Freud’s Theory of the Unconscious Mind

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

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Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

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Sigmund Freud didn’t exactly invent the idea of the conscious versus unconscious mind, but he certainly was responsible for making it popular, and this was one of his main contributions to psychology.

Freud (1900, 1905) developed a topographical model of the mind, describing the features of the mind’s structure and function. Freud used the analogy of an iceberg to describe the three levels of the mind: conscious, preconscious, and unconscious.

This model divides the mind into three primary regions based on depth and accessibility of information:

Freud’s conception of consciousness can be compared to an iceberg because, much like an iceberg, the majority of an individual’s mind exists below the surface, hidden from immediate view.

Iceberg Theory

Freud’s iceberg theory metaphorically represents the mind’s three levels: the conscious (visible tip of the iceberg), the preconscious (just below the surface), and the unconscious (vast submerged portion).

While we’re aware of the conscious, the preconscious contains easily accessible memories, and the unconscious houses deep-seated desires and memories, influencing behavior despite being largely inaccessible.

Freud (1915) described the conscious mind, which consists of all the mental processes of which we are aware, and this is seen as the tip of the iceberg. For example, you may be feeling thirsty at this moment and decide to get a drink.

Freud Iceberg

The preconscious contains thoughts and feelings that a person is not currently aware of, but which can easily be brought to consciousness (1924). It exists just below the level of consciousness, before the unconscious mind.

The preconscious is like a mental waiting room, in which thoughts remain until they “succeed in attracting the eye of the conscious” (Freud, 1924, p. 306).

This is what we mean in our everyday usage of the word available memory. For example, you are presently not thinking about your mobile telephone number, but now it is mentioned you can recall it with ease.

Mild emotional experiences may be in the preconscious, but sometimes traumatic and powerful negative emotions are repressed, hence not available in the preconscious.

In common language, “subconscious” is often used more generally to describe thoughts or feelings operating below the level of conscious awareness, without the nuanced distinctions of Freudian theory. However, within the context of Freud’s model, “preconscious” (German translation: Unterbewusstsein) has a more specific and distinct meaning.

According to Freud (1915), the unconscious mind is the primary source of human behavior. Like an iceberg, the most important part of the mind is the part you cannot see.

While we are fully aware of what is happening in the conscious mind, we have no idea what information is stored in the unconscious mind.

The unconscious mind acts as a repository, a ‘cauldron’ of primitive wishes and impulses kept at bay and mediated by the preconscious area.

Our feelings, motives, and decisions are powerfully influenced by our past experiences, and stored in the unconscious.

Unconscious Mind

In psychoanalysis, the unconscious mind refers to that part of the psyche that contains repressed ideas and images, as well as primitive desires and impulses that have never been allowed to enter the conscious mind.

Freud viewed the unconscious mind as a vital part of the individual. It is irrational, emotional, and has no concept of reality, so its attempts to leak out must be inhibited.

Content contained in the unconscious mind is generally deemed too anxiety-provoking to be allowed in consciousness. It is maintained at an unconscious level where, according to Freud, it still influences our behavior.

The unconscious mind comprises mental processes inaccessible to consciousness but that influence judgments, feelings, or behavior (Wilson, 2002).

Sigmund Freud emphasized the importance of the unconscious mind, and a primary assumption of Freudian theory is that the unconscious mind governs behavior to a greater degree than people suspect. Indeed, the goal of  psychoanalysis is to make the unconscious conscious.

The unconscious contains all sorts of significant and disturbing material which we need to keep out of awareness because they are too threatening to acknowledge fully.

Much of our behavior, according to Freud, is a product of factors outside our conscious awareness. People use a range of defense mechanisms (such as repression or denial) to avoid knowing their unconscious motives and feelings.

For example, Freud (1915) found that some events and desires were often too frightening or painful for his patients to acknowledge and believed such information was locked away in the unconscious mind. This can happen through the process of repression.

Freud recognized that some physical symptoms may have psychological causes. Hysteria (sometimes known as conversion hysteria) is a physical symptom with no physical cause. However, the ailment is just as real as if it had but is caused by some underlying unconscious problem.

Psychosomatic disorders are a milder version of this. The unconscious is seen as a vital part of the individual; it is irrational, emotional, and has no concept of reality, so its attempts to leak out must be inhibited.

The unconscious mind contains our biologically based instincts (eros and Thanatos) for the primitive urges for sex and aggression (Freud, 1915). Freud argued that our primitive urges often do not reach consciousness because they are unacceptable to our rational, conscious selves.

Freud believed that the influences of the unconscious reveal themselves in various ways, including dreams , and slips of the tongue, now popularly known as Freudian slips.

Freud (1920) gave an example of such a slip when a British Member of Parliament referred to a colleague with whom he was irritated as “the honorable member from Hell” instead of from Hull.

Critical Evaluation

Initially, psychology was skeptical regarding the idea of mental processes operating at an unconscious level. To other psychologists determined to be scientific in their approach (e.g. behaviorists ), the concept of the unconscious mind has proved a source of considerable frustration because it defies objective description, and is extremely difficult to test or measure objectively.

However, the gap between psychology and psychoanalysis has narrowed, and the notion of the unconscious is now an important focus of psychology.

For example, cognitive psychology has identified unconscious processes, such as procedural memory (Tulving, 1972), automatic processing (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; Stroop, 1935), and social psychology has shown the importance of implicit processing (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995). Such empirical findings have demonstrated the role of unconscious processes in human behavior.

However, empirical research in psychology has revealed the limits of the Freudian theory of the unconscious mind, and the modern notion of an “adaptive unconscious” (Wilson, 2004) is not the same as the psychoanalytic one.

Indeed, Freud (1915) underestimated the importance of the unconscious, and in terms of the iceberg analogy, there is a much larger portion of the mind under the water. The mind operates most efficiently by relegating a significant degree of high-level, sophisticated processing to the unconscious.

Whereas Freud (1915) viewed the unconscious as a single entity, psychology now understands the mind to comprise a collection of modules that have evolved over time and operate outside of consciousness.

For example, universal grammar (Chomsky, 1972) is an unconscious language processor that lets us decide whether a sentence is correctly formed. Separate to this module is our ability to recognize faces quickly and efficiently, thus illustrating how unconscious modules operate independently.

Finally, while Freud believed that primitive urges remained unconscious to protect individuals from experiencing anxiety, the modern view of the adaptive unconscious is that most information processing resides outside of consciousness for reasons of efficiency, rather than repression (Wilson, 2004).

Bargh, J. A., & Chartrand, T. L. (1999). The unbearable automaticity of being . American psychologist, 54(7) , 462.

Chomsky, N. (1972). Language and mind . New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Freud, S. (1915). The unconscious . SE, 14: 159-204.

Freud, S. (1924). A general introduction to psychoanalysis , trans. Joan Riviere.

Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (1995). Implicit social cognition: attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes. Psychological review , 102(1), 4.

Stroop, J. R. (1935). Studies of interference in serial verbal reactions. Journal of experimental psychology , 18(6), 643.

Tulving, E. (1972). Episodic and semantic memory. In E. Tulving & W. Donaldson (Eds.), Organization of Memory , (pp. 381–403). New York: Academic Press.

Wilson, T. D. (2004). Strangers to ourselves . Harvard University Press.

freud iceberg theory

How unconscious forces control our actions

Spencer Whalen/Getty Images Some research suggests our decisions might be controlled by our subconscious, although more recent studies are questioning the thinking (Credit: Spencer Whalen/Getty Images)

Subliminal messaging and nudge psychology lead us to believe that we can be influenced without us realising, but just how powerful is our unconscious mind?

Sometimes when I ask myself why I've made a certain choice, I realise I don't actually know. To what extent we are ruled by things we aren't conscious of? – Paul, 43, London

Why did you buy your car? Why did you fall in love with your partner? When we start to examine the basis of our life choices, whether they are important or fairly simple ones, we might come to the realisation that we don't have much of a clue. We might even wonder whether we really know our own mind, and what goes on in it outside of our conscious awareness.

