Psychotherapy Exposed: The Unconscious
By: Daniel Leeman, LCSW
Dr. Lena Pearlman & Associates
“The Unconscious is nothing other than that which we have been unable to formulate in clear concepts” (Alfred Adler 1956). Unraveling the mystery of the unconscious moves us from something that seems like science fiction, to modern science, and we are able to see why theory like this is so important.
Since the creation of the idea of, ‘The Unconscious,’ neuroscience, psychiatry, psychology, counseling, and social work have developed a sharper idea of what the unconscious means and represents. While still an important abstract idea, recent research has given us insight into what early psychotherapists first saw when they treated their patients. Originally the unconscious and it’s function was mapped using abstract ideas such as the conscious, subconscious, unconscious, id, super ego, defense mechanisms etc. These concepts were based off of experience and observation rather than an actual image of the brain. Today’s science allows us to observe the brain while it performs different functions. Using these methods, researchers have insight that wasn’t available to early psychotherapists and into what the unconscious actually is. Let’s take a look at one piece of the seeming science fiction of the unconscious and unravel it with modern day research; how past traumatic experiences are stored in the unconscious.
A book by Bessel A van der Kolk, M.D. titled “The Body Keeps The Score” details how traumatic experiences can mold our brain and how its different parts interact. With trauma, consciously our beliefs are changed and depending on the nature of the trauma it can change our thoughts about others, ability to trust, or our view of the world as a more dangerous place. This conscious thinking is performed by our frontal lobe, which is located just behind our forehead. We know this because brain imaging equipment shows this area lighting up in people engaged in active thought. With trauma, unconsciously more takes place and conscious thought is intrinsically tied in a tangle of neurons from the frontal lobe to the parts of our brain that contain the unconscious.
Freud framed that we must resolve unconscious conflicts and, in an abstract way, he is correct. Similar circumstances trigger the emotional brain, whether that be the environment we are in or if we become involved in similar relationships to the person that committed the trauma against us. Bessel A van Der Kolk’s book provides us with a concrete illustration of Freud’s abstract idea. Rationally a person can know there is nothing to be wary of. However, beneath the surface, unconsciously, the Amygdala, the emotion center of our brain, is firing several milliseconds faster than our conscious brain, or frontal cortex. We thus can see how our unconscious can hijack our bodies faster than our conscious brain can process what triggered the emotional response. Again we know this because brain imaging technology shows the Amygdala lighting up during emotional processing. Both neuroscience and theory are relevant. Resolve the unconscious conflict and learn to give power back to our conscious, or frontal lobe, and take power away from the amygdala.
Neuroscience research is exciting because it provides us with greater insight into the unconscious mechanisms of our mind. At the same time it is important to realize that looking at an image of the brain does not give us the ability to decode a neuron and know what thought, image, or stored emotional charge is contained within. For example, for some who served on the ground in Iraq a loose wire meant that an IED may be buried nearby, the image of a loose wire gets stored in the unconscious, the Amygdala. At home, rationally a loose wire does not mean IED, however the tangle of neurons that contain the image, feelings, thoughts, and panic fire several milliseconds faster than the conscious mind, at the sight of a loose wire. The soldier may be thrown into a panic attack and because this is operating below the consciousness, may have no idea what caused them to panic. Other times irrational thoughts may be pushed into the frontal lobe and once again they may not realize why such wild thoughts enter their mind. Unwinding rationally from this takes strong effort and is part of why addressing both the emotional unconscious mind and conscious thought is so important.
Theory and research have evolved in the mental health field and we all have something to learn from it’s study. Diagnosis or not we are all subjected to the same chemistry and web of brain structures. We can all benefit from the practice of gaining power and understanding of ourselves. Knowing when to hesitate to respect our unconscious warnings or choose to proceed forward and go with our gut.
Bessel A. van der Kolk, M.D. (2014) “The Body Keeps The Score” First published by Viking Penguin Group, New York, N.Y.
Alfred Adler, Edited by Heinze L. Ansbacher & Rowena R. Ansbacher (1956) “The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler” Basic Books, Inc. New York, N.Y.