What's In the Unconscious Mind?

Many, if not most, of the operations of the mind take place below the level of conscious awareness. The conscious mind contains all the thoughts, feelings, cognitions, and memories we acknowledge, while the unconscious consists of deeper mental processes that are not readily available to the conscious mind; much of human motivation and interpersonal attraction takes shape beyond conscious awareness. The unconscious is the repository of automatic skills, the source of stored memories, intuition, fantasy and dreams, and an engine of information processing. 

Freud was the first to recognize the importance of the unconscious. However, his view that the unconscious mind is primarily a dark and roiling reservoir of sexual drives and improper impulses has given way to more modern understanding. It is now understood, for example, that many judgments and decisions are made "automatically," by the unconscious mind.

While it is difficult to measure what exists in the unconscious, scientists know that even fleeting perceptions—too swift to register on conscious awareness—can leave lasting imprints on the unconscious mind. Consciousness requires attention. Information can register in the absence of directed attention.

What Is the Role of the Unconscious in Therapy?

The unconscious is sometimes referred to as the “shadows of the mind,” but it is not some black hole of unacceptable impulses waiting to trip a person up. It can, however, be a source of hidden and often disturbing beliefs, fears, and attitudes that affect people's everyday thinking and behavior. Most forms of psychotherapy aim to bring into conscious awareness many of the hidden beliefs and fears, often acquired during childhood, so that they can be critically examined and their current value determined. The goal is to restore to people a sense of personal control of their own behavior.


Dreaming, Cognition

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