What Is Freud’s Concept of the Unconscious Mind?

I want to talk, in some detail, about the unconscious mind. In Freud’s topographical model of the mind, there were three levels. There’s the conscious, the preconscious, and the unconscious. Everybody says subconscious today, but that was not a term Freud used. The conscious is what we’re discussing right now. Quite easy. The preconscious is if I ask you your birth date. Suddenly, it’s right there. It’s moved from your preconscious into your conscious. It’s accessible. And then there’s the unconscious. Freud used the idea of an iceberg to describe it, where just the tip sticks out, which is the conscious and the preconscious. The bulk of what’s going on is unconscious, and is submerged below the surface.

It’s my belief that every word we choose, every action we take, is unconsciously motivated. It’s hard to get your arms around that, and if that’s correct, then accessing the unconscious and being able to understand it better, is very helpful. I’ll give you some stories of unconscious communication: The first one that comes to mind is a woman I’ve worked with for many years, an elderly woman, who suffers from Crohn’s and irritable bowel syndrome. Years into the treatment, she says, “By the way, I was raised in Flushing, New York.” And I hear the word “flushing” and I almost burst into laughter and I say, “Tell me about your years in Flushing.” There’s got to be a clue there.

A patient went to the Freud Museum in London and brought me a gift. She brought me eyeglass cleaners with a picture of Freud on them. I was hearing two things, one is I’m not seeing something in this case. “Clean your vision, pal.” And two, see it like Freud. So, it was great.

Another thing we talk about in unconscious communication is why something may happen at the beginning of a session. The thought is: What happened at the end of the last session? Freud said, “The unconscious doesn’t know time,” so if something appears to be triggered at the beginning of a session, I will always go back and think about how the last session ended.

Freud also said, “There’s no such thing as an accident,” that everything happens for a reason. I went out early this morning to start my car. It’s dark. And I hit the unlock button, but no, I hit the lock button twice so my horn honks. I’m thinking, “Okay, that’s an accident.” But no. I must be angry with one of my neighbors. Why do I want to wake them and their family up so early this morning? ~ Rafael Sharón, NCPsyA, SCPsyA, Psychoanalyst in Princeton NJ