Freud & The Unconscious


The notion that our minds are divided in two parts one being conscious and the other being unconscious seems quite obvious nowadays to the general public in the western world. However this concept was popularized only recently — in the 20th century — thanks to Sigmund Freud. Jacobs (2003) reminds the reader that although there were many authors exploring the unconscious processes of the mind during the nineteenth century ‘What distinguished Freud’s contribution is that he gave to the term unconscious a substantive status’ (p. 34). The exploration of the unconscious is definitely one of the most important aspects of Freud’s immense legacy. Yakeley (2014) states that:


‘one of the most important Freudian principles is the concept of the dynamic unconscious, the notion that parts of our minds are inaccessible to us and that mental processes occur outside of conscious awareness. Although Freud did not discover this observation, he made the unconscious arena of the mind into the main object of investigation in psychoanalysis.’ (p. 23)


According to the founder of psychoanalysis the unconscious aspects of our minds are generally inaccessible. Freud (1915) considers that ‘Unconscious processes only become cognizable by us under the conditions of dreaming and of neurosis’ (p. 192). Thus it is through the analysis of dreams and neurosis that the psychoanalyst is granted a glimpse of the patient’s unconscious. The importance of dreams is such that Freud (1915) considers that ‘Psychoanalysis is founded upon the analysis of dreams’ (p. 55).


As Freud delved into the analysis of the unconscious throughout his life, he established two main models that he never fully united. First, the topographical model divides the mind in three parts he called the conscious, the pre-conscious (also found translated as the foreconscious) and the unconscious. Second, the structural model which encompasses the notions of id, ego & superego (Yakeley, 2014).


In spite of the wealth of information concerning Freud’s work on the unconscious, the goal here is to give a clear yet succint vision of the unconscious through his perspective. Although there would be much more to write about the unconscious itself, its mechanisms and its influence on human behaviour, here we’ll concentrate on its definition. Focusing on the unconscious in contrast to the conscious & as part of the mind’s topographical model (I) will lead us to a summary analysis of Freud’s structural model of the psyche (II). Finally, to complete our summary understanding of the unconscious, we will look at some of its essential characteristics (III).


I - The Topographical Model of the Mind


What Freud (1915) defines as conscious are thoughts that an individual is aware of at the present moment. In contrast the unconscious is considered to encompass thoughts out of present awareness, yet whose existence we are ready to consider.


‘A conception — or any other psychical element — which is now present to my consciousness may become absent the next moment, and may become present again, after an interval, unchanged, and, as we say, from memory, not as a result of a fresh perception by our senses. ... the conception has been present in our mind, although latent in consciousness. ... let us call ‘conscious’ the conception which is present to our consciousness and of which we are aware, and let this be the only meaning of the term ‘conscious’. As for latent conceptions, if we have any reason to suppose that they exist in the mind — as we have in the case of memory — let them be denoted by the term ‘unconscious’.Thus an unconscious conception is one of which we are not aware, but the existence of which we are nevertheless ready to admit on account of other proofs or signs.’ (Freud, 1915: p. 50, 51)


He also acknowledges — through observation of hypnosis experiments — that a thought can be simultaneously unconscious and active. In recognizing that these thoughts are the origin of symptoms in hysterical patients, Freud understands their strength and seeks to classify different types of unconscious thoughts. It is through this classification process that is born the topographical model.


The topographical model considers the psyche divided in three parts:

  1. a conscious part that is very fleeting and thus reduced. Freud highlights that ‘a state of consciousness is characteristically very transitory; an idea that is conscious now is no longer so a moment later’ (Freud, 1923: p. 352).

  2. a pre-conscious part which englobes thoughts that are ‘latent’: unconscious thoughts that are ‘capable of becoming conscious’ (Freud, 1923: p. 353).

  3. an unconscious part which encompasses thoughts that are ‘repressed and which [are] not, in [themselves] and without more ado, capable of becoming conscious’ (Freud, 1923: p. 353). These latent thoughts that do not reach an individual’s consciousness in spite of their strength are considered unconscious.


1 - Topography of Mind: Iceberg Model


This vision of the mind as a triad of 'areas' has often been compared to an iceberg (see above) or a pyramid; as we'll see further on. Detailing this definition Freud explains that the unconscious is where the source of neuroses can be found and that ‘It designates not only latent ideas in general, but especially ideas keeping apart from consciousness in spite of their intensity and activity’ (1915: p. 52, 53).

Thwaites recognizes the importance of Freud’s topographical model in providing meaning, as he stresses that the hypothesis of the unconscious provides ‘a chain of reconstruction’ through which ‘all sorts of things, which until now appeared senseless and without connection, suddenly fall into place’ (2007: p. 15, 16).

