Luckily, psychological science gives us important and perhaps surprising insights. One of the most important findings comes from psychologist  Benjamin Libet  in the 1980s. He devised an experiment which was deceptively simple, but has created an enormous amount of debate ever since.

Participants were asked to sit in a relaxed manner in front of an adapted clock. On the clock face was a small light revolving around it. All those taking part had to do was to flex their finger whenever they felt the urge, and remember the position of the light on the clock face when they experienced the initial urge to move their finger. At the same time as that was all happening, the participants had their brain activity recorded via an electroencephalogram (EEG), which detects levels of electrical activity in the brain.

What Libet was able to show was that timings really matter, and they provide an important clue as to whether or not the unconscious plays a significant role in what we do. He showed that that the electrical activity in the brain built up well before people consciously intended to flex their finger, and then went on to do it.

In other words, unconscious mechanisms, through the preparation of neural activity, set us up for any action we decide to take. But this all happens before we consciously experience intending to do something. Our unconscious appears to rule all actions we ever take.

Alamy Some decisions we give far more thought to than others (Credit: Alamy)

But, as science progresses, we are able to revise and improve on what we know. We now know that there are  several fundamental problems  with the  experimental set-up  that suggest the claims that our unconscious fundamentally rules our behaviour are  significantly exaggerated . For example,  when correcting for biases  in subjective estimates of conscious intention, the gap between conscious intentions and brain activity reduces. However, the original findings are still compelling even if they can't be used to claim our unconscious completely rules our behaviour.

Another way of approaching the idea of whether we are ultimately ruled by our unconscious is to look at instances where we might expect unconscious manipulation to occur. In fact,  in my research  I asked people what those were.

The most common example was marketing and advertising. This may not be a surprise given that we often come across terms such as "subliminal advertising", which implies that we are guided towards making consumer choices in ways that we don't have any control over consciously.

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James Vicary, who was a marketer and psychologist in the 1950s, brought the concept to fame. He convinced a cinema owner to use his device to flash messages during a film screening. Messages such as "Drink Coca-Cola" flashed up for a 3,000th of a second. He claimed that sales of the drink shot up after the film ended. After the significant furore around the ethics of this finding, Vicary came clean and admitted  the whole thing was a hoax  – he had made up the data.

In fact, it is  notoriously difficult to show  in laboratory experiments that the flashing of words below the conscious threshold can prime us to even press buttons on a keyboard that are associated with those stimuli, let alone manipulate us into actually changing our choices in the  real world .

The more interesting aspect around this controversy is that people still believe, as has been  shown in recent studies , that methods such as subliminal advertising are in use, when in fact there is  legislation protecting us from it .

But do we make decisions without consciously thinking? To find out, researchers have investigated three areas: the extent to which our choices are based on unconscious processes, whether those unconscious processes are fundamentally biased (for example, sexist or racist), and what, if anything, can be done to improve our biased, unconscious decision-making.

To the first point,  a pivotal study  examined whether the best choices made in consumer settings were based on active thinking or not. The startling findings were that people made better choices when not thinking at all, especially in complex consumer settings.

The researchers argued that this is because our unconscious processes are less constrained than conscious processes, which make huge demands on our cognitive system. Unconscious processes, such as intuition, function in ways that automatically and rapidly synthesise a range of complex information, and this gives an advantage over thinking deliberately.

As with the Libet study, this research motivated intense interest. Unfortunately, efforts to  replicate such impressive findings  were extremely difficult, not only in the original consumer contexts, but beyond into areas where unconscious processes are thought to be rife such as in  unconscious lie detection ,  medical decision-making , and  romantically motivated risky decision-making .

That said, there are of course things that can influence our decisions and steer our thinking that we don't always pay close attention to, such as emotions, moods, tiredness, hunger, stress and prior beliefs. But that doesn't mean we are ruled by our unconscious – it is possible to be conscious of these factors. We can sometimes even counteract them by putting the right systems in place, or accept that they contribute to our behaviour.

Alamy Changing road layouts and road markings are one way that nudge theorists have tried to manipulate people's behaviour (Credit: Alamy)

But what about bias in decision-making? A  highly instructive study  showed that, through the use of a now widely adopted technique called the implicit association test (IAT) , people harbour unconscious, biased attitudes towards other people (such as racial or gender discrimination). It also suggested that these attitudes can actually  motivate biased decisions  in employment practices, and legal, medical and other important decisions that affect the lives of those on the receiving end.

However, the alarm can be muted when looking more closely at research on the topic, since it shows two critical problems with the IAT. First, if you look at an individual's test scores on the IAT at one time, and get them to do it again,  the two don't match consistently – this is known as limited test-retest reliability. Also, it has been shown that IAT results are a  poor predictor  of actual decision-making behaviour, which means that the test has low validity.

There have also been efforts to try to improve the way we make decisions in our day-to-day lives (such as healthy eating or saving for retirement) where our unconscious biased processes might limit our ability to do so. Here  the work by  Nobel laureate  Richard Thaler  and Cass Sunstein has been revolutionary. The  basic idea  behind their work comes from cognitive scientist  Daniel Kahneman , another Nobel prize winner, who argued that rash decisions which are primarily unconsciously motivated.

To help improve the way we make decisions, Thaler and Sunstein contend, we need to redirect unconsciously biased processes towards the better decision. The way to do this is through gently nudging people so that they can automatically detect which option is the better one to take. For example, you could make sweets less easily accessible in a supermarket than fruit. This research has been adopted globally by many public and private institutions.

Recent research by my own team shows that nudge techniques often dramatically fail.  They also backfire , leading to worse outcomes than if they weren't used at all. There are several reasons for this, such as applying the wrong nudge or misunderstanding the context. It seems that more is needed to change behaviour than nudging.

That said, nudgers lead us to believe that we are more easily influenced than we think, and than we are. A fundamental aspect of our psychological experiences is the belief that we are the  agents of change , be it personal circumstances (such as having a family) or external ones (such as anthropogenic climate change).

On the whole, we would rather accept  that we have free choice  in all manner of contexts, even when we perceive it is under threat from mechanisms unconsciously manipulating us. However, we still strategically believe we have less  agency, control and responsibility  in certain areas, based on how consequential they are. For example, we would rather claim conscious control and agency over our political voting than over what breakfast cereal we are purchasing.

So, we may argue that our poor breakfast choice was down to subliminal advertising. However, we are less inclined to accept being duped into voting a certain way by big tech social media forces.

Superb Images/Getty Images Subtle signals we don't always pay attention to, such as hunger or our emotions, can influence the decisions we make (Credit: Superb Images/Getty Images)

Headline-grabbing scientific findings in psychology often don't help because they add to some of the extreme intuitions that we are fundamentally ruled by our unconscious. But the more robust scientific evidence indicates that we are more likely governed by conscious thinking than by unconscious thinking. We might get the sense that we aren't always fully aware of why we do what we do. This might be because we aren't always paying attention to our internal thoughts and motivations. But this isn't equivalent to our unconscious ruling our every decision.

While I don't think so, let's say that we are actually ruled by the unconscious. In this case, there is  an advantage  to entertaining the belief that we have more conscious control than not. In cases where things go wrong, believing that we can learn and change things for the better depends on us accepting a level of control and responsibility.

In cases where things go well, believing that we can repeat, or further improve on our successes, depends on accepting that we had a role to play in them. The alternative is to submit to the idea that either random, or unconscious forces dictate everything we do and in the long run that can be devastating mentally.

So why did you fall in love with your partner? Maybe they made you feel strong or secure, challenged you in some way, or smelt nice. Just like any other matter of importance, it is multifaceted, and there is no single answer. What I'd argue is that it's unlikely that your conscious self had nothing at all to do with it.

* Magda Osman is a reader in experimental psychology at Queen Mary University of London.

This article  is part of Life's Big Questions, a series by  The Conversation  that is being co-published with BBC Future. It seeks to answer our readers' nagging questions about life, love, death and the Universe. We work with professional researchers who have dedicated their lives to uncovering new perspectives on the questions that shape our lives. If you have a question you would like to be answered, please email either send us a message on  Facebook  or  Twitter  or email  [email protected]

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Unconscious Mind (Definition + Purpose)

what is unconscious thinking

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

Many psychologists have attempted to answer these questions, but Sigmund Freud is the most famous. Let’s 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 brain processes happen automatically or without thought. We are not aware of what’s going on in the unconscious mind. According to Freud, many things are happening, including memories, emotions, and desires.

