Does the unconscious exist? David B. Feldman asks, and says no.  He points out that the unconscious and its influence is a cornerstone of Freudian and other theories, where it is quoted as the explanation for our deeper motivation and our sometimes puzzling behaviour.  It may send messages through dreams and other hints, but we have no direct access to it and cannot read its thoughts, even though they may heavily influence our personality.

Freud’s status as an authority is perhaps not what it once was, but the unconscious is widely accepted as a given, pretty much part of our everyday folk-psychology understanding of our own minds. I think if you asked, a majority of people would say they had had direct experience of their own unconscious knowledge or beliefs affecting the way they behaved.  Many psychological experiments have demonstrated ‘priming’ effects, where the subject’s choices are affected by things they have been told or shown previously (although some of these may be affected by the reproducibility problems that have beset psychological research recently, I don’t think the phenomenon of priming in general can be dismissed). Nor is it a purely academic matter. Unconscious bias is generally held to be a serious problem, responsible for the perpetuation of various kinds of discrimination by people who at a conscious level are fair-minded and well-meaning.

Feldman, however, suggests that the unconscious is neither scientifically testable nor logically sound.  It may well be true that psychoanalytic explanations are scientifically slippery; mistaken predictions about a given subject can always be attributed to a further hidden motivation or complex, so that while one interpretation can be proved false, the psychoanalytic model overall cannot be.  However, more generally there is good scientific evidence for unconscious influences on our behaviour as I’ve mentioned, so perhaps it depends on what kind of unconscious we’re talking about.  On the logical front, Feldman suggests that the unconscious is an ‘homunculus’; an example of the kind of explanation that attributes some mental functions to ‘a little man in your head’, a mental module that is just assumed to be able to do whatever a whole brain can do. He quite rightly says that homuncular theories merely defer explanation in a way which is most often useless and unjustified.

But is he right? On one hand people like Dennett, as we’ve discussed in the past, have said that homuncular arguments may be alright with certain provisos; on the other hand, is it clear that the unconscious really is an homuncular entity?  The key question, I think, is whether the unconscious is an entity that is just assumed to do all the sorts of things a complete mind would do. If we stick to Freud, Feldman’s charges may have substance; the unconscious seems to have desires and motivations, emotions, and plans; it understands what is going on in our lives pretty well and can make intelligently targeted interventions and encode messages in complex ways. In a lot of ways it is like a complete person – or rather, like three people: id, ego, and superego. A Freudian might argue over that; however, in the final analysis it’s not the decisive issue because we’re not bound to stick to a Freudian or psychoanalytic reading of the unconscious anyway. Again, it depends what kind of unconscious we’re proposing. We could go for a much simpler version which does some basic things for us but at a level far below that a real homunculus. Perhaps we could even speak loosely of an unconscious if it were no more than the combined effect of many separate mental features?

In fact, Feldman accepts all this. He is quite comfortable with our doing things unconsciously, he merely denies the existence of the unconscious as a distinct coherent thinking entity. He uses the example of driving along a familiar route; we perform perfectly, but afterwards cannot remember doing the steering or changing gear at any stage. Myself I think this is actually a matter of memory, not inattention while actually driving – if we were stopped at any point in the journey I don’t think we would have to snap out of some trance-like state; it’s just that we don’t remember. But in general Feldman’s position seems entirely sensible.

There is actually something a little odd in the way we talk about unconsciousness. Virtually everything is unconscious, after all. We don’t remark on the fact that muscles or the gut do their job without being conscious; it’s the unique presence of consciousness in mental activity that is worthy of mention. So why do we even talk about unconscious functions, let alone an unconscious?


  1. 1. Peter Martin says:

    Thanks for your blog, enjoyed reading it, as ever!

    I think ‘the unconscious’, like a lot of psychological concepts, is undefined until the architecture that gives rise to consciousness is made clear, when such terms can be used with precision.

    There are lots of mechanisms, such as the chemistry of neurotransmitters, that are necessary for behaviour and not accessible to consciousness, but should probably not be considered as part of the unconscious.

    A possible definition of the unconscious is those brain processes that are not conscious, but could have been. Some psychotherapy and counselling is about bringing into conscious awareness thought processes that are influencing behaviour but are not currently available to conscious introspection.

