WHAT IS 'THE UNCONSCIOUS'?
Some see the concept of an unconscious as an unclear or mystificatory idea which is superfluous in understanding either mental health or mental illness (pathology). Alternative theories have been put forward to explain what the theory of unconscious mind was supposed to explain. One early reaction against Freud's theory was the psychology of Alfred Adler. Other psychological researchers claim that it is not possible to find sound empirical scientific evidence supporting Freudian suppositions of an unconscious. Validation of the idea has not been forthcoming from rigorous experimental work. However, this does not thereby invalidate the general conception of the unconscious, no more than it would invalidate many another insight about the real inner nature of the human soul or spirit.
That the word 'unconscious' is mostly used without explanation or definition is a great weakness because so many qualities, phenomena, types of behaviour, functions or effects are variously ascribed to it. It is remarkable how many people, including professional psychologists, jumble up the various possible meanings. Established writers in the field seldom even attempt to define or explain with any satisfactory precision what they mean by it.1 So we need clear definitions to distinguish the main relevant and current meanings of the word. To what extent each of these may be valid concepts or useful hypotheses in application is then examined.
FIVE DISTINCT MEANINGS OF 'THE UNCONSCIOUS' 2
The noun 'the unconscious' is indeed a misnomer, without which we would be better off. It tends often to be used to mean much the same as 'the unknown' or, at least, what is not realised about the human psyche and its origins. Some psychologists, such as in the Jungian school, have tended to use it thus. In a sense, this is accurate too, for Western psychology does not know or claim to know the cosmic truths about the constitution of humankind that are stated in the Vedantic texts or in a number of other spiritual-religious traditions like those of the Gnostics, the Christian mystics, the Sufis etc.
Not only does the use of the noun 'the unconscious' imply that it has some sort of substantive existence, as if it were an entity (sometimes even one 'with its own mind'), but the very use of the prefix 'un-' indicates that this is something essentially contrary to consciousness. This is partly very misleading, not least because Freudian use of terms like 'unconscious mind' and 'unconscious thought' are latent self-contradictions. This contains the seeds of much confusion both in the general public and among psychologists.
If the word is to be used clearly and fruitfully in psychological understanding and therapy, we must avoid usages that are either too general or too ambiguous (eg. 'all of non-perceived reality') and arrive at distinct, practically-demonstrable meanings.
The various types of experienced behaviour or phenomena that are relevantly related to the main idea of the unconscious can be grouped under five main headings2, for each of which one term is suggested as a specific substitute for the too-general 'unconscious'. This does not imply that the unconscious behaviour for which each of the five terms stand are entirely separate categories of experience, though the principles involved differ in each case. There will probably always be some inter-relations in real life between the forms described.
1) The Unconscious meaning THE SUBCONSCIOUS
2) The Unconscious meaning UNREFLECTED LEARNED BEHAVIOUR
3) The Unconscious meaning UNRECOGNISED NEEDS
4) The Unconscious meaning REPRESSED SELF-EXPERIENCE
5) The Unconscious meaning COLLECTIVE IDEATION
1) THE UNCONSCIOUS AS 'THE SUBCONSCIOUS'
The subconscious mind comprises our emotional and mental processes that are beyond our attention... our subliminal mind. It consists in a fund of feelings, ideas, responses and memories etc. upon which we can draw at any time without thinking over them. The subconscious mind is therefore not self-conscious. Consciousness always involves self-awareness in the present moment, knowing its own agency at any time without having to reflect over itself. The subconscious is always available to consciousness, but does not form a part of it... analogous to the way a known vocabulary does not form any part of speech until some of it is activated through speech.
Among the most everyday functions of the subconscious is remembering. The mind has a vast amount of associative memories 'at its fingertips' which are mostly recalled 'without having to think about it'. The subconscious consists both in latent reactions and processes going on beneath the threshold of normal waking experience, our immediate awareness. If we mentally subtract our awareness from waking experience, what would remain is virtually the kind of experience that we have when dreaming. In dreaming, the subconscious process that underlies all waking experience continues, but without the waking awareness that is here called 'consciousness of self'. In dreams, all the same sensory contents of waking can be present; the contents of consciousness are then of the same sensory nature, whether visual, auditory and so on. The images and other dream contents add up to a 'dream world' having most of the basic characteristics of the real world, apart from its substantiality. The functions of the dreaming mind which produce this 'world' from the materials of the subconscious continue to function after awakening. In this sense, then, the subconscious process spans both the dreaming and the waking spheres and is present in both, though it is less directly or easily perceived as such when awake.