​ The unconscious mind includes:

  • Id: basic instincts (including the death instinct and sex instinct) 
  • Superego: desires
  • Experiences from childhood
  • 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 are often too painful to  

According to Freud, the Id resides entirely within the unconscious mind and is the source of our most basic and primal instincts. It drives our innate desires and impulses, often seeking immediate gratification without consideration for reality or social norms. The Superego rests in both parts of the mind. It attempts to use values and morals to control the Id’s instincts. The Ego, existing mostly within the conscious mind, applies the “real world’s” rules. When the Ego confronts the part of the Id 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 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 influencing 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 said, “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 do love your friend? 

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

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 defense mechanisms maintain the unconscious mind's state and distort reality. These defense mechanisms include:

  • Displacement (taking out your emotions on a subject entirely different from your traumatic experiences)
  • Suppression
  • Sublimation (choosing another behavior to act on our emotions more acceptably) 
  • Projection (ascribing our bad habits and behaviors to another person) 
  • Intellectualization (attempting to take emotion out of traumatic experiences) 
  • Rationalization
  • 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 personality. Until we 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 where 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 stores repressed desires. In dreams, we fulfill those desires. By interpreting his patients' dreams, 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 was based on his sessions with patients. He never utilized a true scientific lab and collected objective data. Psychologists have “moved on” to work that can be backed up by data. Many 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 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. Much of this work examines 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:

  • 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. Jung agreed with Freud and his theories about the unconscious for many years. But in 1875, Jung started his school of analytical psychology. (Here, 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 our fixations or 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 can 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 how we analyze film characters, create marketing campaigns for brands, and look at our results on personality tests. 

However, Jung is not the only psychologist who looked at how our unconscious shapes our behavior. 

Unconscious Phantasy 

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

Dual Processing Theory 

The psychodynamic approach has been highly influential, but it’s not the only one attempting to explain the unconscious mind's presence or function. 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 from cognitive psychology, a school of thought that evolved from psychoanalysis and behaviorism. Cognitive psychology examines how the mind uses attention, memory, and other processes to form perceptions and view the world. Elements of this school of thought have entered personality psychology, developmental psychology, and other topics. 

In 2011, cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote Thinking Fast and Slow . In the book, Kahneman defines and explains 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 before 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 are you 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. 

person protecting themselves with their brain

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 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. His influence will remain crucial to studying psychology even if his theories have made way for other more accepted ideas.

Related posts:

  • Carl Jung Biography
  • The Psychodynamic Approach
  • Sigmund Freud (Psychologist Biography)
  • 40+ Famous Psychologists (Images + Biographies)
  • Psychoanalytic Theory of Personality

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Carl Jung's Collective Unconscious Theory: What It Suggests About the Mind

Daniel B. Block, MD, is an award-winning, board-certified psychiatrist who operates a private practice in Pennsylvania.

what is unconscious thinking

Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

  • What Is Carl Jung's Collective Unconscious?
  • Key Concepts
  • 4 Major Archetypes
  • Interpretation

Ongoing Research

What is carl jung's collective unconscious.

Sometimes referred to as the "objective psyche," the collective unconscious refers to the idea that a segment of the deepest unconscious mind is genetically inherited and not shaped by personal experience. This notion was originally defined by psychoanalyst Carl Jung.

According to Jung's teachings, the collective unconscious is common to all human beings. Jung also believed that the collective unconscious is responsible for a number of deep-seated beliefs and instincts, such as spirituality, sexual behavior, and life and death instincts .

Born in Switzerland in 1875, Carl Jung founded the school of analytical psychology. He is responsible for proposing and developing the psychological concepts of the collective unconscious, along with introverted and extroverted personalities.

Jung worked with Sigmund Freud , another prominent psychologist during that time. In his early studies, Jung's work affirmed many of Freud's ideas . But as time went on, the two eventually split in their principles of psychology—including their thoughts about the development of the unconscious mind.

The biggest difference between their explanations of the unconscious mind is that Freud believed that it was the product of personal experiences, while Jung believed that the unconscious was inherited from the past collective experience of humanity.

What Is the Purpose of the Collective Unconscious?

According to Jung, the collective unconscious is made up of a collection of knowledge and imagery that every person is born with and is shared by all human beings due to ancestral experience. Though humans may not know what thoughts and images are in their collective unconscious, it is thought that in moments of crisis, the psyche can tap into it.

Key Concepts of Cark Jung's Collective Unconscious

Understanding Jung's beliefs of the collective unconscious also require understanding the concepts surrounding these beliefs.

Jung believed that the collective unconscious is expressed through universal archetypes . Archetypes are signs, symbols, or patterns of thinking and/or behaving that are inherited from our ancestors.

According to Jung, these mythological images or cultural symbols are not static or fixed. Instead, many different archetypes may overlap or combine at any given time. Some common archetypes that Jung proposed for explaining the unconscious mind include:

  • Anima : Symbolized by an idealized woman who compels man to engage in feminine behaviors
  • Animus : Woman's source of meaning and power that both creates animosity toward man but also increases self-knowledge
  • Hero : Starting with a humble birth, then overcoming evil and death
  • Persona : The mask we use to conceal our inner selves to the outside world
  • Self : The whole personality; the core of the total psyche
  • Shadow : The psyche's immoral and dark aspects
  • Trickster : The child seeking self-gratification, sometimes being cruel and unfeeling in the process
  • Wise old man : The self as a figure of wisdom or knowledge. For example, wizards and revered teachers frequently appear in the media and marketing messages to reflect this archetype.

What Are Jung's Four Major Archetypes?

In his book "Four Archetypes," Jung shared the archetypes he considered to be fundamental to a person's psychological makeup: mother, rebirth, spirit, and trickster.

Complex Beliefs

Jung was convinced that the similarity and universality of world religions pointed to religion as a manifestation of the collective unconscious. Thus, deep-seated beliefs regarding spirituality are explained as partially due to the genetically-inherited unconscious.

Similarly, morals , ethics, and concepts of fairness or right and wrong could be explained in the same way, with the collective unconscious as partially responsible.

Jung used his theory of the collective unconscious to explain how fears and social phobias can manifest in children and adults for no apparent reason. Fear of the dark , loud sounds , bridges, or blood may all be rooted in this collective unconscious due to an inherited genetic trait .

In support of this, research indicates that some children are afraid of the dark not because of a negative experience they've had during the nighttime, but because darkness activates an exaggerated response by the amygdala —the part of the brain associated with the processing of emotions—resulting in the development of an innate or unprovoked fear.

Dreams were thought to provide key insight into the collective unconscious. Jung believed that due to the archetypes represented, specific symbols in dreams are universal. In other words, the same symbols mean similar things to different people .

At the same time, Jung believed that dreams are highly personal and that dream interpretation requires knowing a great deal about the individual dreamer. Freud, on the other hand, often suggested that specific symbols represent specific unconscious thoughts.

More than just being repressed wishes, Jung felt that dreams compensate for parts of the psyche that are underdeveloped in our waking lives. This has allowed for the study of dreams as an instrument for research, diagnosis, and treatment for psychological conditions and phobias .

Interpretation of Carl Jung's Collective Unconscious

Historically, there has been some debate around whether the collective unconscious requires a literal or symbolic interpretation.

In scientific circles, a literal interpretation of the collective unconscious is thought to be a pseudoscientific theory. This is because it is difficult to scientifically prove that images of mythology and other cultural symbols are inherited and present at birth.

Conversely, a symbolic interpretation of the collective unconscious is thought to have some scientific grounding because of the belief that all humans share certain behavioral dispositions.

Researchers are continuously trying to increase their understanding of the collective unconscious. For instance, a 2015 study suggests that the gut microbiome may play a role in how the unconscious regulates behavior. If so, studies of gut microbes could be a part of the future of psychiatric research.

