Thoughts on the unconscious

The Freud Museum held an exhibition last week to mark the 100th anniversary of the publication of Freud’s paper on “The Unconscious”.

Several new media art works were included, for eample:
– Theophany by Disinformation
– Installation in Freud’s study and consulting room by stage designers from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama

These were quite good, but I found myself realising that I didn’t know the Freud paper at all, so here are some quotes/ notes to rectify that. Freud is of course a difficult writer to summarise, given his odd pseudo-scientific style.

‘the data of consciousness have a very large number of gaps in them…which can be explained only by presupposing other acts, of which, nevertheless, consciousness affords no evidence.”

” at any given moment consciousness includes only a small content, so that the greater part of what we call conscious knowledge must in an case be for very considerable periods of time in a state of latency…”

“a latent memory … is an unquestionable residuum of a psychical process..”

” we know for certain that […these latent states of mental life…] have abundant points of contact with conscious mental processes…”

“In psycho analysis there is no choice for us but to assert that mental processes are in themselves unconscious, and to liken the perception of them by means of consciousness to the perception of the external world by means of the sense organs…Just as Kant warned us not to overlook the fact that our perceptions are subjectively conditioned….so psycho-analysis warns us not to equate perceptions by means of consciousness with the unconscious mental processes which are their object.”

Freud actually assumes three parts of the mind , unconscious (Ucs), conscious (Cs), and preconscious (Pcs). In the preconscious mind are ideas which are not yet conscious, but are “capable of becoming conscious”. He is not entirely clear on the distinction; he sees a sort of “censorship” which stops unconscious ideas becoming conscious or pre-conscious, and attributes this to repression. (And also to normal societal constraints; you may think a rude word, but you stop yourself from saying it in front of the Vicar. Nothing wrong or unhealthy about this, whereas repression implies a much darker process.)

He says the job of the preconscious is “to make communication possible between different ideational contents so that they can influence one another, to give them an order in time, and to set up a censorship or several censorships; ‘reality testing’ too, and the reality principle, are its province. Conscious memory, moreover, seems to depend wholly on the Pcs. This should be clearly distinguished from the memory-traces in which the experiences of the Ucs are fixed…”

Freud is talking about ideas, not emotions. He says “it is surely of the essence of an emotion that we should be aware of it…but it may happen that an affective or emotional impulse is perceived but miscontrued. Owing to the repression of its proper representative, it has been forced to become connected with another idea, and is now regarded by consciousness as the manifestation of that idea…”

Freud also says, in passing almost, “it is a very remarkable thing that the Ucs of one human can react upon that of another, without passing through the Cs. This deserves closer investigation…. but, descriptively speaking, the fact is incontestable.” (An example of Freud’s odd style: no evidence is offered for the ‘incontestable’ fact; even the editor of the Strachey edition can find only one example in the rest of Freud’s writings. Surely, if true, this has major implications for everything else in Freud’s model, which is otherwise entirely internal to a single mind?)

Freud’s model is of use, it seems to me for these reasons:
– it explains why the irrational occurs in our behaviour
– it explains why inputs sometimes affect our systems more or less than they might be expected to do
– it reminds us that the unconscious is potentially very much larger than the conscious for all of us, even though we see the sizes the other way round
– it describes in outline how the unconscious can affect the conscious, and also the other way round
– Freud implies that the unconscious consists largely of ‘latent memories’, of which we all have very many and adds “if inherited mental formations exist in the human being… these constitute the nucleus of the Ucs… may be compared with an aboriginal population of the mind”. Jung I suppose found other things there too, the ‘archetypes’ and collective unconscious, ie the memories of all humanity, and/or of our own part of it.

I would add two more example of the ‘subconscious’ – see elsewhere in this blog – the depths of the oceans and the immensity of space. We are ‘consciously’ aware, in a limited sense, that these are around us, yet we succeed in ignoring them almost totally. But these are not my internal subconscious: they are the subconscious of the whole world.

Lastly, the ongoing debates about whether AI or other machines have ‘consciousness’ ought perhaps to ask whether they have ‘unconsciousness’ as well, since this might in the end prove to be what makes us human?

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