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In psychology, the subconscious is the part of consciousness that is not currently in focal awareness. The word subconscious is an anglicized version of the French subconscient as coined by the psychologist Pierre Janet, who argued that underneath the layers of critical thought functions of the conscious mind lay a powerful awareness that he called the subconscious mind. Because there is a limit to the information that can be held in conscious focal awareness, a storehouse of one's knowledge and prior experience is needed; this is the subconscious.
The subconscious and psychoanalysis
The subconscious is commonly encountered as a replacement for the unconscious mind and therefore, laypersons commonly assume that the subconscious is a psychoanalytic term; it isn't. Sigmund Freud explicitly argues:
|“||"If someone talks of subconsciousness, I cannot tell whether he means the term topographically – to indicate something lying in the mind beneath consciousness – or qualitatively – to indicate another consciousness, a subterranean one, as it were. He is probably not clear about any of it. The only trustworthy antithesis is between conscious and unconscious."||”|
In Freud's opinion the unconscious mind has a will and purpose of its own that cannot be known to the conscious mind (hence the reason why it is called the "unconscious") and is a repository for socially unacceptable ideas, wishes or desires, traumatic memories, and painful emotions put out of mind by the mechanism of psychological repression.
Charles Rycroft explains that the subconscious is a term "never used in psychoanalytic writings". Peter Gay says that the use of the term subconscious where unconscious is meant is "a common and telling mistake"; indeed, "when [the term] is employed to say something 'Freudian', it is proof that the writer has not read his Freud".
Freud's own terms for thinking that takes place outside conscious awareness are das Unbewusste (rendered by his translators as "the Unconscious") and das Vorbewusste ("the Preconscious"); informal use of the term subconscious in this context thus creates confusion, as it fails to make clear which (if either) is meant. The distinction is of significance because in Freud's formulation the Unconscious is "dynamically" unconscious, the Preconscious merely "descriptively" so: the contents of the Unconscious require special investigative techniques for their exploration, whereas something in the Preconscious is unrepressed and can be recalled to consciousness by the simple direction of attention. The erroneous, pseudo-Freudan use of subconscious and "subconsciousness" has its precise equivalent in German, where the words inappropriately employed are das Unterbewusste and das Unterbewusstsein.
The subconscious and instinct
The subconscious mind is a composite of everything one sees, hears and any information the mind collects that it cannot otherwise consciously process to make meaningful sense. The conscious mind cannot always absorb disconnected information, as it would be an information overload, so the subconscious mind stores this information where it can be retrieved by the conscious mind when it needs to defend itself for survival (and for other reasons, such as solving puzzles).
The subconscious mind stores information that the conscious mind may not immediately process with full understanding, but it stores the information for later retrieval when ”recalled” by the conscious mind, or by an astute psychoanalyst who can draw out information stored in the subconscious, bringing it to the individual's conscious awareness. This can especially be observed with heightened sensitivity of victims of violence and other crimes, where victims "felt something" "instinctually" about a person or situation, but failed to take action to avoid the situation, for whatever reason, be it embarrassment, self-denial or other reasons to ignore instinct, as they disregard internal warning signals.
A precise example of the subconscious mind at work and related phenomena can be found in a book written by psychoanalyst Gavin De Becker, "The Gift of Fear". He describes how a victim "knew something was wrong", but initially discredited her own instinct/subconscious mind, opting instead to respond to the perceived threat in a normal, "socially acceptable" manner, completely ignoring that the subconscious mind tried to tell the conscious mind "that something is wrong." De Becker tapped into the mind of the victim regarding her "prior awareness by the subconscious mind that caused her to act instinctively" allowing her to realize that the perpetrator was going to kill her. The analyst brought her conscious mind to recognize how her subconscious was working on her conscious mind, by eliciting her original "inner thoughts/voice" through a series of events to which her subconscious mind ultimately drove her conscious mind to behave in such a manner as to protect her from being killed. Gavin was able to elicit her subconscious mind's recognition of a dangerous situation that compelled her conscious mind to act to save her through its basic survival instinct, bringing to the victim's conscious mind that it was the "subtle signal that warned her." The victim describes this as an unrecognized fear that drove her to act, still unaware consciously of precisely why she was afraid. Her conscious mind had heard the words, "I promise I won't hurt you, while her subconscious mind was calculating the situation much faster than the conscious mind could make sense out of WHY the fear was there. The victim stated that "the animal inside her took over."
"New Age" and other modalities targeting the subconscious
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The idea of the subconscious as a powerful or potent agency has allowed the term to become prominent in New Age and self-help literature, in which investigating or controlling its supposed knowledge or power is seen as advantageous. In the New Age community, techniques such as autosuggestion and affirmations are believed to harness the power of the subconscious to influence a person's life and real-world outcomes, even curing sickness. Skeptical Inquirer magazine criticized the lack of falsifiability and testability of these claims. Physicist Ali Alousi, for instance, criticized it as unmeasurable and questioned the likelihood that thoughts can affect anything outside the head. In addition, critics have asserted that the evidence provided is usually anecdotal and that, because of the self-selecting nature of the positive reports, as well as the subjective nature of any results, these reports are susceptible to confirmation bias and selection bias.
Psychologists and psychiatrists use the term "unconscious" in traditional practices, where metaphysical and New Age literature, often use the term subconscious. It should not, however, be inferred that the concept of the unconscious and the New Age concept of the subconscious are precisely equivalent, even though they both warrant consideration of mental processes of the brain. Psychologists and psychiatrists take a much more limited view of the capabilities of the unconscious than are represented by New Age depiction of the subconscious. There are a number of methods in use in the contemporary New Age and paranormal communities that affect the latter:
- Collective unconscious
- Rapid eye movement sleep
- Non-rapid eye movement sleep
- Slow-wave sleep
- Unconscious mind
- American Psychology Association
Notes and references
- Henri F. Ellenberger, The Discovery of the Unconscious (1970)
- Edwin A. Locke, Amy L. Kristof, "Volitional Choices in the Goal Achievement Process, The Psychology of Action: Linking Cognition and Motivation to Behavior, Edited by Peter M. Gollwitzer and John A. Bargh, Chapter 16, p. 365-384"
- Sigmund Freud, The Question of Lay Analysis (Vienna 1926; English translation 1927)
- Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (London, 2nd Ed, 1995), p. 175
- Peter Gay, Freud: A Life For Our Time (London 2006), p. 453
- Peter Gay (ed.), A Freud Reader (London, 1995), p. 576
- Ezechiel Saad Adivinar el Inconsciente / Deviner l’Inconscient, bilingual Spanish~French, Punto Publishers, Barcelona, 2010
- [dead link]
- Whittaker, S. Secret attraction, The Montreal Gazette, May 12, 2007.
- Kaptchuk, T., & Eisenberg, D. (1998). "The Persuasive Appeal of Alternative Medicine". Annals of Internal Medicine 129 (12): 1061–5. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-129-12-199812150-00011. PMID 9867762.