Another example is a 2022 study published in Digital Geography and Society that investigates the role that the collective unconscious may play in our thoughts and behaviors while interacting on social media platforms. Thus, Jung's ideas continue to be assessed to better understand the collective unconscious and how it works.

American Psychological Association. Collective unconscious .

Britannica. Carl Jung: Swiss psychologist .

Carducci B. Carl Jung . Wiley Encylop Personal Indiv Diff: Models Theor. 2020. doi:10.1002/9781119547143.ch13

Allen C. The balance of personality .

Solomon MR. Consumer psychology . In:  Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology . Elsevier; 2004:483-492.

Jung C. Four archetypes .

Garcia R. Neurobiology of fear and specific phobias . Learn Mem . 2017;24(9):462-471. doi:10.1101/lm.044115.116

Roesler C. Jungian theory of dreaming and contemporary dream research — findings from the research project 'Structural Dream Analysis' . J Analytic Psychol . 2020;65(1):44-62. doi:10.1111/1468-5922.12566

Mills J. Jung as philosopher: Archetypes, the psychoid factor, and the question of the supernatural . Int J Jungian Studies . 2014;6(3):227-242. doi:10.1080/19409052.2014.921226

Dinan TG, Stilling RM, Stanton C, Cryan JF. Collective unconscious: How gut microbes shape human behavior . J Psychiatr Res . 2015;63:1-9. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2015.02.021

Dabos P. The exclusion of others on Facebook: The technological unconscious, the orientalist unconscious, and the European migrant crisis . Digital Geography Soc . 2022;3:100033. doi:10.1016/j.diggeo.2022.100033

Cacha L, Poznanski R. Genomic instantiation of consciousness in neurons through a biophoton field theory . J Integr Neurosci . 2014;13(2):253-92. doi:10.1142/S0219635214400081

Dinan T, Cryan J. The microbiome-gut-brain axis in health and disease . Gastroenterol Clin North Am . 2017;46(1):77-89. doi:10.1016/j.gtc.2016.09.007

Dinan T, Stilling R, Stanton C, Cryan J. Collective unconscious: how gut microbes shape human behavior . J Psychiat Res . 2015;63:1-9. doi:10.1016/j.psychires.2015.02.021

Kim C. Carl Gustav Jung and Granville Stanley Hall on religious experience . J Relig Health . 2016;55(4):1246-60. doi:10.1007/s10943-016-0237-4

By Lisa Fritscher Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer and editor with a deep interest in phobias and other mental health topics.

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December 20, 2018

There Is No Such Thing as Conscious Thought

Philosopher Peter Carruthers insists that conscious thought, judgment and volition are illusions. They arise from processes of which we are forever unaware

By Steve Ayan

what is unconscious thinking

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Peter Carruthers, Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park, is an expert on the philosophy of mind who draws heavily on empirical psychology and cognitive neuroscience. He outlined many of his ideas on conscious thinking in his 2015 book The Centered Mind: What the Science of Working Memory Shows Us about the Nature of Human Thought . More recently, in 2017, he published a paper with the astonishing title of “The Illusion of Conscious Thought.” In the following excerpted conversation, Carruthers explains to editor Steve Ayan the reasons for his provocative proposal.

What makes you think conscious thought is an illusion?

I believe that the whole idea of conscious thought is an error. I came to this conclusion by following out the implications of the two of the main theories of consciousness. The first is what is called the Global Workspace Theory, which is associated with neuroscientists Stanislas Dehaene and Bernard Baars. Their theory states that to be considered conscious a mental state must be among the contents of working memory (the “user interface” of our minds) and thereby be available to other mental functions, such as decision-making and verbalization. Accordingly, conscious states are those that are “globally broadcast,” so to speak. The alternative view, proposed by Michael Graziano, David Rosenthal and others, holds that conscious mental states are simply those that you know of, that you are directly aware of in a way that doesn’t require you to interpret yourself. You do not have to read your own mind to know of them. Now, whichever view you adopt, it turns out that thoughts such as decisions and judgments should not be considered to be conscious. They are not accessible in working memory, nor are we directly aware of them. We merely have what I call “the illusion of immediacy”—the false impression that we know our thoughts directly.

One might easily agree that the sources of one’s thoughts are hidden from view—we just don’t know where our ideas come from. But once we have them and we know it, that’s where consciousness begins. Don’t we have conscious thoughts at least in this sense?

In ordinary life we are quite content to say things like “Oh, I just had a thought” or “I was thinking to myself.” By this we usually mean instances of inner speech or visual imagery, which are at the center of our stream of consciousness—the train of words and visual contents represented in our minds. I think that these trains are indeed conscious. In neurophilosophy, however, we refer to “thought” in a much more specific sense. In this view, thoughts include only nonsensory mental attitudes, such as judgments, decisions, intentions and goals. These are amodal, abstract events, meaning that they are not sensory experiences and are not tied to sensory experiences. Such thoughts never figure in working memory. They never become conscious. And we only ever know of them by interpreting what does become conscious, such as visual imagery and the words we hear ourselves say in our heads.

So consciousness always has a sensory basis?

I claim that consciousness is always bound to a sensory modality, that there is inevitably some auditory, visual or tactile aspect to it. All kinds of mental imagery, such as inner speech or visual memory, can of course be conscious. We see things in our mind’s eye; we hear our inner voice. What we are conscious of are the sensory-based contents present in working memory.

In your view, is consciousness different from awareness?

That’s a difficult question. Some philosophers believe that consciousness can be richer than what we can actually report. For example, our visual field seems to be full of detail—everything is just there, already consciously seen. Yet experiments in visual perception, especially the phenomenon of inattentional blindness, show that in fact we consciously register only a very limited slice of the world. [ Editors’ note: A person experiencing inattentional blindness may not notice that a gorilla walked across a basketball court while the individual was focusing on the movement of the ball. ] So, what we think we see, our subjective impression, is different from what we are actually aware of. Probably our conscious mind grasps only the gist of much of what is out there in the world, a sort of statistical summary. Of course, for most people consciousness and awareness coincide most of the time. Still, I think, we are not directly aware of our thoughts. Just as we are not directly aware of the thoughts of other people. We interpret our own mental states in much the same way as we interpret the minds of others, except that we can use as data in our own case our own visual imagery and inner speech.

You call the process of how people learn their own thoughts interpretive sensory access, or ISA. Where does the interpretation come into play?

Let’s take our conversation as an example—you are surely aware of what I am saying to you at this very moment. But the interpretative work and inferences on which you base your understanding are not accessible to you. All the highly automatic, quick inferences that form the basis of your understanding of my words remain hidden. You seem to just hear the meaning of what I say. What rises to the surface of your mind are the results of these mental processes. That is what I mean: The inferences themselves, the actual workings of our mind, remain unconscious. All that we are aware of are their products. And my access to your mind, when I listen to you speak, is not different in any fundamental way from my access to my own mind when I am aware of my own inner speech. The same sorts of interpretive processes still have to take place.

Why, then, do we have the impression of direct access to our mind?

The idea that minds are transparent to themselves (that everyone has direct awareness of their own thoughts) is built into the structure of our “mind reading” or “theory of mind” faculty, I suggest. The assumption is a useful heuristic when interpreting the statements of others. If someone says to me, “I want to help you,” I have to interpret whether the person is sincere, whether he is speaking literally or ironically, and so on; that is hard enough. If I also had to interpret whether he is interpreting his own mental state correctly, then that would make my task impossible. It is far simpler to assume that he knows his own mind (as, generally, he does). The illusion of immediacy has the advantage of enabling us to understand others with much greater speed and probably with little or no loss of reliability. If I had to figure out to what extent others are reliable interpreters of themselves, then that would make things much more complicated and slow. It would take a great deal more energy and interpretive work to understand the intentions and mental states of others. And then it is the same heuristic transparency-of-mind assumption that makes my own thoughts seem transparently available to me.

What is the empirical basis of your hypothesis?

