The unconscious is a loaded concept because it means different things to different people. Freudians, for example, will talk about a dynamic unconscious where the subconscious has motivational properties. The Freudian view is that a dream is a secret wish escaping from day-time repression into a quasi-conscious state. Perhaps a Freudian would say a pre-conscious level.
The problem we share with other vertebrates is that we have an associative brain that works by conditioning.
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Somebody once said that the only simple thing about conditioning is the name. On top of that are the language-based, hard cognitive processes.
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We suffer the illusion a lot of the time that our decisions get made at that higher conscious level. A good example is that of values and moral beliefs. For many years psychologists have been looking at the moral beliefs of children and how they develop over time. For most parts of the world and most people, a lot of our moral reasoning is intuitive.
Often we construct some quite daft ideas and then persuade ourselves that it was the idea which led to the reaction, when in fact it can be the other way round. American psychologist John Haidt uses a good metaphor for this. He describes the brain as a human riding an elephant. If you try very hard you can get it to go the way you want but mostly it just wants to go wherever it wants to go.
Then, when it goes where it wants to go, we try and persuade ourselves that we always wanted to go there.
Is there any truth in the Freudian idea of the subconscious as a breeding ground for hidden desires and fantasy? Clearly people do have desires which are to some extent conditioned. So there is some sense in which our desires, a lot of our desires, belong to that preconscious realm.
I should say that I do have some sympathies for Freud — for example, his concept of the defence mechanism. We try and regulate our anxiety and our depression and try not to think about things which upset us. Death is one obvious example. People try very hard not to think about death. Indeed when you make them think about death it really makes them unhappy.
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