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The Unconscious

( Originally Published 1920 )

To the majority of people, our conscious life appears as the most important, if not the only important, form of life. Most of our rules of behaviour, most of our judgments on human actions are based upon that estimate of our conscious life.

And yet we are conscious of very few things at a time and we are conscious of each one of those things only for variable, some times, very short periods.

After a week, a day, an hour or a fraction of a second, the various things we were conscious of drop out of our consciousness, temporarily or permanently. We may witness a theatrical performance, be conscious of it that evening, think of it perhaps the next day, mention it several times in conversation, remember it years after when it is alluded to in our presence, and then "forget it."

But the impression made on us by that performance does not die off. It only becomes unconscious. That impression and millions of others are stored up in our "unconscious" where they continue to live as unconscious elements.

These impressions meant either active or passive reactions to certain stimulations, the yielding to or resistance to those stimulations, memory-images of satisfied cravings and of repressed cravings, joy or pain, longing or hatred, in other words, all our life from the day of our birth, with all its struggles against reality, its compromises with reality, its victories and defeats, etc.

All that past which we are constantly carrying with us and to which we are constantly adding, is bound, according to what elements predominate in it, to colour strongly our conscious view of life and to determine our conscious activities.

A neurologist, a sexual pervert, a sculptor and a manicure would react very differently to the sight of a woman's hand. An egotist would be unable to notice in his environment things of a neutral type, that is, unlikely to affect his egotism favourably or unfavourably. To a farmer, a certain accumulation of clouds might only suggest a danger to his crops; the same meteorological phenomenon might transport a painter with artistic joy. A chemist or a sailor would place a totally different construction on their observations of the same clouds.

We know that unconscious factors cause us to engage in certain forms of activity, to become insane, to fall asleep or to remain sleepless, to love a certain type and to remain frigid to another. They influence our methods of reasoning, making us at times illogical and onesided, stubborn and unjust.

In other words our entire life is influenced, if not entirely determined, by unconscious factors.

Our unconscious is the greatest time and energy saving machine, provided it functions normally. Some of our simplest conscious acts presuppose an enormous amount of unconscious work. Stepping aside to dodge an automobile, simple as it appears, is only made possible by innumerable "mental" and "physical" operations such as realizing the nature, size, direction and speed, of the dangerous object, selecting a safe spot at a certain distance from it, performing the necessary muscular actions, etc., etc.

On the other hand we may, without any apparent reason, perform useless, absurd, harmful actions and be genuinely grieved or puzzled over our behaviour. We ask ourselves "What made me do that?"

Our unconscious made us do that. Our behaviour was dominated and determined by one or several factors unknown to us and which, unless investigated systematically, may remain unknown, puzzling, detrimental, if not dangerous, and may at some future time be once more the cause of irrational behaviour.

Our unconscious "contains" two sorts of "thoughts" those which rise easily to the surface of our consciousness and those which remain at the bottom and can only be made to rise with more or less difficulty.

Our unconscious is like a pool into which dead leaves, dust, rain drops and a thousand other things are falling day after day, some of them floating on the surface for a while, some sinking to the bottom and, all of them, after a while, merging themselves with the water or the ooze. Let us suppose that two dead dogs, one of them weighted down with a stone, have been thrown into that pool. They will poison its waters, and people wishing to use those waters will have to rake the ooze and remove the rotting carrion. The dog whose body was not fastened to any heavy object. will easily be brought to the surface and removed. The other will be more difficult to recover and if the stone is very heavy, may remain in the pool until ways and means are devised to dismember him or to cut the rope holding him down.

Another simile might be offered. Out of fifty persons assembled in a room, not one may be thinking of the multiplication table. Yet if some one points out three chairs worth six dollars a piece and asks the audience how much the three together are worth, the part of the multiplication table containing the answer shall rise to the surface of every-body's consciousness, to sink back into the unconscious a second later.

Other thoughts would not rise so willingly into consciousness: those associated with some painful or humiliating memory or with the repression of some human craving. Only a special effort aided by many association tests will in certain cases cut the rope that holds those "dead dogs tied to their paving stone."

Such thoughts are called complexes and they are the most disturbing element in our life, for unknown to us, they exert a strong influence on all our mental operations and on our bodily activities.