There is a great deal of experimental evidence from normal subjects, especially of their readiness to falsely, but unknowingly, fabricate facts or memories to fill in for lost ones. Moreover, if introspection were fundamentally different from reading the minds of others, one would expect there to be disorders in which only one capacity was damaged but not the other. But that’s not what we find. Autism spectrum disorders, for example, are not only associated with limited access to the thoughts of others but also with a restricted understanding of oneself. In patients with schizophrenia, the insight both into one’s own mind and that of others is distorted. There seems to be only a single mind-reading mechanism on which we depend both internally and in our social relations.

What side effect does the illusion of immediacy have?

The price we pay is that we believe subjectively that we are possessed of far greater certainty about our attitudes than we actually have. We believe that if we are in mental state X, it is the same as being in that state. As soon as I believe I am hungry, I am. Once I believe I am happy, I am. But that is not really the case. It is a trick of the mind that makes us equate the act of thinking one has a thought with the thought itself.

What might be the alternative? What should we do about it , if only we could?

Well, in theory, we would have to distinguish between an experiential state itself on the one hand and our judgment or belief underlying this experience on the other hand. There are rare instances when we succeed in doing so: for example, when I feel nervous or irritated but suddenly realize that I am actually hungry and need to eat.

You mean that a more appropriate way of seeing it would be: “I think I’m angry, but maybe I’m not”?

That would be one way of saying it. It is astonishingly difficult to maintain this kind of distanced view of oneself. Even after many years of consciousness studies, I’m still not all that good at it ( laughs ).

Brain researchers put a lot of effort into figuring out the neural correlates of consciousness, the NCC. Will this endeavor ever be successful?

I think we already know a lot about how and where working memory is represented in the brain. Our philosophical concepts of what consciousness actually is are much more informed by empirical work than they were even a few decades ago. Whether we can ever close the gap between subjective experiences and neurophysiological processes that produce them is still a matter of dispute.

Would you agree that we are much more unconscious than we think we are?

I would rather say that consciousness is not what we generally think it is. It is not direct awareness of our inner world of thoughts and judgments but a highly inferential process that only gives us the impression of immediacy.

Where does that leave us with our concept of freedom and responsibility?  

We can still have free will and be responsible for our actions. Conscious and unconscious are not separate spheres; they operate in tandem. We are not simply puppets manipulated by our unconscious thoughts, because obviously, conscious reflection does have effects on our behavior. It interacts with and is fueled by implicit processes. In the end, being free means acting in accordance with one’s own reasons—whether these are conscious or not.

Briefly Explained: Consciousness

Consciousness is generally understood to mean that an individual not only has an idea, recollection or perception but also knows that he or she has it. For perception, this knowledge encompasses both the experience of the outer world (“it’s raining”) and one’s internal state (“I’m angry”). Experts do not know how human consciousness arises. Nevertheless, they generally agree on how to define various aspects of it. Thus, they distinguish “phenomenal consciousness” (the distinctive feeling when we perceive, for example, that an object is red) and “access consciousness” (when we can report on a mental state and use it in decision-making).

Important characteristics of consciousness include subjectivity (the sense that the mental event belongs to me), continuity (it appears unbroken) and intentionality (it is directed at an object). According to a popular scheme of consciousness known as Global Workspace Theory, a mental state or event is conscious if a person can bring it to mind to carry out such functions as decision-making or remembering, although how such accessing occurs is not precisely understood. Investigators assume that consciousness is not the product of a single region of the brain but of larger neural networks. Some theoreticians go so far as to posit that it is not even the product of an individual brain. For example, philosopher Alva Noë of the University of California, Berkeley, holds that consciousness is not the work of a single organ but is more like a dance: a pattern of meaning that emerges between brains.  – S.A.

This article originally appeared in Gehirn&Geist and was reproduced with permission.

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  • Front Hum Neurosci

Who Am I: The Conscious and the Unconscious Self

Michael schaefer.

1 Fakultät Naturwissenschaften, Medical School Berlin, Berlin, Germany

Georg Northoff

2 Mind, Brain Imaging and Neuroethics, Institute of Mental Health Research, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, Canada

Who am I? What is the self and where does it come from? This may be one of the oldest problems in philosophy. Beyond traditional philosophy, only very recently approaches from neuroscience (in particular imaging studies) have tried to address these questions, too. So what are neural substrates of our self? An increasing body of evidence has demonstrated that a set of structures labeled as cortical midline structures are fundamental components to generate a conscious self. Moreover, recent theories on embodied cognition propose that this conscious self might be supplemented by additional structures, for example, in the somatosensory cortices, which enable our brain to create an “embodied mind”. While the self based on cortical midline structures may be related to a conscious self, we here propose that the embodied facet of the self may be linked to something we call unconscious self. In this article we describe problems of this model of a conscious and unconscious self and discuss possible solutions from a theoretical point of view.

We know that even in prehistoric times humans tried to open the skulls of their sick conspecifics. Moreover, prehistoric men used human skulls, usually those of ancestors, for religious worship long after death. Thus, the head always seemed to be an object of interest for us. Perhaps the prehistoric men assumed that something inside our skull may be related to our feelings, thoughts and memories. But we had to wait until the French philosopher René Descartes, who was the first one who made the distinction between mind and body very explicit. His famous philosophical statement “Cogito ergo sum” can be translated as “I think, therefore I am”. Hence, he concludes that he can be certain that he exists because he thinks. For many researchers these thoughts mark the beginning of modern western philosophy. Descartes statement raised a lot of questions, in particular about the relationship between body and mind, which are still a matter of discussion today.

This is in particular true since modern neuroscience started to unravel the mystery of the brain. New imaging tools such as fMRI enable us to look at our brain while it is working. These new approaches have opened the door to answer the questions Descartes posed about the relationship between mind and body in a way he never would have imagined.

In this article we suggest the idea that the processing of self-referential stimuli in cortical midline structures may represent an important part of the conscious self, which may be supplemented by an unconscious part of the self that has been called an “embodied mind” (Varela et al., 1991 ), which relies on other brain structures.

The Conscious Self: Cortical Midline Structures

Since the famous words by René Descartes there were numerous attempts to clarify what he described as a self. Descartes suggested that the self is a substance, such as a thing, which can be confronted with the body. But if so, how and where do these two substances interact? Remarkably, Descartes suggested a place where this interaction should take place: the epiphysis cerebri. Descartes believed this region to be the principal seat of the soul. In contrast, the Scottish philosopher David Hume argued that there is no self as a mental entity; there is only a complex set of perceptions of interrelated events that reflect the world. Hence, there are only events that we perceive. In this view, the self is merely an illusion. Similar, the contemporary German philosopher Thomas Metzinger argues that there is no self as a mental entity (Metzinger, 2003 ).

More recently, this problem has also been discussed in neuroscience. In order to examine the self in a neuroscientific way, studies focused on different features of the self. Central features of the self may include feelings of agency, ownership feelings for the body, autobiographical memory, experiencing the self as a unit, or labeling of stimuli as self-referential. Depending on the feature of the self that has been examined, the neuroscientific approach varied. For example, research on the last facet focused on self-referential relative to non-self-referential tasks. In a typical experimental paradigm Kelley et al. ( 2002 ) asked participants to judge trait adjectives (e.g., aggressive or friendly) as to whether they properly described themselves, a given case, or the current US president. Thereby, stimuli were categorized as self-relevant, other-referential, or case referential. Brain regions associated with self-relevant stimuli are then interpreted as describing the neural signature of our self (Kelley et al., 2002 ).

In spite of these different approaches, an increasing body of evidence consistently identified regions located in the midline of the human cerebral cortex, which have been labeled as cortical midlines structures (CMS), to be crucial for self-specific processing (Northoff, 2004 , 2011 , 2013 , 2016 ). It has been suggested that those structures are central for self-relevant or self-related processing, thus enabling us to link internal with external stimuli (Northoff, 2016 ). Self-related processing describes the processing of a stimulus in relation to (but not representing it in) the self.