Consciousness operates through the self. The conscious self is certainly very much a part and parcel of 'normal' waking life from the very early years onwards. Which aspect of the 'self' of which one is conscious varies; it may be the active 'I' aspect or the passive sense of 'me'. In different situations, the self is identified with the body, the desires and feelings, the ego, the mind and so on. This is awareness of the individual self as a more or less separate or distinct entity; it is not consciousness of the 'greater self', as is postulated in religion which aims at and supposed 'self-realisation' and final liberation from individuality in some universal soul or spirit (usually after death). Consciousness of various aspects of the individual ego-self can evidently also be 'suspended' at least to some extent under the influence of alcohol, some drugs, hypnosis, amnesia and suchlike. Memories that we could say are chronically 'blocked' are not, however, part of the subconscious but of that aspect of 'the unconscious' referred to here as 'repressed self-experience'.
The subconscious process is sometimes referred to as subliminal awareness. This arises on the basis of the same substratum of consciousness that yields dreams and imaginings. The term 'subliminal' may also be used to refer to the nervous system's stimulus-response reactions, such as in physiological body reflexes. Since these reflexes are purely physiological, in that they arise without any intercession of consciousness, one does not include them under awareness. Subliminal awareness is really a misnomer for subconscious processes. We may be aware of them, without them being the result of any conscious will or agency on our part.
However, we can often produce rapid responses that are like reflexes in that they are so fast and adequate as to seem not to have been learned. These are borderline forms of awareness, generated through pre-developed subconscious work. The subconscious can contain many and very varied forms of trained response awareness. The tennis player who is 'on form' and produces the winning shot all the time is using the subconscious, not automatic reflexes. This is because the player's perception and tactical judgement can also be involved, even when each ball is also somehow at the same time 'read' and countered without reflection or, as one says, 'unthinkingly'. This is the ideal condition of unreflective trust in the subliminal system for a sportsman, or for a musician or any activity where responses must be immediate and accurate. The subliminal system is always trained through experience, whether in learning to reach out for an object, to walk, to ride a bike or to perfect any highly-trained skill like shorthand typing, Morse-encoding or even rapid quiz answering.
A fruitful aspect of studying the subconscious is in the development of creative thinking in writing and various art forms. Creative thinking depends upon an ability to draw upon the sub-conscious fund of impulses, images, words, associations and so forth with great facility. Knowledge of the conditions of developing this ability are several and make up a broad field of psychological interest.
The subconscious can involve peripheral consciousness. That is, the person is aware to some extent of subliminal activities without making it an object for self-conscious reflection. Very rapid 'inadvertent' movements to avoid a sudden falling object or catch an unexpected missile exemplify this type of awareness. The advanced martial arts of the East evidently can develop such peripheral awareness and subliminal judgement-response to an amazingly high degree.
One case of subconscious reaction occurs in subliminal perception, wherein something below the threshold of awareness is registered. This can be 'subconscious perception' of both physical stimuli and stimuli with meaning content, which can be demonstrated experimentally by showing how briefly-shown images or words that the subject cannot awarely report on can nevertheless influence his actions (eg. the speed of thinking or other processes).
There appear to be no final, unchangeable barriers either between subliminal consciousness and consciousness, or between it and most or even all of the autonomous physiological functions (breathing, heartbeat etc.) because awareness and control vary with individuals. Sufficient training in yogic breathing and other related disciplines can demonstrably alter most or even all the known bodily functions, though the extent of these abilities is still in dispute, probably mainly because of the infrequent distribution or availability of evidence and/or willing demonstrators.
The Subconscious And Positive Input: The Computer Analogy: The mind is often compared to a computer, especially the subliminal unconscious functions. Many subliminal functions of the mind can fairly be compared to 'programmed' materials. Examples are the associative patterns of memory, various habitual ways of seeing, hearing or sensing things or of relating images and 'associating ideas'. When such patterns are learned thoroughly or at an early age, they may become largely 'pre-set', being habitual so that the mind can rely on such programs 'unreflectingly', i.e. without re-analysing or reflecting over them. The person concerned may no longer be fully aware of such pre-set behavioural responses and they may be so ingrained that they cannot be altered or reconfigured without considerable difficulties.
