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The term subconscious is used in many different contexts and has no single or precise definition. This greatly limits its significance as a definition-bearing concept, and in consequence the word tends to be avoided in academic and scientific settings.
In everyday speech and popular writing, however, the term is very commonly encountered as a layperson's replacement for the unconscious mind, which in Freud's opinion is a repository for socially unacceptable ideas, wishes or desires, traumatic memories, and painful emotions put out of mind by the mechanism of psychological repression. However, the contents do not necessarily have to be solely negative. In the psychoanalytic view, the unconscious is a force that can only be recognized by its effects—it expresses itself in the symptom. Unconscious thoughts are not directly accessible to ordinary introspection, but are supposed to be capable of being "tapped" and "interpreted" by special methods and techniques such as meditation, random association, dream analysis, and verbal slips (commonly known as a Freudian slip), examined and conducted during psychoanalysis. Carl Jung developed the concept further. He divided the unconscious into two parts: the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. The personal unconscious is a reservoir of material that was once conscious but has been forgotten or suppressed in the mind.
The idea of the "subconscious" as a powerful or potent agency has allowed the term to become prominent in the New Age and self-help literature, in which investigating or controlling its supposed knowledge or power is seen as advantageous. In the New Age community, techniques such as autosuggestion and affirmations are believed to harness the power of the subconscious to influence a person's life and real-world outcomes, even curing sickness. Skeptical Inquirer magazine criticized the lack of falsifiability and testability of these claims. Physicist Ali Alousi, for instance, criticized it as unmeasurable and questioned the likelihood that thoughts can affect anything outside the head. In addition, critics have asserted that the evidence provided is usually anecdotal and that, because of the self-selecting nature of the positive reports, as well as the subjective nature of any results, these reports are susceptible to confirmation bias and selection bias.
The word "subconscious" is an anglicized version of the French subconscient as coined by the psychologist Pierre Janet. Janet himself saw the subconscient as active in hypnotic suggestion and as an area of the psyche to which ideas would be consigned through a process that involved a "splitting" of the mind and a restriction of the field of consciousness.
Though laypersons commonly assume "subconscious" to be a psychoanalytic term, this is not in fact the case. Sigmund Freud had explicitly condemned the word as long ago as 1915: "We shall also be right in rejecting the term 'subconsciousness' as incorrect and misleading". In later publications his objections were made clear:
|“||"If someone talks of subconsciousness, I cannot tell whether he means the term topographically – to indicate something lying in the mind beneath consciousness – or qualitatively – to indicate another consciousness, a subterranean one, as it were. He is probably not clear about any of it. The only trustworthy antithesis is between conscious and unconscious."||”|
Thus, as Charles Rycroft has explained, "subconscious" is a term "never used in psychoanalytic writings". And, in Peter Gay's words, use of "subconscious" where "unconscious" is meant is "a common and telling mistake"; indeed, "when [the term] is employed to say something 'Freudian', it is proof that the writer has not read his Freud".
Freud's own terms for mentation taking place outside conscious awareness were das Unbewusste (rendered by his translators as "the Unconscious") and das Vorbewusste ("the Preconscious"); informal use of the term "subconscious" in this context thus creates confusion, as it fails to make clear which (if either) is meant. The distinction is of significance because in Freud's formulation the Unconscious is "dynamically" unconscious, the Preconscious merely "descriptively" so: the contents of the Unconscious require special investigative techniques for their exploration, whereas something in the Preconscious is unrepressed and can be recalled to consciousness by the simple direction of attention. The erroneous, pseudo-Freudan use of "subconscious" and "subconsciousness" has its precise equivalent in German, where the words inappropriately employed are das Unterbewusste and das Unterbewusstsein.
The subconscious mind is a composite of everything one sees, hears and any information the mind collects that it cannot otherwise consciously process to make meaningful sense. The conscious mind cannot always absorb disconnected information, as it would be an information overload, so the subconscious mind stores this information where it can be retrieved by the conscious mind when it needs to defend itself for survival (and for other reasons, such as solving puzzles).
The subconscious mind stores information that the conscious mind may not immediately process with full understanding, but it stores the information for later retrieval when ”recalled” by the conscious mind, or by an astute psychoanalyst who can draw out information stored in the subconscious, bringing it to the individual's conscious awareness. This can especially be observed with heightened sensitivity of victims of violence and other crimes, where victims "felt something" instinctually about a person or situation, but failed to take action to avoid the situation, for whatever reason, be it embarrassment, self-denial or other reasons to ignore instinct, as they disregard internal warning signals.
A precise example of the subconscious mind at work and related phenomena can be found in a book written by psychoanalyst, Gavin De Becker "The Gift of Fear". He describes how a victim "knew something was wrong", but initially discredited her own instinct/subconscious mind, opting instead to respond to the perceived threat in a normal, "socially acceptable" manner, completely ignoring that the subconscious mind tried to tell the conscious mind "that something is wrong." De Becker tapped into the mind of the victim regarding her "prior awareness by the subconscious mind that caused her to act instinctively" allowing her realize that the perpetrator was going to kill her. The analyst brought her conscious mind to recognize HOW her subconscious was working on her conscious mind, by eliciting her original "inner thoughts/voice" through a series of events to which her subconscious mind ultimately drove her conscious mind to behave in such a manner as to protect her from being killed. Gavin was able to elicit her subconscious mind's recognition of a dangerous situation that compelled her conscious mind to act to save her through its basic survival instinct, bringing to the victim's conscious mind that it was the "subtle signal that warned her." The victim describes this as an unrecognized fear that drove her to act, still unaware consciously of precisely WHY she was afraid. Her conscious mind had heard the words, "I promise I won't hurt you, while her subconscious mind was calculating the situation much faster than the conscious mind could make sense out of WHY the fear was there. The victim stated that "the animal inside her took over."
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Psychologists and psychiatrists use the term "unconscious" in traditional practices, where metaphysical and New Age literature, usually use the term "subconscious". It should not, however, be inferred that the concept of the unconscious and the New Age concept of the subconscious are precisely equivalent, even though they both warrant consideration of mental processes of the brain. Psychologists and psychiatrists take a much more limited view of the capabilities of the unconscious than are represented by New Age depiction of the "subconscious". There are a number of methods in use in the contemporary New Age and paranormal communities that affect the latter: