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What is the Unconscious Mind?

By Debra Durkee
Updated May 17, 2024
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The unconscious mind is part of a theory developed by Sigmund Freud regarding the storage of memories and experiences. Freud suggested that all memories exist in the unconscious mind, dormant and unremembered but still helping to direct the actions of the individual and shape his or her personality. These unremembered experiences are often painful and troubling, and the unconscious mind acts as a safeguard in the individual's own mind.

Perhaps the most defining characteristic of the unconscious mind is that the individual is not aware of it. This is one thing that all theories seem to agree on; the degree to which waking actions are shaped is largely debated, but psychologists and scientists typically agree that much of the brain's activity goes undetected by the individual. It is also generally thought to reside alongside other parts of the mind.

Freud developed the theory in order to explain why people seem to act erratically, or do things that they are unable to explain afterward. He argued that even though an individual might not be able to explain his or her actions, these actions were not arbitrary. Instead, Freud stated that they were governed by thoughts, memories, and experiences that the person could not remember but was still influenced by.

When an individual is born, he or she absorbs information from the surroundings without remembering specific details. Some researchers believe that this allows the individual to adapt to whatever environment he or she is in; in situations where an infant is born in one country and relocated to another, the unconscious mind acts as a filter that allows the individual to grow and mature with basic information needed to understand the surrounding culture. Imitating the ways of others allows an individual to fit in with a group or culture, and part of the theory states that the unconscious mind guides behaviors in order to adapt to others.

The vision of the unconscious as seen by psychologists like Freud and Carl Jung is much more dramatic, however. In their interpretation, the conscious and unconscious mind continuously struggled for control over the individual. Freud used examples of patients who were suffering from some form of anxiety or depression while not knowing what caused these emotions. He stated that it had to be the influence of another level of thought and memory; from this theory, he developed the classic psychoanalytic methods for individuals desiring to tap into the unconscious mind to discover what was troubling them and why, by unlocking memories that had been repressed.

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Discussion Comments
By whiteplane — On Apr 29, 2012

When I think of the mind I tend to think of it like a single pea on top of a duffel bag. The pea is the conscious mind and the duffel is the unconscious mind.

It is easy to forget how huge the unconscious mind is but that is basically where we store everything. The conscious mind exists for the moment, but the minute something drifts into the past it becomes caught up in whatever sticky ether constitutes the unconscious mind. I know that this is not scientific but I think we can talk about the mind in a philosophical way as well.

By gravois — On Apr 29, 2012

There has been a lot of talk lately about how much of the human brain is guided by the unconscious mind. As humans, we take a lot of pride in being rational beings. We like to think that everything we do comes from a measured consideration of the options and a careful consideration of the best one. Basically, we think the things we do make sense.

But a lot of research and writing has shown that humans are subjected, even dominated, by a whole range of instincts, wants, desires, fears and other unconscious impulses that come to define our behavior. And it makes sense. Why do people drink, or gamble, or smoke or become overweight? None of these things "make sense" and yet they are common the world over because people do a lot of things that make no sense at all. We should not pat ourselves on the back so hard about how much smarter than animals we are.

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