It has been said that the mind does not work 'digitally', in the laborious and strictly step-by-step logical manner of a computer, but 'analogically'. This is mainly because the mind can consciously organise itself, file and find its memories and perceptions and evaluate them in any relationship, by manifold symbolic comparisons (eg. such as in analogies, parables, so-called 'lateral thinking' etc.). Further, the mind can make both subliminal-impulsive and consciously-intended decisions that are effected through bodily activity. No computer so far constructed or planned can approach a duplication of these aspects of mind. Therefore, the computer analogy applies more to the brain than the conscious mind.
The brain can certainly be trained to react at the subliminal level, or of what we here denote as the subconscious mind. Subliminal responses are those activated without our reflecting over them. Examples of subliminal reaction patterns (even flexible or 'self-adjusting' patterns) are the movements of the fingers - unperceived by the absorbed player - in playing on an instrument what one 'hears within', a completely new improvisation. Similarly, the flash reaction of a table-tennis player who 'unthinkingly' reaches a shot never before attempted, and so forth.
If the mind is fed the appropriate picture (say, of oneself reaching for a ping-pong ball to return it) it will strive to produce what is envisaged for it. If, on the contrary, one thinks, 'I'm going to miss this ball', the subliminal 'mind' will tend to make one miss. The brain seems to tend towards producing any envisaged result of an action. Therefore, by feeding it what for us are 'positive' ideas or signals', it will tend to produce those desired results. It will equally tend to produce the imagined (feared) result of 'negative input'. This has been shown to be a very effective insight in improving many types of performance or skill, including the alleviation of psychic problems of negative self-images.
Limits to the computer analogy: Though the long-held view by deterministic thinkers that the body and brain are advanced machines was discredited widely in the 20th century, the tremendous advances in understanding of genetics and the DNA code's importance in ever more aspects of human development have reinvigorated this analogy. That the human brain may prove to be a vastly complex system which 'runs' on principles like those involved in the design of machines cannot be overlooked. However, an inital objection is that, while a computer can reproduce and employ any operation for which it is sufficiently programmed, it cannot (to date) itself make its own judgements of a qualitative and evaluative kind. The brain, representing the mind in its subliminal functioning, has been equated with a computer. The foregoing model of the subconscious mind as a computer-like 'brain' that cannot distinguish of itself between 'positive' and 'negative' or, for that matter between desired/unwanted', 'good/bad', 'virtue/'vice' etc. - is highly misleading for the conscious mind. Not only does the mind, unlike the computer, distinguish physical pleasure from pain, but also supra-physical qualities such as positive and negative 'values'. The capacity of moral discrimination is a function of the human mind, which itself consists in interwoven desires and their many emotional and mental extensions. The mind evaluates, which means that it judges according to deep-seated values that are not systematically codifiable, for in understanding them we depend upon the higher faculty of conscience or 'moral intellect'. The essential character of the human mind here becomes apparent.
Perhaps the cardinal difference between the human mind and computers will transpire to lie in motivation. Computers are not self motivated, whereas the human mind can be self-motivating, if not always This is rooted in the mind's expression of desires and the consequent possibilities of self-interest, self-control and realisation of ideals of which it conceives. The subconscious as described here does not itself motivate, but has to be motivated by some stimulus, including a conscious volition. By contrast to the subconscious, the conscious mind, however, is 'self-monitoring' and 'self-programming', as already pointed out.
2) THE UNCONSCIOUS AS 'UNREFLECTED LEARNED BEHAVIOUR'
This sort of 'unconscious' behaviour is in many respects like subconscious reaction, except that it arises from socially-learned activities and attitudes. Thus it has less to do with the 'inward' functioning of a person as a psycho-physical organism and more with conformity with the roles, mores and norms of the family and the wider social or 'outer' environment.
Behaviour that has at some time been learned, whether by 'blind' imitation or through a more or less conscious process of instruction, is unreflected when a person has never thought over its purpose or goal, its value, its efficiency or its rightness. This is sometimes called 'traditional behaviour'. For example, the tendency to express moderate pain by the syllables 'ow' and 'ouch' is learned by imitation, being current only in certain language cultures. The tendency to reach forth the right hand for shaking is learned behaviour and is surely often done without any reflection, though it may be quite inappropriate to persons of non-Western backgrounds and cultures. Many attitudes, even of a quite complex mental nature, can be traditional and unreflected... eg. social norms concerning propriety, bodily contact, who it is (un)acceptable to relate to, including many forms of herd instinct, not least racial persecution and nationalistic chauvinism.