2 - Pyramid of Freudian Consciousness

The three parts that make up the topographical model of the mind — the conscious, the pre-conscious and the unconscious — can be perceived as a pyramid. The large base that supports everything else would be the unconscious, while the small top would be the conscious, and the pre-conscious would be positioned in the middle (see left).

One has to wonder how different thoughts circulate and are classified into these categories by the mind itself. Tonnesmann explains that ‘Freud conceived of a censor between the unconscious and the pre-conscious systems that was capable of holding back unconscious mental activity through repression’ (2005: p. 165). Even though we won't study in depth the mechanisms of the psyche here, it is relevant to clarify the position and function of the censor. Its role is of utmost importance as Tonnesmann highlights that ‘only if the censor allowed thought processes to pass could they become potentially conscious by being recorded in the pre-conscious area’ (2005: p. 165). The censor occurs at each crossing, first between the unconscious and the preconscious, and second between the pre-conscious and the conscious. Freud indeed explains ‘that to every transition from one system to that immediately above it … there corresponds a new censorship’ (1915: p. 196).


This first topographical model lays some essential aspects of the psyche and, by its pyramid / iceberg format, hints us to understand how much larger the unconscious is compared to the conscious. However ‘In the further course of [Freud’s] psychoanalytic work … even these distinctions have proved to be inadequate and, for practical purposes, insufficient’ (Freud, 1923: p. 355). Freud consequently deepens and completes his research through practice and publishes his famous structural model titled ‘The Ego and the Id’, 7 years after ‘The Unconscious’ (1915).


II - The Structural Model of the Mind


Kahn explains that in spite of Freud’s original model of the psyche being ‘a good enough way to think of repression and the relationship of consciousness to the unconscious’ this model needed to be changed in order to express a more global ‘theory of the mind’ (2002: p. 26). Freud himself notes: ’all that is repressed is unconscious, but not all that is unconscious is repressed. A part of the ego … may be unconscious, undoubtedly is unconscious’ (1923: p. 356).


According to Tonnesmann (2005) Freud’s second model — ‘sometimes also called the second topographical model’ (p. 165) — is ‘a mind composed of agencies’ instead of ‘areas’ (p. 165). This famous triad of agencies is composed of the id, the superego and the ego.


The Id


The id being completely unconscious it stores all that is socially unacceptable such as instinctual drives — both ‘sexual and aggressive’ (Kahn, 2002: p. 26) — as well as ‘ideas, wishes, impulses, feelings and memories’ morally inadmissible (Yakeley, 2014: p. 23). It operates based on the pleasure principle, thus demanding complete and immediate satisfaction, without caring ‘for consequences, reason, good sense’ or even ‘the well-being of others’ (Kahn, 2002: p. 26). Furthermore Freud (1915) explains that the Id follows the laws of primary processes through the pleasure principle. Last but not least, for the Id there is ‘no sense of time or mutual exclusion’ (Kahn, 2002: p. 26).


The Super-Ego


The superego — in strong contrast to the id — represents our moral conscience. It is the agency that has integrated social & parental standards and prohibitions; and as such it is where guilt is born. The superego is partly conscious, despite the largest part being unconscious (Kahn, 2002).


The Ego

The Ego is the mediator between the id, the superego and the outside world; as such it takes into account consequences and operates based on the reality principle. Consequently it follows the laws of secondary processes by delaying instant ‘gratification to avoid trouble or to gain a greater gratification later’ (Kahn, 2002: p. 27). The ego, similarly to the superego, is partly conscious as it ‘controls … perception and contact with reality’(Yakeley, 2014: p. 23).

3 - The Ego and the Id (Freud, 1923: p. 363)

It seems relevant to point out that the censor role Freud (1915) identified early on in the topographical model can be considered as the forerunner of the ego in the structural model. From that perspective the part of the ego executing this censor role through repression and other defence mechanisms is unconscious (Kahn, 2002), as schematized by Freud himself, see n°3 above.


4 - Integration: topographic and structural model

While Freud’s initial model of the psyche has often been compared to a pyramid, the structural model is mostly  compared to an iceberg, the conscious part being only the very small visible tip of the iceberg (see n°1 higher and n°4 on the right). The latter comparison highlights the importance and vastness of the unconscious aspects of the mind and both models have often been integrated in the iceberg image (see n°4). However Freud himself has ‘never fully replaced the topographical model with the structural model in his theorising, and … today [we] continue to use elements from both models’ (Yakeley, 2014: p. 23). Indeed considering so many mysteries of the psyche yet to be uncovered Freud never unified these two models (Dietrich, 2015).


