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Recognizing and Working Well with the Unconscious

Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More

“The unconsciousness of man is the consciousness of God.”
—Henry David Thoreau

Simply to address the idea of the unconscious necessarily includes drawing upon the realm of theory, that is, a part of science that deals with principles rather than practice. A seminal figure in social psychology, Kurt Lewin 1 once remarked that “there is nothing so practical as a good theory.” A theory at its best is a coherent group of general propositions that can be used as guiding principles of explanation for a class of phenomena. It’s also true that a theory without supportive data would be of little practical value.

It is now the norm to describe a wide range of psychological phenomena using a dual-process model that gives relative weighing simultaneously to conscious and non-conscious processes influencing the phenomena in question. Supportive research for this model comes from the study of social perception and judgment, attitudes and persuasion, emotional disorders, emotional appraisal, memory, and attention and encoding. 2, 3 Rothenberg gives further empirical support for the unconscious playing a role in hypothesis testing, problem solving and creativity. 4

Standing on the theoretical foot, consider the following metaphor as important in your being able to use real choice. See the conscious as a sailor shifting his or her weight and position in a sailboat while working the masts’ lines and working the rudder by means of the tiller. The unconscious? That is the wind, the water, the weather and the boat! Now, who powers that boat of our lives? Clearly, it’s the unconscious. Thoreau’s above-mentioned quote now makes sense—we are powered by God’s affirmative, workable faith and presence. God also helps those who help themselves. We can direct the steering-our attention; and we can harness how we use the wind—our inner and outer resources. Within this context, there is much to recommend recognizing your unconscious and its infinite value throughout your life.

A little story portrays the relationship of the conscious and the unconscious: 5

A peasant was walking in the forest when St. Philip rode up and said, “If you can recite the Lord’s Prayer straight through without stopping, I’ll give you this horse.” The peasant said, “Wonderful…Our Father who art in heaven Hallowed be thy. . . say, does that include the saddle?”

Our conscious, thinking, modern brain does tend to get in the way of our unconscious, feeling, early brain. In other words, our over-thinking, analytical brain can interfere and defeat our detached, life-working brain. Perhaps you remember the Aesop fable about the crab that inquired of the centipede exactly how he was able to move his one hundred legs without getting them entangled. Upon consciously reflecting for the first time how he did move his legs, the centipede fell out of rhythm and became immobilized! How does this short-circuiting of our brains and lives occur? Not to get too technical, let’s briefly look at the hypothetical seats of the conscious and unconscious minds in the structures of the brain. Let’s look closely at a widely-accepted, three-layer model of the human brain developed by neuroscientist Paul D. McLean. 6

The third, most recently evolved and most developed layer of our brains is the cerebrum or cerebral cortex. The cortex is logical and analytical in aiming to generate causes, effects and reasons for just about everything given it being preoccupied with both the past and the future. This layer is generally thought of as the center for higher mental processes including registering sensations, developing plans, logically solving problems, making decisions and taking voluntary actions. We’ll call this third brain layer our conscious or modern brain.

Just above the central core and behind the frontal cortex is the second layer of the brain or the limbic system, sometimes referred to as the mammalian brain. This is thought of as an older part of the brain and is associated with the generating of emotions like anger and rage, emotional actions and behavior that meets basic needs such as hunger and thirst. The limbic system is thought to control the storage of new events as lasting memories as well as both allow and inhibit some instinctual patterns such as fleeing from danger, attacking, feeding, experiencing pleasure, sexual desire and mating.

The oldest, most primitive layer of the brain is the central core that is located at the base of the skull and includes most of the brain stem, the cerebellum and the thalamus. It is sometimes called the reptilian brain. The central core controls many autonomic, life-maintaining functions such as breathing, metabolism, blood circulation, temperature control, sleeping, reproduction, some reflexes that keep us upright, contraction of muscles triggered by outside stimulation, balance, muscular coordination and physical actions. These earliest two layers of the brain are usually considered the repository of the unconscious.

Sigmund Freud’s recognition of the importance of the unconscious in his masterpiece The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) and later writings is arguably the greatest contribution of the twentieth century given its infinite ramifications. 7 Unfortunately Freud’s chosen term unconscious can also mean being mindless, in a stupor or coma, or temporarily knocked out. I prefer to use the term non-conscious to identify the part of our minds that we are not aware of typically. For simplicity sake we’ll use the conventionally accepted term unconscious.

