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The unconscious is the vast sum of operations of the mind that take place below the level of conscious awareness. The conscious mind contains all the thoughts, feelings, cognitions, and memories we acknowledge, while the unconscious consists of deeper mental processes not readily available to the conscious mind.

Much learning, especially recognition of complex patterns, takes place outside of conscious awareness. Similarly, many of the elements that go into judgments and decision-making are processed outside of awareness. Intuition, too, is a product of unconscious mental operations, a set of assumptions swiftly assembled from cumulative knowledge and experience. Much of human motivation and interpersonal attraction also take shape beyond conscious awareness.

What’s in the Unconscious Mind

While it is difficult to measure what exists in the unconscious, scientists know that even fleeting perceptions—too swift to register on conscious awareness—can leave lasting imprints on the unconscious mind. Consciousness requires attention, but information can register in the absence of directed attention. The unconscious is the repository of automatic skills, the source of stored memories, fantasy, and dreams.

Why do we even have an unconscious?

The brain is a very busy organ, running the body, constantly taking information in through the senses, making decisions—all at the same time. The unconscious is an engine of information processing, and most human functioning takes place in it. It is more important that the brain take in information than know how it got it.

Who was the first person to talk about the unconscious?

Sigmund Freud was the first person to draw attention to the importance of the unconscious mind in influencing everyday activities. However, his view of the unconscious as primarily the repository of the sexual drive, destructive impulses, and repressed memories of sordid experiences has been bypassed by newer understanding what's in the unconscious and how it works.

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How the Unconscious Mind Works

Researchers know that the unconscious mind does the lion’s share of the brain’s work, but they don’t know exactly how all of it gets done, and it is an active subject of study. For example, one major area of research is how emotions take shape in the unconscious. Information is stored associatively in the brain, which is largely bundles of pathways of association—far too many to remember, but usually responsive to activation when needed.

What behaviors come from the unconscious?

People automatically tend to imitate the physical behavior of others, including their emotional displays, a response generated unconsciously and thought to be an important contributor to the ancestral human need for social cohesion. Much research shows that feelings arise in the unconscious, as everyday events stimulate networks of associations, and while we may be aware of the feelings, we often do not know how they arose.

Is the unconscious smarter than the conscious mind?

The unconscious mind processes information faster than the conscious mind, and intuition is Exhibit A. But it is neither smarter nor stupider than the conscious mind. It is an essential part of our normal mental operations, as most human behavior is a mixed product of both conscious and unconscious brain activity. Take riding a bike: The motor movement is automatic, but the steering better be highly conscious!

How Therapists Work With the Unconscious Mind

Psychotherapy is a form of problem-solving with an expert at knowing where to find the source of the problem. After all, it’s hard to get rid of a problem unless you know why you have it. Most forms of psychotherapy aim to bring into conscious awareness hidden beliefs and fears, often acquired during childhood so that they can be critically examined and their current value determined. The goal is to make people aware of the deeper reasons for their behaviors and feelings in order to enable change to more satisfying ways.

Why are therapists interested in the unconscious mind?

Unpleasant emotions, unwanted thoughts, hidden beliefs that nevertheless influence behavior, unproductive behavior patterns, fears—all are problems people may bring to therapy in the hope of relief. Most problems resist the simple desire for change because they have some component that makes sense with memories or beliefs stored at a level below conscious awareness.

What sorts of problems can be fixed by working with the unconscious?

Unconscious beliefs and feelings can be a hidden source of distress, leading to such common problems as self-defeating thoughts, anger, spending sprees and many forms of compulsive behavior in individuals. The same sources of distress can also set off painful patterns of interactions between partners in a relationship and members of a family, which often show up as behavior problems in a child.

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