The Freud Museum


The Unconscious

by Phil Mollon

Freud's discovery of the dynamic unconscious is arguably his most important contribution to our understanding of the human mind, studying in detail both its content and alien mode of thinking. Dreams, neurotic symptoms, slips of the tongue and enigmatic thoughts burst upon us unbidden and uncontrollable. Immensely creative yet powerfully destructive, the unconscious can be a source of guidance as well as subversion, evoking both awe and dread.

People sometimes express scepticism about the existence of an unconscious mind - as if reasoning along the lines of 'If we cannot perceive something with our consciousness then it does not exist". Certainly, 'the unconscious' can seem an elusive concept. By definition, if a part of the mind is unconscious then we are not conscious of it. Does that mean that a hypothesis, or 'interpretation', regarding an unconscious content of the mind is completely beyond scrutiny in the light of evidence - a pronouncement inspired by dogma and to be swallowed by the patient unquestioningly on the supposed 'authority' of the psychoanalyst? Fortunately, the epistemological position is not quite so bleak....

The question of the plausibility of the unconscious can be turned around. We might ask instead, 'How plausible is it that we are conscious of all our mental processes?' or 'What is the function of consciousness?' For most of its history, experimentally-based psychology has been as uncomfortable with the notion of consciousness as it has of unconsciousness, since both have seemed beyond the scope of laboratory investigation. Radical behaviourists of the early twentieth century regarded consciousness as merely an 'epiphenomenon', without scientific significance or interest. As more sophisticated psychology has developed, both consciousness and unconsciousness have become open to scientific investigation of their processes and functions.

The idea of consciousness is actually similar to that of attention. We are conscious of what we attend to - and not conscious of what we do not attend to. Some things we could become conscious of quite easily if we turned our attention to them - corresponding to what Freud called the 'preconscious'. Other things we might actively avoid attending to because we find them painful or disturbing - the repressed unconscious.

Perhaps a contemporary analogy might help. Consciousness could be compared to what is visible on a computer screen. Other information could be accessed readily by scrolling down the document, or by switching to a different 'window'. This would be analogous to the conscious and the preconscious parts of the mind. However, some files on the computer may be less easily explored. They may have been encrypted, 'zipped' or require a password, or in other ways rendered 'access denied'. Some may also have been corrupted, so that information is scrambled and thereby rendered incomprehensible. Whilst the internet potentially makes available (to people collectively) all kinds of information and images (analogous to Jung's 'collective unconscious'), a programme may have been installed which restricts access to internet sites, censoring some that contain material considered unacceptable. Moreover, most of the activity of the computer is not visible on the screen; this is analogous to Freud's idea of the bodily based instincts, or 'id', in themselves inaccessible to the mind, only to be discerned through their derivatives (desires and phantasies).

Yet another aspect of the unconscious is suggested by the peculiar frustration that this writer personally experienced in the early stages of getting to grips with a computer and in my initial attempts to access the internet. I felt at times utterly bewildered. What added to the agony of this perplexity was that I could not even begin to identify and formulate in words the questions for which I needed the answers; at times it seemed that nothing made sense. This is analogous to what might be termed the 'presymbolic unconscious' - those areas of experience of which we cannot be properly conscious because we have not been able to generate words or any other form of mental representation of them. These phenomena may at times be associated with anxiety, perplexity or 'presymbolic dread'. The concept of the presymbolic unconscious would also apply to earliest infancy before the development of language....

Phil Mollon is a psychoanalyst and a clinical psychologist working in the National Health Service and in private practice. He is the author of Freud and False Memory Syndrome, published by Icon books. This extract is from his book The Unconscious, part of the Ideas In Psychoanalysis series, also published by Icon Books.

Ideas In Psychoanalysis
edited by Ivan Ward Icon Books £3.99

Now available from the museum shop

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