Unconscious Mental Activity
Unconscious mental activity includes neurological processes that control
a lot of the biological functioning of the organism, like respiration and
the circulation of the blood. It undoubtedly also includes processes that
affect conscious thought and emotion, and probably thought-like and emotion-like
processes as well. But these processes are, by definition, not directly
observable. So it's hard to model them in a way that's easily amenable
to consensus. It's possible that some unconscious mental activity could
become conscious. On the one hand, it seems like a good idea to make as
much of it so as possible. The more you know, the more you're aware of,
about how your mind is working, the more power it seems like you have to
make things happen for you. But it might be more trouble than it's worth.
Maybe it's just a can of worms that's best left unopened. In any case,
it seems worthwhile to make a distinction between unconscious mental activity
the could conceivably be perceived, or become conscious activity, and mental
activity that can't possibly become conscious. Maybe one or the other of
these classes is an empty set.
There's no theory of unconscious mental activity here. It's a
subject for contributions. Theory making is essentially a conscious process.
As we proceed, we need to be aware that the unconscious is a factor. But
we don't have to agree on exactly how it's a factor in order to proceed.
The Id and the Superego
In Freud's theory, the unconscious mind was the domain of an thing he called
the "id'. Freud thought of the id sort of like a creature with a mind of
its own. It's completely devoted to satisfying the needs and wants of the
person of which it's a part. It's completely selfish. It isn't bound by
any social, moral, or intellectual judgments or constraints. The id might
find pleasure in acts of cruelty. It has no sense of embarrassment, shame,
guilt or remorse. For Freud, the id is a part of every individual, like
a physical organ such as the stomach, and not a social construct.
The id's behavior, as manifested in the behavior of the organism,
is limited by another part of the mind, partly conscious and partly unconscious,
that Freud called the "superego". The superego is essentially the same
as the conscience. It's an internalization of socially constituted morals,
so it's a social construct. Through the action of the superego, some of
a person's primitive, id-based desires are "sublimated" or "repressed."
By "sublimated" Freud meant that that they're modified into socially acceptable
forms. By "repressed" he meant that they're denied any satisfaction at
all, and that the conscious mind isn't even allowed to know that they exist.
The Ego and Neurosis
The id and the superego are locked in a constant battle to control a third
thing called the ego. The ego, essentially, is the conscious mind. It's
what thinks, feels, and acts. As the prize in the id-superego struggle,
the ego is the slave of the winner. Neurosis, leading to psychological
and social dysfunction, comes from the excessive domination of the ego
by either the id or superego. Notice that the meaning of the term ego here
is different from the one that's used most commonly. We tend to say that
somebody has a "big ego" when we mean that they have too much self-esteem.
Freud used the term very differently.
Criticisms and Defenses
Freud's model might seem very strange. Most people don't think of their
conscious minds as a bone that's being fought over by two dogs. It seems
like Freud's theory might be just an unwitting embodiment of nineteenth
century middle-class European moral fashions. Victorianism, "dressed up"
as theory. A lot of Freud's critics maintain this view. By describing the
theory here, we don't mean to suggest that it's consensual, or that it
should or even could be consensual. Its importance is partly just that
it illustrates how it's at least possible to take a theoretical approach
to a subject as complicated and delicate as the structure and function
of unconscious mental processes and their relation to conscious ones. It's
also a good example of how unconscious processes might exert a very strong,
and even decisive, influence on conscious processes. It might even turn
out to be impossible to model the formation of attitudes and beliefs, or
thoughts and emotions, without a theory of unconscious processes.
The issue has a direct and important bearing on the whole idea
of theory and consensus embodied in the Project. The idea is this: what
if an unconscious mental process somehow prevents a person from voluntarily
and consensually adjusting their beliefs as participants in a social process
of theory development? What if this unconscious mental process is something
that the person would quickly abandon if it were to become conscious? Think
about someone who believes that the earth is flat, and that "scientific"
claims to the contrary are just a cruel deception. What if such beliefs
arise from an unconscious need or desire to overcome a sense of bondage
at the hands of some unconscious "ghostly" authority, such as a parent
who was too overbearing when they were children? At some point, somehow,
theory has to deal with this kind of thing. Freud's theory, whatever its
flaws are, is a fascinating start.
Denial is a process by which a conscious mind insists on believing something
that can't be so, or refuses to believe something that must be so. By "can't
be so" and "must be so" we mean that there's an obvious case for consensus
about something that, for some obviously unconscious reason, a person can't
participate in. Think of someone who is so emotionally attached to someone
else who has just died that they can't allow themselves to believe that
the person is actually dead. Psychologists might have separate technical
definitions, but we're including the ideas of "delusion" and "self-deception"
in with denial. For the most part, denial is a social concept, since its
definition depends the idea of there being a relative consensus among others.
We bring it up here because it seems like a process that could occur meaningfully
even in desert island situations. The idea is that a person is in denial
if other people, if they were present, would have a consensus different
from the belief of the person who's "in" denial.
The idea of denial is closely related to another one that, while also primarily
social, doesn't have to be. It's called over-determination. Over-determination
refers to the fact that there isn't necessarily just one meaning, or interpretation,
of a belief that's best or right, somehow, for everyone. The idea also
applies to theory, but to a lesser extent. We say that the meaning of something
is "over-determined" if it's meaning is determined more than once, and
more than one way. For the most part, the evolution of theory tends toward
unique best-for-everyone ideas. But it doesn't have to, always. In the
context of thinking about how the unconscious works, this fact is especially
important. It might work best for most of us to think of the beliefs of
the "flat-earthers" as neurotic in some sense. But it might work better
for them to think of the rest of us as hopelessly bullied. Maybe, for the
person who's "in denial" about their lover's death, their lover is actually
still alive "in their heart." While it's worthwhile to try for some kind
of consensus about the general structure and function of the unconscious,
it's also probably a good idea to let different people have their own personal
interpretations of where particular attitudes, beliefs, thoughts and emotions
are coming from.
Denial, Overdetermination and Emotion
A very common form of denial, or over-determination, has to do with the
fact that there are different possible objects that can be seen to be attached
to the same emotion of the same person. You might believe that you're mad
at someone, while she believes that you're "really" mad at your mother.
She didn't do anything beyond maybe reminding you of your mother, unconsciously.
These kinds of differences of interpretation of emotional states are hard
to resolve. And they can wreak havoc in social consensus-building processes.
We have to become conscious of them. We have to become theoretical about