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The Conscious and Unconscious Mind

The Structure of the Mind According to Freud

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Freud likened the conscious and unconscious mind to an iceberg.

Psychoanalytic theory of the conscious and unconscious mind is often explained using an iceberg metaphor. Conscious awareness is the tip of the iceberg, while the unconscious is represented by the ice hidden below the surface of the water.

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Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud believed that behavior and personality derives from the constant and unique interaction of conflicting psychological forces that operate at three different levels of awareness: the preconscious, the conscious, and the unconscious. What do these terms mean? What exactly happens at each level of awareness?

The Mind According to Freud

Many of us have experienced what is commonly referred to as a Freudian slip. These misstatements are believed to reveal underlying, unconscious thoughts or feelings. Consider this example:

James has just started a new relationship with a woman he met at school. While talking to her one afternoon, he accidentally calls her by his ex-girlfriend's name.

If you were in this situation, how would you explain this mistake? Many of us might blame the slip on distraction or describe it as a simple accident. However, a psychoanalytic theorist might tell you that this is much more than a random accident. The psychoanalytic view holds that there are inner forces outside of your awareness that are directing your behavior. For example, a psychoanalyst might say that James misspoke due to unresolved feelings for his ex or perhaps because of misgivings about his new relationship.

The founder of psychoanalytic theory was Sigmund Freud. While his theories were considered shocking at the time and continue to create debate and controversy, his work had a profound influence on a number of disciplines, including psychology, sociology, anthropology, literature, and art.

The term psychoanalysis is used to refer to many aspects of Freud’s work and research, including Freudian therapy and the research methodology he used to develop his theories. Freud relied heavily upon his observations and case studies of his patients when he formed his theory of personality development.

Freud's Three Levels of Mind

Before we can understand Freud's theory of personality, we must first understand his view of how the mind is organized.

According to Freud, the mind can be divided into three different levels:

  1. The conscious mind includes everything that we are aware of. This is the aspect of our mental processing that we can think and talk about rationally. A part of this includes our memory, which is not always part of consciousness but can be retrieved easily at any time and brought into our awareness. Freud called this the preconscious.

  2. The preconscious mind is the part of the mind that represents ordinary memory. While we are not consciously aware of this information at any given time, we can retrieve it and pull it into consciousness when needed.

  3. The unconscious mind is a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that outside of our conscious awareness. Most of the contents of the unconscious are unacceptable or unpleasant, such as feelings of pain, anxiety, or conflict. According to Freud, the unconscious continues to influence our behavior and experience, even though we are unaware of these underlying influences.

Freud likened these three levels of mind to an iceberg. The top of the iceberg that you can see above the water represents the conscious mind. The part of the iceberg that is submerged below the water but is still visible is the preconscious. The bulk of the iceberg lies unseen beneath the waterline and represents the unconscious.

Each person also possesses a certain amount of psychological energy that forms the three basic structures of personality: the id, the ego, and the superego. These three structures have different roles and operate at different levels of the mind. In the next article in this series, learn more about the functions of each of these structures.

Next: The Structural Model of Personality - The Id, Ego, and Superego

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