It's one of the oldest ideas in psychology. We are said to have an unconscious mind that, despite our best conscious intentions, is the real controlling force in our lives. It leads us to sabotage ourselves, make poor decisions, or be drawn to people who aren't good for us. More optimistically, it uses dreams to send us helpful messages or needed warnings. And it does all of this without our ever knowing.
Could such an unconscious mind really exist?
To answer this question, we need to consider what is meant by "unconscious." The classical perspective on the unconscious mind was developed more than a century ago by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. According to Freud’s theory, we are under the sway of three powerful forces. The animalistic part of us, called the “id,” prods us to take action to satisfy our base needs, usually sexual or aggressive. Given that we can’t indiscriminately have sex or attack others, our moral sense, known as the “superego,” opposes these animalistic urges, setting up a conflict. Caught between these extreme actors, our logical self, which Freud called the “ego,” attempts to find a compromise, satisfying a little of what both the id and superego want. According to Freud, such conflicts happen hundreds or even thousands of times a day in our minds. We don't know about most of them because they occur in a part of the mind Freud dubbed the unconscious.
Though later theorists eliminated some of Freud's more sordid details, they nonetheless kept the basic idea of the unconscious intact: It’s a part of our mind that is thinking, feeling, and scheming behind the scenes. We literally have another mind within our mind. This other mind influences our actions even though—and this is the really important part—we have no direct access to it. This is why psychologists are so infamous for indirectly interpreting things. If you dream about riding a horse in a high-stakes race, this could really mean your unconscious mind is stressed out by the pace of your daily life. If you habitually have a cigar in your mouth, this could really mean you unconsciously want oral sex. Because we can’t directly peer into the unconscious, such indirect interpretations are best we can do.
The biggest problem with this view is that it’s impossible to scientifically test. As a general rule, scientists consider something true only when it can be meaningfully observed or measured. The unconscious mind, by definition, can’t be. After all, its central feature is that it’s completely inaccessible. I once observed a lecture given by a psychoanalyst who endorsed this classical view of the unconscious mind. Over the course of about an hour, he explained that almost everyone harbors unconscious resentment toward their parents. When one of the students asserted that he personally didn’t harbor any such unconscious negative feeling toward his parents, the psychoanalyst replied, “See, that proves it’s unconscious!” If we're supposed to take the fact that we can’t observe something as evidence that it actually exists, then that thing is essentially outside the realm of science.
But even if science has little to say about the unconscious mind, we can still ask whether the concept is logical. The unconscious is one version of what philosophers refer to as a “homunculus”, Latin for “little man.” The basic idea is that we have a little person inside of us. We’re not actually doing the thinking, the little person is. The problem with explanations that involve a homunculus, is that they don’t actually explain anything; they just beg the question. If our mind works by having another little mind within it, then how does that little mind work? And if that little mind works by having yet another homunculus within it, how does that one work? Such arguments pretty quickly retreat into absurdity. On logical grounds, therefore, it seems unlikely that the classical unconscious exists.
But another, more modern view of the unconscious seems much more likely to be true. It's widely agreed that we do all kinds of things unconsciously. If you drive to work every morning, you’ve probably had the experience of remembering both leaving home and arriving at work, but not recalling much about the drive in between. It’s common for people to tune out during the journey, making many left and right turns, stopping at lights, and even parking the car without really thinking about it. Researchers tend to refer to this behavior as “automatic” rather than unconscious. Most automatic behaviors result from something called overlearning—doing them so many times that they become a habit. The first ten times a pianist plays a particular sonata, he or she must think carefully and consciously about what each finger is doing. Eventually, however, playing the piece becomes automatic. It’s the way we all learned to ride a bike or even walk, for that matter.
When we find ourselves automatically driving to work, however, this doesn’t mean we’ve allowed a homunculus to take over our bodies. It simply means we’re not dedicating attention to the task. According to pioneering research by Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman our brain has a limited pool of the cognitive resource known as attention. Not all tasks require equal amounts of this resource. Doing physics homework or repairing a watch require lots of attention. If we don’t bring all of our conscious focus to these tasks, we’ll make big mistakes. It doesn’t require nearly as much attention, however, to drive a well-practiced route to work or do other well-learned behaviors. This leaves a large pool of attention left over that we can use to ponder our day, worry about our work, or just daydream. Of course, we shouldn’t let our minds wonder too dramatically or our driving will suffer. That’s why talking on the phone isn’t a good idea—it uses too much of our pool of attentional resources.
How we think about ourselves can also be automatic. I had a college-aged psychotherapy client who noticed that every time she took a test, she would feel depressed for days, despite getting very good grades. When I asked her to pay close attention to the thoughts she was having about herself during the test, she made an important discovery: She was repeatedly telling herself how much of a “loser" and a “disappointment" she was. These thoughts just popped into her mind, as if from nowhere. Psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck called this phenomenon automatic thinking. Like my client, people frequently aren’t initially aware of their automatic thoughts, even though these thoughts cause painful emotions. In this sense, such thoughts are “unconscious.” But automatic thoughts are not the musings of a self-sabotaging inner-homunculus. They almost always consist of statements that an individual heard so many times from a critical parent, teacher, or significant other that they became overlearned and automatic. They're habitual, just like riding a bike, playing a piano sonata, or driving to work.
A key difference between the classical unconscious and this more modern perspective is the degree to which automatic processes are accessible and therefore changeable. In Freud’s view, not only was the unconscious impossible to directly observe, we were utterly at its mercy. Automatic thoughts and behaviors, on the other hand, are much easier to access. We can consciously tune into our daily commute simply by wanting to. We can even choose to take a different route. Likewise, my client was able to access her negative automatic thinking just by paying attention to it, even though initially she wasn't fully aware it was there. That's one of the reasons that psychologists are increasingly teaching mindfulness meditation—among many other advantages of such practices, they can help clients tune into thoughts they previously weren't noticing. Of course, changing our automatic thoughts isn’t nearly as easy as tuning into them. Just as playing a sonata or riding a bike takes conscious repetitive practice to become automatic, changing our ingrained thinking patterns requires similar dedication and practice.
Whether the unconscious mind exists turns out to be a question of exactly what one means by the word “unconscious.” While it’s clear that many of the things we do and think are automatic, this doesn’t mean we’re at the mercy of a conniving mind-within-a-mind. With intentional practice, my client was able to substitute many of her habitual negative thoughts with more realistic alternatives. Although this didn’t solve all of her problems, of course, it’s comforting to know that, in many ways, our unconscious mind is at the mercy of our conscious choices, not the other way around.
David B. Feldman is a Professor of Counseling Psychology at Santa Clara University. Listen to his podcast, “Psychology in 10 Minutes,” on any podcast app, through SoundCloud, iTunes, or by subscribing to the show’s RSS feed.