The unconscious: how does it manifest itself?

For several centuries, philosophers, psychologists and scientists have wondered about a hidden “activity” of our brain, this “something” that influences our behavior. To symbolize it, we readily appeal to the image of the iceberg, whose emerged part, the consciousness, is much smaller than the submerged part, supposed to represent the depths of the unconscious. What if this metaphor had become obsolete?

On autopilot

When we ride a bike, but also when we read or speak, our brain sets in motion a set of information processing processes that have become automatic through experience. We are not aware of how we have acquired them nor of the fact that we are implementing them at every moment. That is. But what research in experimental psychology and neuroscience reveals is that this underground work is eminently complex and elaborate. We are able to manipulate symbolic representations without consciousness, such as numbers and words, and to determine their meaning but also to engage in interpretation, deduction, analysis, to produce analogies, judgments. ” An important discovery, especially in the fields of learning and decision-making, in which it has been shown that the mechanisms very often escape the control of consciousness “, points out André Didierjean, professor of cognitive psychology and author of the Magdalene and the Savant (Threshold).

A conscience helper

According to Sébastien Bohler, doctor in neurosciences and director of the journal Cerveau & Psycho, these discoveries call into question the Freudian theory of the three distinct levels of consciousness, that is to say the “it”, the “me” and the “superego”: “ Conscious and unconscious do not work against each other, but are closely intertwined. » The contemporary vision of the unconscious? An assistant of the conscience, which delegates to him a certain number of tasks, those requiring efficiency and immediacy. Consciousness, more laborious and energy-intensive, will be reserved for more complex tasks.

The term unconscious is moreover so loaded from the semantic point of view that researchers in cognitive sciences often prefer to speak of “implicit” mental operations, not going back to consciousness, or “explicit”, which can be made aware. », Specifies André Didierjean. But be careful, consciousness and unconscious do not work “on the rocker”. “Each task requires conscious and unconscious processes,” he tells us. And each “system” influences the other. By anticipating the results of our actions and checking whether they conform to predictions, our unconscious improves our cognition. And our conscious (will, reason) is capable of influencing automatisms and habits.

Where is the unconscious located in the brain?

Contrary to what we have long believed, unconscious processes are not confined to the deepest, oldest and least evolved brain regions of the nervous system. In reality, conscious and unconscious partly share the same playing field. The cerebral cortex also processes sensory stimuli, emotions from other regions like the amygdala, and all sorts of automatic and unconscious information. “, explains the neuroscientist Sébastien Bohler. Another major discovery: the location of the neurons involved in the “default automatic mode”, when the brain “disconnects” and begins to daydream. ” They are located in the anterior cingulate cortex, tells us the author of Where is the meaning? (Robert Laffont). This is what pushes us relentlessly to seek meaning in our lives and to project ourselves into the future. »

What about repression?

Would this scientific approach call into question the existence of an “unconscious” mind endowed with its own logic, a “reservoir” of secret impulses, unfulfilled desires, traumatic memories and repressed thoughts? It’s tempting. ” Neuroscience can’t explain everythingwarns Sylvie Chokron, neuropsychologist and director of research at the CNRS, who published A day in Anna’s brain (Eyrolles). Today, for example, no one yet manages to understand why we feel emotions, or where a sense of humor comes from. Researchers build “models” from the state of their knowledge, hence the difficulty of measuring non-conscious processes that escape us. Science evolves, “models” can change, be refined… »

Will the dreams, misdeeds, lapses, symptoms and other “messages” of the psychoanalytic unconscious ever be biologically justified? ” Neurosciences and psychoanalysis already have many subjects in common, continues the neuropsychologist. It has been shown, for example, that areas of the brain that activate memory share neural networks with those related to emotions, smell and motivation, that we can force ourselves to forget something; that the work from unconscious to unconscious, practiced by psychoanalysts, refers to the synchronization of the electrical activity of the brains; or that the “lapsus” can be explained by the interference between two types of information, that implied by an emotion or an important motivation which can short-circuit the research in progress. For neuroscientists, no doubt: we are only at the very beginning of exploration.

Man, this being of language

For Samuel Dock, doctor in clinical psychopathology and psychoanalyst, “ play the plumber of the psychic life is, of course, fascinating but not necessarily useful for relieving a patient: “ In psychoanalysis, the important thing is not to decipher the content of a dream, of a failed act, or to determine whether the recounted memory is true or false, but to help the patient to analyze the discourse built around of his experience, to find the common thread that takes root in his story, his fears, his desires. When we use one term rather than another, it is not by chance: it is the unconscious that comes into play. By “unconscious”, we must understand the place that produces meaning. In this, the psychoanalytical unconscious can be related to an intellectual “chimera” to which we try to address ourselves. Psychoanalysis will lose a great deal, in my opinion, by trying to gain legitimacy by seeking to dialogue with the neurosciences. “, estimates the specialist, also author of paths of therapy (Flammarion).

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Two different concepts, but not antagonistic

And if, basically, neuroscientists and psychoanalysts were pursuing the same goal: trying to prevent the unconscious from dictating its law to recover our free will? Obviously, the approaches and the answers are different. For the former, since the brain has demonstrated its “plasticity”, this means regaining control over cerebral mechanisms that escape us, automatic conditioning (behaviors, thoughts), by changing our habits, by becoming aware of the traps set by the brain (cognitive biases) or our “instincts” inherited from evolution. For the latter, it is rather a question of accepting that the subject does not fully belong to oneself, that despite our knowledge we will always come up against the unspeakable mystery of being and that it is this “lack” that inspires us, keeps us alive. ” In both cases, it is indeed a “language” produced by men to give meaning to a reality that goes beyond them. concludes Samuel Dock.

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The unconscious: how does it manifest itself?

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