What Is the Unconscious Mind?

Which of the two different metaphors used by therapists would you choose?

Posted Aug 20, 2019

Sigmund Freud's description of the unconscious mind is well known. Within the unconscious, Freud argued, are memories that have been repressed but continue to exert their influence on behavior. Psychoanalysis attempts to bring this unconscious material into conscious awareness.

The metaphor most often used to describe Freud’s view of the unconscious mind is that of an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg floating above the water is the conscious mind—all those thoughts, feelings, and memories that come to mind when prompted. But like an iceberg, there is so much more going on below the surface—underneath the water is the unconscious mind that we don’t have access to. Memories that were too painful to remember may be repressed, but they are still there—exerting their force on us in ways that we don’t understand.

Psychoanalytic psychology is like hiring a scuba diver who can go below the surface for us to look at the hidden iceberg.

Such ideas have become widespread. In everyday life, people often talk about the unconscious in a way that evokes this iceberg metaphor, and they may even pay for psychoanalytic psychologists to help them explore these depths.

But it is just a metaphor, and the unconscious itself is a disputed idea. Certainly, people do have experiences that are outside their awareness and often act in ways that they cannot explain. But this does not mean that the iceberg metaphor correctly describes what is going on.

Instead, let me tell you about a different metaphor that I think is more helpful, but surprisingly much less well known.

The psychologist William James argued instead that our consciousness is like a lake and that we are floating upon it in a glass-bottom boat. Because the boat is glass-bottomed, we can look at everything below—but only one part at a time.

In the Freudian view, only parts that are above the water are accessible to us, but in James’ view, the entire lake is accessible—if we choose to make it so. We just need to move the boat.

James talked about the nucleus and the fringe. The nucleus is the bit directly below the boat that we are aware of and the fringe is the context around it. It's more vague and we can’t quite describe it but it is on the edge of our awareness, like when something is on the tip of our tongue, or when we feel that we know something in our gut.

It is often said that one of the differences between psychoanalytical psychology and humanistic psychology is that the latter does not pay enough attention to the unconscious mind. This is why. For the humanistic psychologist who thinks in terms of the lake metaphor, there is no hidden unconscious mind. There is no need for the techniques of the psychoanalyst. Instead, the key is self-acceptance.

As Carl Rogers, one of the leading humanistic psychologists, wrote: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” As a person is more able to accept themselves, they begin to drop their defenses, and in doing so can lift anchor and move in new directions across the surface of the lake.

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James, W. (1890). The principles of psychology. New York. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.