The Freudian unconscious today

Mark Solms and Margaret R. Zellner

in From the Couch to the Lab

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print May 2012 | ISBN: 9780199600526
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754753 | DOI:
The Freudian unconscious today

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Psychoanalysis is founded on the assumption that the bulk of mental activity—which determines feelings, thoughts, and behaviour—is unconscious. Some of these processes—prototypically, instinctual drives which comprise much of the activity of the id—remain forever inaccessible to consciousness, although we become aware of derivatives of these drives (as wishes and impulses), and feel pleasures from gratifications and unpleasure from frustrations of them. Other mental contents are dynamically withheld or excluded from consciousness (the ‘repressed’). Both realms (the drives and the repressed) make up the dynamic unconscious. This dynamic unconscious is governed by primary process modes of thinking, in which fantasy, tolerance of contradiction, timelessness, and other exemptions from realistic constraints prevail, in service of purely emotional considerations (the pleasure principle). Other aspects of unconscious cognition do not display these features. Freud described these descriptively, but not dynamically unconscious processes as the ‘unconscious ego’. These latter processes are governed by secondary process cognition, which recognizes realistic and logical constraints in service of the reality principle. Despite being unconscious, the latter processes mediate between internal needs and external realities, and are therefore considered part of the executive ego. The dynamic unconscious, by contrast, is part of the id. The wealth of data accumulated in cognitive psychology on executive processes, largely managed by prefrontal regions, is correlated with key inhibitory and regulatory features of the ego, whereas the innately structured brain systems which govern instinctual-emotional life—the basic emotion command systems—comprise what Freud called the id. We suggest that a more complete understanding of the human mind than prevails in contemporary cognitive science would emerge if we paid more heed to the instinctual-emotional aspects of unconscious mental life.

Chapter.  6151 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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