Mapping Human Consciousness

The three domains and two filters of human consciousness

Posted Mar 25, 2012

  As a clinician and educator, I have used the following map of human consciousness with much success, both in guiding my conceptualizations and interventions with patients and in educating budding clinicians on how to integrate key insights from major perspectives (e.g., experiential, cognitive, psychodynamic) to understand how people work.

  Here is the map. Almost everyone with whom I have shared the conception can easily relate to it. To use your intuitive folk psychology to understand it, imagine the image depicts twin brothers, Chao and Chi. On the left, Chao was first born and favored by his parents. He has just heard that he has gotten in to his first choice for college, and he is telling Chi about it. Imagine Chi is jealous, and think about what might be going through their minds.

   I will define what the parts of the diagram mean, and then we will return to the specific example. As shown, there are three broad domains of human consciousness in adults, which are as follows: 1) the experiential system; 2) a private self-consciousness system; and 3) the public self. And there are two filters that connect the three domains: 1) the Freudian Filter (which exists between the experiential and private); and 2) the Rogerian Filter (between the private self and public self). Below I will briefly define each component, and then return to Chao and Chi.

The Three Domains of Human Consciousness

   The experiential self refers to the sentient aspects of consciousness, and it is made up of the "raw feels" of conscious experience. These experiences can be generally classified into sensations and perceptions (e.g., seeing red, touching a rock), motivational urges (e.g., hunger, sexual desire), and feelings and emotions (e.g., sadness, joy, anger), as well as imagined objects or occurrences. I would argue that the experiential self is fundamentally organized by emotion. From the perspective of psychotherapy, the images, impulses and organizing properties of emotions are often the focus of attention. It is also worth noting that the experiential self connects to the body via felt experience, thus many experientially oriented therapists will guide clients toward attending to experiences in their body.

   The private self-consciousness system is the center of self-reflective awareness in adults, and it is made up most immediately of the internal dialogue that weaves a narrative of what is happening and why. It is a second order awareness system, one that translates and feeds back onto the experiential system. Psychodynamic theorists generally consider this the conscious portion of the human ego. It also is the part of the mind targeted by traditional cognitive psychotherapy, which teaches individuals to monitor the content of their private justifications, identify how those justifications influence feeling states and behavior, and develop strategies for analyzing the accuracy and utility of those justifications in promoting adaptive action.

  Developmentally, the private self emerges as dialogue is internalized by the child. Usually by later childhood and certainly by early adolescence there is a distinct psychosocial identity that becomes the seat of reflective self-awareness in adults. The following quote from Carl Jung captures this emergence vividly:

   I was taking the long road to school...when suddenly for a single moment I had the overwhelming impression of having just emerged from a dense cloud. I knew all at once: I am myself!...Previously I had existed, too, but everything merely happened to me...Previously I had been willed to do this and that: now I willed. This experience seemed to me tremendously important and new: there was "authority" in me.  

   The public self exists between individuals and is the explicit articulation to others of what one thinks, along with the image one tries to project. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman describes face-to-face interactions and examined such processes through the lens of stage acting. He articulated how interpersonal interactions could be considered "performances" as actors learned to manage their impressions to others in both the structured and improvised roles of everyday life. Specifically, Goffman suggested that actors work to convey a positive, predictable impression, so as to be perceived as justifiable in the eyes of the audience.

   The relationship between the public self that people attempt to project and how it is received is a crucial element of interpersonal relations and mental health. As you undoubtedly can imagine and likely have experienced, disconnect between the image we attempt to convey and the image received can happen for a multitude of reasons. We can misread what others want or expect, we can simply fail to impress despite our best efforts, and we often need to manage conflicting interests, both ours and those with whom we relate, and this can become especially complicated when we are aligned to interpersonal systems that are in conflict. Consider, for example, when one friend complains to you about another. In supporting one friend, tension emerges with the other. Moreover, lying, impression management, saying one thing and doing another are common everyday occurrences, so other people are naturally attuned to the possibility of filtering, deceit, and incongruence between actions and words, and are constantly wondering about what people are really thinking compared to what they are socially presenting.

