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 them.