job over an accusation of stealing. The patient had grown up in a region of North Africa where the prevailing religious tradition was Islam. He related to his analyst that, according to the Koran, a thief must have his hand cut off as punishment. A cultural value had provided a means of expression for an unconscious preoccupation with his father’s status.

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