Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) is probably the most controversial and misunderstood psychological theorist. When reading Freud’s theories, it is important to remember that he was a medical doctor, not a psychologist. There was no such thing as a degree in psychology at the time that he received his education, which can help us understand some of the controversy over his theories today. However, Freud was the first to systematically study and theorize the workings of the unconscious mind in the manner that we associate with modern psychology.

Levels of consciousness

To explain the concept of conscious vs unconscious experience, Freud compared the mind to an iceberg and proposed 3 levels of consciousness.

Conscious mind

Conscious: This includes our current thoughts whatever we are thinking about or experiencing at a given moment.

Preconscious mind

Preconscious: Beneath the conscious is the much larger preconscious. This contains memories that are not the part of current thoughts but can be easily accessible with a moment’s reflection. For example, what we had for breakfast or our parents, first names.

Unconscious mind

Unconscious: Beneath the preconscious and forming the bulk of human mind is the unconscious.

(i) It includes thoughts, desires and impulses of which we remain largely unaware. Freud believed that much of it was once conscious but has been actively repressed driven from consciousness because it was too anxiety provoking. For example, Freud contended that shameful experiences or unacceptable sexual or aggressive urges are often driven deep within the unconscious.

(iii) The process of repression is itself unconscious and automatic. We do not choose to repress an idea or impulses, it just happens.

(iv) The fact that we are not aware of them, however in no way prevents them from affecting our behaviour. They continue to operate underground, often converting the repressed conflict into anxiety or even psychological disorders.

(v) It is storehouse of repressed libidinal energy.

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