A conscious process is something we are cognitively aware of at the moment it is happening.
An unconscious process is something we are not aware of at the moment it is happening. Unconscious processes are inaccessible to consciousness but influence our judgement, feelings, and behaviour. According to Freud, the unconscious mind is the primary source of human behaviour. Like an iceberg, the most important part of the mind is the part we cannot see. Our feelings, motives and decisions are powerfully influenced by our past experiences, and stored in the unconscious.
The evolution of the notion of the unconscious through the ages:
The existence of an unconscious mind is something which is quite commonly accepted: after having had a bad dream or making a slip of the tongue, many people assume that their unconscious was trying to tell them something. Whilst much modern psychotherapy accepts this idea, there are other schools of thought which do not, and historically this has not always been the case.
So where does this relationship with our unconscious originate?
In the time of the ancient civilisations, Egyptian pharaohs and high priests believed that their dreams were messages from sacred sources. Many 18thcentury philosophers began to contemplate our actions and their relationship to what was going on in our heads. Most often, the unconscious was seen as a negative and unhelpful ‘substance’, ‘state’, ‘ego’, ‘idea’ or ‘will’.
Influential French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) believed that the mind was always thinking cognitive thoughts and totally rejected the concept of the unconscious. He was the first of many left-brained rationalist and rigid Cartesian thinkers for whom only conscious reasoning was to be followed and studied.
The English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), following similar principles, established a notion of ‘clear’ and ‘obscure’ ideas when talking about the unconscious, however he did not see these ‘obscure’ ideas as emanating from the unconscious and in fact did not use the term ‘unconscious’ at all. His philosophy was that we were born without innate ideas, and that all learning comes from experience. Locke spent a great deal of time defining the origins of ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ ideas, and tried, in his own way, to make sense of the mind, saying, ‘We know nothing about the nature of spirit and nature.’
German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716), was referring to the unconscious when he spoke of ‘petites perceptions’ - or minute ideas of such low intensity that consciousness cannot detect them.
The Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza (1632–1677), the ‘philosopher of psychoanalysis’, studied the way we function mentally and talked about the ‘not-conscious’, a place where ‘mere imaginings and mere fantasies may have consequences comparable to those of perceptions of reality’, a place where ‘confused and inadequate ideas’ seem to operate and where ‘passive emotions may be due to processes of associations, and ideas may be determined by other ideas of which the mind is not aware’ (Emotion, thoughts and therapy: a study of Hume and Spinoza, 1977, volume 2, p149).
A summary of the ideas above was proffered by German philosopher Eduard von Hartman (1842–1906) who acknowledged that ‘many philosophers of time past possessed an unconscious idea of the unconscious to which they gave different names’. (The Unconscious in Philosophy and French and European Literature, Fernand Vial, Dan T Valahu, 2009, p33).
Freud’s major work focused on demonstrating how unacceptable thoughts and feelings are repressed into the unconscious and that from there they continue actively to influence our life. Freud believed that the unconscious was acquired along with language, in other words that we were not born with it.
Two major new ways of thinking emerged when Swiss psychiatrist and student of Freud, Carl Jung (1875-1961) took a new path with his views on the unconscious. On the one hand he followed Freudian ways of thinking and psychotherapies, and worked with those early-acquired repressed thoughts to treat patients, and on the other hand, Jung and his followers work with an innate form of the unconscious.
Jungian psychotherapies recognise a natural unconscious that exists before language is acquired, and they also maintain the existence of a collective unconscious.
While Jung was a follower of Freud, he differed in seeing the unconscious existing on two levels: the ‘personal unconscious’ (a person’s repressed, forgotten or ignored experiences), and a deeper level, the ‘collective unconscious’ (a ‘storehouse of latent memory traces inherited from man’s ancestral past’).
Jung followed the evolution of man, a theory which, like Darwin’s theory of evolution (and in common with some ancient mythology) believed that everyone has two levels of unconscious and that all human beings have the ability to tap into this collective unconscious. (http://www.psychoheresy-aware.org/jungleg.html).
This Jungian theory has become particularly interesting nowadays because of its links with the study of hypnosis, timeline and regression therapies which all seem to validate the theory of a collective unconscious. Certainly, Jung’s theory is one of the few credible explanations of past life regression.
Marie claude Bouchet
Professional development, Personal development, mental wellbeing, stress management, resilience etc.