The idea of a conscious and unconscious mind is basic to many psychological theories. Before I talk about this idea, though, I want to acknowledge that not all psychologists and therapists believe in this idea. Since there isn’t a physical part of the brain to point to and say, “this is the unconscious brain”, there is no way to prove its existence.
That’s because the “unconscious” is just a way of explaining certain things that people have observed about the way the mind works. Basically, it just says that our minds are always busy doing things that we didn’t purposely tell them to do (or necessarily want them to do).
One of the best examples of this is emotions. If someone threatens or insults you, you probably don’t go through a conscious, logical process and decide to be sad or angry or afraid. The feeling arises with little or no conscious thinking on your part. Some people won’t be aware of feeling anything because they have learned to repress their feelings; I’ll talk more about this in my article on emotions.
We still don’t know exactly how unconscious processes happen in the physical brain, although we are learning more all the time. Nonetheless, we have many ways of describing and working with the unconscious.
One way of describing the unconscious is as a collection of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and past experiences all packaged together, because in some way or another they seem to be important and need to be accessed quickly.
One of the primary ways that the brain works is through categorization, or grouping things together. We have unconscious definitions of many, many situations. Those definitions include how to recognize a situation, what we experienced in similar situations in the past, what our options for taking action are, what is likely to happen, etc. Some psychologists call a collection of those definitions a schema.
Let’s go back to our earlier example, where someone threatened us. We have a whole set of unconscious categories that help us define how to recognize a threat. We can look at a person’s facial expressions and body language, listen to their words, consider the circumstances. We don’t have to do each of those things consciously; our unconscious does it for us, and starts preparing us for whatever we might need to do. We feel fear. Our heart rate goes up. Adrenaline starts flowing.
You have no choice about what your unconscious does. Part of the purpose of the unconscious is to allow you to take action quickly, without having to think everything through first. This is very useful if you are being attacked by a tiger or need to quickly pull your hand away from a fire. Unconscious processes can keep us alive.
How does our unconscious work? It is constantly assessing what we are seeing, hearing, smelling, etc., and comparing that to the schemas that describe different situations. If it gets a match, the schema says not only what the situation is but also how to react. When you see your best friend, you feel excited and want to go say hi, because that’s what’s in your “I see my best friend” schema.
The unconscious is often very useful, but it can also get us into trouble if we don’t understand how it works and when to rely on it. For one thing, we have a lot of schemas for a lot of different situations. In fact, we have so many schemas that it is very common for our unconscious mind to identify more than one schema that can apply to a particular situation. For example, you see your best friend like before, except yesterday the two of you had a big fight and didn’t make up. So your “I see my best friend” schema is activated, but so is your “I see someone I don’t like” schema. And, from going to church, you have a schema that says “it is good to forgive people who hurt you”, but your big brother pounded a “don’t get mad, get even” schema into your head. Now what?
Some people deal with these conflicting schemas by picking certain schemas to always pick over the others. This could be a religious teaching or a moral code or the military code of conduct or your parents’ rules of behavior. All of these kinds of rules or codes have the advantage of reducing the confusion and internal conflict that we feel at times.
The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t help much if you run into a situation that you haven’t learned how to deal with. People who try to always rely on this approach can end up being very rigid and have a hard time changing.
Other people deal with conflicting schemas by kind of randomly picking one in the moment. These people are not very reliable and sometimes can’t even predict or understand their own behavior.
Psychotherapy can help people identify some of their own important schemas and understand them better. This is important because we all have some schemas that don’t work very well for us. For example, maybe your father wasn’t very good about praising you, and now you have some schemas that say you are going to fail if you try to accomplish something good. There are certain kinds of schemas that most of us have, but everyone’s particular schemas and combinations of schemas is different.
People often get frustrated with their own unconscious schemas, and get upset when they have trouble changing them. Remember that you can fairly easily change your conscious mind, but your conscious mind can’t directly change your unconscious mind. Just as unconscious schemas create certain emotions, emotional experiences can create or change schemas. Generally speaking, the more emotionally charged an experience is, the more impact it has on the unconscious.
This is why affirmations often don’t work the way people think they should. Telling yourself that you are successful, for example, won’t change much if you aren’t feeling the truth of the statement. Remembering instances when you felt very successful, however, is likely to have a greater impact.
It is also important to realize that many of your deepest and most influential schemas were put in place when you were very young. Babies and small children have very open minds and learn things very easily. They are also much less emotionally defended than adults. Therefore many of our schemas date back to our childhoods, even to the time before we could talk. The language of the unconscious is emotional more than rational. At the same time, it is often easy to understand the “emotional logic” driving some of these early schemas if you can empathize with the child creating them.