What are the structures of the CMS and how are they related to the self? The CMS structures include several phylogenetic old brain structures. They subserve different functions for establishing a self. For example, the orbitomedial prefrontal cortex (OMPFC) has been linked to a continuous representation of self-referential stimuli. The supragenual anterior cingulate cortex (SAC) seems to monitor these self-referential stimuli, while the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC) may evaluate them with respect to the relevance for the self. For example, the DMPFC and the SAC were involved when participants were asked to monitor and judge whether auditory verbal feedback was their own or another person’s voice (McGuire et al., 1996 ). The posterior-cingulate cortex (PC) may then be important to integrate these stimuli into the emotional and autobiographical framework of the person (Northoff and Bermpohl, 2004 ; Northoff, 2016 ).

The CMS can be understood as an anatomical unit because these regions maintain strong and reciprocal projections among each other. In addition, they demonstrate a similar pattern of connectivity to brain regions outside the CMS, e.g., to the ventro- and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex or the limbic system including hippocampus, amygdala and insula.

It is intriguing that this network of CMS overlaps with another network, the resting state or default mode network (DMN). This DMN describes interacting brain regions and is most commonly active when a person is not focused on the outside and the brain is at wakeful rest. The DMN is involved during passive rest, mind wandering, remembering the past and planning the future, and also when thinking about others. Among others, the DMN includes brain regions such as the medial prefrontal cortex, the angular gyrus and structures of the hippocampal formation (Huang et al., 2016 ).

So what kind of self do the CMS represent? Existing studies investigated the relationship between the CMS and the self predominantly with the focus on the ability to think about oneself. This is also supported by the link to the resting state activity network. Since one cannot think about oneself without being conscious, we here describe the CMS as representing in particular an important part of the conscious self. This conscious self represents a stable self over time, allowing us, for example, to travel through time (remembering the past and projecting into the future).

The Unconscious Self: Embodiment

In the previous section we argued that a set of brain structures labeled as CMS is an important part of a conscious self. We here suggest that there are also unconscious parts of the self. The distinction between conscious and unconscious self is important because it points to the observation that our self is not limited to the stream-of-consciousness but includes also other features. These other features may include, for example, unconscious parts of the self. The concept between conscious and unconscious parts of the self is famous at least until the work of Freud. However, we here call processes as unconscious when thinking about the self usually does not tell us anything about these processes. In this sense, unconscious processes are automatic. We assume that there are numerous processes in our mind that can be described as unconscious. In this article we focus on a particular line of research, because studies based on this approach suggest convergent anatomical substrates underlying these unconscious facets of the self. Thus, we propose that embodied cognitions may represent important aspects of the unconscious self.

What is embodiment? There are different theories of embodiment and definitions. Embodiment in the most general form argues that human mental functions are shaped by the way the human body interacts with the world (Wilson, 2002 ). Mind, body and environment influence one another in order to promote adaptive success (Thompson and Varela, 2001 ; Wilson, 2002 ; Gallagher, 2005 ; Barsalou, 2008 ). In this sense, the body is an interface between the mind and the world, it merges our thoughts with the space around us (Varela et al., 1991 ). Gallagher points out that embodiment works preceding to any knowledge, it is not accessible to our consciousness. Therefore, Gallagher concludes that the body shapes the mind at a fundamental basic level, while it remains behind the scene (Gallagher, 2005 ).

What are neural substrates of this embodiment? Research on the conceptual or embodied metaphor theory (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999 ; Williams et al., 2009 ; Lakoff, 2014 ) provides suggestions about the neural underpinnings of embodied cognitions. Conceptual metaphors are different from linguistic metaphors. While linguistic metaphors are obviously present in language, conceptual metaphors mean understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980 ). Numerous studies demonstrate how those embodied metaphors build a scaffold and guide our everyday behavior in an unconscious way (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999 ). An example is the moral purity metaphor, which binds moral purity and physical cleanliness (Zhong and Liljenquist, 2006 ). Studies on this metaphor have demonstrated that hand washing make us judge subsequent scenarios describing moral transgressions as less severe (Schnall et al., 2008 ). Hence, abstract thoughts about morality can be unconsciously grounded in sensory experiences. What are neural substrates related to these conceptual metaphor effects? Several studies determined primary motor and especially primary somatosensory cortices as crucial neural underpinnings of the embodied cognitions (Lacey et al., 2012 ; Schaefer et al., 2014 ). For example, it has been demonstrated that the moral-purity metaphor is related to sensory brain areas (Schaefer et al., 2015 ; Denke et al., 2016 ). This is also in line with recent theories on embodied simulation processes. Simulation here means that the retrieval of conceptual meaning involves a partial re-enactment of sensory and motor experiences (Gallese and Lakoff, 2005 ). The above-mentioned imaging studies provide support for this assumption.

But how can primary somatosensory areas be linked to embodied metaphors? In the traditional view those brain areas are known to represent primary modalities. Thus, the classic understanding of the primary somatosensory cortex is to reflect touch on the body surface in a more or less mechanical way (Kaas, 2008 ). However, recent findings in neuroscience draw the attention to more complex functions of the primary somatosensory cortex, pointing to a role for the somatosensory cortices in perceiving rather than reflecting touch on the body surface. Moreover, these brain areas seem to include even social perceptions such as empathy (Keysers et al., 2010 ; Schaefer et al., 2012 ). In his neural reuse theory, Anderson argues that brain areas may be involved in different neural partnerships depending on tasks and circumstances (Anderson, 2014 ). According to Anderson, “neural reuse” refers to a form of neuroplasticity, in which neural elements originally developed for one purpose are put to multiple uses. Embodied metaphors are examples of how our brain uses old strategies in new ways. Hence, higher-order cognitive processes such as moral thinking may be just recombinations of more simple and basic unconscious brain processes.

The brain areas representing the embodied self (in particular the sensorimotor brain areas) are different from the ones we have mentioned to be engaged in the CMS. We suggest that, while the CMS represent a conscious self, brain structures engaged in embodied cognitions might be related to an unconscious self. At least part of this unconscious self may be based on sensorimotor brain areas. We further assume that both parts of the self are consistently interacting.

But aren’t we often conscious about sensorimotor activation? And doesn’t this speak against a role of the sensorimotor brain areas for unconscious parts of the self? In fact, we are frequently aware of sensorimotor activation. However, often this activation is also automatic and unconscious. Again, we argue with Anderson that brain areas can have multiple roles. Based on the theory of embodied cognitions we assume that many conceptual metaphors (e.g., cleanliness and moral purity) were once learned consciously and now represent an unconscious link in our self (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980 ).

How Does the Conscious Self Interact with the Body and the Environment?

The suggestion of a conscious self and an embodied self as an unconscious self that provides a link to our body experiences raises a number of problems. We will here discuss only one major point, which refers to the way the conscious self may be related to the embodied self. In contrast to Descartes’ suggestion, previous work has described this self as a brain based structure and organization, rather than a mental or physical entity located somewhere in the brain (Northoff, 2013 ). This conscious self as a structure or organization is related to both the body and the social world.

How can we imagine these relationships? When we describe the self as structure and organization we understand it as a system. But the concept of the embodied self states that the self or cognition is not an activity of the mind alone, but is distributed across the entire situation including mind, body, environment (e.g., Beer, 1995 ), thereby pointing to an embodied and situated self. How can a system include also its environment? According to the British philosopher and mathematician Georg Spencer-Brown a system is defined by its border, which not only separates the system from the environment, but also is the way a system is defined in the very first beginning: draw a distinction and a universe comes into being (Spencer-Brown, 1969 ).

Wilson suggests that the embodied self is an open system. Thus, the boundaries of a system are partly a matter of judgment and depend on the particular purposes of one’s analysis (Wilson, 2002 ). But we still need to ask what determines the border in those cases. Recent general system theory here provides an interesting view. Systems such as the consciousness have been described as functionally closed, which means they are systems that are separated from other systems and their environment by the specific way they operate (Luhmann, 1985 , 1988 , 1995 ). In this view, our consciousness is a closed system, which is built out of thoughts and nothing else. We can imagine this system as a self-referential system, in which every thought is followed by another thought, which is again followed by the next thought and so on. This is also called an “autopoietic” system (Luhmann, 1995 ). In this way, the self is a closed system, because both the situation as well as the body belong to the environment for this system (Luhmann, 1995 ). However, this system is only closed in the way it works, but it is open for incoming information from the social situation or from the body, e.g., responses from another individual or information that the body feels warmth. Interestingly, the self as an autopoietic system cannot be directly steered, it can only be perturbed. Thus, the self-referential circle is still closed, but can be “touched” or disturbed by information from the environment (e.g., feelings of warmth or friendly responses by a conspecific). The system itself then needs to make sense out of this “disturbance”, interpreting it in this or another way.

