Sigmund Freud’s Theory Of The Unconscious (and The New Theories)

Differences between “the unconscious” and the modern unconscious.

Scientists and a large part of philosophers have traditionally  considered that human behavior is governed by conscious thought. The belief that we are capable of knowing all the important data about our environment and our body and that we decide how to behave according to this information has been very generalized, perhaps because rationality has been a central value in naturalists and thinkers in recent centuries . 

However, today we know that a very large part of the processes that influence our thinking and our actions are based on things that we do not know directly: that is, elements of the unconscious. Despite this discovery, it is easy to get confused when we talk about the unconscious, since this concept is defined differently by Freudian theory (and later psychodynamic trends  ) and  neuroscience today.

Where does this confusion come from? The precedent of Freudian theory

Although  Sigmund Freud did not use the scientific method to investigate the processes by which thought is governed, it can be said that he noticed the existence of a type of  unconscious (or, rather, “the unconscious”, according to his terminology) long before for scientists to get a glimpse of it. The inconsistent that Freud speaks of in his writings, however, is not the same that is studied today in neurosciences. Among other things, because neither he nor the rest of the mental process researchers were yet aware of the organic functioning by which higher mental processes are governed at the unconscious level, beyond having described certain general principles. For this reason, Freud wove a network of hypotheses relatively independent of what  neurosciences study today .

It is important to be clear about this idea, since it is often understood that, as Freud tried to base himself on principles of physics and physiology to propose his explanations about the mind, these explanations are based on an exhaustive observation of the functioning of the body at the level biological. Thus, although in the principles of psychoanalysis the brain was compared to a steam engine, this image can be taken as little more than an analogy that served to better understand the explanation itself, rather than the brain. 

Research limited by context

In short, Freud knew that he did not have the means to study the physical processes that govern the functioning of the brain, and he believed that this topic was very relevant to understanding how thinking and the unconscious work proposed in Freudian theory. Researchers of the mind had very few resources to study the workings of the brain, and that had clear implications when it came to understanding how what at that time was called “the mind” works. This can be intuited in Beyond the pleasure principle (1920), in which Sigmund Freud said:

“Biological science is really a domain of infinite possibilities. We must expect from it the most surprising enlightenments and we cannot guess what answer it will give, in a few decades, to the problems posed by us. Perhaps these answers are such that they dismantle our artificial hypothesis building. “

The gap between psychoanalysis and the neurosciences

Both Freud and the disciples of Freudian theory who did not stray from the teachings of their teacher use the term unconscious to refer to the mental content that, at a given moment, is outside the repertoire of thoughts of which the person is aware and that somehow they remain hidden somewhere in your psyche. However, partly because of their focus and partly because of the little that was known about the nervous system at the time, their explanations of the unconscious are divorced from fundamental principles about brain mechanics and the neural activation associated with the consciousness they study. neurosciences.

In short, the unconscious that Freud spoke of served to refer to memories, perceptions and mixtures of feelings that, responding to a need, are inaccessible through conscious knowledge. It can be said that, although the current conception of the unconscious is not the one used by Freud, the latter continues to compete with the other for being the former in which “the unconscious” occupies an important position in an extensive theoretical corpus.

The unconscious of the simple

The unconscious posed by Freudian theory is composed of concrete rational and emotional elements that remain repressed because they have a problematic meaning for the conscious mind. That is, they are not kept hidden due to their complexity or their little relevance in the day-to-day of the person. Rather, on the contrary, these repressed elements referred to by some psychoanalysts tend to be relatively simple ideas that can be “translated” into consciousness through symbolic operations and whose presence in the unconscious, despite going unnoticed, forms a kind of “glasses” to read reality through thoughts that, in a sense, are recurrent.

Freudian theory maintains that the contents of the unconscious must be simple enough in themselves to be able to be questioned by a multitude of stimuli typical of day to day, although the way in which consciousness blocks these thoughts is complex, since it uses original combinations between symbols to give expression to the repressed. Dreams, for example, are for Freud a vehicle for the expression of repressed thoughts conveyed through symbolism.

