Do we really need the “unconscious” anymore?

Painted Sky. Copyright © 2012 Laura K Kerr. All rights reserved.

The idea of the unconscious — that part of mental life filled with unintentional motivations — is often associated with Sigmund Freud, who famously identified dreams and their symbolic imagery as the “royal road” to this untamed aspect of the psyche. C. G. Jung, Pierre Janet, Jean-Martin Charcot, and other theorists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also saw our symbolic, imaginal worlds as ways to glimpse the psyche’s deepest substratum.

In the twenty-first century, however, psyche’s underbelly is generally envisioned as wet, gelatinous grey matter, a medium for the electrical currents jumping across synaptic gaps, firing off neural networks, and resulting in cognitive schemas that predispose us to certain orientations, beliefs, and actions, and not others. When we talk about the unconscious these days, the amygdala is often mentioned, and how it is sometimes triggered by reminders of past traumas, mobilizing the body and mind for defense, regardless of one’s intentions. Non-reflective, so-called procedural learning also gets a lot of attention, and is associated with the unconscious, such as typing on a keyboard or any other activity that after enough repetitions becomes like the proverbial bike you never forget how to ride.

Yet if the unconscious is reduced solely to unintentional biological impulses, procedural learning, and other brain-based responses to environmental cues, what is the value of symbolic material such as dreams, fantasies, and other imaginal contents that supposedly originate in the unconscious?

Integration is at the heart of mental well-being, and is the focus of healing from psychological trauma. And the behaviors and attitudes that contribute to a well-integrated mind are usually interlaced with a sense of life as meaningful.

Experiencing something as meaningful usually involves a felt sense and way of perceiving the world, which often get expressed through an image, metaphor, memory, or even a dream. Thus, the experience of life as meaningful is intertwined with the symbolic contents of our psyches.

Personally, I have never experienced my life as meaningful because I am executing a procedurally learned skill, and certainly not while in the throes of a traumatic stress response. I must put these experiences in the context of my mental life — tagged with images, dreams, fantasies, or memories — in order for them to gain meaning. And so I type these words not because of an unconsciously driven capacity to type (I am a very good typist, having learned well this procedure-driven skill), but because I have an idea to share, and thus a meaning to make.

There are several experiences that seem to naturally and unconsciously flow together, and without their integration, I believe we are more likely to react rigidly or chaotically to circumstances in our lives (rigidly, if prone to avoidance in the face of threat; chaotically, if emotions tend towards overwhelm when scared).

The experiences I envision as fundamental to an integrated life include:

  • embodied awareness, and the capacity to mindfully feel sensations and movements in one’s body;
  • a coherent mind, where there is no need to obsessively grasp thoughts, images, feelings, and memories or push them away;
  • empathic relating to self and others, especially being able to witness others’ similarities, differences, desires, and needs in comparison to one’s own; and,
  • the ability to tend to the images and fantasies the unconscious brings forth, and explore the possibilities for greater awareness that they hold.

With each of these experiences often vying for singular attention, it would be difficult without the unconscious to coördinate the potential meanings that could be made at any moment. And this symbolic role of the unconscious acts much like the body’s proprioception, which without our awareness or intent joins together bits of movement into fluid responses to the environment — such as coordinating the arm’s reach for the door with the fingers’ turning of the knob. In similar fashion, the unconscious brings forth images, dreams, and fantasies that help integrate mental life and make sense of the past even while we are putting into play future possibilities — and usually regardless of our conscious intentions (and sometimes best laid plans).

© 2014 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).