In this way, the conscious self may be both at the same time, open and closed. We further suggest that the unconscious self, which we described (at least partly) as the embodied self, represent one way the environment (e.g., the social world via the own body) may affect (disturb, perturbate) the conscious self. Therefore, given that at least parts of the unconscious self might be embodied, the mind also needs to be understood in the context of its relationship to a physical body that interacts with the world.

However, it remains unclear which neural structures carry this interaction of the conscious with the unconscious self. Future work is needed to supplement this conceptual relationship with neural substrates.

Furthermore, we argue that through embodiment the self is also embedded in the environment. This means that our self is not isolated but intrinsically social. The social dimension of the self has been discussed by numerous philosophers, often addressed as the question for intersubjectivity.

Hence, the self should not be understood as an entity located somewhere in the brain, isolated from both the body and the environment. In contrast, the self can be seen as a brain-based neurosocial structure and organization, always linked to the environment (or the social sphere) via embodiment and embeddedness. We further argue that embeddedness is first and embodiment may show up in a later developmental stage. The structure and organization that may define our self develops through childhood and adolescence. While the self is embedded in the environment from the very first beginning, embodiment may show up later in this progress. Furthermore, considering that there is no self without environment, we argue that the environment created the self.

Thus, we conclude that the self is part of a broader environmental system, including body and social dimensions. The brain’s cortical midline structures activity seem to be a neural predisposition for this constitution, which is at the same time dependent on the environmental context.

Who We Are: The Conscious and the Unconscious Self

Who am I? Since human evolution once reached the state of an elaborated conscious self, we questioned ourselves these kinds of philosophical questions. And since at least the work of Sigmund Freud it is well known that the self includes also areas beyond our consciousness.

In this article we made the suggestion that the conscious self can be related to a network of brain areas that has been labeled as CMS. Moreover, we aimed to show that there are additional unconscious parts of the self; at least parts of them we here called embodied self, which may be based in particular on sensorimotor brain regions. Furthermore, we tried to describe the interaction between both systems by suggesting that the conscious self is a functionally closed (or autopoietic) system that can be disturbed by the unconscious embodied self. We are aware that these are very preliminary considerations. Furthermore, we again stress that the embodied self may represent only parts of the unconscious self. However, we believe that both future neuroscience unraveling as well as philosophical or theoretical advancements may further help us in the understanding of the self, one of the most peculiar achievements of the human evolution.

Author Contributions

MS and GN wrote the manuscript.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

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How does the brain turn unconscious information into conscious thought?

what is unconscious thinking

Neuroscience tells us that most of the work done by our brains happens on an unconscious level, but when does that “a-ha!” moment occur? And what happens during it? New research investigates.

hand holding brain lightbulb

Many of us have noticed that we seem to get our best ideas when we’re in the shower, or that we can find the answer to a difficult question when we least think about it.

A large body of neuroscientific studies has pointed out that the brain does a lot of work in its spare time, the so-called idle state – wherein the brain does not appear to be thinking about anything at all – and that this is the time when it works at its hardest to find solutions to complex problems.

With time and advances in neuroscience , it has become more and more clear to researchers that Freud was right in the idea that the mind, as well as the brain, do work unconsciously. In fact, it would be safe to say that what is consciously known to us is just the tip of a much larger iceberg, deeply submerged in unconscious waters.

But the exact moment at which information becomes known to us – or when the “tip of the iceberg” pierces through the water, and the unconscious becomes conscious – has been somewhat of a mystery, from a neuroscientific point of view.

In other words, we do not yet know when that intellectually satisfying “a-ha!” moment takes place, or what the biology is behind it. This is why a team of researchers at Columbia University in New York City, NY, set out to investigate this moment in more detail.

The scientists were led by Michael Shadlen, Ph.D., of Columbia University’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, and the findings were published in the journal Current Biology.

The hypothesis

Dr. Shadlen and colleagues started out from an interesting hypothesis, one which they derived from previous research on the neurobiological processes involved in decision-making.

As the authors explain, research conducted in both monkeys and humans shows that many of our decisions take place at a point when the brain “feels” as though it has gathered enough information, or when a critical level of information has been accumulated.

This process of making a decision once the brain has accumulated enough evidence bears the name of “bounded evidence accumulation.” Reaching this threshold is important because, although the brain does not use all of the information available, it uses as much as is necessary to make a speedy yet accurate decision.

The researchers wondered whether or not this threshold is also responsible for our “eureka!” moments.

In Dr. Shadlen’s words, “Could the moment when the brain believes it has accumulated enough evidence be tied to the person’s awareness of having decided – that important ‘a-ha!’ moment?”

Examining the ‘a-ha!’ moment

To answer this question, the scientists asked five people to perform a “direction discrimination” task. In it, the participants looked at dots on a computer screen. The dots moved randomly, as grains of sand would when blown by the wind. The participants were asked to say in which direction the dots had moved.

The moment they “decided” which direction the dots seemed to be taking was considered to be the equivalent of the “a-ha!” moment.

In the center of the screen, there was a fixed point and a clock. The display also had two “choice targets” – namely, left or right – and these were the directions in which the participants had to decide that the dots had moved.

Shortly after the dots had stopped moving, the participants used an electronic, hand-held stylus to move the cursor in the direction that they thought the dots had moved.

To determine when the decision was made, the researchers used the technique called “mental chronometry” – that is, after they made their decision, the participants were asked to move the clock backward to the point when they felt that they had consciously done so.

“The moment in time indicated by the participants – this mental chronometry – was entirely subjective; it relied solely on their own estimation of how long it took them to make that decision,” Dr. Shadlen says. “And because it was purely subjective, in principle it ought to be unverifiable.”

‘A-ha’ moment similar to making a decision

However, by applying a mathematical model, the scientists were able to match these subjective decision times to the bounded evidence accumulation process.

The subjective decision times fit so well with what the scientists determined as the evidence accumulation threshold that they were able to predict the choices of four of the five participants.

“If the time reported to us by the participants was valid, we reasoned that it might be possible to predict the accuracy of the decision,” explains Dr. Shadlen.

“We incorporated a kind of mathematical trick, based on earlier studies, which showed that the speed and accuracy of decisions were tied together by the same brain function.” This “mathematical trick” was the evidence accumulation model.

“ Essentially, the act of becoming consciously aware of a decision conforms to the same process that the brain goes through to complete a decision, even a simple one – such as whether to turn left or right.” Michael Shadlen, Ph.D.

In other words, the study shows that the conscious awareness of the “a-ha!” moment takes place precisely when the brain has reached that threshold of evidence accumulation.

The findings provide unique insights into the biology of consciousness, say the researchers, and they bring us closer to understanding the biological basis of decisions, ethics, and, generally, the human mind.

  • Biology / Biochemistry
  • Neurology / Neuroscience
  • Psychology / Psychiatry

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Jim Taylor Ph.D.


Our unconscious and conscious minds do battle daily, which force of the mind guides your life.

Posted February 18, 2022 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

  • What Is the Unconscious
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  • Evidence in both psychology and behavioral economics demonstrates that we are not the Mr. Spock-like thinkers and actors that we think we are.
  • We are unaware of our unconscious mind, yet it exerts considerable influence over how we think, feel, and behave.
  • Primitive instincts, emotional baggage, and ingrained habits are three unconscious forces that can guide our lives.
  • Our executive functioning gives us the opportunity to not succumb to the blunt force of our unconscious mind or be driven by our past.

John Hain/Pixabay, used with permission

We like to think of ourselves as highly evolved and rational beings who think, feel, and act in ways that are intentional and reasonable. We hold this perception because it enables us to believe that we are “captains” of our lives and help us believe that we are in control of the choices we make and the direction our lives go. In reality, considerable evidence in both psychology and behavioral economics demonstrates that we are far from the Mr. Spock-like thinkers and actors that we hold ourselves up to be.