A touch of mystery

Of course, this definition of the unconscious is problematic and confusing, since language itself can be seen as a way of filtering the unconscious through symbols (words), which means that unconscious thoughts, by their very nature, never come out. in the light of everything and therefore we cannot know them completely, since they are in constant transformation in their travels to consciousness. This kind of obscurantism is to be expected due to the complexity of the psychoanalysts’ object of study, the subjects dealt with by Freudian theory and its research methodology.

The unconscious always has a side that cannot be accessed by simple words : that is why psychoanalysts claim the importance of the interaction between patient and therapist over the reading of self-help books, which contain principles codified a priori through a series of symbols that the author has chosen and ordered without knowing the reader.

The New Unconscious

Despite the fact that Freud can be considered the “discoverer” of the unconscious, he is so insofar as he introduced a way of thinking about the human being as an animal that does not know all the processes that guide its action, but not because of having found the unconscious through a systematic and detailed investigation of it. 

Freudian theory is the daughter of its time, and is constrained by technical limitations. Both Freud and some of the psychologists of his time speculated on the existence of unconscious aspects of human thought and behavior, but their study methodology (introspection, observation of patients with mental disorders, etc.) provided only indirect knowledge. of these. Fortunately, despite the limitations with which Freudian theory was forged at the time, nowadays the neurosciences and the technological developments that accompany them allow a much more complete study on this subject.

Freudian theory introduced for the first time a more or less detailed conception of the unconscious as a determining element in human behavior, while the scientific community of the second half of the 20th century, curiously, continued to believe in the primacy of conscious thought processes on the rest of the human body. Today, however, the tables have turned in the world of neuroscience and the vast majority of researchers discard conscious thinking as the main driver of our behavior. The investigation of the unconscious by neuroscientists is something that has appeared recently, but it has paid off very quickly.

Distinguishing terms based on new discoveries

The unconscious that neuroscientists and psychologists refer to today is far from being the concept of the same that Freudian theory presented. To distinguish between these two ideas, that of the unconscious of psychoanalysts and that of the unconscious of scientists, the latter concept has been given the name of New Unconscious.

Whereas the unconscious of Freudian theory exists as a redoubt to which to limit thoughts that are difficult to digest by consciousness, which blocks them by keeping them away from itself, the New Unconscious is not based on motivational and drive forces or on forms of repression or “blocking” of thoughts according to their content. The relationship between conscious and unconscious processes that scientists are now talking about is not based on defense mechanisms, but on the architecture of the brain, which is simply not made so that everything that happens in it has a transcription to human consciousness . The New Unconscious is truly unconscious, and cannot be known indirectly by analyzing its “manifestations.”

The unconscious aspects of thought exist as part of a cycle (the Perception-Action cycle) about which we are not interested in knowing everything. We are not interested in instantly memorizing each and every aspect of the person we have just met, and therefore we look for one or two references of his identity unconsciously: for example, his hairstyle. Nor are we interested in dedicating ourselves to studying carefully all the issues on which we have to make a decision, and that is why we decided unconsciously to follow the paths of  heuristics, nor is it necessary to be aware that the left shoe squeezes very slightly, nor is it essential to consciously direct the movements of the right arm when looking out the window of the bus. 

These processes must be carried out with discretion not because of their content, but because of their nature, because it is something that can be managed automatically, leaving free space in the consciousness for special tasks. In Freudian theory, however, that which is unconscious is so precisely because of its significance, its importance.

The New Unconscious is distinguished from the term used by Freudian theory because it does not respond to a personal history or to the problematic internalization of past experiences. In any case, its raison d’être lies in a brain structure designed so that only some tasks and functions are part of the conscious, while the rest is delegated to a set of automatic operations, some of which we can partially control. if necessary (such as breathing).

New Unconscious and Freudian theory, united only by appearances

In short, the unconscious aspect of the most abstract thoughts, such as the automatic association that can occur between the perception of a dog on the street and the memories of the last vacation in Barcelona, ​​respond to the same mechanics by which the processes in charge from making us blink they tend to be unconscious for most of the time. This is the logic by which the New Unconscious is governed: pure biological pragmatism.

Whereas the unconscious of Freudian theory is based on  motivational mechanisms, the New Unconscious is not a prison of inappropriate emotions and thoughts, but a place where all the series of operations are found that we also have no special interest in controlling and whose automatism makes life easier for us.

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