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Unconscious mind

The unconscious mind is the aspect (or alleged aspect) of the mind of which we are not directly conscious (in the sense of phenomenal consciousness.) The unconscious mind should not be confused with unconsciousness.

The idea originated in antiquity, and its more modern history is detailed in Henri F Ellenberger's Discovery of the Unconscious. The term was popularized by Sigmund Freud. In one of Freud's systematizations, the mind is divided into the Conscious or Ego and two types of Unconscious: the Id or instincts[?] and the Superego. Freud used the idea of the unconscious in order to explain certain kinds of neurotic behavior. (See psychoanalysis.)

Although Freud's theories of the mind are generally regarded as unscientific by contemporary psychologists, there is agreement among many, perhaps most, psychologists and cognitive scientists that much of mental functioning takes place in a part of the mind inaccessible to the eye of consciousness.

Carl Jung developed the concept further. He divided the unconscious into two parts: the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. The first of these corresponds to Freud's idea of the subconscious, though unlike his mentor, Jung believed that the personal unconscious contained a valuable counter-balance to the conscious mind, as well as childish urges. As for the collective unconscious, also called "the archetypes", this is the common store of mental building blocks that makes up the psyche of all humans. Evidence for its existence is the universality of certain symbols that appear in the mythologies of nearly all peoples.

Why contemporary cognitive science posits an unconscious

The unconscious is arguably not the most intuitive idea, so why bother with it? What's the evidence? What might the unconscious explain?

  • The fact that most bodily processes are not consciously controlled eg breathing, blood circulation, blinking
  • The fact that something - not the conscious mind - creates the dreams that we wonder around in at night
  • Creative ideas that do not appear to come from conscious thinking
  • The mind spontaneously moving from one idea or recollection to another
  • Waking up in the morning with an insight or solution to a problem
  • The fact that we can run downstairs without thinking where we place each footfall
  • The fact that we forget certain things but later spontaneously recall them
  • That we learn certain skills so that they become largely automatic eg driving a car, playing a sport
  • The instincts, such as self-preservation and sex, originate on an unconscious level
  • The origin of all the bodily urges, such as hunger and thirst, lies outside the conscious mind
  • Physical reflexes
  • Subliminal perception. It is known that only a very tiny proportion of our bodily stimuli actually reach consciousness. Otherwise we would be swamped by billions of stimuli.
  • Perception - a baby is not born able to recognise shapes but has to build up what is called perceptual stability during the first six months of life.
  • The mental reaction of responding to a stimulus is not conscious but a pattern that is part of our conditioning eg our response to music
  • Hypnosis and trance
  • Psychological processes such as denial, introjection and psychological projection (http://soler.marhost.com/Projection)
  • Intuition
  • Our own motivation tends to be something we are not consciously aware of, a good example of which is:
  • Falling in love
  • With perhaps a few exceptions, nearly all our emotions are caused without our being aware of why at the time, though we may analyse them later
  • We speak our native tongue without looking for words or consciously constructing grammatical phrases - this is done for us on an unconscious level
  • All memory is unconscious. The act of remembering something means bringing the information stored outside our conscious mind into awareness.
  • Since without memory both thinking and learning would be impossible, the importance of the unconscious is far greater than may appear.

I think it was Jung who observed that the conscious is like a cork floating on the ocean of the unconscious.

Is the unconscious altogether inaccessible, or is it just hard to access?

As some of the above examples indicate, material is constantly moving from the conscious mind to the unconscious and vice versa. The conscious mind only holds a small amount of information at any given time. In many cases information - especially easily accessible memories - can be called into awareness at will.

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