Sigmund Freud - Theory of the Unconscious

Sigmund Freud - Theory of the Unconscious
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

The theory of the unconscious formulated by Sigmund Freud was a milestone in the history of psychology. This strange and fascinating underworld was a generator of fantasies, of lapses and uncontrolled impulses. It allowed us to finally take a different look at mental disorders. No longer would they be viewed as somatic or cerebral illnesses, but as concrete alterations of the mind.

Nowadays, many skeptics look at the work of the father of psychoanalysis with a subtle hint of irony. Concepts, such as “penis envy” in the development of feminine sexuality, are seen as obsolete and ridiculous concepts. And there’s also always someone who deems their legacy as a pseudoscience. They believe their theories are not consistent with the findings of experimental psychology.

“The unconscious is the biggest circle which includes inside it the smallest circle of the conscious. All conscious has a preliminary step in the unconscious. while the unconscious can stop at this step and still claim the complete value of a psychic activity.”
-Sigmund Freud-

However, for those who maintain these ideas, it’s important to point out a set of basic reflections. When Sigmund Freud published his work about the unconscious for the first time, he was branded as a “miscreant” by his colleagues. Up until then, psychiatry was founded upon an iron organicist or biological substrate. Freud was the first person to talk about emotional traumas, mental conflicts, and the hidden memories of the mind.

We could undoubtedly look at his theories with skepticism. But no one can undervalue his legacy, his contributions, his revolutionary approach to the study of the mind. Also, his approach to personality, the field of dreams, and to the need to reformulate psychology by uniting the organic field with a scenario reigned by the forces of the mind. Reigned by unconscious and instinctive processes. Our own, of course.

Thus, Freud’s legacy doesn’t have an expiration date. Nor will it ever have one. So much so that nowadays neuroscience is following some of the ideas that the father of psychoanalysis postulated in his time.

Mark Solms is a well-known neuropsychologist from the University of Cape Town. He reminds us, for example, that the conscious mind is capable of paying attention to 6 or 7 things at once. Yet, simultaneously, our unconscious mind is in charge of hundreds of processes. From purely organic thoughts managed by the nervous system to many of the decisions made on a daily basis.

If we deny the value and the relevance that the unconscious has in our lives, we are therefore denying a big part of what we are. A big part of what lies underneath that small tip of the iceberg…

A big iceberg underwater.

The curious case of Anna O

In the year 1880, the person later known as “patient 0” walked into the consult of Austrian psychologist and physiologist Josef Breuer. This person allowed Sigmund Freud to lay down the foundation of psychotherapy and begin to study the structure of the mind and the unconscious.

“The unconscious of a human being can react to another person’s unconscious without it passing through the conscious mind.”
-Sigmund Freud-

We’re, of course, talking about “Anna O”, the pseudonym of Bertha Pappenheim, a patient diagnosed with “hysteria”. Her clinical case baffled Breur, making him ask for the help of his colleague and friend Sigmund Freud. The young lady was 21 years old and from the moment she took over the care of her ill father, she began suffering alterations. These were as serious as they were strange. Her behavior was so strange that some people even dared to say that she was possessed.

Anna O’s “hysterical” symptoms

  • The truth is that the case itself could not be more peculiar. The young lady suffered from episodes of blindness, deafness, partial paralysis, and ocular strabismus. The most striking symptom of all was when she lost her ability to talk or even communicated in other languages, like English or French.
  • Freud and Breuer intuited that her distress went beyond a case of classic hysteria. There was a point in which Bertha Pappenheim stopped having anything to drink. Her state was so severe that the father of psychoanalysis resorted to hypnosis to evoke a memory from her. She remembered that her nanny had made her drink out of the same container as her dog. After “unlocking” this unconscious memory, the young lady was able to drink liquids again.
a portrait of Bertha Pappenheim, known as Anna O.

From here, the sessions followed the same pattern – bringing to the conscious mind traumas of the past. The relevance of the case of Anna O (Bertha Pappenheim) was such that it allowed Freud to introduce  a new revolutionary theory into his studies on hysteria. One on the human psyche, a new concept that completely changed the foundations of the mind.

What is the unconscious mind for Freud?

Between 1900 and 1905, Sigmund Freud developed a topographic model of the mind through which he described its structural and functional characteristics. He used an analogy which we are all much too familiar with – the analogy of the iceberg.

  • On the surface is the conscious mind, where all of our thoughts happen and where we focus our attention. These thoughts aid our development, are used immediately and are of easy access.
  • The pre-conscious mind accumulates everything that our memory can easily recall.
  • The third and most important region is the unconscious mind. It is vast, wide, limitless at times and ever mysterious. This is the part of the iceberg we cannot see, and which actually takes up the greater part of our mind.

