The Unconscious Mind
The Three Levels of Consciousness
The concept of the three ‘levels’ of consciousness is attributed to Freud (1915) and is often depicted by an iceberg, with three layers representing each level, namely:
- The conscious mind, portrayed by the tip of the iceberg, the uppermost part above water that is easily visible to the naked eye. The unconscious comprises all of which we are presently aware – for example, I am aware that I am patting my dog.
- The preconscious mind, represented by the mid-section of the iceberg which is submerged beneath the water’s surface, yet mostly visible, refers to the part of the mind said to exist sandwiched between the conscious and unconscious. The preconscious consists of feelings, thoughts and information of which we are not presently aware, but which we can easily form from our consciousness – for example, the possibility that my dog might like a treat.
- The unconscious mind, likened to the very bottom of the iceberg, forms the bulk of the frozen structure and lies deep below the surface, invisible. The unconscious contains various psychological processes including memories, feelings, and emotions which are inaccessible and/or difficult to bring to consciousness, yet nonetheless influence our actions, feelings, and responses to our environment – for example, my smothering tendencies towards my pets may stem from receiving lots of affection in my childhood, and now my primary love language is touch and physical affection.
The Driver of Human Behaviour
Represented by the out-of-sight, yet foundational part of the iceberg, Freud believed that the unconscious is the fundamental driver of human behaviour. Including primitive impulses and distressing thought content, the unconscious often serves as a repository for memories and information that threaten our emotional comfort. Freud posited that the human psyche is designed to avoid emotional pain and suffering – such as anxiety and depression – by repressing certain experiences, memories, and feelings that evoke emotional distress. In order to maintain our emotional comfort and avoid confronting the emotional pain associated with certain memories, the mind prevents this content from entering conscious awareness, instead storing it deep down in our unconscious.
Despite the mind’s best attempts, the emotions attached to past recollections are nonetheless triggered by various cues in the environment – and these are inevitably expressed in some form through emotional reactions or behaviours that are often problematic and/or dysfunctional within the present context. These are collectively referred to as ‘defence mechanisms’, and can take on numerous forms, such as rationalisation, projection, and denial – which are common and familiar to most people.
Goal of Psychodynamic Therapy
There are many other forms of defence mechanisms people develop in response to distressing and traumatic events. These typically manifest in patterns of problematic behaviour that continually impede an individual’s function in some way, and to various degrees of severity. The goal of psychodynamic therapy is to understand the ‘why’ behind such tendencies – viewed as manifestations of pain connected to traumatic experiences ‘trapped’ in the unconscious – in order to correct them. By bringing the unconscious motivations influencing defence mechanisms and other problematic behaviours into the conscious mind, psychoanalysis allows patients to begin working with the therapist towards resolving the psychological ‘roots’ underlying the target behaviour.
Check out our related blog articles:
- Psychoanalysis and the Benefits of Psychodynamic Therapy – Copecentre
- What is Free Association? – Copecentre