Is There A Subconscious Mind?

Is there really a subconscious mind? I mean factually, is there proof of such a thing?

Also, as long as I’m asking, is there also a preconscious mind? I was taking a psychology course in Henry Ford Community College in 1995. And the teacher said Freud said that there was a preconscious mind, because three was a mystical number (get it: conscious, preconscious and subconscious mind?). So then is there a preconscious mind?

And lastly, I just have to ask. Is there a difference between the term ‘subconscious’ and ‘unconscious’ mind? The terms are often used interchangeably I’ve noticed.


No. I don’t think there’s factual proof that any sort of mind exists. A theory of mind is a useful tool, but doesn’t provide factual proof of an existence of the mind.

You’d need to define the term more closely. But if you mean “are there things our brain does that we are not consciously aware of that are not autonomous” then most definitely yes. You can catch people doing things they weren’t consciously aware they were doing. And you can catch people making assumptions they weren’t consciously aware they were making.

What I’m not aware of is proof of any particular framework for the subconscious mind. I do know some which are discredited, though.

I’d go so far as to say that the subconscious mind is the only mind. Consciousness is an illusion, just a narrative device that the mind constructs in order to make sense of a world that has minds in it.

It is going to depend on what you call the conscious mind.
Clearly there are aspects of the mind that burble away without any clear interaction with our waking consciousness. Everyone knows the phenomenon of trying to solve a problem where the solution comes to us out of the blue sometime after we have stopped consciously ruminating on it. Clearly something is churning away.
But Freud seems to demand a mirror mind with the same general capabilities as our conscious mind. That seems a serious stretch.
We have lots of general understanding of where different functions of the brain live. But no real idea of where the conscious mind resides. But it is clear it emerges from the assembly of a subset of the parts. It isn’t clear how we find a parallel mind in this.
Our conscious waking mind is heavily bound to speech. But stroke victims that lose an entire lobe including speech don’t lose a sense of conscious mind. Nor does a great deal of other devastating injury wipe it out. Although function can be diminished in weird ways, and eventually the mind is clearly lost. Perhaps if the subconscious mind function could be both quantified in a meaningful way and demonstrate loss of function in the face of injury in a consistent and measurable way there would be some evidence. The idea seems to fall at the first hurdle, let alone the second.
All IMHO. I don’t think there is much more than any one’s opinion to be had.

There have been some totally silly capabilities ascribed to the subconscious. Subliminal suggestion being perhaps the most well known. Backwards masking in popular music being another related idea.

This. We have solid evidence that many of the decisions we make are outside of conscious control. In one example I recall (I believe it was discussed in Descartes’ Error), test subjects were able to recognize patterns in a series of cards before they consciously knew what the pattern was. Read pretty much any book on cognition and you will find similar examples. Likewise, high intensity situations that require split-second decisions, like a cop choosing to fire on a suspect, do not occur in the conscious mind. There’s no time to reason through something like that. Furthermore, people are not consciously aware of how they make ethical decisions. In Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds (yes he is disgraced, but I’m citing others’ work, not his own) Hauser reviews the evidence that people make ethical decisions first, as a matter of instinct, and create their justification after the fact. This suggests that ethical decision making starts first as an unconscious process.

I put very little stock in Freud, but he hit on something real with the basic idea of the subconscious. He was just wrong about… well, everything else.

Most of what your mind does is subconcious. When you look at a known object and don’t have to think about what it is, that’s because your brain already processed all the visual signals, pattern-matched it against what it kmows about the world, and served up the concept to you without you having to think about it consciously. When you throw a ball accurately, your brain did all the calculations of distance and,angle and you just throw it in a way that ‘feels right’, but you have no conscious understanding of what was involved in doing that.

You might want to read Daniel Kahnehan’s ‘thinking fast and slow’. It’s a fascinating read.

As I age, I am starting to experience some bleed-through with this phenomenon. Sometimes I’ll see something unexpected, and I immediately have an odd sense I have recognized it and made sense of it, but I have to wait a second or two for my conscious mind to process it. Or not… sometimes there’s the distinctly opposite sense that I already rejected it as unimportant and thus will never consciously know what it was. It’s like living in a tape delay but with full awareness of that fact.

The lag period is getting longer, and it’s an… interesting way to live.

