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The Theory of the Unconscious of Sigmund Freud (and the new theories)

The Theory of the Unconscious of Sigmund Freud (and the new theories)

February 11, 2024

Traditionally, scientists and many philosophers have considered that human behavior is governed by conscious thought . The belief that we are able to know all the important data about our environment and our body and that we decide how to behave by sticking to this information has been very generalized, perhaps because rationality has been a central value in the naturalists and thinkers of recent centuries. .

However, today we know that a very large part of the processes that influence our thinking and our actions are based on things we do not know directly: that is, elements of the unconscious. Despite this discovery, it is easy to fall into confusion when we talk about the unconscious, since this concept is defined differently by the Freudian theory (and later psychodynamic tendencies) and the neuroscience of our days.


Where does this confusion come from? The precedent of Freudian theory

Although Sigmund Freud did not use the scientific method to investigate the processes by which thought is governed, it can be said that he noticed the existence of a type of unconscious (or, rather, "the unconscious", according to its terminology) long before the scientists came to glimpse it. The inconsistency of which Freud speaks in his writings, however, is not the same one that is studied today in the neurosciences. Among other things, because neither he nor the rest of the researchers of the mental processes still knew the organic functioning by which higher mental processes are governed at the unconscious level, beyond having described certain general principles. Thus, Freud wove a network of hypotheses relatively independent of what today's neurosciences.


It is important to be clear about this idea, since it is often understood that, since Freud tried to rely on principles of physics and physiology to propose his explanations about the mind, these explanations are based on an exhaustive observation of the functioning of the body at a biological. Thus, although in the principles of psychoanalysis the brain was compared to a steam engine, that image can be taken as little more than an analogy that served to better understand the explanation itself, rather than the brain.

Research limited by context

In short, Freud knew that he did not have the means to study the physical processes by which the functioning of the brain is governed, and he believed that this topic was very relevant to understand how the thought and unconscious proposed in Freudian theory works. The researchers of the mind had very few resources to study the functioning of the brain, and that had clear implications when it comes to understanding how what was then called "the mind" works. This can be intuited in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), in which Sigmund Freud said:


"Biological science is really a domain of infinite possibilities, we must expect the most surprising clarifications from it and we can not guess what answer it will give, within a few decades, to the problems we have posed. our artificial hypothesis building. "

The gap between psychoanalysis and the neurosciences

Both Freud and the disciples of Freudian theory who did not stray from their teacher's teachings use the term unconscious to refer to the content mental that, at a certain moment, it is outside the repertoire of thoughts of which the person is conscious and that, in some way, remain hidden somewhere in his psyche. However, partly because of their focus and partly because of the little that was known about the nervous system at that time, their explanations about the unconscious are divorced from fundamental principles about the mechanics of the brain and the neuronal activation associated with the consciousness that they study. the neurosciences.

In short, the unconscious spoken of by Freud it served to refer to memories, perceptions and mixtures of feelings that, responding to a need, are inaccessible through conscious knowledge . It can be said that, although the current conception of the unconscious is not the one used by Freud, the latter continues to compete with the other because it is the first in which "the unconscious" occupies an important position in an extensive theoretical corpus.

The unconscious of the simple

The unconscious posed by Freudian theory is composed of concrete rational and emotional elements that remain repressed by having a problematic meaning for the conscious mind. That is, they are not kept hidden due to their complexity or their lack of relevance in the day to day of the person.Quite the contrary, these repressed elements referred to by some psychoanalysts tend to be relatively simple ideas that can be "translated" into consciousness through symbolic operations and whose presence in the unconscious, despite passing unnoticed, forms a kind of "glasses" to read reality through thoughts that, in a certain sense, are recurrent.

Freudian theory holds that the contents of the unconscious must be simple enough in themselves to be addressed by a multitude of stimuli day to day, although the way in which consciousness blocks these thoughts is complex, since it uses original combinations between symbols to give expression to the repressed. Dreams, for example, are for Freud a vehicle for the expression of repressed thoughts conveyed through symbolism.