These attitudes and sorts of behaviour are relatively 'unconscious' because one is not aware of their arbitrary nature, has not asked or realised 'why' one unthinkingly does them and accepts them without appreciating their origin or function for oneself or others.
Most very early learning occurs through imitation and following examples. Unreflected learned behaviour is usually 'inherited' from the earliest years through the family, clan, school, workplace and other social environments. Some traditional behaviour patterns, or elements thereof, may even be inborn. Latent behaviour patterns are inborn may or may not imply a genetic inheritance, for there can conceivably be other pre-natal origins of tendencies brought into this life in some form of residual tendencies from a previous existence.
What degree of consciousness of self can be developed at what age is uncertain, though research is progressively finding evidence pointing to it arising earlier and earlier in infancy than has long been assumed. For evident reasons, no-one can prove whether or not consciousness of self can even be present at birth... or prior to it. The question is loaded with both religious and scientific ideological assumptions and beliefs. Those who accept that human beings are reborn in as part of a process of spiritual evolution contend that previous lives can be recalled by some people, and even that a few persons are born with full consciousness of their identity. However, consciousness of self is in the main not demonstrably developed before the age of about two or three years.
The absence of reflection does not mean that there is no consciousness of self, only that the awareness is direct and immediate, not reflective and weighed. This is evident from such experiences as learning to ride a bike, walking a tightrope or saying a first party piece. It is much less easy when reflecting or 'thinking about it' than when simply doing it. This uncertainty factor enters with self-reflection, such as remembering past failures, fear of what will be thought if one fails etc. Indeed, a fairly well-developed consciousness of self, one including an ability to reflect and question the effect or even the rightness of one's own 'traditional' behaviour, may well be thought to occur very early in many children. It is well known how parental and other social pressures towards traditional and conservative behaviour may easily stultify the child's development of autonomy, of self-examination and consequent self-regulation or self-control. In such cases we would not expect it on average to be very well developed in adulthood either. Above all, however, self-reflection opens for self-confidence, not least through the ability to view one's own development and achievements, to secure good self-images and further to advance and reinforce oneself through all kinds of self-improvement.
The value in distinguishing this aspect of what a person can be unconscious of should lie in the diagnosis of the origin. Behaviour that is judged ineffective, irrational or wrong can be due to typical actions which have been absorbed from the family and school training or through similar socialisation processes. This should not be confused with actions of a quite different type of origin in 'repressed' emotional and/or mental conflict in a person's past experiences. The one origin is mainly social, the other mainly psychological, even though both these aspects can be involved in actual interaction.
Unreflected learned behaviour is an unavoidable part of life, having most importance in the formative years. It builds basic self-confidence and trust through the security of fitting one in to one's immediate social world. It can also cause problems for the person involved as learned behaviour is found to be unacceptable in the wider world. The impulses that form such problematical attitudes and behaviour patterns invariably come from the environment and not from within oneself, they are therefore not part of the inner self, but only of the social persona... unlike problems due to unresolved or repressed self-experience that have their origins as emotional leftovers or fixations 'within' the person and persist as unresolved emotional and mental disturbances.
3) THE UNCONSCIOUS AS 'UNRECOGNISED NEEDS'
Sigmund Freud first spoke of instincts and needs as having the nature of unconscious drives. According to Freud's rather mechanistic viewpoint, all a person's many types of desires, tastes and even opinions or higher intellectual and artistic achievements could be shown to be derived more or less indirectly, and by various means, from the energy in more basic 'drives'. These drives Freud supposed to operate 'unconsciously' in the persons of civilised society, that is, either unbeknown to them or unrecognised for what they were.
The most basic of these were 1) the Darwinian kind, that is, the self-preservation and survival instinct which implied the libidinal drive or Eros-instinct, being the urge both for reproduction of the species and self-gratification and 2) the self-destructive sort; the death-drive or Thanatos-instinct which conflicts directly with the Eros instinct (life and love drive). The human psyche was seen by Freud as the battleground of these 'lower' drives, wherein the suppressed urges lurked in 'the' unconscious in the form of an 'It' (the 'Id') pursuing 'the pleasure principle' and struggling against the civilising influence of 'the reality principle' as represented mainly by society and morality, chiefly internalised as a 'super-ego' in the form of corrective and often guilt-inducing moralism. Betwixt these two internally-operating 'forces', the person's conscious selfhood or 'ego' struggled to develop itself and adjust its desires to accord with the world of actual experience and objective possibility.
