Updated: Apr 27, 2021
How hard is to consciously try to understand consciousness, unravel the mystery of the unconscious mind and learn about its effects on our day-to-day activities from the psychological perspective?
The term consciousness is understood differently in specific fields working on this state of mind. The area of biochemistry unfolds the definition of consciousness by looking closely at the functioning of the neurons and the respective chemicals in the brain. On the other hand, spiritualists view consciousness as a state of ultimate awareness of the entire universe and oneself. The psychological perspective, however, explains consciousness as the waking state and understands it as only the tip of an iceberg.
Ultimately, the underlying meaning of consciousness in each of these domains remain the same, and that is, the awareness of oneself and that of one’s surroundings in the waking state.
As you are reading this article, all your attention is perhaps focused on this very moment trying to understand each word, or even forming some opinions of your own. All of these are the workings of the conscious mind. Unless in this state you wouldn’t be able to do any of the above. Other examples such as cooking, eating, walking, talking, typing, are all correctly executed only when in the conscious state.
However, Sigmund Freud gives much less credit to the conscious mind than it deserves. Despite such contributions, the conscious mind is treated like Dobby, the house-elf, by Freud. Mostly because he places much of his emphasis on the unconscious mind. He conjures up an image of our unconscious mind like a dark, deep dungeon full of repressed and unwanted thoughts. That this dark basement is full of wishes, feelings and ideas that are violent, aggressive, sexual or horrifying in nature, that we usually avoid thinking about and try to shrug them off. For instance, repressing your feelings of liking for a person who is in a relationship with your best friend, as expressing them may result in a fight with your friend, or, repressing thoughts of anger toward a potent or toxic parent as revealing them may cause danger to the person.
Interestingly, these subdued thoughts sometimes manage to find their way out into the conscious being. In his book, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, published in 1901, Freud writes, “Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech. The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder.” Freud firmly believed that it was these pushed down thoughts that manifest themselves in our conscious state as Freudian slips. These slips supposedly reveal specific thoughts, wishes or feelings that are otherwise kept just to oneself due to the fear of being judged. Let us take the famous blunder or as we may call it a Freudian slip by Ted Kennedy in his speech about education. He mentioned, “Our national interests ought to be to encourage the breast and the brightest” instead what he really meant to say was “.. encourage the best and the brightest.” Another example could be when meeting the ex of your partner you may end up saying “it was nice to beat you” instead of “..meet you.” Or when a few days back a minister DECLARED “goli maar salon ko..”, oh NO WAIT, that was quite consciously said and meant too against Indian citizens trying to protest in a democratic country, no repression of violent thoughts hence no involvement of the unconscious either. You understand the difference now?
As this lacks much empirical proof, modern psychologists claim that these slips are simply a result of a short speech error or a memory error that has no darker or deeper connotations to them and have absolutely zero connections with the unconscious mind.
This discussion remains incomplete without the mentioning of Freud’s Defence Mechanisms that, although unconscious in nature, have their full effects in our conscious state of mind. It is mostly used to cope with a stressful situation without being aware of it. They usually protect the conscious mind from having to deal with an anxiety-provoking situation which can be too much to take. While these are not the best ways of facing any problem; however, a healthy amount of these and a proper knowledge of one’s reality shouldn’t be a cause of harm.
Four of the most commonly used defences are as follows:
Denial: It is the flat-out refusal of the presence of a problem that evokes pain. As the acceptance of it may result in a lot of pain and anxiety, one unconsciously ends up denying it altogether. Example, people with addiction straight up deny the fact that they are addicted to a substance.
Projection: This way of unconsciously reducing anxiety is focused on taking our own undesirable qualities and imposing them on others. Example, projecting your dislike for someone by saying something like, ‘S/He probably dislikes me, so I’d rather keep my distance from her/him’.
Repression: An act of keeping traumatic events, thoughts away from the conscious mind by unconsciously forgetting about it. Example, a person fearful of driving may have no recollections of an accident he met with years ago.
Rationalization: Giving logical reasoning to one’s unacceptable behaviour by avoiding reality. Example, Suri is financially burdened/indebted at the moment. However, still, she manages to buy an air conditioner giving the rationale that it is boiling and without an A/C it is challenging to survive thus rationalizing this problematic behaviour (unnecessary buying of an AC) by avoiding her reality.
Other types of coping strategies that we unconsciously use are day-dreaming, humour, aim inhibition, etc. These are given by researchers much later after extensively studying them.