III - Characteristics of the Unconscious


Now that both of Freud’s (1915, 1923) models of the psyche have been summarized let’s focus on the specificities he uncovered about the unconscious through ‘essentially clinical, and even auto-analytical grounds’ (Prado de Oliveira, 2005: p. 111).


‘In both the first and the second topographies, the unconscious and its expression are a product of experience’ (Day and Lau, 2010: p. 105).


Indeed the unconscious mind is filled with experiences and emotions the individual has experienced consciously in the outside world. So the unconscious is either a place — topographical model — or an agency — structural model — that stores these memories and their cathexis (i. e. emotional charge or energy). It seems relevant to nuance the above mentioned quote as although some desires — such as destructive, aggressive or sexual impulses — might not have been experienced consciously, they would draw their source from the conscious external life of the individual.


According to Freud ‘The nucleus of the Unconscious consists of instinctual representatives which seek to discharge their cathexis [i. e. emotional charge or energy]; that is to say, it consists of wishful impulses’ (1915: p. 190). The way these ‘instinctual impulses’ relate to each other in the unconscious is radically different from processes in consciousness. Let’s now briefly focus on the major unconscious processes as we won't get into a deeper analysis.


Primary Processes & Mobility of Cathexes


‘Freud defines cathexis as a process which attaches quotas of affect [i.e. emotional charge or energy] to memories and imaginations. According to psychoanalytical theory, these are freely displaceable within the primary process [i. e. in the unconscious], but not in the secondary process [i.e. in the conscious]. At the transition from the primary to the secondary process, free psychic intensity is transformed into bonded psychic intensity, meaning the quotas of affect are affixed to the imaginations.’ (Dietrich, 2015: p. 71)


In more simple terms this means that the energy given to a thought in the unconscious is much more malleable and variable than in the conscious as this energy distribution and variation operates according to the ‘primary psychical process’ (Freud, 1915: p. 190). The hallmark of this mobility of cathexes — emotional energies — are displacement and condensation. They respectively correspond to one thought giving away its energy quota fully to another thought, and to the absorption by a thought of all the energy from one or many other thoughts (Freud, 1915).




‘The processes of the system Unconscious are timeless, i. e. they are not ordered temporally, are not altered by the passage of time; they have no reference to time at all. Reference to time is bound up, once again, with work of the system Conscious.’ (Freud, 1915: p. 191)


This movement of cathexes in the unconscious occurs in the absence of time, as we consciously conceptualize it. Thus every desire, every pleasure as well as every fear and every pain feels ever-present for the unconscious. This is one of the explanations why traumas stored in the unconscious still cause effects in people’s lives years later since for the unconscious the trauma still is present.


Replacement of External by Psychical Reality


‘The Unconscious processes pay just as little regard to reality [as to time]. They are subject to the pleasure principle’ (Freud, 1915: p. 191). Indeed this movement of cathexes follows the primary processes specific to the realm of the unconscious. Thereby in the unconscious the external reality is replaced by what feels real for the unconscious. For example, an unconscious desire — ever present because of timelessness — remains constant until satisfied. Contrary to this principle of pleasure, the conscious mind takes into account reality before satisfying the desire: consciousness follows secondary processes based on the reality principle.


Eros & Thanatos

Eros & Thanatos are antagonistic impulses situated in the unconscious (appendix 6). Eros represents the life instinct whereas Thanatos represents the death instinct. The ambiguous duality between these two drives supposes a constant fight between them within the unconscious.


Eros & Thanatos (Schultz, 2018)

Eros impulses are about ‘survival, pleasure, and reproduction’ and create an energy called libido (Cherry, 2017). Initially Freud focused on the life instinct and libidinal / sexual energy as a form of both prolongation and reproduction of human life. In contrast the theory of the death instinct — much more controversial (Lind, 1991) — consists in the unconscious impulse towards death, aggression and destruction; which can be both turned inward and outward.


Interestingly Freud himself never used the term ‘thanatos’ and only referred to ‘death instincts’ (Lind, 1991: p. 68). As he acknowledges in his later writings: ‘We are without a term analogous to ‘libido’ for describing the energy of the destructive instinct’ (Freud, 1940: p. 150).


Additional Characteristics


In addition to the above-mentioned specificities of the unconscious Freud also noticed that the unconscious is free of negation, doubt and degrees of certainty as these would be part of repression processes and thus belong to the higher level of the pre-conscious. In the unconscious — without censorship — every thought is absolute: ‘In the Unconscious there are only contents, cathected [i.e. energized] with greater or lesser strength’ (Freud, 1915: p. 190).