On the basis of this outline, though it is perhaps somewhat concise, one chief hypothesis as to the unconscious is: Instinctual and/or primary needs always affect a person's thought, word and deed directly or indirectly, mostly without that person's awareness of the particular basic motivation.
Evaluation of the idea of 'unrecognised needs': The usefulness of such a conception of unconscious motivation is generally quite clear. No one doubts that instincts and needs operate in the human, even though their exact nature or number are yet under discussion. The contention that such unconscious influences act upon individual perception, thought and behaviour is doubtless sound and can be fruitful in understanding, but it cannot be absolutised to include all behaviour nor to apply with equal force to all persons.
That everything seen on the broad palette of the huge diversity of human wants and desires could be wholly due to biological impulses is an assumption is to be rejected here in favour of the much more fruitful and consistent assumption; namely that conscious volition also plays a determining role in human life. Other and ultimately yet more primary sources of human motivation than those arising from physical causes in the sphere of gross matter are completely unavoidable in any wider understanding of human psychology, of life and its purposes. This being said, it is still important that the effects of biological and other physical conditioners on our behaviour are recognised, not only because human beings are often under the sway of biological urges and even primitive instincts at some stages of life, all depending on their level of personal development.
A widespread fallacy has long held that all individuals are equally subject to exactly the same drives and instincts at birth and even from then onwards. The assumption that 'all men are born equal' is demonstrably false in many respects, especially if it is taken in the usual general sense, as will be discussed further. There is plenty of empirical evidence to show that individuals differ from birth and onwards in the inborn strength of their instincts or the degree of their needs. There is no such evidence against this. Indeed, normal comparative observation combined with common sense strongly indicate the contrary, and this common 20th century myth has at last been exploded at last by relatively recent researches in child development.
It is therefore surely wrong to assume that unrecognised needs are identical for everyone even at the outset of life, let alone as the vastly differing influences of the environment and the individual's responses to it cumulate through life. No theory of what 'the unconscious mind' holds can therefore be wholly accurate as regards the array of details in unconscious influences or their unique concatenations in the lives of persons. At best it remains a general theory, a set of largely tentative guidelines of what to consider when investigating its manifestation in any individual.
The above also require that we reject any form of simple 'psychologisation' of other persons. What supposedly 'exists' in another person's mind unbeknown to that person is often very largely mere surmise and speculation and cannot be more than a likely hypothesis at best, and then only when founded on considerable knowledge of the circumstances of that person's life, both the inner life and the outward conditioners and opportunities.
4) THE UNCONSCIOUS AS 'REPRESSED SELF-EXPERIENCE'
There is an important difference between the idea of unconscious motivation and those more specific forms of it that supposedly cause serious psychic emotional conflict involving 'repressed' experience complexes.
It was Freud who first put forward the idea of repression as part of what became psychoanalytic theory. Freud's idea was that the mind could ignore, deny and forget bad shocks or 'traumatic' experiences (such as incest, violence, rape etc.), removing them from normal conscious access yet leaving the unconsciously present in the mind. This idea of 'repression' became an unquestioned theme of much modern therapy. It relies on the semi-physicalistic idea of 'psychic energy' as the agency which sustains otherwise forgotten emotions and the experiences or reactions that gave rise to them. Whether memories supposedly recovered are true or not cannot usually be verified
In essence, the idea of repression applies almost only to those denied memories having a strong emotional content. It is hardly sensible to apply it to memories in general, as is often supposed, because there is usually no cause or reason for it if some traumatic experience was not involved. It can be stated as:- Repressed emotions are the result of experiences that were more or less forgotten or suppressed because they were not or could not be consciously faced. The unresolved emotion supposedly continues to exist and exert its influence on all manner of psychic and even physical processes - somehow having a life of its own beyond the reach of normal consciousness.
