The unconscious mind

To some this post might be old news but to others hopefully it’s informative. Over the past decade or so there’s been a revolution in psychology. Research and experimental findings in human psychology suggest that our understanding of the mind and brain are at the cusp of a major turning point or shift. This new dawn in science has been the result of breakthroughs primarily in neuroscience and social science research.

The core finding of this revolution involves our greater understanding of the unconscious mind and how it operates. Research wise we’ve been able to design experiments that manifest the operation of the unconscious mind. These experiments reveal structural biases in our thinking and the weighty influence of the unconscious mind in our everyday actions. It turns out that our unconscious mind is very active in shaping who we are, how we act, and what we become. Far more so than we ever thought. After the waning of psychoanalysis in the later part of 20th century it became taboo to talk about the unconscious mind. But the advances in science have corrected this limited perspective.

It turns out Freud was right. We do have a very active unconscious mind and it does have a big influence on our behavior. But Freud was wrong about what the unconscious was and how it functions. Freud’s view was that the unconscious was hot, wet, primitive, irrational, and seething with anger and lust. The “new” unconscious, the one that scientist are now studying, is “kindler and gentler than that and more reality bound.” Freud of course didn’t have the use of modern experimental methods and technology. His psychology was based primarily on observation and introspection. Within these limitations Freud’s project was fascinating and highly influential in the late 19th and early 20th century. Freud’s psychology is certainly not science in the modern sense, but his ideas are deeply penetrating as literature and philosophy. Stop and consider for a moment the vocabulary Freud gave us for psychoanalyzing other people. Think of words like defense mechanism, repression, libido, displacement, sublimation, condensation, over-determination and many others. Freud’s psychoanalysis isn’t science but it is a useful way for describing human behavior.

With modern technology we can now see into the brain as it operates through the use of the fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging ). We can now watch as blood moves through the brain during cognition, indicating which areas of the brain are in use during an event. Neuroscientists can now say what area of our brain–the reasoning part, the emotional parts involving fear, love etc, etc,–are functioning, or being activated during experiments. The science on this is fascinating. There have been a number of really good books over the past few years that have highlighted what we’ve learned. I’m currently reading Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. If you have an interest in psychology or if you’re just interested in human nature and how and why people do what they do then you might want to check out some of these recommendations:

The Social Animal

Think Fast, Slow

The Folly of Fools

The Righteous Mind

The Happiness Hypothesis

Stranger to Ourselves


Social Intelligence 

The above are just a sampling of books I’ve read, but you can go to and find a treasure trove of books covering neuroscience, behavioral economics and social neuroscience.

I should also note that there are still many questions in psychology that neuroscience has not been able to address. Consciousness, perception, learning and memory are some examples. Neuroscience is a very good tool and has greatly advanced our understanding, but we should be mindful that we have a long way to go and still much to learn. As is the case with science, as we continue to advance our understanding we must continually revise our views to square with new facts.

2 thoughts on “The unconscious mind

  1. When I think of the unconscious mind, I think of it more in pragmatic terms. I like to think of the mind in terms of ‘Low-effort’ and ‘High-effort’ thinking; where low-effort thinking represents the collection of experiences we call the ‘unconscious mind’ and high-effort thinking out everyday waking experience.

    Low effort thinking, for me, has tremendous influence over the way I operate. It’s comforting, in a way, to know that even when you’re not ‘thinking’, your mind is still processing patterns and problem solving. When I was first studying chemistry I remember how confused the ‘mole’ made me. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I felt this easily recognizable feeling, one that I always feel when something doesn’t sit right and I cannot understand a particular problem. My conscious mind was trying to run with the data; I was making algorithms and drawing out pictures and organizing information. But all the while my unconscious mind, the low-effort portion, was trying to make sense of everything, only I hadn’t supplied it with enough information.

    Now when I get that feeling, when I don’t quite ‘understand’ something, I recognize that I’m simply missing a piece of the puzzle, and that I need more information.

    For me, this is an incredibly simple way to understand consciousness; qualia, experience. We are, at our core, unconscious creatures. Our evolutionary history dictates that fact. Only, our society (the west in particular) provides this picture of free-will and consciousness that just doesn’t make sense anymore, given the new, hard-won information all now have at our fingertips. We developed the conscious portion of our ‘mind’. But it’s important to remember that we talk and think about things very metaphorically, and the problems arise when we try to analyze things critically and reduce them but forget the metaphoric nature of our language (these and this; pronouns of a very abstract nature).

    Great post!

    • Thanks for commenting. You know our bind is with language to a degree. We need metaphors to explain scientific concepts and organize our thinking around complex subjects and yet the metaphor limits our grasp. Take Jonathan Haidts’s metaphor for the conscious/unconscious nature of the human mind. He uses the elephant (unconscious) and the rider (consciousness). Matthew Taylor (RSA) adds the “jungle” to represent environmental influences. This is a great way of trying to explain it to somebody and yet it limits us. The metaphor gives us a general understanding but the interplay and elaborations are missing. And, of course, seeing the connections is everything.

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