The Unconscious (Subconscious) Mind

Sometimes when I discuss the inner mind, or unconscious mind (UM) with a client, there is confusion as to what I mean. It does not mean, your mind when you are unconscious (asleep.) It is a part of the mind of which we are unaware, awake or asleep, and it is active 24 hours a day. Asleep it makes us dream, and awake it affects our feelings and attitudes. Sometimes it causes symptoms and sometimes it affects our decisions and our personality (character.)

Behind the forehead is a part of the brain that is about the size of your hand, called the pre-frontal lobe. On the outside of the brain is a rind, less thick than your little finger, called the cerebral cortex. That is where our conscious thinking takes place. That is, the part of which we are aware, as if we were seeing scenes or imagining voices, our own and others', or deliberately reasoning.

The prefrontal lobe and cerebral cortex are the least part of our brain in terms of size. Most of what the brain does takes place in the rest of it, and we are not very aware of its activity. I say "very" because we are aware of feelings coming from that unconscious mind (UM). That is, suppose we have an experience, let's say it is "talking to a stranger." We get nervous. Where does that come from?

It comes from, lets say a dozen or dozens of memories in this instance, of having met strangers in the past, and having had a consequence that resulted in a bad feeling. Often therapy attempts to affect these memories in a way that changes something about them. There are at least a dozen ways to go about this.

Behavior therapy (BT) would have us practice until perfect. If we repeat meeting strangers enough times, we "get used to it," and reduce the anxiety we may have felt before. Perhaps that balances unpleasant memories with a number of pleasant ones, cancelling out the bad feeling from the unpleasant ones. An example would be practicing public speaking again and again, until one is comfortable with it.

BT may employ "flooding," making a feeling so strong that somehow that makes us "get over it." One psychologist had a client who feared looking foolish, to walk around a store with his arm up, and pulling down on an imaginary chain and saying "Toot! Toot!" Intellectually, he knows this will not actually hurt him. After some practice, he learns on a feeling level also, that it doesn't.

Hypnotism may work by adding to the unconscious memories. Usually, they play like an old fashioned juke box playing a record. The record plays as if the remembered event is happening now.

The hypnotist may suggest to the person that everything has changed since then. He is an adult now, and that person is long gone, or has no authority or power over him. He fills in credible realities that make the old memory obsolete and ineffective. After that, when the disturbing memory comes up, the new ones (the hypnotic ones) do too, cancelling out the effect of the older events.

EFT, TFT and TAT (acupressure, tapping and pressing) work by interrupting the effect of old, unconscious memories. Even if you are aware of a more recent, particular unpleasant memory, there are others that were pulled up when it originally happened, that made the event even worse, due to the association with them.

There is no proof of why and how it happens, but likely the connection is broken between that memory and pain. We have a place in the brain called the "pain center," which is activated when we feel pain, either physical or mental. Very near to that is an anxiety center.

If an event is connected with the pain or anxiety center, the memory of that event remains connected there. If that connection is broken, the memory still exists, but its emotional effect on your conscious life does not.

EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, replicates a natural process that occurs when you are sleeping. During sleep, your eyes move back and forth at certain times, in what is called Rapid Eye Movement, or REM sleep. This is believed to move information back and forth between the thinking and feeling areas of the brain, and perhaps makes associations between memories, so that when you awaken, the memory has a reduced effect on your emotions.

Sometimes when a memory contains very powerful emotions, we awaken and don't complete our REM sleep connected with that memory, and the pain does not weaken. This is especially true with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). EMDR is believed to fill in that lost REM experience, and reduces or eliminates the painful aspect of the memory (and the other memories that were pulled up when the experience happened.)

Understanding all this requires understanding the existence of an unconscious mind, that affects us every minute of every day. Though most of the time the activity of the UM (unconscious memory) has been observed indirectly, occasionally there can be a direct observation.

In the 1950s, a Canadian Neurosurgeon named Wilder Penfield discovered that if he placed a thin wire in a patient's brain and applied a small voltage, the person would recall things not usually available to his conscious memory, and would begin telling about them on the operating table.

In my own case, I was once experimenting with a pendulum, that was controlled by my unconscious mind. I had written a circle of letters on some poster board, had a pendulum dangling from a finger, and was asking questions that were answered as I held the pendulum above the circle, which swung toward each letter.

At one point, I asked "Do you mean I (do such and so?)" I don't recall what it was.

The answer was "No."

"But you just said that I do."


"Why do you say no, when you said the opposite just a moment ago?"

"U R NOT ME" was the answer.

Then I realized it was saying my conscious mind is not my unconscious mind. I asked several questions after that, 

which confirmed my conclusion. That was a real convincer for me.