The Dominance of the Unconscious Mind

Entering my fortieth year of practicing depth psychology, I find it painfully ironic to finally believe in, and surrender to, the dominance of the unconscious mind.

How did I miss that?

Arrogance?

Foolishness?

In any event, I write with utter humility about the unconscious mind.

We know little of what drives us, influences our images of self and other, or otherwise governs how we live our lives. Our consciousness represents but a small, even tiny, part of our selves.

The unconscious is an immense topic. I strive to present a few themes intended to humble you, as it has me, regarding the relative weakness of our conscious, subjective awareness.

Beginning with the physiological, innumerable processes operate outside of your awareness. Your kidneys and liver filters waste products, your gastrointestinal system spasms with peristalsis, and your veins and arteries pump blood (via the heart) without your conscious control.

Contemporary neuroscientists estimate that consciousness processes around 40 bits of information per second.

In contrast, the unconscious processes up to 20 million bits of information per second!

In a sense, then, we should conceive of the brain as a dis-information system. It excels in filtering out the massive stimuli, systems, operations, and other information we need not attend to.

Why?

So we can bring our tiny sliver of attention to things that matter most.

Psychoanalysts tend to distinguish the dynamic unconscious from the idea of the more general unconsciousness. For example, persons’ lack of conscious awareness of their desperate need for attention, of unrestrained fury towards their supervisor, or of an erotic attraction to their sisters’s best friends, frees them from these concerns. These are the types of themes populating the dynamic unconscious.

Unlike the various physiological systems just noted, as well as millions of other processes, this limited sample of psychological issues typically elicit socially unacceptable emotions or overwhelming internal conflicts. They may also bring up painfully unmet need states.

What other psychological themes might escape the attention of that puny 40 bits of information our conscious minds can handle?

Four basic tropes—conflicts, deficits (unmet need states), unresolved traumas, and/or developmental delays—accounts for most of the dynamic unconscious. Again, these reside in the personal unconscious. It retains difficult themes unique to you—ones your conscious mind cannot handle.

Controversy lingers as to how these psychological themes become unconscious. Some psychoanalysts believe a “repression barrier” keeps them from emerging. Others think dissociative processes occur—as if we all have sub-personalities—which keep unconscious material out of our conscious minds. Regardless of how you conceptualize it, psychologists, even highly scientific cognitive scientists, agree about the existence of an unconscious much larger than our consciousnesses.

We humans tend to avoid conflict. Therefore, intense conflicts typically populate a good chunk of the unconscious mind.

You have no idea what types of highly-charged debates rage outside of your conscious awareness!

Feelings of envy, competitiveness, or rage towards others typically remain unconscious because feeling them could either overwhelm us or propel us to act in a destructive manner. Unmet need states—a yearning for more maternal love, for example, or deep wishes for attention from a father or a sibling—also typically linger in the unconscious mind. Different than conflicts, these painful yearnings, if rendered conscious, create unbearable discomfort. Usually when such states are discovered through psychoanalytic psychotherapy, patients go through intensive mourning processes and find ways to compensate for what they missed.

Unresolved traumas typically litter the unconscious mind as well. Consider people who have been sexually assaulted, exposed to combat, or seriously injured. While these persons would, of course, have conscious memories of their trauma, much of it ends up in the unconscious minds for reasons just discussed. It proves too painful and  distracting to continuously re-live these experiences. Therefore, they end up being processed unconsciously.

Additionally, our failures to pass though certain developmental milestones typically end up in the unconscious mind, likely because of shame, fear of embarrassment and humiliation, or simple lack of awareness. Here, the idea of the four themes overlapping become realized. Trauma, for example, commonly causes developmental delays.

A woman sexually assaulted at age 15, for example, may struggle with the subsequent development of a capacity for romantic intimacy, potentially resulting in a developmental delay as well as a trauma burning in her unconscious. Perhaps she harbors homicidal rage towards the assailant which conflicts with her conscience, adding an internal conflict to the explosive mix.

Carl Jung identified the collective unconscious which, he believed, resides below the personal unconscious. It is the realm of broader historical and cultural influences, particularly mythic themes and take form form as archetypes. I now briefly turn to the Jungian archetypes before bringing this post to a close.

Can you imagine how all of we humans enact some kind of a hero’s journey—a theme present in almost every major culture from Sumerian to Egyptian to contemporary American? These archetypal trends include the magician (striving to make dreams come true), the innocent (solely focused on happiness), the outlaw (looking for revolution) or the explorer (trying to break free).

Psychoanalysts, regardless of their theoretical orientation, strive to bring unconscious themes into the light of day. They look for the personal unconscious as well as the collective one. By doing so, they facilitate resolution of conflicts, satisfaction of unmet need states, addressing unresolved traumas, re-initiating developmental growth, and identification of influential archetypes.

That, specifically, is how psychoanalytically-oriented psychotherapists foment transformation in their patients.

However, even years of psychoanalytic work leave vast amounts of the unconscious untouched.

No one can ever fully experience their unconscious mind, particularly given that awesome contrast between 40 bits per second for consciousness and the 20 million bits per second for the unconscious mind.

Humility was the goal of this post.

Now that you’ve finished reading it, and are readying yourself for the rest of your day, please reflect on why you are choosing to do whatever you are doing next.

I propose this:

You’ve barely got a clue.

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Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP

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