The reason why we don’t always think or behave in ways that are logical or in our best interests (e.g., overeating, substance abuse ) is that our minds have two parts that drive us and they often work at cross purposes: unconscious and conscious. In other words, our unconscious and conscious minds are in a constant battle for dominion over all aspects of our functioning.

Our Unconscious Mind

The unconscious part of our minds is outside of our conscious awareness and is not easily accessible, meaning we can’t just conjure its content up like we can a seemingly forgotten telephone number (that resides in our subconscious ). This lack of ready availability makes our unconscious minds both mystifying (“ Why do I keep doing things that hurt me ?”) and seemingly beyond our control, often leading to a sense of frustration and helplessness.

The unconscious mind consists of three forces that often lead us down unhealthy roads.

First, despite our being supposedly so evolved compared to the rest of the animal kingdom with our cerebral cortex and, more importantly, our pre-frontal cortex, we frequently still respond to the world as animals driven by our primitive instincts, emotions, and reactions (e.g., survival instinct, fear , and fight or flight, respectively). Not surprising given that these unconscious forces have been driving all living beings since we climbed out of the primordial muck around 3.5 billion years ago. In contrast, our cerebral cortex has only been around for about 250,000 years. It's no wonder that our primitive brain often bullies our evolved brain into submission; it has a few billion years' head-start and a lot of practice at influencing how we think, feel, and behave.

Second, carrying around emotional baggage from our childhood is, for most of us, a part of the human condition. Early in our lives, we develop certain ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that help protect us from some perceived threat and survive in hostile environs of varying degrees. For example, to feel safe around an angry parent, we learned to be passive and accommodating. To be rewarded by a demanding parent, we became a perfectionist . These protective mechanisms were highly functional when we were young. Unfortunately, in adulthood, what had been functional can become dysfunctional, as, referring back to those examples, passivity and acquiescence, or perfectionistic , can result in low self-esteem , reluctance to assert oneself and take reasonable risks, interfere with the pursuit of life goals , and prevent the establishment of healthy relationships.

Lastly, the more that primitive forces and emotional baggage direct our lives, the more those characteristic ways of acting on and reacting to our world become habitual and the first response we make, even when it may not be appropriate or healthy. For example, when we perceive someone judging us, we react with defensiveness and anger because that’s the way we’ve always reacted, even though such a reaction usually does more harm than good.

Our Conscious Mind

Thankfully, we have evolved beyond the rest of the animal kingdom with the emergence of the cerebral cortex and, more specifically, our pre-frontal cortex (PFC). The PFC gives us the opportunity to not succumb to the blunt force of our unconscious mind or be driven by our past, either the distant past of our primitive forbearers or the immediate past of our upbringing. Instead, we can assert our conscious mind to make purposeful decisions about how we want to think, feel, and behave rather than being hijacked by those unconscious forces.

The PFC allows us to engage in what is commonly referred to as “ executive functioning ,” which involves the ability to guide our behavior in more intentional ways by weighing pros and cons, calculating risk and rewards, deciding what is best for us in the present, and, at an important level, empowering our conscious mind to override our unconscious mind.

Listen to Your Conscious Mind… Mostly

Your goal is to have your conscious mind override the often-times unhealthy primitive forces, emotional baggage, and ingrained habits of your unconscious mind that are grounded in the past rather than in the present. When your conscious mind is in control, you are able to mindfully consider your current needs, wants, dreams , and goals, and make decisions that propel you toward success, happiness , connection, meaning, satisfaction, and joy.

what is unconscious thinking

At the same time, I don’t want to completely discredit any value that our unconscious minds may have; Mr. Spock made poor decisions despite his strong sense of what is logical. The unconscious mind isn’t driven solely by unhealthy forces. On the contrary, whether you want to call it your gut, intuition , spirit, or what have you, we all have the capacity to allow our non-linear and emotional sense to guide us in making healthy choices and steering the direction we take in our lives. This intuitive part of us can draw on information that may not be readily available to our conscious mind, yet may nonetheless tap into both our past experiences (which likely also have a lot of positive influences) and our immediate circumstances to lead us to a decision that may not be linear enough to know how we arrived at it, but just feels right and turn out to be healthy. As I have gained life experience and a better understanding of what enables me to feel content, I have found that harnessing this beneficial aspect of my unconscious mind in concert with my conscious mind typically sends me on the best road for where I am now and where I want to go in the future.

Over the next few months, I’ll be exploring this fascinating, inspiring, and sometimes scary journey of positive life change in a series of posts that are based on my work with clients who are on their own personal journey of discovery.

CHAN, David, "Why people self-sabotage, and how to stop it" (2019). Research Collection School of Social Sciences. Paper 3079.

Santos LR, Rosati AG. The evolutionary roots of human decision making. Annu Rev Psychol. 2015;66:321-347. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-010814-015310

Sherwood, C. C., Subiaul, F., & Zawidzki, T. W. (2008). A natural history of the human mind: tracing evolutionary changes in brain and cognition. Journal of anatomy, 212(4), 426–454.

Oros, Laura & Iuorno, Ornella & Serppe, Mónica. (2017). Child Perfectionism and its Relationship with Personality, Excessive Parental Demands, Depressive Symptoms and Experience of Positive Emotions. The Spanish Journal of Psychology. 20. 10.1017/sjp.2017.9.

Jim Taylor Ph.D.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D. , teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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  1. The Unconscious Mind

    In Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory of personality, the unconscious mind is defined as a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that outside of conscious awareness . Within this understanding, most of the contents of the unconscious are considered unacceptable or unpleasant, such as feelings of pain, anxiety, or conflict.

  2. Unconscious

    The unconscious is the vast sum of operations of the mind that take place below the level of conscious awareness. The conscious mind contains all the thoughts, feelings, cognitions, and memories ...

  3. Freud's Unconscious Mind and Conscious Mind

    The unconscious mind is a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that are outside of our conscious awareness. The unconscious contains contents that are unacceptable or unpleasant, such as feelings of pain, anxiety, or conflict. Freud likened the three levels of mind to an iceberg.

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  6. Unconscious mind

    The unconscious mind (or the unconscious) consists of processes in the mind that occur automatically and are not available to introspection. [1] Although these processes exist beneath the surface of conscious awareness, they are thought to exert an effect on conscious thought processes and behavior. [2]

  7. The Unconscious Mind

    The unconscious mind is still viewed by many psychological scientists as the shadow of a "real" conscious mind, though there now exists substantial evidence that the unconscious is not identifiably less flexible, complex, controlling, deliberative, or action-oriented than is its counterpart.

  8. Unconscious cognition

    Unconscious cognition is the processing of perception, memory, learning, thought, and language without being aware of it. [1] The role of the unconscious mind on decision making is a topic greatly debated by neuroscientists, linguists, philosophers, and psychologists around the world.

  9. How the Unconscious Works

    The mind and brain learn by establishing and strengthening the associative connections. In psychological science, this is termed implicit memory and implicit learning. These are unconscious by...

  10. Unconscious

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    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 abstract and hard to locate. Additional books on the unconscious mind, as recommended by Reddit, include:

  14. Unconscious Process

    Unconscious processes operate outside the person's awareness and play a major role in directing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and of course, in triggering mental illness ( Pilecki et al., 2015 ). This idea started with Freud, and it was advanced and extended by subsequent psychoanalytic-psychodynamic models.

  15. Carl Jung's Collective Unconscious Theory: What It Suggests About the Mind

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  17. Does our unconscious rule?

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  18. Who Am I: The Conscious and the Unconscious Self

    These other features may include, for example, unconscious parts of the self. The concept between conscious and unconscious parts of the self is famous at least until the work of Freud. However, we here call processes as unconscious when thinking about the self usually does not tell us anything about these processes.

  19. How the brain turns unconscious information into conscious thought

    This "mathematical trick" was the evidence accumulation model. " Essentially, the act of becoming consciously aware of a decision conforms to the same process that the brain goes through to ...

  20. Our Unconscious and Conscious Minds Do Battle Daily

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