  2. 2. wtquinn says:

    I like science. I’m taking an opposition stance here, for fun. When (hypothetical) speculative materialist theorist bloggers die and unexpectedly awake as consciousness inside a sun disk demanding fresh pulsating bloody human hearts (Aztec analogy) as appeasement in order to prevent Nihil (threatening little clay people), to which academic, scientist, footnote, etc. will they turn to, to appease the future wheel of fortune?

    Perhaps Vanna? (White)

    Does Nemesis grant pardon to Ironic salvific begging?

    I know, it doesn’t sound scientific.

    But science doesn’t sell cathartic buzz worthy movies. At least not very well?



  3. 3. Lloyd says:

    Peter, I think your last two paragraphs sum it up pretty well. There are clearly a lot of things that go on in the brain that we are not even remotely aware of. But some are more borderline. Parts of vision, hearing and maybe tactile could report “snake”, which goes to the amygdala. which says “jump, fast”. This mostly happens before we know about it and depending on the situation, it could remain entirely unconscious. To me, the problem is in thinking about this in terms of anthropomorphic brain operators instead of thinking of the functional elements, like clumps of neurons sending signals to other clumps. Some of those signals activate the world model layer, which leads to consciousness. Others do not. There are many thousands, maybe millions, of such neural clumps.

  4. 4. wtquinn says:

    When the Earth-Sun do their science Hula dancing star terra cotta to everything turn turn turn (Byrds), the clay people become unconscious. Thus the analogy as to why the word is used.


  5. 5. David Duffy says:

    I’d see this article as a response to the neuro-psychoanalysts like Mark Solms, Jaak Panksepp, who are gaining a certain amount of traction.

    And see Solms’s “The Conscious Id” (paper and youtube).

    Solms differentiates between the “cognitive neuroscience unconscious” (eg perceptual processing, inattentive driving) and the “affective neuroscience unconscious” (eg interoceptive inference theories, fMRI of repressed memories). I think there are in theory testable predictions.

  6. 6. SelfAwarePatterns says:

    It’s worth noting what separates the conscious and unconscious aspects of the mind: whether we can metacognitively introspect it. It’s not controversial that most of what our brains do is outside of our introspective scope. The only question is, what are the capabilities of the processing outside of that scope? Those capabilities do seem to include habitual and instinctive reactions.

    But imaginative planning? Perhaps it could include light planning, but given that the introspective regions appear to be in the prefrontal cortex, near or overlapping with the planning regions, it seems unlikely that deep planning can happen without metacognitive awareness of it. Indeed, a case can be made that the human ability to do deep planning far beyond that of most other animals requires metacognition, a capability we may only share with a few other species.

    Peter, on driving, I can often remember what I was thinking about during a drive without remember the driving itself. Maybe my consciousness was multitasking and simply not storing the driving details. But I’ve also unthinkingly driven a habitual but wrong route when daydreaming or distracted by conversation, one time with a passenger pointing it out immediately after the first wrong turn; it sure felt like my consciousness was snapped back to the driving details.

  7. 7. john davey says:


    ” if we were stopped at any point in the journey I don’t think we would have to snap out of some trance-like state”

    I beg to differ – it’s not a trance like state, but is is a meditative/contemplative state. When I’m driving I’m seldom thinking about driving. When a car slows down in front too quickly and it looks like you’re about to hit it, you certainly get “woken up”.

    You just don’t think about driving – to that extent it is memory – you need to be actually thinking about something to created a memory for it. Driving is actually something you can focus on – but what about swimming or riding a bike ? There is zero chance of an adult actually ever needing to focus even slightly on how we do these things. We just do them and it was so long ago we can’t even unlearn it.


  8. 8. Howard B says:

    Two points, if I may. Not all Freudians reify the unconscious. An apter way to put it is that it’s as though the person behaves and thinks in ways that require the hypothesis of an unconscious, because he or she is unaware of their meaning and that these meanings are deeply intimate and personal. It’s a way of attributing agency and meaning to the machinery of our brain and so forth.
    Further, though the Freudian revolution has waned and left a residue, it is counterintuitive, as your comments demonstrate and hard for those who attack the mind with hammers and electrodes to grasp. It is counterintuitive like quantum mechanics and that reality does not definitively count against it.
    I’m happy you’re even considering psychoanalysis at all, and in my view the jury is still out.

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