Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £35.99 £24.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more

The unconscious mind

Watch as Mark Solms explains that to say a mind is consciousness is not sufficient in itself. A large part of the mind operates without consciousness.
In addressing the question, what is a mind, we’re saying, it has to be subjective. It is subjective. It’s a fundamental starting point of the mind that it’s subjective. But we’re saying, that’s not enough. It also has to have a particular quality. And that quality we’re calling consciousness. It has to feel like something to be a mind. If a thing, the subjective aspect of a thing is not capable of feeling, if it doesn’t feel like anything to be that thing, then we can’t speak of that thing having a mind. We’ve developed objective methods for determining whether or not a particular thing has feelings.
And this has led us to believe that the brain, the nervous system, the brain in particular, and especially a particular part of the brain called the reticular activating system is the part that’s crucial for generating consciousness. By identifying these things, we are able to do experiments on those objective anatomical and physiological properties and learn something more about the mind, learn what it’s for, what for example is consciousness for. We’re saying that consciousness is for feeling. It’s to allow us to have emotions, to have affects, to have pleasure and unpleasure. And pleasures and unpleasures tell us something about how our bodies are doing within a biological scale of values. That’s why consciousness evolved, so that we can have feelings.
Consciousness is an endogenous state, which is why it’s something subjective. It’s about my body, how I’m doing. Then it gets broadcast outwards and upwards onto the forebrain, the part of the brain that receives information from the outside world and acts on the outside world. And in this way, we have the second order of consciousness, which is, I feel like this. That’s the first order. I feel like this about that. That’s the second order. So this has enabled us to begin to answer the question as to what minds are for.
It enables us to be able to direct our activities in the world on the basis of a biological scale of values which determines what’s good and what’s bad, that is to say, what is going to enable us to survive and to reproduce, which is what biology is all about. That seems to be what it’s for. This is important knowledge. So I don’t know if you’re thinking what I’m thinking. But there’s a problem in all of this. To say that the mind is consciousness is not enough of a definition of what the mind is, because as Freud taught us so long ago, there’s a large part of the mind that isn’t conscious. Freud called it the unconscious.
What about this part of the mind? What makes it mental?
When Freud first said that this part of the mind that he called the unconscious is indeed part of the mind, everyone thought this was an oxymoron. Mind means consciousness. Before Freud, mind meant consciousness. But it’s not only Freud. Since Freud, many other scientists have come to the same conclusion. In fact, in cognitive neuroscience today, there’s not anybody that I can think of, no respectable neuroscientist that doesn’t agree with the statement that a large portion of the mind, in fact, the larger portion of the mind, operates without consciousness. I’ll give you an example of the sorts of evidence that led people to this conclusion. It’s not psycho-analytic evidence. I’ll just choose one little vignette. There was a neurologist named Claparede.
And he had a patient who was amnesic. She was unable to lay down new memories. Every day that Claparede came into the ward, she wanted to introduce herself to him because she had no recollection of having met him before. One day, Claparede came up with this idea. He’s going to hide a drawing pin in his hand so that when the patient comes and shakes his hand and introduces herself to him for the umpteenth time, she’s going to get rather a surprise. She’s going to get pricked in the hand. And then he wants to see, what’s she going to do the day after that?
So after this unpleasant experience of shaking the hand of the professor who she thought was looking after her and finding that he in fact was capable of doing this sort of thing to her, Claparede then came the next day. Remember, she has no memory of ever having met Claparede before. She’s unable to lay down new memories. Claparede put out his hand to greet her, and she withdrew her hand and refused to shake his. Claparede asked her, why do you refuse to shake my hand? And she didn’t say, because yesterday, you did such and such. Remember, she’s not capable of remembering that. She said instead something like, does a lady not have the right to withhold her hand from a gentleman?
So she made up some other reason for why she was doing what she was doing. But please notice what she was doing was something psychological. It was motivated. It was based on learning. It was based on a certain judgement about what sort of person this was. All of these are clearly mental acts. And yet, none of them are conscious in her when she refuses to shake Claparede’s hand. It’s on the basis of this sort of evidence– and there’s oodles of it– that neuroscientists today all agree that there are mental functions which are not conscious.
In fact, authorities on this question like Bargh and Chartrand have roughly sort of estimated that 95% of our mental acts, of our volitional acts, decisions and the like, are taken unconsciously. So the idea that the mind is conscious in fact applies only to a very small part of the mind. We clearly need some other criterion then for describing what is it that makes this other 95% of the mind mental. We’ve said that saying it’s subjective is not enough. We have to say that it feels like something. Otherwise, the subjective aspect of a thing is not enough of a definition of its mental properties. It has to be capable of consciousness. But what about the unconscious part?
How do we define, what is it about that unconscious part that makes it mental? We’re going to have to try and find some other feature. Let me just say, before doing that– and I’m going to defer that till the next lesson– that we know something about why things become unconscious. I said in the previous lesson that what consciousness is for is to enable us to feel. And I feel like this about that, as I said at the beginning of this lesson. We only need to be conscious when we need to know what we feel about something, like, for example, if you move into a new house, and you need to know how to get from your new house to work.
You need to be conscious of the route that you’re following as you’re driving into work. But day after day after day, you do that, until eventually, it’s no longer a problem here. You no longer need to feel your way through this. Is this good? Is this bad? Am I getting there? Am I not getting there? Eventually, you’ve learned it. And you completely automatise it. This automatised mental life is for the most part what constitutes the unconscious parts of our mind. We are not conscious of those mental processes that we don’t need to be conscious of.
There’s also the other part that Freud spoke of, which is that there are parts of our mental life that we don’t want to be conscious of. And those parts also are unconscious. The question now becomes, those parts of our minds which are automatised in this way, which we don’t need to know about or don’t want to know about, what qualifies them as being mental? Why can we still say, these are parts of the mind rather than for example something like a computer programme? That’s where we’re heading.

To say a mind is consciousness is not sufficient to define the mental. Sigmund Freud’s great discovery was that there’s a large part of the mind that operates without consciousness, and today this is a widely accepted fact among neuroscientists.

The mind operates unconsciously when we don’t need to know about how we feel about something; for example the route we take to work day after day becomes an unconscious act. There are also parts of our mental life that we don’t want to be conscious of – such as repressed memories which we push out of our consciousness because they are difficult to deal with (we’ll hear more about this last point in Week 6).

So the question as it pertains to unconscious mental acts is – what makes them mental? This is the question I introduce here, and discuss in detail next week.

This article is from the free online

What is a Mind?

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now