The unconscious is thought to have developed at nearly our modern origin as human beings between one or two million years ago. Factoring in some key survival abilities, it could even go back further to the recently reported 4.4 million years that archaeological findings demonstrate. The unconscious is hypothesized to be located in the earliest two brain layers, the Reptilian and Mammalian brains.

Your unconscious (also known as the unconscious mind, subconscious, subconscious mind and non-conscious) underlies and powerfully influences the choice you make throughout your daily lives. This could be likened to the Cro-Magnon within us—extremely strong, concretely action-oriented, very resourceful, highly passionate and quite literal, yet not terribly sophisticated. You can overestimate the breadth, scope and ramifications of the unconscious. At least one author, Ryan Elliot, estimates that 90% of the brain is devoted to the unconscious and that there is seemingly unlimited storage capacity here. 8

A second metaphor shows the great impact the Unconscious has upon our behavior and who substantially “runs the show” of our lives. Take the illustration of sailing, whether you have done this yourself or simply watched others. The conscious self or ego is like the person shifting where she situates herself in the craft, working the lines of the sails and turning the tiller And, as you soak it all up, be at deep and abiding connected to the rudder. Yet…it is the wind, the water and the boat—the Unconscious—that direct our sailboat most powerfully.

Here is a third revealing metaphor describing the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious. View the conscious ego or self not as just the one-eighth of the iceberg exposed above water (and the submerged seven-eighths as the unconscious); rather view the conscious self as the entire iceberg, with the above water portion being where our attention is at any moment, and the non-conscious being the nearby 200 story high glacier that stretches as far as the eye can see in all directions. When glaciers move, they move; when they don’t, they don’t. Now, where lies the power?

Consider a fourth metaphor to point out another facet of the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious. The conscious is like looking skyward at night under the artificial lights of the city-only a small fraction of stars are visible to the naked eye. The unconscious is to see exponentially more stars and brighter ones when more accurately seen, such as in a rural setting or, even better, through a high power telescope. Both look at the same night sky, yet how much more is revealed to the unconscious.

In Freud’s psychoanalytic theories, the unconscious is conceptualized as the sum of all impulses, desires, feelings, thoughts and memories of which the person isn’t aware of, yet influences behavior and emotions. It is also that part of ones psyche, understood here as mind, which contains blocked or repressed material of this kind that continues to influence our actions, although we are not conscious of them. One might conceive of the unconscious as the experiences of an individual that are not available to verbalization at the moment.

Thus, according to Freud’s theories, unconscious processes include repressed wishes, blocked painful or traumatic memories, slips of the tongue, hidden reasons, many “mistakes”, “errors” and “coincidences”, forgetting, irrational behaviors, mannerisms, bungled actions and what you don’t know that you later discover you do know, that is, latent memories. Consider unconscious processes as those experiences that an individual is unable to name or verbalize at any moment, yet actively function at all times.

The real issue is what is largely hidden from direct access in the unconscious, yet is communicated in hundreds of ways all the time for anyone who is aware of this language and can decode the messages. Robert Langs, M.D. in his book Unconscious Communication in Everyday Life proposes seven signals for finding deeper, unconscious meanings in any particular communication, behavior or message. While messages will be used throughout, they equally apply to behaviors or to any specific communication. I am indebted to Dr. Langs for his insights in the material presented here. 9