The Two Filters

   Inside each of the individuals in the figure are two filters, labeled the Freudian and the Rogerian. The Freudian filter exists between the experiential self and the private self and refers to the process by which unjustifiable or painful images and impulses are filtered out and/or are reinterpreted to be consistent with the individual's conscious justification system. It is called the 'Freudian' filter because the dynamic relationship between self-conscious and subconscious thoughts and feelings was (and still is) a central focus in both classical psychoanalysis and modern psychodynamic theory. Indeed, I have argued that the idea that the self-consciousness system filters out socially unacceptable motives in a manner that allows for a defendable conception of the self is arguably the founding insight of Freudian psychology. Consider, for example, that repression and rationalization, two central defense mechanisms, can be readily thought of as two sides of a filtering process. Repression blocks or filters out unacceptable experiences, and rationalization is the process of attempting to provide an acceptable verbal narrative for those actions that are expressed. A reaction formation, recently captured nicely here by a fellow psychology today blogger, is a mixture of repression and rationalization.

   Why are certain impulses filtered? According to the unified theory, the reason is to maintain a consistent, relatively stable justification narrative of the self and to maintain a justifiable image in the eyes of others. That is, I think we should think of ego defenses as justifications that people make to themselves and others-justifications so designed that the defender, not just other people, can accept them. The formulation remains a hallmark feature of modern psychodynamic models and is also present in general models of personality and social psychological research on cognitive dissonance and psychopathology. The current understanding of this filtering process from a modern psychodynamic view is nicely captured by the Malan Triangle of Conflict that depicts impulses/feelings at one point, anxiety at another, and defenses at the third. See here for a blog on such filtering.

  There is also filtering between the private and the public. The film Liar, Liar starring Jim Carey provides an excellent illustration of the nature of the private to public filtering. In that film, Carey plays an unscrupulous but effective lawyer who is always making promises to his son, but fails to follow through. After failing to show up for his son's birthday party, his son makes a wish that his father cannot tell a lie for 24 hours that magically comes true. The film is a situation comedy that shows what would happen if we could not filter our private thoughts, but instead when asked, we had to share our private justifications in an unabridged manner with others.

  I call the filtering that takes place between the private and the public self the Rogerian filter because in relationship to early psychoanalytic thinking, Rogers shifted the focus from deep and largely subconscious intrapsychic processes to more conscious thought and experiences and here-and-now interpersonal processes. He emphasized that the root of much psychopathology was in how judgmental others would stunt the development of one's "true self". This is because, fearing judgment, individuals filter out their true desires and put on a mask-a "social self"-to appease influential others. Person-centered therapy is based on the premise that through forming a relationship with an empathetic, nonjudgmental other, individuals can stop the problematic stunting caused by the private to public filtering process, reinvest in their true sense of self, and return to a path of growth and fulfillment.

A Third Filter? From Nonconscious to Conscious Mental Processing

  The above is a map of human consciousness. But where does consciousness come from in relationship to the brain or mind? In a previous blog, I articulated how the unified theory defines the mind. The mind is the information instantiated within and processed by the nervous system. From this vantage point, consciousness is a specific kind of mental/cognitive process. The point that I want to make here is that there is a dimension from nonconscious (implicit) to conscious (explicit). This process is related to the Freudian filter, but is not identical to it. Social and cognitive psychologists like John Bargh and Tim Wilson research the implicit to explicit dimension.

   So let's return briefly to Chao and Chi. The public exchange (a transcript of what they say to each other) reads like the following.

            Chao: Hey, did you here I got into Duke?

            Chi: Yeah. You must be pretty psyched. I am sure Mom and Dad are thrilled.

            Chao: They were pretty happy about it. I am sure good news is coming for you soon.

            Chi: We will see.

    Now imagine their private reflective thoughts and feelings. Depending on their relationship, it is easy to imagine Chao feeling a mixture of pride, guilt and/or anger, and having corresponding private justifications like, "You should be happy for me," "Mom and Dad love me more because I work harder and do better," "I am sorry that it seems I always get the breaks". To bring in even more of the diagram, imagine that Chao has an identity of himself as gracious, but has needs in his experiential system for dominance. His experiential system would feel the surge in pride and want to rub it in Chi's face, but he would filter this out from his self-consciousness system. But, it is very likely it would be communicated indirectly, and that Chi would be very sensitive to this, and sense that Chao really does enjoy always one-upping him, but if he accuses Chao of this, Chao will deny it. So feelings of resentment and shame would likely be present in Chi, yet, depending on his own identity, may or may not be acknowledged.

     Human consciousness is one of those concepts that can be extremely difficult to grasp, with different authors meaning different things. I have found the above map to be useful, both in understanding research and philosophical issues, as well as in psychotherapy and every day living.