( Just how does the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious mind work? And what is the difference between them?
In these series of articles we’ll have a look at how the three minds – conscious, subconscious, and unconscious – work together to create your reality … and how to use that knowledge to change your habits and create a happier, more peaceful and confident you.
A Walk Through the Human Mind
The concept of three levels of mind is nothing new. Sigmund Freud, the famous Austrian psychologist was probably the first to popularize it into mainstream society as we know it today. Even though his theories have subsequently been widely disputed in Psychology circles because they are very hard to scientifically prove, Freud nonetheless created a useful model of the mind, which he separated into 3 tiers or sections – the conscious mind or ego, the preconscious, and the unconscious mind.
The best way I have found to illustrate the concept of the three minds is by using a triangle. If you imagine at the very tip of the triangle is your conscious mind. It occupies only a small portion of space at the top, a bit like an iceberg where only a fraction of it is showing above the water. It probably represents about 10% of your brain capacity.
Below this is a slightly larger section that Freud called the preconscious, or what some refer to as the subconscious. It is much larger than the conscious mind and accounts for around 50-60% of your brain capabilities.
The section below this is the unconscious mind. It occupies the whole width of the base of the triangle and fills out the other 30-40% of the triangle. It is vast and deep and largely inaccessible to conscious thought, a bit like the dark depths of the ocean.
How They Work Together
Your conscious mind is what most people associate with who you are, because that is where most people live day to day. But it’s by no means where all the action takes place.
Your conscious mind is a bit like the captain of a ship standing on the bridge giving out orders. In reality it’s the crew in the engine room below deck (the subconscious and the deeper unconscious) that carry out the orders. The captain may be in charge of the ship and give the orders but its the crew that actually guides the ship, all according to what training they had been given over the years to best do so.
The conscious mind communicates to the outside world and the inner self through speech, pictures, writing, physical movement, and thought.
The subconscious mind, on the other hand, is in charge of our recent memories, and is in continuous contact with the resources of the unconscious mind.
The unconscious mind is the storehouse of all memories and past experiences, both those that have been repressed through trauma and those that have simply been consciously forgotten and no longer important to us. It’s from these memories and experiences that our beliefs, habits, and behaviors are formed.
The unconscious constantly communicates with the conscious mind via our subconscious, and is what provides us with the meaning to all our interactions with the world, as filtered through your beliefs and habits. It communicates through feelings, emotions, imagination, sensations, and dreams.
The Mind in Action
The following analogy may help to clarify the concept of how the three minds work a little more.
If you imagine you mind is like a computer …
Your conscious mind is best represented by the keyboard and monitor. Data is inputted on the keyboard and the results are thrown up on the monitor screen. That is how your conscious mind works – information is taken in via some outside (or internal) stimulus from your environment and the results are thrown up instantaneously into your consciousness.
Your subconscious is like the RAM in your computer. For those who don’t know, RAM is the place in a computer where programs and data that are currently in use are kept so they can easily be reached quickly by the computer processor. It is much faster than other types of memory, such as the hard disk or CD-ROM.
Your subconscious works in the same way. Any recent memories are stored there for quick recall when needed, such as what your telephone number is or the name of a person you just met. It also holds your current programs that you run every day, such as your current recurring thoughts, behavior patterns, habits, and feelings.
Your unconscious is like the hard disk drive in your computer. It is the long term storage place for all your memories and programs that have been installed since birth.
Your unconscious mind (and ultimately your subconscious mind) then uses these programs to make sense of all the data you receive from the world and to keep you safe and ensure your survival. The logic of these two minds is that if it worked in the past and you survived, then it will help you get through similar situations by the same means, no matter how misguided, painful, and unhelpful the results may be to you personally in the outside world.
The Journey Begins
As mentioned, these sections and their functions have been hotly debated over the years by many other psychologists, philosophers, and scientists, because it’s very hard to empirically prove they exist. Despite all this, I still find it a great analogy to use, and at the end of the day if it works for you and makes sense, then that’s all that matters.
The Conscious Mind
If you ask most people to define what the conscious mind does you’ll get varying answers. Some say what distinguishes it from the subconscious (or even the unconscious) is awareness.
But to say the subconscious is unaware is plain wrong. It has been well documented that you can be influenced by your surroundings or what people say even when your conscious mind is totally out of it, such as when you’re under anesthetic or asleep. And what about when you drive to some destination but when you get there you have no memory of the trip. In those situations it’s your subconscious that stays aware and performs the necessary functions.
Another argument people put forth is that the conscious mind is where you do all your thinking and logical reasoning. But that too doesn’t entirely distinguish it from your subconscious or unconscious. Your unconscious minds are the storage place of all your memories, emotions and habits and are in fact very good at reasoning and logic.
Take, for example, when you were a baby. Your conscious mind had not yet developed enough to test and measure all the information from your environment, so at this age it sits in the background and it’s your subconscious and unconscious that does all the data gathering and reasoning – identifying that the bottle or nipple is a source of food, that crying gets you attention, that cuddles from mum means you are safe. In this stage it’s your other two minds hard at work forming logical patterns of association (habits, beliefs, and emotions) that help you to survive.
By far the best explanation that I have found for the two most powerful functions your fully developed conscious mind can do that the other two can’t is …