The Unconscious Mind

How Freud’s theory of mind laid the groundwork for the idea of the unconsious.

Topographical Theory of Mind
Beyond the Pleasure Principle
The Id
Manifest Content and Latent Content

Freud’s Iceberg Theory

Freud proposed that the human mind, or psyche, resembles an iceberg; there are different levels of awareness, and only a small portion is visible above the surface.

Freud’s theory of the human psyche evolved over time. He originally proposed the concept of the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious levels of awareness. He called this the ‘Topographical Theory of Mind’.


Later, he moved away from this theory by introducing the id, ego, and superego. According to Freud, these represent the three main components of the psyche, and they form the foundation of our personality, driving our behavior and decision-making.

The iceberg metaphor shows that the part above water is the least significant portion of our psyche. Instead, it is what lies hidden underneath the surface, and is thus unknown to us, that influences us the most. Think of our fears, immoral urges, shameful experiences, and selfish needs.

The Topographical Theory of Mind

In 1899, Freud published his book, *The Interpretation of Dreams*, in which he introduced his first “map” of what he believed were the different systems of the mind. He called it the topographic theory of mind and proposed that the human psyche consists of three mental systems or layers, each serving a different function.


From top to bottom, we have the conscious mind, the preconscious mind, and the unconscious mind. These different systems can be seen as different levels of awareness.

The conscious consists of our immediate thoughts and perceptions. It is what we are aware of at any given moment.

The preconscious contains memories and knowledge that are not immediately accessible but can be easily retrieved or recalled if needed.

Finally, the unconscious holds repressed thoughts or feelings that cannot be accessed directly. This vast reservoir of repressed desires and memories influence our behavior without our awareness.

Freud’s concept of the unconscious was revolutionary at the time, as it suggested that much of our behavior is driven by hidden motivations and desires.

The Structural Model of Personality

Freud later moved away from his topographic theory and introduced a revised structural model of personality. He began to see personality as something that is divided by three separate agents with competing interests and desires. He called these agents the Id, Ego, and Superego, which he first coined in his essay, Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

In essence, human behavior results from complex interactions among these three psychic entities: the Id seeking pleasure; the Ego navigating reality; and the Superego enforcing morality – all within the vast ocean of our minds.


According to Freud, tensions between these opposing forces underlie all kinds of psychological suffering.

The Id, Ego, and Superego

The Id, Ego, and Superego are characterized by different principles and needs.

‘The Id’ is unconscious and obeys ‘the Pleasure Principle’. It is selfish, uncivilized, and childlike. It is entirely driven by primal instincts and urges, seeking immediate gratification and wanting to avoid pain at all costs. It wants what it wants, and it wants it now. According to Freud, most of us are completely unaware of our Id, and often, we may even deny its existence.


Meanwhile, ‘the Superego’ serves as our moral compass. It operates on ‘the Morality Principle’ and consists of internalized cultural values and parental guidance to shape our behavior. The Superego is a judging force – you can compare it to the psychic’s police officer or internalized parent, forever telling us what’s right and what’s wrong. It often uses the language of shame and guilt.

Finally, there is ‘the Ego’. In psychoanalytic terms, this refers to our rational, conscious self. It obeys ‘the Reality Principle’ and can be called our negotiator as it is constantly mediating between the id, the superego, and our external environment. Which desires can we safely satisfy? And what would be the best way to go about this?


Our Unconscious is where our deepest desires, impulses, and drives reside, unrestricted by societal norms or logic. We often experience its contents as painful, bad, or forbidden. So, to reduce the associated anxiety, guilt, or conflict we exclude them from consciousness through a process called ‘repression’.


Repression is a cornerstone of psychoanalytic therapy, and refers to the unconscious act of burying distressing thoughts and memories. This primitive defense mechanism protects us from emotional pain by keeping unacceptable desires, unwanted wishes, and traumatic experiences hidden from conscious awareness.

However, they will continue to exert their influence and may manifest themselves in our behavior through subtle, symbolic, or disguised ways, such as dreams, jokes, slips of the tongue, or symptoms, which Freud called “the return of the repressed.”

For instance, a person might repress memories of being bullied, only for them to resurface later in life through unexplained anxiety or phobias. Similarly, someone might deny that they feel attracted to a work colleague, but experience vivid dreams in which they are together romantically.

Dreams as the Royal Road to the Unconscious

The unconscious mind plays a big role in dreaming, serving as the stage for our deepest desires and fears to manifest. Dreams offer glimpses into this hidden realm through symbolic imagery. A classic example is dreaming about flying, which might represent a desire for freedom or escape from daily constraints.


While some scientists believe that dreams are just random by-products of the brain’s functioning during REM sleep, Freud would strongly disagree. He famously referred to dreams as the “royal road” to the unconscious, and he believed that they served as vehicles for wish fulfillment – providing an outlet for unattainable desires or suppressed emotions.


He suggested that dreams have two types of content: manifest content and latent content. The first is the actual dream content while the latter is the underlying meaning of these symbols.

By interpreting dream content, psychoanalysts can help clients uncover repressed memories, unresolved conflicts, and underlying wishes.

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Introduction to Psychoanalysis;

The theory of unconscious behaviors that shape our psychology.

Defense Mechanisms;

Our learned defensive behaviors that shape our responses to the world.

Case Studies;

Examples of psychoanalysis in practice.

Psychosexual Development;

Freud's theories of the different stages of psychological development, and their complex relationship to sexuality.

Psychoanalytic Critiques;

Some of the arguments made against Freud and psychoanalysis.

The Therapeutic Process;

How psychoanlaysis can be applied therapeutically.

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