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What is the Difference Between the Unconscious and the Subconscious?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Jan 21, 2024
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Sigmund Freud structured the mind into metaphoric sections. These “sections” are disputed, and not exactly provable. Yet many other psychiatrists and psychologists since then have used his terminology to discuss the way the mind works, and suggested changes. These definitions of the sections of the mind: conscious, unconscious and the subconscious lie at the root of significant misunderstanding.

Some people use the terms the unconscious and the subconscious interchangeably, but this is not accurate from Freud’s definition. Unconscious, first and foremost, does not mean, as it is used in medical terminology “knocked out,” and it doesn’t mean anesthetized either. Yet these ideas have a relationship to Freud’s conception of the unconscious.

In simple terms, the unconscious is the store of collected information that has been repressed and is not easily brought to the conscious mind. These memories not recognized by the conscious mind can be memories of trauma, or even simply memories, thought patterns, desires, and sense impressions that remain far below the accessible surface. Because they are in essence, inaccessible without psychoanalysis, they may drive and control the conscious mind on unseen levels. Much of Freud’s id and superego work in the background of the unconscious, creating illness, mental problems, neuroses, and a host of other issues.

The unconscious and the subconscious are vastly different, though non-psychiatric professionals often incorrectly use subconscious. In contrast to the unconscious, the subconscious mind lies just below consciousness, and it is easily accessible if attention is paid to it. For instance, you might know someone’s phone number. This information is not stored in your conscious mind, but in your subconscious. If you think about it, you can produce the phone number, but it isn’t simply floating around in your conscious mind. You need to direct your attention to memory in order to dredge up the phone number. Those memories you can recall easily are not conscious unless you pay attention and focus. When someone asks you to describe your perfect day, you reach into your subconscious mind for these memories.

However, if someone asked you to describe the worst day you ever had, especially if it was particularly traumatic, you might not really be able to describe the worst. You’d be able to discuss memories in your subconscious that were memorably bad, but a truly traumatic day could be in part, or completely repressed. In this way, one of the differences between the unconscious and the subconscious is that, at least in Freud’s estimation, the unconscious worked as a protecting force on the mind, even if this protection was wrongly guided. Really finding the most traumatic day of your life might mean significant therapy to access layers of memory buried away from both from conscious and subconscious, deeply hidden in the mind.

Other prominent psychologists and psychiatrists have had different or expanded definitions of the unconscious and the subconscious. For Carl Jung, the unconscious mind was the repository of all the unintegrated aspects of the personality, like the shadow, and the anima/animus. To become a fully individuated person, these things needed to be brought to consciousness and integrated into the personality, so that they served the person rather than thwarting him/her. Below the unconscious, Jung further defined the collective unconscious, a group of shared images and ideas that were present in all people regardless of cultural background.

Yet other psychiatrists and psychologists dismiss the unconscious as hogwash. They claim that the system Freud described, and that others later expanded upon can’t be verified. Behaviorists for instance, of the older Behavioral school tend to criticize Freud’s view of “levels” of the mind. Cognitive behaviorists, conversely, have tried to bring the idea of repressed ideas in the unconscious into a new set of terminology.

Instead of the unconscious and the subconscious, cognitive behaviorists help clients evaluate behavior to get at their core belief system, those thoughts and ideas, which really drive the person. In a way this is divorced from Freud’s original ideas because it stresses that though these core beliefs may be repressed, bringing them to light doesn’t necessarily provoke instant change. Instead, identifying these beliefs begins a cognitive process of change. Furthermore these core beliefs are not tied to terms like “Oedipal Complex” or id.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a LanguageHumanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon1006595 — On Apr 10, 2022

As an artist I use my access to the subconscious to discover alternative perspectives of humanity. I believe the conscious and subconscious are polar opposites of the same brain activity. In that in wake state we can say we are conscious and in sleep state we are subconscious.

Some may have noticed how they are a different personality when in wake state versus sleep state. I have been a lucid dreamer as far back as I can recall my dreams. Since eight years old to this day, I have had repeated dreams of flying. In my sixties I went from falling learning to fly at will and in a standing position. I reason out my emotions intentionally, in my dreams. In my paintings I allow the subconscious to present perspectives. Not to be confused with some painting work where one makes a mark and thinks about an association. I paint with no intent.

By anon995070 — On Mar 30, 2016

It would seem a medical definition and a psychological definition are differing because neither field knows what the hell the brain is actually doing. They are both concerned instead with mind "experiments," using human subjects to observe behavior. Using a phrase such as "if you think about it" to define reaching the subconscious for a telephone number is ridiculous. (albeit the description of directing or focusing attention to finding that number.) It doesn't begin to explain what the brain does to "direct attention." In medicine, that "directed attention" is an anesthesiologist poking a drugged patient or speaking commands such as "lift your finger" or "open your eyes" or even "breathe" in order to evaluate whether that patient is still "conscious." Freud, Jung and "behaviorists" all seem to start with a premise that the human mind is individuated, somehow separated from neuronal action and needs to be "healed" or "changed," the proverbial "mind over matter." Our own understanding of the brain is so miniscule that arguing over definitions of brain levels is meaningless. It will be a long time before humans are capable of "thinking" in conjunction with a "collective consciousness."

By anon942273 — On Mar 26, 2014

@Post 11: Next time, kindly read the article completely before asking questions. As the article itself says, "These memories not recognized by the conscious mind can be memories of trauma, or even simply memories, thought patterns, desires, and sense impressions that remain far below the accessible surface." (emphasis mine)

In other words, the unconscious doesn't contain only traumatic memories, but also memories of everyday things like infancy and early childhood—things that may not have been traumatic but which have been forgotten anyway because of all the new experiences that crowd the mind on a daily basis.

The idea is that a person never forgets anything s/he experiences; it just goes into long-term storage. This is why we can still remember how to do things like speak, even though for most people this process is anything but traumatic. Arguably, things like swimming and bike-riding—things modern medicine calls "procedural memory"—would also fall under this category, especially if we can't remember every detail of when and how we learned to do them.

By anon346500 — On Aug 29, 2013

Great article! I was so confused about the unconscious and subconscious.

By anon242173 — On Jan 22, 2012

Please answer. (hypothetically) based on Freud's description, What if you don't have any traumatic/negative experiences in your past? What would the unconscious do then, if its main role is to block out traumatic and harmful memories, etc. from you conscious mind?

By anon162767 — On Mar 24, 2011

@first comment: can you explain more because i think you're mistaken. everything of the above is well explained. preconscious is the same as subconscious but some psychologists say that subconscious is another part and preconscious is the part of the conscious part. Am i right or wrong?

By anon114783 — On Sep 29, 2010

I think your definition of "subconscious" (meaning not immediately present in the conscious mind, but easily accessible) is actually more in reference to the "preconscious." I recommend reading up on Freud's topographies again.

By anon103179 — On Aug 11, 2010

Excellent explanation.

By anon102566 — On Aug 08, 2010

That was a good description.

A point about Jung's collective and it's composition as imagery: the collective consists of patterns of collective experience. These patterns or tracks he termed archetypes which express as imagery, and that's a significant distinction because the imagery of an archetype can vary, but the experience it represents is its most essential quality.

By anon86315 — On May 24, 2010

very well differentiated and I understood it very well.

By anon78509 — On Apr 19, 2010

well said. nice article.

By anon75562 — On Apr 07, 2010

Thanks. that explains it nice and easily.

By anon59589 — On Jan 09, 2010

Explained very well! Thanks! Chris

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a LanguageHumanities contributor,...
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