What exactly is the unconscious? Actually, just using the simple word “the” before “unconscious” makes a great deal of difference to the meaning. For example, to be unconscious is very easy to understand — it is to not be conscious: a state of unconsciousness, either in a faint, while one is asleep, in a coma, a vegetative state, or perhaps because one has drunk too much. This kind of unconsciousness is easy to understand. So what happens when we put the “the” in front of the word “unconscious” — then it becomes a different thing all together. We all have one, but what is our relationship to our “the unconscious”?
Freud, of course, was the most famous theorist of the unconscious — so much so, that the idea of “the Freudian unconscious” is what many of us automatically think of when we think of the unconscious. That is a dark place within all of our psyches that is unknowable to us. It is full of sexual longings and fantasies, violent wishes, aggressive tendencies, and selfish desires. For Freud, the unconscious was full of instinctual longings that are very basic, animal like, or at best, infantile. They exist outside of consciousness (meaning that we cannot access these things through thinking about it) but the affect everything we do, every decision we make — from who we are attracted to to what words we use to address them. Because so much of what is in the unconscious is stuff we don’t want to know about (because parts of the unconscious are not aware of social constrictions that we learn through the development of our ego), we resist the contents of the stuff that lives there. In psychoanalytic treatment, Freud referred to this as “resistance” — however, once resistances are overcome, we can learn to be more conscious of our unconscious processes, and make better choices for ourselves in our lives.
So what sorts of things are there that get in the way? Again, for Freud, looking back to childhood gives us a lot of answers. Most can be found in the early years of our lives, how we were brought up as infants, and how we witnessed the relationship between ourselves and our caretakers. One of the most powerful aspects of the unconscious is “transference”. In transference, we unconsciously transfer experiences and ideas we have from previous relationships onto current ones. In the simplest of terms, this is how you might respond to authority (your boss, teacher, or therapist) as if they were your father or your mother. Transference happens all the time, especially in close relationships — so if you think your relationship with your partner often seems to uncannily resemble your parents’ relationship, this is transference in action. We don’t just “marry our mother or father” we actually tend to make our partners into our mothers or fathers!
Freud understood this as a “repetition compulsion.” The compulsion to repeat is one of Freud’s most difficult to understand concepts — but in its simplest terms, it means that until we learn better, we are likely to repeat over and over again relationships and responses to the world that simply do not work for us. Because this process is unconscious, it can be very difficult to shift. It’s pretty much the aim of psychoanalysis to make ourselves as conscious as we can of our repetition compulsions, so we can be freer to make decisions in the world that work better for us. Another term Freud used was “reality testing” — this is very important. If we let ourselves be led only by our transferences and our repetition compulsions, we will never see the world as it really is — that is, instead of seeing your (male) boss, you’ll see remnants of your persecuting father and respond accordingly, for example; or instead of seeing the potential for a warm relationship with a female friend or lover, you will see your overbearing mother and run for cover. These two examples are intentionally “gendered” to make the example as clear as possible — but it’s important to know that transferences transcend gender.
Developments in Psychoanalysis
Freud no longer rules the roost when it comes to the unconscious, and there are few therapists or analysts left today who believe the limited version of unconsciousness that Freud gave us. Still, his theories were very insightful and still serve as the basis for later theory. Melanie Klein developed Freud’s theory by teaching us how the unconscious forms from the very earliest of life experience –right from birth and the very important experiences of feeding and weaning. Klein’s unconscious is pretty dark too — involving all sorts of violent aggressive fantasies (though for Klein these are described as “phantasies” with the “ph” distinguishing unconscious phantasy from daydreaming or sexual fantasies).
It’s not all so dark though. Carl Jung, who worked alongside Freud for a long while until he went off in his own direction, was very interested in how the unconscious of all of us could be linked in some way — he referred to this as the “collective unconscious” and laid out how our shared human experience was also shared unconsciously. Elements of this collective unconscious were described to be “archetypes” and such archetypes are available to all of us. Rather than being simply aggressive or negative (which Jung assigned to a part of the unconscious he referred to as “the shadow”) the help us to “individuate” that is, to become more deeply ourselves. This idea brings us out of Freud’s individual unconscious into a worldview that links all human experience as shared on the level of the collective unconscious.
Many researchers coming out of experimental psychology don’t really buy a great deal of what is discussed above. This, for them, is all about speculation. They ask what can be proven about the unconscious — and there is a great deal of work happening in this area. One thing that does seem for sure, is that there is an unconscious. Jonah Lehrer’s excellent book How we Decide is an excellent introduction into how the unconscious informs our decision-making. It can be very strange to read as it makes the reader feel, at times, that we are rather “determined”: meaning that we don’t have as much free-choice as we think we might. How is it, asks Lehrer, that a running-back in American football knows to deviate left, rather than right, to catch a ball? There is no time to consciously make such a decision. How does the professional poker player know that the other player is thinking? While there is some degree of conscious thought here, a great deal of visible and invisible cues are also being processed unconsciously. What results is a development of what could be called “intuition” that, rather than simply being a “hunch” is actually informed by the unconscious assimilation of lots of clues.
Another recent book, Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, while not talking specifically about the unconscious, talk very interestingly about how our social networks affect us more deeply than we might think — they affect us through a form of social unconsciousness. While this is not quite what Jung was talking about, it is a fascinating insight into how we as humans are deeply affected by things that we may not even be aware of. Steven Pinker (one of my favourite popular science authors) has a lot to say about the relationship between evolution and psychology. The field of Evolutionary Psychology has some problems with psychoanalytic perspectives of the unconscious, yet proposes its own notion of the unconscious as a function of our biological heritage. It tries to make sense of human behaviour through the influence of our genes.
Whatever concept of the unconscious you might have, there is no doubt that it operates very importantly in all of our lives. A greater knowledge of your personal unconscious can do wonders for how you inhabit your own life, how you make decision, and how you run your relationships. The expression that knowledge is power is certainly apt here. While the nature of our unconscious automatically makes is “unknowable” we can gain greater access through it through various pursuits including meditation, writing, walking in nature, the arts, and most directly, through the relationship with a highly trained and experienced psychotherapist. Awareness and understanding are only the first steps in this process — it is the experiencing that is key to liberating yourself as much as you can from that repetition compulsion, and living your life with a degree of freedom you have otherwise missed.