The external clues to indicate the presence of serious degrees of repression are many and varied. Its effects are reportedly usually inwardly experienced as one or more of the following: basic confusion, serious disruption of concentration and/or purpose, nameless fears or anxiety, depression of varying degrees of severity, feelings of dissociation, compulsive or nervous thoughts, a strong sense of emptiness and meaninglessness, debilitating anxiety, manic-euphoric agitation with loss of normal self-control, severe dissociation or various kinds of 'splitting' of the personality.
'Regression therapy' takes the patient back emotionally to earlier events that were partially or wholly suppressed at the time. This is claimed to be possible only by bringing the entire complexity of obscured emotions and their childhood origins into awareness through a (usually very emotionally painful) process of analysis, often combined with some form of psychic and/or psycho-physical treatment.
Recovered memory vs. false memory syndrome: Repression theory applied to the sexual abuse of children led to 'recovered memories' movement in therapy. Since the book The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass & Laura Davis (1988), hundreds of thousands of people, including celebrities, have claimed they have been sexually abused as children. Mark Prendergast's Victims of Memory (1997) represents a well-founded critique of the recovered memory hypothesis, based on its opposite 'false memory syndrome'. Prendergast insist that repression of intolerable memories on any such scale as has been claimed is delusory. For example, Auschwitz was remembered well enough - all too well - by the victims who survived it. No amount of denial could normally eliminate those memories. Prendergast found two cases of sexual abuse memories that were forgotten and later recovered spontaneously as a result of a trigger. He concluded that "most memories that are gradually recovered through the lengthy use of suggestive therapeutic techniques are highly distorted and/or are of events that never happened. Other serious investigators have been unable to find very few likely cases of recovered memory after thorough searches among those claiming this.
Elizabeth Loftus, a researcher of cognitive processes, long-term memory and eyewitness testimony has written, "if repression is the avoidance in your conscious awareness of unpleasant experiences that come back to you, yes, I believe in repression. But if it is a blocking out of an endless stream of traumas that occur over and over that leave a person with absolutely no awareness that these things happen, that makes them behave in destructive ways and re-emerge decades later in some reliable form, I don't see evidence for it. It flies in the face of everything we know about memory."4
From his researches into the social psychology of cases of supposed repression, Richard Ofshe has concluded that recovered memory therapy is the 'quackery of the 20th century'5 . He rejects the 'robust repression' thesis of the instantaneous submergence of any number of memories of sexual abuse in childhood which last on in sheer unconscious limbo for unlimited lengths of time as an 'invented mechanism', one much relied on by so-called recovered memory therapists, whom he regards as the lunatic fringe of mental health scientists and professionals.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists in Britain published a report (penned by Sydney Brandon, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Leicester University), accusing some of its own members of destroying innocent families through use of doubtful 'recovered memory' methods. Up to 1,000 families claim accusations of sexual attacks made by their grown-up children in psychotherapy are groundless. Many parents have lost their jobs after Psychiatrists who breached the confidentiality of their patients on unsubstantiated sex abuse charges caused denial of access by grandparents to grandchildren. Some 'victims of supposedly 'recovered memories' were so disturbed that they committed suicide.
That patients have 'fabricated' - whether wilfully or subconsciously - memories of sexual assault has increasingly been proven in court cases in a number of Western nations. In mid-Norway, for example, several persons at a kindergarten in Bjugn in the early '90s were accused of sexual assaults on children and much of the evidence against them was based on children's evidence derived under 'professional' psychological questioning. Most of this evidence, though not all, was years later rejected in court and disclaimed by the now-more-mature children themselves. The methods of the psychological experts to 'recover memories' of the children actually induced them by setting-up and misinterpreting observations according to repression theories.
Among and increasing number of researchers who have debunked cases of supposed 'repressed memory syndromes' is Margaret Singer, a Californian researcher into cults and techniques of influence. According to Time magazine6 , she interviewed 50 persons who once believed that they had 'recovered' repressed memories of terrifying memories of incest or ritual abuse but later think they were mistaken. Singer holds that trauma does not cause people to repress memories, although some elements of experience may be lost through amnesia. She considers trauma to have exactly the opposite effect, namely that people can't forget it, such as in the cases of Vietnam war veterans who suffer flashbacks and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Evaluation of the hypothesis of repressed self-experience: The Freudian account of repression - and many modified variants of it - have been proven fruitful both in understanding and alleviating certain inner emotional conflicts and in gaining control of their outer behavioural consequences. Case literature demonstrating this is extensive and widely known, even though there is no strictly scientific work to show that the mind can repress a trauma. There are nonetheless cases where an incest trauma, eventually remembered in therapy, has subsequently been independently confirmed by adult persons who were present and even by family members who have on their death-bed confessed to incest. Still, the huge amount of half-truth that has been put forward on repressed memory is itself still an open field of research. All in all, post-Freudian psychologists have tended to reduce the importance of repression in explaining psychic disturbances7.
