Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unconscious (and new theories)

Traditionally, scientists and many philosophers have considered human behavior to be 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 have decided how to behave by sticking to this information is very widespread, perhaps because rationality has been a central value in naturalists and thinkers. centuries.

Today, however, we know that a very large part of the processes that influence our thinking and actions are based on things that we do not know directly: that is, elements of the unconscious. Despite this discovery, it is easy to get confused when we talk about the unconscious, because this concept is defined differently by the Freudian theory (And later psychodynamic trends) and neuroscience today.

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” )., In its terminology) long before scientists came to see it. The inconsistency Freud speaks of in his writings, however, is not the same as that studied in neuroscience today. Among other things, because neither he nor the rest of the mental process researchers yet knew the organic functioning by which higher mental processes are governed at an unconscious level, beyond having described certain general principles. For that, Freud has woven a network of hypotheses relatively independent of what is studied today. neuroscience.

It is important to be clear about this idea, because it is often understood that, as Freud sought to draw inspiration from the principles of physics and physiology in proposing his explanations of the mind, these explanations are based on careful observation. of operation. the body at the biological level. So, although in the principles of psychoanalysis the brain is compared to a steam engine, this image should only be taken as an analogy which serves to better understand the explanation itself, rather than the brain.

Context-limited search

In short, Freud knew that he did not have the means to study the physical processes which govern the functioning of the brain, and he thought that this subject was very relevant to understand how the thought and the unconscious proposed in the Freudian theory work. . Mind researchers had very few resources to study how the brain worked, which had clear implications for understanding how what was then called “the mind.” This may be intuitive in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), in which Sigmund Freud stated:

“Biological science is truly a field of endless possibilities. We must await the most striking insights from it, and we cannot guess what answer it will provide, in a few decades, to the problems we pose. Perhaps these answers are such, to bring our artificial hypothesis out of the ground. “

The divide between psychoanalysis and neuroscience

Freud and the followers of Freudian theory who have not strayed from the teachings of their master use the term unconscious to denote the ‘ mental content which at some point is outside the repertoire of thoughts that the person is aware of and which somehow remain hidden somewhere in their psyche. However, partly because of his focus and partly because little was known about the nervous system at the time, his explanations of the unconscious are separated from the fundamentals of brain mechanics and neuronal activation. associated with consciousness that neuroscience studies.

In short, the unconscious of which Freud spoke was used to designate memories, perceptions and mixtures of feelings which, in response to a need, are inaccessible to conscious knowledge.. We can say that, although the current conception of the unconscious is not that used by Freud, the latter continues to compete with the other to be the first in which the “unconscious” occupies an important place in a theoretical corpus. .

The simple unconscious

The unconscious posed by Freudian theory is made up of concrete rational and emotional elements that remain repressed to have problematic meaning for the conscious mind. In other words, they are not hidden by their complexity or their low importance in the daily life of the person. On the contrary, those repressed elements to which some psychoanalysts refer tend to be relatively simple ideas which can be “translated” into consciousness through symbolic operations and the presence in the unconscious, although it goes unnoticed, forms a sort of “glasses” for reading reality through thoughts which, in a sense, are recurrent.

Freudian theory maintains that the content of the unconscious must be simple enough in itself to be challenged by a multitude of stimuli. typical of everyday life, although the way in which consciousness blocks these thoughts if it is complex, because it uses original combinations of symbols to give expression to the repressed. Dreams, for example, are for Freud a vehicle for expressing repressed thoughts conveyed by symbolisms.

A touch of mystery

Of course, this definition of the unconscious it’s problematic and confusing, Since the language itself can be seen as a means of filter the unconscious by means of symbols (words), which means that unconscious thoughts, by their very nature, never reveal themselves as a whole and therefore we cannot know them at all, because they are in constant transformation in his travels towards consciousness. This kind of obscurantism is to be expected due to the complexity of the object of study of psychoanalysts, the subjects covered by Freudian theory and their research methodology.

The unconscious always has a side that it is not accessible by the simple word: This is why psychoanalysts claim the importance of the patient-therapist interaction in relation to the reading of self-help books, which contain principles coded a priori by a series of symbols that the author has chosen and ordered without knowing the reader.

The new unconscious

If Freud can be considered as the “discoverer” of the unconscious, he is as such introduces a way of thinking about the human being as an animal that does not know all the processes that guide its action, But not for having encountered the unconscious through a systematic and detailed investigation of it.

Freudian theory is the daughter of its time and is limited by the technical limitations. Freud and some psychologists of his time speculated on the existence of unconscious aspects of human thought and behavior, but their study methodology (introspection, observation of patients with mental disorders, etc.) only provided them with ‘indirect knowledge. of these. Fortunately, despite the limits with which Freudian theory was forged at the time, neurosciences and the technological developments that accompany them today allow a much more complete study on this subject.

Freudian theory first introduced a more or less detailed conception of the unconscious as a determining element of human behavior, while the scientific community of the second half of the twentieth century continued, curiously, to believe in the primacy of the conscious processes of thinking about the rest of the human body. Today, however, changes have changed in the world of neuroscience and the vast majority of researchers exclude conscious thought as the main driver of our behavior. Investigation of the unconscious by neuroscientists is something that has emerged recently, but has paid off very quickly.

Distinctive terms based on news discoveries

The unconscious to which neuroscientists and psychologists refer today is far from being the concept of the same as that presented by Freudian theory. To distinguish these two ideas, that of the unconscious of psychoanalysts and the unconscious of scientists, the latter concept has been called new unconscious.

While the unconscious of Freudian theory exists as a fortress to which to limit thoughts that are difficult to digest by consciousness, which prevents them from drifting away from itself, the New Unconscious is not based on motivating forces. and drive or forms of repression or “blocking”. »Thoughts according to their content. The relationship between conscious and unconscious processes that scientists now talk about is not based on defense mechanisms, but on the brain architecture, Which is simply not done so that everything that happens there has a transcription in human consciousness. The New Unconscious is truly unconscious and cannot be known indirectly through the analysis of its “manifestations”.

The unconscious aspects of thought exist within the framework of a cycle (the Perception-Action cycle) which we are not interested in knowing everything. We’re not interested in instantly memorizing every aspect of the person we just met, so we subconsciously look for one or two references to their identity: for example, their hairstyle. We are also not interested in carefully studying all the issues on which we need to make a decision, and therefore we have decided to unconsciously follow the paths of heuristics, and neither should we be aware that the left shoe is falling apart. tightens very slightly, nor did he consciously direct the movements of his right arm as he looked out the bus window.

These processes must be carried out discreetly not by their content, but by their nature, to be something that can be handled automatically by leaving free space in the consciousness for special tasks. In Freudian theory, on the contrary, what is unconscious is precisely because of its meaning, His importance.

The new unconscious is distinguished from the term used by Freudian theory because it does not respond to a personal story or problematic internalization of past experiences. In any case, its raison d’être lies in a brain structure designed so that only certain tasks and functions are part of consciousness, while the rest are delegated to a set of automatic operations, some of which can be controlled. cases (like breathing).

New unconscious and Freudian theory, united only by appearances

In short, the unconscious side of the most abstract thoughts, like the automatic association that can occur between the perception of a dog in the street and the memories of the last vacations in Barcelona, ​​respond to the same mechanisms by which the processes responsible for us blinkers 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 of which we have none are located. special interest. by control and automatism makes life easier for us.

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