Maybe it is a matter of perspective. The constant activity of the brain is the superior activity. Solutions are transferred to the awareness narrative making it the sub-conscience.

There is perhaps a definitional question. It seems clear from a whole range of evidence that the brain operates many functions that are not directly part of the consciousness. Whether you want to define a hierarchical layered view, with the conscious brain at the top, or posit a cooperative view with various functions operating and transferring stuff between themselves is more a philosophical question, or indeed, just a matter of perspective. IMHO, I very much doubt there is any physiological evidence for a strict hierarchy. In software engineering we love hierarchical designs, ones with strictly defined interfaces and protocol stacks. There are all sorts of reasons why they are used. Translating ideas derived from technology, and especially computer technology to models of the brain has been around forever. There however not much to suggest it has any value beyond providing existence proofs of possible operational models. That computers work helps us understand that neurons also work. But I would not push it too hard.

If you want stick to hierarchical view, and you place the conscious brain as superior (at the top,) by definition the remainder of the brain is sub-conscious. This is however not really all that helpful, and the existence of a sub-conscious becomes nothing more than a tautology.

The sub-concious came into popular parlance from Freud, and he gave it a very clear set of capabilities that did not, and still do not, have much in the way of evidence to support its existence. His sub-conscious seemed to have all manner of innate emotional and reasoning capabilities that were never externally visible, yet drove conscious behaviour. Even ignoring the silly through to bizarre sexual nature of what he posited, there remains no evidence from structural or neurological work to suggest it is true. As Karl Popper was keen to point out, almost all of Freudian psychology was not science. It simply created new narratives to explain away and and all contradicting evidence. If the question is “is there a Freudian sub-conscious mind?” IMHO the answer is firm “No.”

There’s an evolutionary argument for a subconscious mind also. We know that non-conscious animals can problem solve, use tools, and succeed in complex tasks. My old border collie could plan ahead, could hide things from me, and could abstract. Thus, it only makes sense that our conscious mind is pasted on top of our more primitive subconscious one, instead of the entire “mind” (whatever that means) being reinvented from scratch.

Subconscious mind? I just hope there isn’t another conscious mind down closer to the stomach.

Do we know that they’re non-conscious?

I have two border collies, and I am certain that they are ‘conscious’. And it makes sense that they would be.

However… social insects can display extremely complex feats, but I don’t believe an ant is conscious, nor needs to be. The complexity in an ant colony is emergent from the behaviours of many individuals, but individual ants themselves I believe are just complex state machines. I don’t think there is enough brain complexity in an ant to suppoort higher-order functions.

I strongly suspect that many, maybe all, mammals are conscious, and also at least some birds. I also suspect that you’re right about the ants, though.

I also doubt that we’ve got a really clear definition of consciousness.

Yeah. People don’t like addressing this one.
We try to get away from it by talking about sentience, and disclaiming sentience for most animals.

I’m not convinced that a lot of this is much more than a feeble attempt to avoid guilt about the way animals are treated. It isn’t that long ago that some humans used similar arguments to justify the manner in which they treated other humans. You even get into arguments about whether animals, female humans, or other races have souls. Thus justifying a given person’s status. It isn’t a lot different.

An ant brain has only about 250,000 neurons. Hard to see how there would be enough complexity for higher order thought.

We have completely mapped the brain of C Elegans and built robots that are indistinguishable from the real worm in terms of behaviour. It only has anout 250 neurons, yet still exhibits some complex behaviours. Not a chance that it’s sentient or conscious.

I am more open to the notion of consciousness in lesser mammals and some birds. I suspect that once you get away from instinctive/automatic behaviours and allow for learning and judgement, consciousness becomes more evolutionarily important.

The way neurons interconnect. One to many. I suspect that a stimulus intended to produce a particular end response, also triggers a cascade of other possible paths, and so and so on. When all goes well the proper end result presents in majority. But what about all those other response paths? They will be echoing about, triggering paths. They must fade out over a time period. But there must be a whole lot of processing that also follows what would be considered conscious thought, in spite of it now being disconnected from the original stimulus/response.

There aren’t any non-conscious animals. There are (probably, not proveably) non-SELF-conscious animals. Humans didn’t invent consciousness, nor is it something that defines us.

Just coming in to say that there’s a difference between “conscious” and “sentient.”

(Now what that difference is, well. . . opinions differ.)