Freud’s concept of the unconscious was not a new idea

Sigmund Freud was not the first person to use this term, this idea. Neurologists, such as Jean Martin Charcot or Hippolyte Bernheim, were already talking about the unconscious. However, it was Freud who made this concept the backbone of his theories, therefore providing it with new meaning:

  • The unconscious world is not beyond the realm of the conscious. It is not an abstract entity, but a very real, chaotic, wide, and essential stratum of the mind. One which we lack access to.
  • This unconscious world reveals itself to us in many ways. Through our dreams, our mental lapses, and our failed actions.
  • Thus, the unconscious is internal and external to Freud. Internal because it extends within our consciousness and external because it affects our behavior. 
Woman without a face with a bird flying out of her head demonstrating unconscious

On the other hand, in “Studies about Hysteria”, Freud conceived the concept of dissociation in a different and revolutionary way. A way that differed from that of the first hypnotists such as Moreau de Tours or Bernheim or Charcot. Until that moment, this mechanism of the mind was where certain parts of the mind which should be united are kept separate. These include perceptions, feelings, thoughts, and memories. It was exclusively explained by somatic causes and diseases of the brain associated with hysteria.

Freud saw dissociation as a defense mechanism. It was a strategy of the mind through which it could separate, hide, and suppress certain emotions and experiences in the unconscious because the conscious mind simply couldn’t tolerate or accept them.

The structural model of the mind

We know that Freud didn’t discover the unconscious mind. He wasn’t the first researcher to use the term, this is true. However, he was the first person who made this concept the constitutive system of the human being. Freud dedicated his entire life to this idea, to the point of stating that the majority of our psychic processes are actually unconscious. Additionally, conscious processes are nothing but isolated or fragmented actions of the whole underlying substrate that is the hidden body of the iceberg.

Now, between 1920 and 1923, Freud took a step further and reformulated his theory of the mind a little bit. He then introduced the theory which is known today as the structural model of psychic instances which includes the classic entities of “Id, Ego, and Superego.” Let’s take a closer look at these entities.

Freud's view on psychology.

The structural model of the psyche

  • Id: The structure of the human psyche which is found on the surface. It is the first one to appear throughout our lives and controls our behavior during early childhood. This aspect seeks immediate pleasure. It is guided by instinct, by the most primitive dimensions of our essence. It represents the desires we struggle against on a daily basis.
  • Ego: As we grow and reach the age of 3-4 years old, our concept of reality begins to develop. Here emerges our need to survive in the context which surrounds us. Thus, with the development of our “Ego”, a new need also appears: the need to control “Id” at every moment. Or the need to carry out actions in order to satisfy one’s impulses in a socially acceptable and correct manner. Likewise, in order to ensure that one’s behavior is not brazen or too uninhibited, we start making use of defense mechanisms.
  • Superego: This dimension arises from socialization, the pressure exerted from our parents, and the schemes of our social context. All of this transmits to us behavioral rules, guidelines, and limits. This psychic entity has an ultimate objective which is very concrete. Its goal is to ensure compliance with the moral rules. This purpose is not an easy task to carry out. On one hand, we have Id, which hates morality and wishes to satisfy its impulses. And on the other, we have Ego, which only wants to survive, to keep an equilibrium…

The Superego confronts both and makes us feel guilty, for example, when we desire something but cannot obtain it due to the social norms put in place. 

A portrait of Sigmund Freud smoking a cigar.

The importance of our dreams as a path to the unconscious

In the excellent film “Spellbound” by Alfred Hitchcock, we are submerged in the protagonist’s dream world thanks to the suggestive scenes that Salvador Dalí created for the film. The truth is that we have rarely seen that unconscious world with such perfection. That universe of hidden traumas, repressed memories, and buried emotions.

“The interpretation of dreams is the true path towards knowledge about the unconscious activities of the mind”
-Sigmund Freud-

There’s a way to evoke part of those traumatic memories locked in the deepest corners of the mind – dream analysis. Freud considered that the comprehension of one’s dream world was the true path towards the unconscious. This way, we can defeat our defense mechanisms and reach all of that content repressed as distorted, disconnected, and bizarre forms of itself.

The unconscious world in modern times

Freud’s theory of the unconscious was seen as authentic in its time. Later on, it was praised as the backbone of behavioral analysis and comprehension. Nowadays, it is seen as a theoretical corpus not exempt from technical limitations, scientific guarantees, and empiric perspectives. 

Today we know that not all of our behavioral, personality, or conduct can be explained by this unconscious universe. We do know, nevertheless, that there are hundreds and thousands of daily processes which are unconscious. This is due to simple mental economy, to the need to automate heuristics which let us make quick decisions. This, of course, has the risk of perpetuating some unjust labels.

Modern-day psychology and neuroscience don’t reduce the value of the unconscious world. In fact, the complete opposite is true. It is a fascinating world and of great value for the understanding of our behavior, daily choices, and personal preferences. It is a psychic tissue which makes up a big part of who we are. The discovery and formulation of the unconscious mind are without a doubt due to Sigmund Freud. 

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Freud, Sigmund (2012) El Yo, el Ello y Otros Ensayos De Metapsicología, Alianza Editorial

  • Freud Sigmund, (2013) Estudios sobre la Histeria, Colección Pensar. Madrid

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.