Seven Signals of Unconscious Meanings

  1. Not in accord with reality: The greater the difference between any particular message and what seems realistic, complete, appropriate and logical, the greater the likelihood of deeper emotional, unconscious meanings underlying it.
  2. Contradictory double messages: When you stand back and look over a series of messages from someone and find one or more unfitting, inappropriate elements, then the red flag of hidden emotional meanings is a realistic possibility worth considering. When the elements that make up a communication by a person contribute to the development of specific points-of-view, themes or perspectives, then it’s less likely for unconscious messages to be present.
  3. Difference between intended and received messages: The discrepancy between the conscious meaning and intention of a communication by the sender and the implications picked up by the receiver may alert you to there being unconscious meaning. Validating the interpretation of the received message is essential to separate a sound perception from a misunderstanding. Often only from observing further communication and behaviors can you ascertain just how accurate and valid a given perception is.
  4. Lapses, inexplicable errors and unexplained behaviors: Hidden, emotionally-laden messages may be present with any type of blatant (if short-lived) misunderstanding of another, misperception, making false assumptions, jumping to false conclusions, lapses of memory, slips of the tongue as well as behavior that is not in accord with one’s conscious intentions and thoughts. All of these occurrences have the quality of standing out, being striking or somehow ‘off’ to the receiver of the message.
  5. Highly charged, emotionally material: Extremely conflicted, emotional situations are quite likely to provoke messages containing hidden, unconscious meanings. When disturbing, uncomfortable feelings, such as anxiety, fear, panic, hurt and anger, along with the presence of disrespect, distrust and danger, this is even more true.
  6. Psychological symptoms: The whole range of psychologically founded, emotional symptoms such as anxiety, depression, obsessions, panic attacks, phobias and somatization disorders suggest the presence of disguised, unconscious messages. By definition such emotional symptoms are not in accord with realities or inappropriate with actualities. These symptoms alert you to embedded, unconscious meanings.
  7. Other special message forms: Other types of special messages that are likely to contain deeper communications include: messages with a strong measure of ambiguity; unexpected messages; bungled actions, richly imaginative communications, symbols and images; and all types of products of imagination and art (such as dreams, daydreams, jokes, myths, stories and plays along with poetry, paintings, sculpture and musical compositions).

Even beyond these seven signals, it is important to be sensitized to key settings and situations that tend to strongly foster disguised, emotional messages. Volatile, disturbing and traumatic settings such as police stations, hospitals, cemeteries, car accidents and courtrooms are of this class. Loving and romantic settings as well as ones characterized by danger, violence and destruction can be included. Settings or situations characterized by great ambiguity, such as movies, video games, plays or other performances tend to have these features. The same can be said of settings and situations that are bizarre, strange or where reality is seemingly distorted or impaired.

The early, primitive brain has one crucial, overriding preoccupation that is at the very foundation (holding up all higher-order needs) of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs: survival and self-preservation at any cost! Thus the unconscious is endlessly asking, “Is it safe?” and “How safe is it?” and answering in swift, decisive actions. Psychologist Harville Hendrix writes that the only thing the primitive, old brain “…seems to care about is whether a particular person is someone to: 1) nurture, 2) be nurtured by, 3) have sex with, 4) run away from, 5) submit to, or 6) attack.” He continues to say that these primary defenses most likely evolved in reverse order given that the instinct for self-preservation is believed to have preceded the ability to nurture. 10

The unconscious operating in the early brain lives in the timelessness of the eternal now where yesterday, today and tomorrow are meaningless since everything is, always was and ever will be. Freud believed that the unconscious largely operated by what he called the primary process and identified the principles of association, wish fulfillment, displacement, condensation and symbolic representation. Freud’s theory of personality put forth the pleasure principle as a single overriding need.

Freud’s pleasure principle states that experiences with people and environments are scanned and if associated with pleasurable outcomes, then they are approached and maximized. If, on the contrary, such people and environments are associated with painful interactions, they are avoided and minimized. Both approach and avoidance operate regardless of external circumstances. The unconscious could be seen as the troublesome reservoir of all our dark instinctual urges, mainly sexual and aggressive drives as Freud saw it. This isn’t the whole story.

Seymour Epstein, Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, states that within Cognitive-experiential self-theory (CEST) and drawing upon multimodal processing systems theory there are two different unconsciouses: Freud’s unconscious that is a maladaptive system of generating psychotic ideas and dreams associated with intellect, analysis and rationality as well as the cognitive unconscious that is an adaptive system that automatically, experientially and intuitively organizes experience and helps naturally direct behavior. This new unconscious is the one I primarily want to address and is the one most associated with healthy, adaptive functioning and well-utilized by Milton Erickson, M.D. and other healers as we will see in the next chapter. 11

Within the CEST orientation, Dr. Epstein writes, “Operating under the direction of the primary process alone, individuals would starve to death amidst wish-fulfillment hallucinations of unlimited gratification.” 12 According to CEST, Freud’s pleasure principle as a fundamental need and motive in personality functioning is equally as important as three other perspectives: (1) phenomenologists such as Carl Rogers saw the need to maintain coherent, relatively stable conceptual systems; (2) object-relations theorists such as John Bowlby saw the need for relatedness; and (3) G.W. Allport, Alfred Adler and Heinz Kohut saw the need to enhance self-esteem and transform feelings of inferiority. CEST theorists see behavior as determined by the joint influence of all four fundamental motives. Most importantly, the early brain obtains the thoughts, images, impressions, symbols and other stimuli as generated and filtered through the modern brain. You could say that everything you consciously expose yourself to is possible programming for your unconscious. What you expose yourself to or program consciously will powerfully influence what you believe and know unconsciously. Computer hackers use the acronym GIGO—garbage in, garbage out. This equally applies to the unconscious. The less well-known corollary is BIBO—brilliance in, brilliance out.


