The first thing to note is that psychoanalysts don’t like that word. They prefer unconscious. I think of unconscious to mean that you are completely unaware of your surroundings, rather like sleep or a knock on the noggin. I suppose it is more correct when thinking about the thought processes that go on all the time without you thinking about it. Take tying your shoes for example. Do you really think through all the steps in tying them? Of course, you do, but you are not aware of it. That’s because those thought processes are processed by your mind at a level that you are unaware of. I guess that’s why psychoanalysts prefer the term unconscious because you are unaware of the processes. I think subconscious is a perfectly good term. I think the mind has two layers, conscious thought that you are aware of and a deep, lower level that you are completely unaware of possessing. I think of the mind as an ocean. Conscious thought floats on top, like boats. The unconscious is a submarine cruising below the surface. There’s more below the surface than can be seen from the surface.
That’s why I think subconscious is not a bad term, but what do I know? I’m not a psychoanalyst. I’ve heard the term almost all my life and it was a surprise to learn that the term is incorrect in the eyes and ears of psychoanalysts. So I learned something new today and that’s always a good thing. It’s good to learn how little you know. It keeps you from becoming a know-it-all, which can lead to extreme unpopularity.
The unconscious mind is not sleeping. The conscious mind may be asleep or otherwise occupied; but the larger, more powerful unconscious mind never sleeps. My belief is that we evolved this two-layer thought process system in the days when things might creep out of the dark and hurt us, before we had fire. I have no idea what I base that belief on, but it seems reasonable that we would have had some level of alertness that helped us survive. The unconscious mind is the realm of instinct, dreams, and problem solving. What’s that? Problem solving? Yes, we do most of our problem solving at an unconscious level. That’s why we have the phrase, ‘sleep on it’. Whenever we go to bed with a problem worrying us, we don’t put the problem down; we just send it down to the unconscious mind to work on it. Our unconscious mind is smarter than our conscious one. It may not be as fast as our conscious mind, but it is more powerful and that’s where hunches come from. We don’t pluck ideas out of thin air; we develop them slowly over time in our unconscious mind. Thoughts and ideas are fish we pull from the depths to our conscious boats. So the next time you have a tough problem to solve, slide it on a hook and sling it over the side of your conscious boat and see what bites it from below. try to keep your conscious mind from making too much noise and scare the fish away. Catch that fish. Solve that problem.