To hold, however, that only theories of the unconscious (and their related forms of understanding and therapy) can explain (or cure) persons suffering from deep and chronic psychic disturbances is about as absurd as saying that Christianity is the only true religion, or that Marxism is the only possible historical theory. The advocates of the repression model of psychic illness are usually persons whose professional status, livelihood or intellectual prestige are closely tied up with the idea and who tend to hold firmly to regressive therapy as the key tool for lasting alleviation or cure of deep-seated psychic maladies. Such unphilosophical absolutism has unfortunately been widely practised in psychoanalysis and the idea of regression has carried over into new and non-psychoanalytic traditions and therapies using techniques from association and imagination to suggestion and hypnosis to try to take a person back right until birth and before, into supposed 'past lives'.
Whatever the degree of its theoretical accuracy and validity, the assumption of unconscious motivation and repression are still important in several psychotherapies. The crucial question about regression is less whether it can occur, but how often it does occur. There are many ways in which beliefs about it are stimulated and reinforced. A therapist who believes strongly in the importance of the theory of repression and some therapeutic method of regression - and whose professional prestige may even be attached to support of this - can almost unknowingly generate subtle pressures on the patient to 'produce' material. This occurs particularly over a longer period of therapy. Even dreams can take on elements from therapeutic sessions and the theories behind them, as if to conform with expectations.
Despite all this, it still seems wise for psychologists to beware of falling into Freud's own situation, as it was recently revealed to have been... regarding what were sometimes legitimate charges of child abuse as mere fantasy.
5. THE UNCONSCIOUS AS 'COLLECTIVE IDEATION'
The idea that there is a fund of universal ideas of a very fundamental sort ('archetypes') are present - and are normally hidden deeply - within all human minds was first forwarded in psychology as the 'collective unconscious' by the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung. This theory has many adherents, along with the hypothesis that the collective unconscious exerts powerful influence on human action and hence on the history of the human race. Whether a collective tribal or racial memory does persist ('phylogenetically') in an individual mind, unbeknown to the person concerned, is an open question, no less than the question how this may be possible. This fund is supposedly handed down from our forbears, possibly genetically or perhaps by other means not known to science.
The collective unconscious and its related ideas (archetype, individuation etc.) have been most difficult to define in practically-relevant terms or in ways that open for clear empirical testing. Nor is it by any means easy to evaluate whether knowledge about the collective unconscious leads to reliable methods with proven practical benefits in therapy. Jung made no secret that he believed the operations of the collective unconscious to be mysterious and beyond normal rational analysis or investigation. He was even of the belief that the 'collective unconscious' has an extra-temporal existence beyond any individual psycho-physical entity. The belief prevails, though evidence for it remains anecdotal or otherwise unveifiable.
Jung's overall view of the unconscious retains the Freudian assumption that it represents what we are ignorant of regarding our psychic selves. This includes the darker or 'shadow' aspects: untransformed 'negative' traits in a person. Jung saw this 'shadow' as a hindrance to be dealt with as a preliminary of the 'individuation process'. This latter led to supra-personal 'knowledge' and transcendental states of awareness. Jung held that few persons are aware of these kind of experiences, which arise naturally only as a result of the mature process of 'individuation'. Individuation implies freedom from the sway of all aspects of the human 'herd instinct' as laid down in the collective unconscious. It involves a degree of realisation of oneself as an autonomous self-determined being and as such represents a kind of individualism. Because the process apparently works through intensely personal and unique configurations of experience, it is evidently not easy to generalise about it in accurate or precise enough ways to be practically informative. This fact is well demonstrated by the Jungian literature itself, which tends towards symbolic obscurity and often cites case histories in abstract, taken out of any specific context of social and personal situations.
Critics of Jung point out how his devaluation of rational thought affects people's concentration of their attention to distinguish their thoughts. The Jungian approach often involves less analysis then mystique, as in a religion. Jung's psychology was developed, as he himself recounts, as an alternative to the strict and narrow religious precepts of his priestly father, against which he revolted. The approach to something beyond human limitations through a theory of psychic development makes religious symbolism more palatable to those who have lost faith, and eventually approaches questions concerning divinity and God from a liberal scientific and agnostic humanistic starting point.