It’s best to be careful what you program.

Oscar Wilde must have known this when he remarked, “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants and the other is getting it. The last is much the worst, the last is the real tragedy.” Although this perspective might initially appear negative and cynical, he was right on the money if you are programming self-defeating negativity with Freud’s unconscious. Within the context of the new cognitive unconscious, I’d like to think his comment could just as easily be reframed as two successful comedies, so long as you clear the unworkable baggage from your past, grow from all experiential learning and are committed to purely program the Good.

While the modern brain housing the conscious brings the great gifts of rationality, logic and analysis, it also has the limitation of tending to censor, filter, influence, bias and prejudice material. The modern brain also prevents individuals from giving freer rein to their creative and imaginative abilities and blocking their obtaining different viewpoints of a given situation.

Take the case of two people seeing the very same set of events or situation through different perceptual lens. They would tend to report quite different facts about what each viewed. Studies of eye-witnesses to accidents and crimes provide strong validation for this finding. Another illustration is children’s and adult children’s perceptions of their parents. It is relatively common for siblings to have very different views of their parents, even when the parents in question remain fairly stable in their behavior and attitudes.

It is my hope that this background will be seen as both relevant and pertinent to being able to consciously operate in real choice. With this solid foundation we can now proceed to know how to operate most effectively with our unconscious. In the next chapter our focus will shift to develop tools and strategies to become eminently practical and excellently effective self-programmers of our deep, inner biocomputer—the new cognitive unconscious.


1. Kurt Lewin, “Problems of Research in Social Psychology.” In D. Cartwright (Ed.), Field Theory in Social Science. New York: Harper and Row, 1951, page 169.

2. John A. Bargh and Tanya L. Chartrand, “The Unbearable Automaticity of Being, American Psychologist, 54 (7), July 1999, pages 462-479, quote: page 476; Drew Westen, “Unconscious Thought, Feeling, and Motivation: The End of a Century-Long Debate.” In Robert F. Bornstein and Joseph M. Masling (Eds.), Empirical Perspectives on Psychoanalytic Unconscious. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1998, pages 1-43; G. William Farthing, The Psychology of Consciousness. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc./ Simon and Shuster, 1992, pages 16-19, 143-150.

3. Existence of the unconscious is now uncontested: Robert F. Bornstein and Joseph M. Masling, “Introduction: The Psychoanalytic Unconscious.” In Robert F. Bornstein and Joseph M. Masling (Eds.), Empirical Perspectives on Psychoanalytic Unconscious. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1998, pages xiii-xxviii., reference: xvi-xix; Drew Westen, ibid., 1998; pages 1-43, reference: pages 2, 10; A. G. Greenwald, “Unconscious Cognition reclaimed,” American Psychologist, 47, 1992, pages 766-779, reference: page 773.

4. A. Rothenberg, “Studies in the Creative Process: An Empirical Investigation,” In J. M. Masling and R. F. Bornstein (Eds.), Empirical Studies of Psychoanalytic Theories: Vol. 5. Empirical Perspectives on Object Relations Theory. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1994, pages 195-245.

5. Gary Emery, Emery News, 13 (mislabeled 12), July 1994, page 1.

6. Paul D. McLean, “Man and His Animal Brains,” Modern Medicine, February 3, 1964.

7. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams. New York: Avon Books, 1900/1965.

8. Ryan Elliott, Wide Awake, Clear-headed and Refreshed. Winfield, Illinois: Relaxed Books, 1991, page 4.

9. Robert Langs, Unconscious Communication in Everyday Life. New York: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1991, pages 81-88.

10. Harville Hendrix, Getting the Love Your Want. New York: HarperPerennial/ HarperCollins Publishers, 1988, page 11.

11. Seymour Epstein, “Integration of the Cognitive and the Psychodynamic Unconscious,” American Psychologist, 49 (8), August 1994, pages 709-724.

12. Seymour Epstein, 1994, ibid., page 709.

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