There is a popular misconception that Freud discovered the unconscious mind. In fact, the idea was clearly stated more than 50 years before Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (published in 1899).

What’s more, these earlier ideas about the unconscious mind are closer to the contemporary view in psychology, but the misconceptions linger on, and with it Freud’s mistaken notion of the unconscious mind as a distinct and sinful self plotting against the conscious.

In 1842, Sir William Hamilton wrote: ‘What we are conscious of is constructed out of what we are not conscious of. Our whole knowledge in fact is made up of the unknown and the incognizable.’ (what a lovely word!).

Hamilton said that Leibniz had already understood this, back in the 17th century (though Leibniz also believed that every atom of the universe is a living soul, so his notion may have been rather different to Hamilton’s).

Eminent physiologist Benjamin Carpenter took up the idea and coined the phrase ‘unconscious cerebration’. This was publicised by Robert Louis Stevenson in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, in 1886. Here we find the foundation for the popular notion of the unconscious as fleshed out a few years later by Dr Freud.

In the novel, Dr Jekyll represents the reasoning mind and the slavering criminal psychopath Mr Hyde represents the darkness of the unconscious. In fact, this notion of an inner demon has more in common with medieval Christian beliefs than with scientific observation.

Freud put forward the idea of the ravening id, a bestial animal self that represents forbidden desire. While this is a poetic metaphor, as yet no one has discovered this separate and sinful part of humanity. It seems unlikely that they ever will.

The beast described by Freud and Stevenson is much more like the criminal psychopath: such people make up a tiny fraction of humanity (and appear to be suffering from either brain damage or failures in brain development, according to the work of Kent Kiehl, James Fallon and others). They do not appear to be driven by the unconscious, either: their beastliness is conscious, and they are acutely aware of their actions.

The unconscious is not separate from the conscious. Our conscious mind moves across the surface of the unconscious and is selectively aware of the contents of the ‘unconscious’.

The ‘conscious’ consists of awareness at any particular moment – sometimes said to be seven or less channels (or ‘chunks’) of information, each the equivalent of three digits (so a string of 21 numbers at most, by my reckoning). Awareness is measurable in distinct two to three second bursts. But this conscious awareness is only a fragment of the whole being: active in body and mind and mostly automatically so.

In his lovely book Subliminal: the revolution of the new unconscious and what it teaches us about ourselves, Leonard Mlodinov says ‘The unconscious envisioned by Freud was, in the words of a group of neuroscientists, “hot and wet, it seethed with lust and anger; it was hallucinatory, primitive, and irrational,” while the new unconscious is “kinder and gentler than that and more reality bound.”‘

Mlodinow continues, ‘In the new view, mental processes are thought to be unconscious because there are portions of the mind that are inaccessible to consciousness due to the architecture of the brain, rather than because they have been subject to motivational forces like repression. The inaccessibility of the new unconscious is not considered to be a defense mechanism, or unhealthy. It is considered normal.’

It is also worth noting that many of those who study the human mind are uneasy about such terms as, well, ‘mind’. Language gives us the idea that we are selves with minds and that these minds are full of thoughts and emotions. The truth is that self, mind, thought and emotion all describe the same phenomena: the activities of an individual in real time. The self does not look into a container called the ‘mind’ which brims over with thoughts and emotions. These are ideas that derive from language rather than from the nature of reality.

When the unconscious and the conscious meld, we experience ‘flow’. We say that we are ‘in the zone’. We become so involved with what we are doing that there is no longer any hesitation or anxiety. It happens to all good athletes and all great artists and thinkers – those moments where there is no longer any introspection, but simply harmonious action, because the mind is directed outwards.

The conscious mind cannot process quickly enough to return a ball. This process is automatic, but it highlights the distinction: the unconscious mind is not deliberating, it is reacting, and without those reactions we would not move out of the way fast enough – or hit the ball back. But those reactions do not constitute ‘thought’.

The human brain is by far the most complex organ known to us. Even Google’s Deep Mind cannot compete for complexity with a single, healthy human brain. Far from the horrors of Stevenson’s brilliant parable, the unconscious mind is a remarkable and generally positive aspect of human consciousness.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s new book? Do you have a story about the subconscious that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!