Last but not least, in the unconscious thoughts are exempt from mutual contradiction. Freud clearly states that no matter how contradictory two unconscious thoughts are they co-exist.


‘These instinctual impulses … exist side by side without being influenced by one another, and are exempt from mutual contradiction. When two wishful impulses whose aims must appear to us incomprehensible become simultaneously active, the two impulses do not diminish each other or cancel each other out, but combine to form an intermediate aim, a compromise.’ (Freud, 1915: p. 190)


Someone once explained this to me with a more practical example. Take a little boy who is jealous of his dad as he feels he is 'competing' with him to get his mother's attention. So in this situation the little boy has two contradictory impulses: he loves his dad, but also fears / hates him simultaneously. In this little boy's unconscious both contradictory instincts exist, so they both have to find a way to manifest themselves in his consciousness and outer reality. Let's say his dad is a equestrian, one potential way to cope is that the little boy gets along well with his equestrian father but develops a phobia of horses. This allows for both unconscious instincts to find an expression in the conscious world: the loving instinct through a good relationship with his father, and the fearful / hateful instinct through a negative relationship with horses — which are  but a representation of this father.


I hope you've enjoyed reading this text and learned something new 😊 feel free to dig deeper and look up the articles and books I've used as detailed below.



  • Cherry, K. (2017). Freud’s Life and Death Instincts, Theory proposes opposing urges to procreate or die. Available at: (Accessed 20 July 2018).

  • Day, R. E. and Lau, A. J. (2010). Psychonanalysis as Critique in the Works of Freud, Lacan, and Deleuze and Guattari. In Leckie, G. J., Given L. M. and Buschman J. (ed.) (2010). Critical Theory for Library and Information Science. Santa Barbara, California: Libraries Unlimited.

  • Dietrich, D. (dir.) (2015). Natural Scientific, Psychoanalytical Model of the Psyche for Simulation and Emulation. Scientific Report III, Vienna University of Technology. Available at: 19 July 2018).

  • Freud, S. (1915). The Unconscious. Trans. Strachey, J., in Richards, A. (ed.). (1984). Volume 11 On Metapsychology The Theory of Psychoanalysis. London: Hogarth Press.

  • Freud, S. (1920). Beyond The Pleasure Principle. Trans. Strachey, J., in Richards, A. (ed.). (1984). Volume 11 On Metapsychology The Theory of Psychoanalysis. London: Hogarth Press.

  • Freud, S. (1923). The Ego and the Id. Trans. Strachey, J., in Richards, A. (ed.). (1984). Volume 11 On Metapsychology The Theory of Psychoanalysis. London: Hogarth Press.

  • Freud, S. (1940). An Outline of Psycho-Analysis. Trans. Strachey, J., in Strachey, J. (ed.) (1964). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXIII (1937-1939): Moses and Monotheism, An Outline of Psycho-Analysis and Other Works. London: Hogarth Press.

  • Jacobs, M. (2003). Sigmund Freud. London: Sage.

  • Kahn, M. (2002). Basic Freud. United States of America: Basic Books.

  • Lind, L. (1991). Thanatos: The Drive Without a Name, The Development of the Concept of the Death Drive in Freud’s Writings. The Scandinavian Psychoanalytic Review, 14 (1), 60-80.

  • Prado de Oliveira, L. E. (2005) ‘The Unconscious’. In Perelberg, R. J. (ed.). (2005). Freud A Modern Reader. London: Whurr Publishers Ltd.

  • Schultz, S. (2018). Psychoanalysis: Freudian Foundations. Lecture notes, Certificate in Psychotherapy & Counselling Spring Intensive, Regent’s University London, delivered 6 May 2018, unpublished.

  • Thwaites, T. (2007). Reading Freud : Psychoanalysis as Cultural Theory. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

  • Tonnesmann, M. (2005). Towards the structural model of the mind. In Perelberg, R. J. (ed.). (2005). Freud A Modern Reader. London: Whurr Publishers Ltd.

  • University of Pecs and Dialóg Campus Publishing-Nordex Kft (2016). Neural regulation of human life processes – from the neuron to the behaviour. Interdisciplinary teaching material concerning the structure, function and clinical aspects of the nervous system for students of medicine, health and life sciences in Hungary. Available at: (Accessed 17 July 2018).

  • Wilderdom (2003). Topography of Mind: Freud's Iceberg Model for Unconscious, Pre-conscious, & Conscious. Available at: (Accessed 17 July 2018).

  • Yakeley, J. (2014). Psychodynamic Therapy: Contemporary Freudian Approach. In Dryden, W. & Reeves, A. (ed.) (2014). The Handbook of Individual Therapy. London: Sage.

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