It is not so much our consciousness as our unconscious which IS our personality. Our conscious thoughts are fleeting and changing, our unconscious is more permanent. If we take a list of some hundred words and ask a person to tell us what comes at once to his mind when he hears each word spoken, it will be noticed that the answers which come without any hesitancy would he the same several months afterward. Those answers, in fact, by their wording, present a striking picture of the personality, a picture which only changes when the personality undergoes distinct modifications.

Only the words referring to the person's complexes are likely to change, as if the unconscious was trying to conceal the place where the "dead dogs" have been buried. In reaction tests, in fact, the subject's failure to give the same answer is taken to indicate a hidden complex. But even the varying answers given in such cases are closely related to one another.

When we remember how our unconscious has "grown," that is, through the accumulation of memories and repressions from the day of our birth, or even from our prenatal existence to the present day, we must realize that a large proportion of the elements which constitute it is primitive, infantile or childlike, unadapted or only partly adapted. Its influence on our behaviour is not likely, therefore, to facilitate our adaptation to the innumerable rules imposed by a more and more complex civilization.

Through all our life our unconscious follows us like the shadow of an archaic self, prompting us to seek a line of lesser resistance, or to give up the struggle with the modem world, to indulge ourselves in many ways which are no longer acceptable socially; when childlike or infantile elements predominate in it, its influence may unfit us completely for life in modem communities unless we are brought to a clear realization of the ghostly power masquerading as ourselves and which tries to pull us back.

When the man we were yesterday offers us suggestions as to conduct, we are probably safe in accepting them. When the boy we were at 15, endeavours to convince us that his way was the only way, the struggle for mastery between ourselves and the boy may usher in a neurosis. When the infant we were at one or two years of age, coaxes us to indulge ourselves as he did and we yield to his entreaties, we may regress temporarily or permanently to a level at which we shall be adjudged insane.

Academic psychologists have suggested a number of very interesting but meaningless words to designate the varying degrees of unconsciousness, such as foreconscious, preconscious, subconscious, etc.

For scientific purposes the word unconscious is sufficient. Instead of distinguishing degrees of unconsciousness which may easily change, it is preferable to assign reasons for unconsciousness.

The multiplication table in the above illustration was unconscious because it was not needed, for reasons of economy. It became conscious when needed. Other factors, mentioned previously, remain unconscious because the thought of them is repressed or suppressed. Some are forgotten, because they are insignificant, some because the memory of them is weighted with unpleasant con-notations as one of the dead dogs was weighted with a paving stone.

It is the task of psychoanalysis to make us thoroughly familiar with the content of our unconscious that we may on every occasion determine whether the voices talking to us from the past buried in us are the voices of civilization or the voices of regression.

Psychoanalysis forewarns us against any undue influence it may exert in the conduct of our lives and helps those of us who may have listened to the wrong voice to free themselves from their slavery.

Instead of saying, as academic psychologists would put it, that the psychoanalytic technique can make unconscious factors foreconscious and finally conscious we should say that it can establish a relation of cause-effect between certain acts and certain unconscious factors.

For that reason psychoanalysis is the only key to an understanding of human behaviour. Ethics and statute books only record the various compromises which mankind in its onward march has had to make with reality. They have, however, no absolutely scientific value, because they are based upon the conception of an inexistent being, the average human being.

Psychoanalysis on the other hand discards the "average" man or woman and deals solely with the individual.

e neurotic applying for treatment who states that his case is a "very peculiar one" is both right and wrong. His case as a clinical picture is probably a very common one but as the content of one man's unconscious is necessarily very different from that of any other man's unconscious, no case can be prejudged from the observations made in any other case. Every case is "peculiar."

The law and current ethics criticize or punish a pool for containing a dead dog which is held down by a powerful weight, and for poisoning those who drink of its water.

Psychoanalysis looks for the corpse at the bottom of the pool and endeavours to remove it. Neither before nor after the operation does it pass judgments or pronounce sentences.

To understand is to forgive, but in spite of its frankly determinist attitude in matters of behaviour, psychoanalysis does not condone unethical or criminal behaviour. Hygienists would not insult or punish the infected pool but they would fence it off until the contaminating substances had been removed. Irrational and criminal individuals should be likewise restrained and isolated, not for purposes of castigation, but until such time when dangerous factors in their unconscious have been removed and when re-education has enabled them to resume their place among normal individuals.

Autosuggestion - Thought Is A Force
Autosuggestion - The General Formula
Unconscious Mind - Wikipedia


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