Conscious and unconscious thinking

Our unconscious mind is a bit like a soil and root system, fertile, but underground.  Photo by Lucas Fiorentin on Unsplash

In the field of psychology, it is common knowledge that our minds can operate outside the field of our awareness.  This type of ‘unaware’ thinking has many names, including automatic, unconscious, and subconscious.


Automatic processes are those which run without us needing to be aware of them.  For instance, when we digest our food, our bodies perform the activity outside our conscious awareness.  These activities are sometimes called ‘second nature’, meaning that they happen easily, without the need for our conscious brains to steer and control them.

For many psychologists, the opposite of automatic processes are controlled processes.  When you first learn to read, for example, you will employ lots of conscious techniques to guide you, and you are very conscious of every word.  This is a controlled process, in that your conscious mind is very involved in shaping how the activity is done.  Controlled thinking is very common in learning new tasks.

As time goes on, and you become more proficient at something, your controlled processes give way to automatic ones, and the activity becomes second nature.  Perhaps you have learned to drive, and remember the shift from early controlled thinking to later automatic process.  At first, you were consciously aware of everything – gear shifts, signs on the road, pedal work… but, later, this gave way to a smoother set of automatic processes, and you can now drive somewhere without overusing your conscious mind.


The idea of the unconscious mind is similar.  It often refers to the fact that our behaviour and emotions are affected by inner processes outside our conscious awareness, perception or control.  When we have been asleep, for example, we consider ourselves to have been unconscious (even though our mind can be very active during certain periods of sleep).  We mean that we have withdrawn from sensory awareness of the objects around us, and cannot control our bodily movements in relation to those objects.

Psychotherapists sometimes think of the unconscious as a reservoir of thoughts, feelings and emotions that are outside our conscious awareness, but continue to affect our actions.  Thus, a person might spend years being angry at their partner, without exactly knowing where that anger is coming from.  Some therapists become a bit like ‘surgeons of the mind’, working with a client to gain some purchase over their hidden reservoir of inner emotion.  It’s a difficult subject, because views differ as to how possible it is to access, or work with, these hidden thoughts and urges.


The idea of the subconscious is again similar.  We have a bank of memories, beliefs, fears and subjective maps of the world, and we are not always fully aware of what they are or how they affect us.  But they find their way into our behaviour and actions… and it can take a fair bit of detective work to gain an understanding of what’s going on.  For example, a therapy client may discover that their relationships have been affected by prejudices and assumptions inherited from childhood.  Some find that, once they have developed awareness of what is going on, they start to change and develop.


What can you do about your unconscious mind?  If it’s unconscious, what’s the point in even thinking about it?  Well, although it’s outside your awareness, you have a relationship with it.

Imagine that you have a vegetable patch in your garden.  Regularly, you dig up your produce, cook it, and bring it to your table, where you enjoy it.  Your unconscious mind is like the roots of your vegetables, buried in the soil.  The soil has ancient origins, and a lot of built-in wisdom.  It carries on its existence without your intervention.  But, if you want a particular kind of garden, it is possible to harness the soil, to feed and nourish it.

In the same way, it is possible to work with your unconscious mind.  Your unconscious mind, like a soil and root system, has origins going back way before you were born.  It evolved over billions of years, and many of your responses arise from these old roots, without your conscious intervention.  But you can learn about it, feed it, nurture it gently.


Your unconscious mind has three aspects to it which you can start work on at any time.

  1. Your animal self – you can learn what your older, more animal self likes to do.  You don’t have to indulge all its tastes (we live in societies with laws), but it’s interesting to learn what urges and emotional drives you were born with.  Your tastes for food, drink, attachment to others, sexual activity, and more, stem in large part from this animal inheritance.
  2. Your habitual self – you can learn how your own brain and body make and break habits.  This can give you some control over more self-destructive patterns, and enable you to master and change them.  Jeremy Dean has written a good book on the subject.  It is called ‘Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes that Stick‘.
  3. Your creative self – through creative activity, you can encourage a stream between your unconscious mind and your conscious mind.  For example, art with words, pictures, photographs, sculpture, etc. helps you to build stronger links between your controlled mind (which holds the pen or brush), and your automatic mind (which feeds you ideas as to the subjects and themes you choose, your selection of words, forms, sounds and colours, and much more).


A large part of your being operates beyond your conscious control.  You have a hidden reservoir of automatic behaviours, feelings, emotions, prejudices and assumptions.  Although you see the food on your mental plate, you do not easily see what has gone into its growth, production, supply, cooking, and preparation.

You can choose to become more curious about three things – (1) your animal self – you are, after all, evolved over billions of years; (2) your habitual self – you have, after all, established patterns of biased behaviour; and (3) your creative self – you are, above all, a creative being, able to relate to, and harness, your unconscious mind through creative activity.