What lies beneath? The uncomfortably vague 'unconscious processes'

June 18, 2020

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The least endearing parts of ourselves are often ascribed to 'unconscious processes'. But these processes are typically very poorly defined. With anything so poorly defined, when we turn to face it, we are stymied; we don't know what we're up against. So let's get a better idea.

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Unfiled: this is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.

The least endearing parts of ourselves are often ascribed to unconscious processes: to negative self-beliefs, to problematic repressed memories, to intrinsic biases, to maladaptive automatic thoughts. The list goes on. Across most psychological disciplines, to treat the various faces of psychological malaise, we are turned to interventions on the subconscious.

The difficulty is that the un- or sub-conscious is typically a poorly defined thing. With anything so poorly defined, when we turn to face it, we are stymied; we don't really know what we're up against.

So, what the hell is 'the unconscious'?

Let's start here: we call sleeping people 'unconscious'. The implication here is that to be awake is to be conscious. But is being awake to be entirely conscious? This is a view that René Descartes appears to have shared:

there can be nothing in the mind, in so far as it is a thinking thing, of which it is not aware... we cannot have any thought of which we are not aware at the very moment when it is in us...

Or at least, he sees reason to doubt any aspect of the mind other than is what's available to him consciously. The mind is what we can reflect upon, and nothing more.

And yet, Descartes also proposed that other, non-human animals were not conscious, despite the fact that they are clearly not always sleeping. For him, non-human animals lack this capacity to reflect on their thoughts and so could not be termed conscious. For him, there is a difference between awareness, and awareness of that awareness and non-human animals lack the latter. The implication being, therefore, that non-human animals don't have minds.

Unfortunately, human brains and the brains of other animals are made of the same stuff fundamentally. So too can humans think without being aware of what we are thinking. That said, Descartes' point about this distinction between these two things is one we can hold on to.

Thinking without thinking

We love to hate Freud, and his often sexualised models of the human psyche. But without his groundwork, our understanding of the brain really wouldn't be what it is today. Freud and the unconscious are rarely far seperated, and this is in part because he made the first major contribution to trying to define consciousness in the discipline of psychology. Or at least the one that stuck best:

The oldest and best meaning of the word ‘unconscious’ is the descriptive one: we call a psychical process unconscious whose existence we are obliged to assume—for some such reason as that we infer from its effects—but of which we know nothing

Or, put more simply, anything we aren't aware of, but know exists, can be considered 'descriptively unconscious'. For example, our beliefs are often unconscious. You know whether you believe ghosts exist or not, but aren't always thinking about it. You certainly can't forget your belief in the paranormal, and it influences all sorts of decisions. Similarly, memories are not something that are always conscious. But at times we recall them, willingly or otherwise.

Our next problem

Once Freud defined that for himself, he realised that things which slip in and out of consciousness are problematic. So, he went on to develop the idea into the 'systematic unconscious'; a way of thinking about our unconscious processes in three segments:

  • the conscious - those things we are currently aware of
  • the preconscious - those things we aren't currently aware of, but can make conscious (like our belief in ghosts or our memories for example)
  • the unconscious - things that never become conscious (things like our urges and drives or, as described in a very similar model, our visual processing for example)

His ideas about consciousness hinge upon language. Freud imagined that if we were to never learn the necessary language to describe a process, it could never become preconscious and thus reach consciousness. For him, thoughts only become conscious when they:

becom[e] connected with the word-presentations corresponding to it

This particular structure is one that still holds much sway today, in that most models of the unconscious mind build off it. Freud's famous 'id', 'ego', and 'superego' are superimposed on these levels, for example. We can access both the ego (our conscious mind) and parts of our superego (our conscience, in the moral sense). The id, however, lives in the dark and inaccesible underbelly of the mind holding counsel with our instincts and our drives.

Jung, proposes something not substantially different in Jung's 'personal unsconscious', but adds the 'collective unconscious'--a collection of species-wide archetypal patterns of unconscious thinking that are not accessible personally, but are apparent in our stories and the symbols in our art.

More recently, we've tried to move away from the psychoanalytic tradition, but still these tropes persist. For example we now speak of 'automatic thoughts', 'cognitive distortions', and 'schemata'. All of which describe processes that live below the surface of awareness. All of which are accessible only when we are made aware of them and can build a narrative around them, often with the help of someone else.

Still more problems

But there are issues with even this conception of unconsciousness.

Firstly, if we need language to make the unconscious conscious, then what came first? Language, or consciousness? We need to have been conscious to develop a language to express our consciousness. But on this view, without a language to express our consciousness, there can be no consciousness.

Secondly, if unconscious (as opposed to preconscious) thought is literally inaccessible to conscious thought then how can we have any conception of its existence at all?

Thirdly, those inaccessible 'unconscious thoughts' described in detail in Freud's work are at the core of many researchers forays into the study of dreams. If we can access them by recalling our dreams, are they unconscious, or preconscious? Or neither?

Finally, the lines between these three states are rather blurry. For example, irrational thought would most likely be typified as unconscious--rationality is one of the most intuitive aspects of conscious thinking. Yet, we can be irrational in our conscious thinking too. Return, for example, to our paranormal beliefs. How many of us have sprinted back to the light following some inadvisable reflection as we walked through the dark? Taking out the trash, or turning the lights off before bed, routine actions and yet our heart beats a little faster knowing all along we are being quite ridiculous.

The 'new' unconscious

These issues led us to our newest term, the 'nonconscious'. Nonconsciousness is typically used to describe the kind of background processing that we can infer, but never 'experience' as far as consciousness goes. This is where something like our visual processing comes in. We can infer that something in the brain makes various lightwaves into a picture, but we aren't aware of the busy machinations of that happy process. The nonconscious we can be aware of, but never access, as in Freud's definition. The truly unconscious are those things for which, perhaps, we can do neither.

One last one

Finally, worth mentioning, are those things we confine to the unconscious. When certain ideas or memories are at odds with how we'd like to see the world, we actively prevent them from becoming conscious. This conflict is often referred to as cognitive dissonance, and is something so unpleasant to us that we'll do all sorts of weird stuff to purge. These ideas and memories some like to characterise as the 'dynamic unconscious', and it helpfully covers the many psychic defence mechanisms. For example we might repress a painful memory. We might deny the truth of something in the face of all evidence. We might engage in sublimation: the channelling of something (like rage) into something more acceptable (like sports). Or, my favourite, we might have a reaction formation: we compensate for an unacceptable feeling by exaggerating its opposite in our behaviour. Hamlet's lady "doth protest too much", for example, and so many anti-gay politicians have been caught up in homosexual sex scandals that there's a website for it.

So what lies beneath?

The picture is a complicated one. The core of consciousness centres on Descartes' original proposition. We have awareness, and distinct from that, we have some awareness of that awareness. Parts of our mind can be busily processing information, and we might never know about it. Other parts we might be aware of only sometimes. Still other parts may be fully available to us always. Yet, the question of how much access we have is still not very well defined. Certainly, one key to it is language. Like the dragons of storybooks, when we can call some machination of our mind by its name, we have some power over it.

But, like dragons, that may not always be enough.

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