The True Nature of the ‘Unconscious’

photo: Steve Ray

We intuitively associate our psyches with the contents of consciousness. Whatever I am not conscious of is not within the scope of my psyche, or so we tend to think. Yet, since the late 19th century, depth psychology has been talking about an ‘unconscious.’[i] Modern research on the issue indicates that, in fact, the majority of our cognition is indeed ‘unconscious.’[ii] This presents a conundrum: if a process is not in consciousness, what is its relation to the psyche?

I propose that the so-called ‘unconscious’ is merely an illusion. Our intuition that consciousness is the sine qua non of the psyche is actually correct: there is nothing in the psyche that is not in consciousness, even though consciousness may delude itself about what it actually comprises.

Let us carry out a little exercise to substantiate this. Consider your awareness of the screen in front of you: in addition to perceiving the screen itself, you also consciously know that you are perceiving it. Don’t you? Clearly, not only are you aware of the screen, you are also aware that you are aware of it. And you can repeat this exercise recursively: aren’t you also aware that you are aware that you are aware of the screen? I think you can already guess where I am going with this: you are aware that you are aware… that you are aware of whatever you are aware of. Each level of awareness becomes a seeming object of awareness one level higher, in a potentially infinite recursion of self-referential awareness.

The ability to turn conscious apprehension itself into an object of conscious apprehension is what fundamentally characterizes our ordinary state of consciousness. In fact, my claim is that this is what defines what psychology calls the ‘ego’: the ego is the part of our psyches that is recursively and self-referentially aware.

There is a very intuitive way to visualize this: two mirrors facing each other, as in the figure. Each mirror reflects the image of the other, including its own image reflected on the other. Each reflection can be seen as a step in the recursion of awareness, wherein an image becomes itself part of another image at a higher level, and that image part of yet another image at a yet higher level, and so forth. Each image is both awareness at its own level and an object of awareness at a higher level. Egoic consciousness is analogous to these two mutually-facing mirrors insofar as it is recursively self-reflective. Indeed, modern neuroscience research shows that egoic consciousness correlates with a back-and-forth flow of neuronal information analogous to the mutually-facing mirrors in the figure.[iii]

Because of this, any experience that falls within the field of self-reflection of the ego becomes hugely amplified. Like the image in the figure, the experience is recursively reflected on the mirrors of awareness until it creates an unfathomably intense mental imprint. Most things you are ordinarily aware of are amplified like that. You don’t notice it simply because you have become accustomed to these levels of mental amplification. Think of it as the case of a teenager who listens to loud music so often that a reasonable volume level on the TV challenges his ability to hear. His notion of what constitutes normal volume has changed.

Now, if this is so, what happens to the experiences unfolding in the broader psyche that do not fall within the scope of the ego? They do not get amplified at all. Therefore, from the point-of-view of the ego, they become practically imperceptible! This, in my view, is how we’ve come to speak of an ‘unconscious.’ There is no unconscious; there are only segments of the psyche whose experiences, for not falling within the field of egoic self-reflection, become obfuscated by whatever does fall within it.

Here is another analogy to help you develop an intuition for this. When you look up at a clear sky, at noon, you only see blue. You can’t see the stars that, at night, would be unmistakable. Yet, the stars are all still there and their light is still reaching your eyes. You can’t see them because they become obfuscated by the much stronger glare of the sun refracting on the atmosphere. The photons coming from distant stars are still there, interspersed throughout the many more photons emanating from atmospheric refraction. Similarly, the ‘unconscious’ experiences unfolding in the broader psyche are all conscious, at all times, interspersed throughout the amplified contents of egoic awareness, just like the photons from distant stars at noon. The contents of the ‘unconscious’ fit, so to speak, in the tiny gaps left in between the unfathomably stronger contents of self-reflective awareness. They are, in a way, just under our noses at all times.

As such, there is really no unconscious. But the result, in practice, is almost identical: the ‘glare’ of what falls within the field of self-reflective awareness obfuscates everything else, making it all practically invisible, just like the stars at noon. The experiences in the ‘unconscious’ aren’t weak; they are regular excitations of the psyche. It’s just that they fade in comparison to self-reflective amplification, almost disappearing in the interstices of the flow of egoic experiences. Notice that this notion eliminates any absolute difference between the conscious and ‘unconscious’ segments of the psyche. It all becomes a matter of relative amplification.

Let’s develop some more direct intuition about this. We’ve all had experiences that we know have been conscious, yet felt unconscious. For instance: have you ever driven home from work one evening, mulling over your problems, just to suddenly find yourself at home having no idea how you got there? Obviously you were conscious of your driving, otherwise you wouldn’t have made it home. But you were not fully self-reflectively aware of it. Instead, you were self-reflectively aware of your problems, which obfuscated the experience of driving and made it seem unconscious. Here is another example: for the past several minutes you have been ‘unconscious’ of your breathing. But at the very moment you read this, your breathing – the air flowing in and out, the movements of your diaphragm, the inflation of your lungs, etc. – rushes into your field of self-reflective awareness. Were you truly unconscious of your breathing a moment ago? Or were you merely unaware that you were conscious of your breathing?

These two examples illustrate but a very slight level of obfuscation. The driving and the breathing were already on the edge of self-reflective awareness anyway. However, it’s easy to extrapolate what would happen if obfuscation were to become sufficiently stronger. Indeed, maybe this is precisely what’s going on right now with respect to your so-called ‘unconscious’! What unfathomable universes of subjective experience might be unfolding in your consciousness right now, simply obfuscated by the glare of your ego?

Why-Materialism-Is-Baloney-CoverThis article is an edited extract from the author’s book,
Why Materialism Is Baloney,’

i Ffytche, M. (2011). The Foundation of the Unconscious: Schelling, Freud and the Birth of the Modern Psyche. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, part 3.

ii Augusto, L. M. (2010). Unconscious knowledge: A survey. Advances in Cognitive Psychology, 6, pp. 116-141.

iii Boly, M. et al. (2011). Preserved Feedforward But Impaired Top-Down Processes in the Vegetative State. Science, 332(6031), pp. 858-862.
Peck, M. E. (2011). Signal for Consciousness in Brain Marked by Neural Dialogue: Brain areas send signals back and forth to generate conscious thoughts. Scientific American Mind, November 2011. [Online]. Available from:


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