Central to Freud’s theory is the concept of a stratified, two level consciousness, which he called the conscious and unconscious (or subconscious) minds. In his theory:
- The conscious mind is our aware mind, or cognition–what we know is happening either in our external environment or within ourselves. The conscious mind controls the thoughts, actions, feelings and perceptions that we experience in the here and now. Ordinary memory, memories that are not actively in our awareness but are easily accessible to us, also exist in the conscious mind.
- The unconscious mind is the vast reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that exist outside of our awareness, beyond the reach of our reason or control. According to Freud, the thoughts and ideas that we store in our unconscious mind generally are unacceptable or unpleasant, such as painful memories, anxieties or feelings that conflict with what we believe is acceptable or morally correct. Hidden from conscious awareness by a variety of defense mechanisms, these memories, thoughts and emotions nevertheless profoundly affect how we respond to day-to-day events. They even impact our involuntary reactions, like blushing when we feel embarrassed or trembling when we feel afraid.
The process through which the conscious and unconscious minds work together is, in most instances of human behavior, complex. Being aware of our subconscious motivation in everyday life is not something that comes naturally to most of us; we must work hard if we want to understand, and eventually change, our behavior and the way that we react to the events of our lives. Nevertheless, the process through which the two levels of consciousness interact with each other and influence our behavior is fairly easy to understand. Let’s look at a simple example of how this works.
Imagine for a moment that you are walking down the street and come across a dog. Immediately, your conscious mind sifts through the information at its disposal, most of which exists in the neocortex, the rational, higher-order part of the brain. Using logic, intellect and ordinary memory, your conscious mind quickly comprehends the fact that this fuzzy, four-legged animal standing before you is, in fact, a dog.
At the same time, your unconscious mind is sifting through information, too, but it is looking elsewhere, in the lower-order, primitive structures of the brain — the amygdala, the hippocampus and the hypothalamus. Known collectively as the limbic system, these structures are responsible for repressed memories, strong emotions and irrational beliefs, which add another dimension to your experience and how you react to it. In other words, your encounter is now no longer about this four-legged creature with fur and teeth, it is about a lifetime of experiences with dogs of all kinds.
Together, your conscious and unconscious minds determine your reaction to the dog, a process that takes about 300 to 700 milliseconds to complete.