Wednesday, February 10, 2010
I'm sorry if I sound like an English/psychology professor, but this is a mistake that really annoys me and I come across more frequently than I would expect. The difference between the words 'unconscious' and 'subconscious' is actually not that difficult to decipher if you just think about it and recall the meanings of the prefixes un- and sub-.
un- implies 'not', 'the opposite form', 'the reversed action', and/or 'deprived of'. This can be seen in words like 'uncooked', 'unknowable', 'unassuming' and 'untidiness'. So the adjective, 'unconscious', means the inability to recollect information to the conscious mind. It is not defined primarily as the notion of being 'knocked out'. The man who suffered a traumatic brain injury and entered a comatose state can be described as unconscious, because while he lies there, unresponsive to external stimuli as he is, he cannot mentally recall any information, because he is not awake to consciously share it. If he were to wake up, he might still not remember what happened to him as the trauma clouds his memory and represses the facts. Although he is awake, he would still be termed as 'unconscious' of the information in question. The term 'the unconscious mind', as applied by Freud, Nietzsche and other 19th-century philosophers, can encompass not only the memories of trauma, but also simple untraumatic memories, desires and logical thinking that all remain far outside the conscious mind. We cannot 'pick it out' of our heads, even if we try really, really hard.
sub- means 'under', as in 'subway', 'subcategory' and 'submarine'. So the 'subconscious' is the collection of information that lies just beneath the conscious mind. Things like your full name, your password, your phone number, your e-mail address and your bank details are part of your subconscious mind. Unless you're filling out a form or talking to another person that asks for such information, this information is not consciously being perused, but subconsciously retained in your mind until you should need to 'pluck it out' for your conscious mind to ponder.
So say we're talking about the story of Hansel and Gretel. Now you're consciously thinking about it. But the fact that you can easily recall the tale of two children, the breadcrumbs and the witch demonstrates how that information is in your subconscious mind.
If I were to ask you how you first came to know that fairytale, did someone tell you that story, or did you read it, then that would prove to be a bit more difficult, wouldn't you say? This information therefore lies in the unconscious.