A touch of mystery

Of course, this definition of unconscious It is problematic and confusing , since language itself can be considered a way of filter the unconscious through symbols (words), which means that unconscious thoughts, by their very nature, never reach the light of the whole and therefore we can not know them completely, since they are constantly changing in their journeys to consciousness . This kind of obscurantism is expected due to the complexity of the object of study of psychoanalysts, the subjects treated by Freudian theory and its research methodology.

The unconscious always has a side that it can not be accessible by the simple word : that's why psychoanalysts claim the importance of the interaction between patient and therapist over the reading of self-help books, which contain principles coded a priori through a series of symbols that the author has chosen and ordered without knowing the reader.

The New Unconscious

Although Freud may be considered the "discoverer" of the unconscious, he is so introduced a way of thinking about the human being as an animal that does not know all the processes that guide its action , but not because of having found the unconscious through a systematic and detailed investigation of it.

Freudian theory is the daughter of his time, and is constrained by technical limitations . Both Freud and some of the psychologists of his time speculated about the existence of unconscious aspects of human thought and behavior, but their study methodology (introspection, observation of patients with mental disorders, etc.) only gave them indirect knowledge. of these. Fortunately, in spite of the limitations with which Freud's theory was framed at the time, the neurosciences and the technological developments that accompany them allow a much more complete study on this subject.

Freudian theory introduced for the first time a more or less detailed conception of the unconscious as a determining element in human behavior, while the scientific community of the second half of the twentieth century, curiously, continued to believe in the primacy of conscious thought processes on the rest of the human body. Nowadays, however, the tables have changed in the world of neuroscience and the vast majority of researchers dismiss conscious thought as the main driver of our behavior . Neuroscientist research of the unconscious is something that has recently appeared, but that has paid off very quickly.

Distinguishing terms based on new discoveries

The unconscious to which neuroscientists and psychologists now refer is far from being the same concept that Freudian theory presented. To distinguish between these two ideas, that of the unconscious of psychoanalysts and that of the unconscious of scientists, the latter concept has been given the name of New Unconscious .

While the unconscious of Freudian theory exists as a redoubt to limit thoughts difficult to digest by consciousness, which blocks them keeping them away from itself, the New Unconscious is not based on motivational and drive forces or ways of repression or "blocking" of thoughts according to their content. The relationship between the conscious and unconscious processes that scientists are now talking about is not based on defense mechanisms, but on the architecture of the brain , that simply is not made so that everything that happens in it has a transcription to the human conscience. The New Unconscious is unconscious of truth, and can not be known indirectly by analyzing its "manifestations."

The unconscious aspects of thought exist as part of a cycle (the Perception-Action cycle) of which we do not want to know everything. We are not interested in memorizing instantly each and every one of the aspects of the person we have just met, and therefore we search one or two references of their identity unconsciously: for example, their hairstyle.Neither do we want to devote ourselves to carefully study all the subjects on which we have to make a decision, and that is why we decided to unconsciously follow the paths of the heuristic, nor is it necessary to be aware that the left shoe tightens very lightly, nor is it essential to consciously direct the movements of the right arm when looking through the bus window.

These processes must be carried out with discretion, not because of their content, but because of their nature, because they can be managed automatically, leaving free space in the consciousness for special tasks. In Freudian theory, on the other hand, what is unconscious is precisely because of its significance , its importance.

The New Unconscious is distinguished from the term used by Freudian theory because it does not respond to a personal story or to the problematic internalization of past experiences . In any case, its raison d'etre is in a brain structure designed so that only some tasks and functions are part of the conscious, while the rest is delegated to a set of automatic operations, some of which we can partially control come the case (like breathing).

New Unconscious and Freudian theory, united only by appearances

In short, the unconscious side of more abstract thoughts, such as the automatic association that can occur between the perception of a dog in the street and the memories of the last vacation in Barcelona, ​​respond to the same mechanics by which the processes in charge of making us blink they tend to be unconscious most of the time. This is the logic by which the New Unconscious is governed: the pure biological pragmatism .

While the unconscious of Freudian theory is based on motivational mechanisms, the New Unconscious is not a prison of inappropriate emotions and thoughts, but a place where all the series of operations are found, of which we have no special interest in controlling whose automatism makes life easier for us.


PSYCHOTHERAPY - Sigmund Freud (February 2024).


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