The Freud Museum


Freud's Proof of The Unconscious

Most people believe in the notion of a 'descriptive' unconscious. Most of our everyday actions and behaviour are not controlled consciously and are thus 'unconscious' in that sense. But Freud had a notion of a 'dynamic' unconscious continuously at work affecting our behaviour, which might reveal itself in slips of the tongue or psychological symptoms, or creativity, courage and determination (you see it's not all bad!). Freud justified his concept of the unconscious in very simple ways - how does an idea come into your mind? Where does it come from? What do we mean when we say we are in 'two minds'? Where do dreams come from and why do they seem so alien to consciousness? Why are we often not sure about what causes our behaviour?

Think about it this way:

(1) You hear a song playing on the radio, or someone whistling, and you cannot get it out of your head.

Your behaviour is affected by a stimulus you have recognised in the outside world.

(2) You find yourself whistling a song throughout the day and you struggle to remember where you heard it. Eventually you remember that a shop you went to were playing it over their PA system.

Your behaviour was affected by a stimulus from the outside world which you had forgotten.

(3) Some weeks later you are shopping again and the same song pops into your head. You have not heard the song at any time during the day, but you suddenly remember that you are in the same shop that you were in when you heard the song on the earlier occassion.

Your behaviour is affected by a stimulus from the present which is associated with a stimulus from the past that has been internalised in some form.

(4) A song pops into your head but you do not know where it has come from. All connections to the present and the past seem to have been lost. The stimulus is endogenous and operating like a force influencing your behaviour. But it is unconscious.

Freud also liked to use the example of post-hypnotic suggestion. The hypnotist says to his subject "When you awake you will do such and such..." His subject does not know why he is carrying out the suggestion made to him under hypnosis (e.g. 'eat onions' or 'pretend to be a dog' or 'open your umbrella and hold it over my head'). He makes up all kinds of spurious reasons to explain his conduct ('Onions are very good for the heart, you know', 'I just thought I would practice barking to scare intruders', 'As it was raining I thought you might like the umbrella'). One part of the mind is unconscious and dissociated from the conscious part; and the dissociation has allowed the influence of the hypnotist to enter the mind and operate unconsciously. His conscious mind defends the unconscious.

Finally, think about this. Why is it that when we laugh at a joke we don't really know why we are laughing? Freud pointed that out in his book 'Jokes and their relation to the unconscious'. It's an amazing observation when you think about it. Where is this laughter coming from? And why do we not know why we find things funny? A two year old child does not know why he laughs when we tell him that a blue pencil is really red - they do not realise that the anxiety about learning their colours and forming a fixed picture the world can cause laughter when the categories are threatened. It threatens our 'identities'.

Similarly, remember the end of 'Some Like it Hot'? The scene where Osgood the millionaire proposes to Tony Curtis dressed up as 'Daphne'? Why is it funny?

Discussion topics: 

What other ways can you think of to show the existence of unconscious processes in the mind?

Do you think that the conscious mind is 'rational'? If not, why not?

Why do we laugh at the scene from 'Some Like it Hot?'

Adapted from Introducing Psychoanalysis by Ivan Ward, illustrated by Oscar Zarante. Available from the museum shop


Freud's diagrams from 'The Ego and the Id' (1923), and 'The Dissection of the Psychical Personality' (1931)

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