Evaluation of unconscious collective ideation: Some theories of psyche would account for most or even all of the psychic 'energies' relegated to the unconscious in a fundamentally different way so as to reject the idea of 'an unconscious'. Such is largely true of Vedantic philosophical psychology in general. I regard the main difference between the Vedantic and Western psychological paradigms on this issue by accepting the concepts of unconscious motivation and repression simply as a different approach to the same aim, sublimation of the ego into the self.
The Jungian conception assumes that there is some 'higher nature', while still allowing for the unconscious nature of blind and negative behaviour. Yet it is still confusing because it includes both lower and suggested 'higher' aspects of the psyche. It is simpler by far to refer to the higher potential of our nature by other terms, such as individuated personality capable of mostly equal-minded witnessing or expanded awareness and so on.
Vedanta teaches that what we distinguish as personal consciousness is bounded by the individual ego-identity and is consequently limited in scope by ignorance (ajnana) or the power of cosmic illusion (maya). The limits of personal consciousness can, however, be extended and eventually removed by spiritual practice, which presumes the development of egolessness or selfless activity. The problem with this speculation is that, even devoting a lifetime to the quest, there is no guarantee that it can be attained... or even that anyone has ever really attained it. There is no empirical or experimental evidence that this is possible.
Paranormal phenomena and the unconscious: It is enough here to note that many para-psychological phenomena, if recognised as occurring without fraud, were often ascribed to 'the unconscious'. Such so-called 'psychic' phenomena as telepathy, teleportation, mind-reading, instant mathematics, out-of-body experiences, distant clairvoyance and precognitive clairvoyance and other capacities for which apt terms hardly exist are little known to serious science, their having long been side-lined by scientific psychology, even denied as anything from fraud to lunacy by narrow-sightedness. The view that the unconscious is the mystic entity that causes all paranormal, hypnosis-induced and 'synchronous' events is insubstantial and largely unhelpful in explaining them properly. I know, not least from personal experience, that many genuine para-normal phenomena occur and, from a long study of them, find that they are cannot be due to any agency within the individual human mind. This subject goes well beyond any psychological views of the unconscious.
Conclusion: The term 'unconscious' has not usually been applied to those forms of behaviour which can be seen to have been carried over by mankind from an evolutionary ancestry. As biologists and anthropologists are constantly discovering, there are many striking similarities between animal (especially the higher primates) and human behaviour which occur without planning or conscious intention8. Some appear to operate at an instinctual level and to have been passed on from one generation to the next without conscious intervention. This opens for a possible sixth type of unconscious as instinctual and/or vestigial memory.
Looking at the history of ideas, particularly psychological ideas, it can be seen that all those events, occurrences or phenomena that once were ascribed to supernatural and divine agencies were unacceptable to philosophical and scientistic materialism. Since no normal or natural causes could be found, budding psychological empirical science either ignored and suppressed the evidence or else ascribed the cause to the workings of 'the unconscious'. Thus, the term 'unconscious' became all the more mysterious, inexplicable and indefinable. It is such confusion that the above interpretations of the concept aim to alleviate.
2. I am here partly indebted to the British psychotherapist Dr. E. Graham Howe's progressive 1960's study Cure or Heal? A Study of Therapeutic Experience (London. 1965). The definitions Howe attempted in appendix 2 of that book have aided greatly in articulating some of the above distinctions about the unconscious.
5. Making Monsters - False memories and allegations of sexual abuse - by R. Ofshe and E. Watters. However, a most popular book for repression theory is The Courage to Heal (1988) by Ellen Bass & Laura Davies. Critics say that the list of 'symptoms' of childhood sexual abuse is so all-inclusive that only the rare individual among the U.S. population could have managed to escape it!
7. The work of post-psychoanalytical thinkers such as Binswanger, Minkowski, Rollo May, Erich Fromm, Carl Rogers, Gregory Bateson, Graham Howe, Thomas Szasz, R.D. Laing and many others subsequently has extended the spectrum of views on the causes of psychic illness beyond that of the traditional psychoanalytic model of unconscious trauma very fruitfully to include factors that are probably just as basic to human existence as instincts and drives.