Your Unconscious Isn’t Irrational, Erratic, or All About Sex
It's time to dispel some myths about the unconscious.
Posted Jan 21, 2020
Historically, in psychology, the behavioral and cognitive-behavioral traditions did not emphasize unconscious processes—that is, when they did not flat out deny their existence or deem them irrelevant to human functioning. However, even the psychoanalytic tradition cast the unconscious in a specific light: as conflictual, fueled by sexual and aggressive drives, full of wishes and fantasies.
Today, we know these views are limited and overlook the normal, universal everyday unconscious processes that are part of how our minds work—mine and yours and even that of your most annoying neighbor or coworker. So let’s look at some of the qualities of unconscious processes that dispel the above myths about their irrational, erratic, or overly sexualized nature.
Unconscious processes are not necessarily set in motion by conflict or pathology. Their effects are also not a sign that something has gone haywire in the mind. Quite the opposite. They are normal and normative.
In other words, if you have a brain, your brain performs unconscious processes. They are expressions of biology and evolutionary adaptations (for more on that, see here). Sometimes, they may seem irrational because our brains are evolutionarily adapted to an era that is long gone, but they follow certain rules of functioning. For instance, fear of driving over a bridge makes sense if we understand it as fear of heights, which was evolutionarily adaptive in a pre-Wright Brothers era.
Implicit learning also makes sense in that context; a caveman learns that the barely perceptible movement of leaves means a predator may be approaching just as you and I may have learned to fear a loved one's subtle expression of anger if we grew up in a violent environment. Experiencing a panic attack as a result of either of the above examples may not seem adaptive now, as you are trying to drive over a bridge while your partner is making an angry remark. It may even seem irrational to feel that way, given that you are a good driver or that you know your partner will not hurt you. But it is not irrational as far as your unconscious is concerned.
Rather than a seething cauldron of unpredictable wishes, fantasies, and drives, as Freud suggested, the unconscious seems to be much more rigid and associatively organized. As described above, some of these associations are evolutionarily based, like the jolt of fear you may experience when you see a branch resembling a snake on your afternoon walk. Others are learned and committed to unconscious memory over time.
For instance, if you are a driver in the U.S., you probably do not need to think about what to do when you get inside a car. Key in the ignition, press on the brake, shift gear, foot on the accelerator, drive in the right lane. The whole process occurs automatically, as if committed to bodily memory (which it is). If all of a sudden you found yourself driving stick shift in the U.K., however, your much more flexible conscious processes will have to come into play and give you directions on how to drive.
Unconscious processes are quite organized, rigid and, also, predictable. Take how we learn unconsciously, for instance. Whatever is salient and happens to have covaried with an experience becomes associated with that experience and learned. Unlike conscious learning, in which we work hard to memorize associations (e.g. as adults, we learn languages through repetition of vocabulary), the unconscious picks up on what events occur simultaneously, without any conscious awareness that these associations exist or that we have committed them to memory.
This associative learning affects our understanding of and response to the experience. And what is more, this response also becomes automatic. This applies to our environments as much as to our relationships—so much so, that we frequently find ourselves in therapy exactly for the purpose of undoing our unconscious learning and the behavioral patterns we have committed to automaticity: shutting down emotionally when we feel overwhelmed, lashing out at a partner, ruminating on negative self-critical thoughts when we feel disappointed by others, or experiencing impostor syndrome when we should be celebrating an accomplishment.
(Definitely Not) All About Sex
And lastly, our years-long research has shown us that the unconscious, rather than being full of content (sexual or otherwise), is, in fact, a quality of mental processes. Rather than being a secret “container” in the mind that holds our sexual fantasies, the unconscious is a characteristic of all mental processes. And what is even more interesting is that no mental processes are only one or the other. In other words, all mental processes have both conscious and unconscious elements.
Take "love at first sight." You are consciously aware that you perhaps find the person attractive, smart, or attentive, but you also feel something else, something inexplicable, that makes them so appealing to you. You call it chemistry; we call it the work of the unconscious: patterns of behavior, non-verbal cues, or characteristics of speech that register below your awareness, making the person seem "like you have known them forever."
The unconscious is not about hiding impure thoughts away from us but rather about ensuring our survival, expediting processes (albeit at the sometimes high price of rigidity), screening stimuli, monitoring and learning about the environment and its dangers, and seeking to interpret the world around us. The unconscious is in how our thoughts are embedded in the body and in intuition, which stems from hours of unconscious learning. As in how a firefighter knows to yell “Get out” in the split second before a house collapses, only later realizing how her body sensed that the floor of the house was just the slightest bit too soft, meaning the flames had progressed too far.
In conclusion, rather than irrational, erratic, or full of sexualized thoughts, the unconscious is highly organized, uncritical, and even empirical in how it learns about the world. Rather than thinking about it as a secret folder, buried somewhere deep, we now know that it is more like our operational system. We do not often (if ever) come in direct contact with it, but its work behind the scenes is involved in every action we take.
Weinberger, J. & Stoycheva, V. (2019). The unconscious: Theory, research, and clinical implications. New York: The Guilford Press.