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Child Neuropsychology A blog by Dr Jonathan Reed
  • The return of the unconscious mind

    The founding father of psychology Sigmund Freud was fascinated by the unconscious mind and made this the centre of his study and practice.  The role of the unconscious in psychology quickly fell out of fashion.  This was because it could not be measured or easily understood.  Initially behaviourism became dominant, based on the objective analysis of observable behaviour.  Later the focus in psychology shifted to studying cognition – the study of thought processes.  Both areas resulted to different psychological therapies for example,  Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and different ways of understanding learning.  Over the last decade or so neuropsychology has started to emerge.  Neuropsychology focuses on the relationship between the brain and behaviour (including cognition).  And guess what – as we begin to understand the role of the brain in psychology there is an increasing interest in the role of  unconscious processes (brain actions that we are not aware of consciously) .  Back to the start again- maybe Freud was right all along!

    I wrote about the importance if understanding the relationship between sub cortical structures and the cortex in a previous post. I have also just read a fascinating and very readable book by David Eagleman Incognito: The Secret Lives of The Brain.  This book looks at the dominant role that the unconscious brain plays in everyday human life.  Eagleman argues that most of what we do happens automatically and without our conscious brains being aware.  He gives numerous examples of how unconscious processes control our psychology including our attraction to others, our prejudices, our perception of the world, as well as the more obvious examples of motor control- I would really recommending reading the book to understand the richness of his argument.  He argues that conscious thought processes play a very small role in our lives,  perhaps just to allowing us to think flexibly and set goals (clearly this has big consequences as the achievements and dominance of the human species shows).  Intriguingly he also suggests that maybe our conscious self is not in control at all, but we (it) just think we are.  This was a central point in Chris’s Frith’s excellent although more academic book Making Up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World.  Both authors report studies  showing that when you ask someone to tell when they have the urge to lift their finger and scan their brain, the part of the brain responsible for planning the action lights up before they report the urge to lift their finger.  Therefore the unconscious brain is making the decision before they are are consciously aware of it.

    Understanding the role of unconscious processes has important implications for psychology.  David Eagleman discusses in detail the implications for the criminal justice system.  Are criminals to blame for acts committed by unconscious processes (and especially when you add in abusive childhoods, brain injury, learning problems, genetics, which are all out of conscious control)?  I think there are also significant implications for child neuropsychology.  Understanding how our brains work and basing treatment and intervention on this understanding will lead to more effective intervention.  In my practice I work a lot with children with significant learning disabilities and brain injury.  Often they are unable to learn or control emotions and behaviour consciously.  I  look at ways to influence implicit processes  i.e changing the environment rather than expecting individual to change.  Also with my games company Neurogames I integrate implicit learning processes into the games, which I think is what makes them effective.  However we are only just starting to understand these processes and as our understanding increases I expect there to much more focus on sub cortical and unconscious processes in psychology.  This is not entirely easy as we create and develop psychological theories using the conscious parts of our mind, thus we are already biased.  We need to suspend our own perceptions and experience, based on our conscious view of the world and look at the data instead (a bit like theoretical physics).  Understanding how the brain actually works holds promise for major changes in psychological treatment, teaching and social policy.  Maybe we are also on the verge of a revolution in how we see ourselves?   I’ll keep you posted on ideas that emerge.

    Published on April 24, 2011 · Filed under: behaviour, education, neuroscience, subcortical function; Tagged as:

5 Responses to “The return of the unconscious mind”

  1. Dear Dr Reed,

    I think it is tricky to mix modern notions of the unconscious
    (or what I would refer to as pre-conscious) with Freud’s
    views and writings. Obviously, there are processes
    occurring outside our direct awareness or control, such
    as the maintenance of biological equilibria, automatic
    behavioral patterns, and nocturnal dreams.

    However, as far as my understanding of Freud goes,
    he mainly ascribed hidden drives and motivations to the
    unconscious. This would present a rather limited view
    in terms of the ABC of present (neuro-)psychology.

    Just wanted to have this elaboration mentioned. :o )

    Kind regards,


  2. I basically learned about the majority of this, but with that in mind, I still believed it had been beneficial. Very good job!

  3. Penny Mitchell said on

    Jonathan – I am sure these new findings are extremely important.
    I heard David Eagleman speak on Radio 4. For the first time there is the potential to make connections between the new discoveries in neuroscience and what psychoanalytic psychotherapists have long known.

    Take paedophilia for example. My understanding of someone like Ian Huntley’s behaviour with Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman is that it comes from a blocked off pocket in his brain. It is likely to be murderous rage about something in his past that is repressed. (Ray Wyre described it as ‘unexploded bombs’).

    This repression might be from extremely controlling parents or other factors. The rage is driving him to punish and humiliate females, small enough to control. He is not in touch with any guilt or shame. These are blocked off too.

    Who knows exactly what happened on that day, but what is certain is that the girls ended up dead. The interesting thing is that when Huntley has access to what he has done he then tries to kill himself. This so often happens. The killer then becomes a suicide risk. This does not indicate actual brain damage. It indicates that it is a defence developed unconsciously in childhood to handle something too frightening or painful to cope with. He now has access to knowledge about himself that he didn’t realise before.

    My experience shows the same is true of addictions such as to drugs. The problem is that the work is too painful for many people to do. Often, there is a a substantial lack of affection and emptiness internally. This takes courage to face.

    All this is further complicated by the other factors that could affect behaviour as you say, such as brain injury and autism. A minefield – but 40 years of working in depth with people has taught me that most behaviours make absolute coherent sense once the whole story is told.

    Penny Mitchell

  4. Thanks for the comment Penny. I agree there are implications in this for psychoanalytic psychotherapist. I hope to write a bit more about this soon.

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