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Much like the biological processes in the rest of your body, a lot of your brain's psychological processes happen without you thinking directly about them—or even being aware of them.
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This episode is brought to you by the Great Courses Plus. [INTRO ♪].

It's one of the most annoying comment memes out there: “You are now breathing manually.” You read that, and suddenly your breathing starts to get distracting. Is it too fast?

Too slow? Most of the time, your breathing is unconscious, which is just easier. It happens on its own, and you can focus on other things.

But you can have your attention drawn to it, and maybe control it a bit. It turns out that a lot of psychological processes are like that, too. They're part of the unconscious mind— anything that affects your thoughts, feelings, or behaviors without you being aware of it.

That's different from the subconscious, a term that's generally used to mean things you're not currently aware of but could call to mind, like a memory. The unconscious is a lot harder to access, because by definition, you don't know what's in there. But after decades of debate and research, most psychologists agree that it does exist.

It's hard to even mention the unconscious mind without talking about one of the most famous bearded figures in psychology: the Austrian psychologist. Sigmund Freud. Freud wasn't the first to talk about the idea of an unconscious mind, but he got people around the world talking about it in a way they hadn't before.

He thought the mind was made of three parts: the id, the ego, and the superego. The superego and id were kind of like the angel and devil sitting on your shoulder, whispering in your ears like in old cartoons. The id would whisper your selfish desires, and was the source of your base biological urges— which, according to Freud, were often sexual desires.

The superego was like your moral conscience: it focused on rules your parents gave you and society's expectations for how to behave. And the ego was you in the middle, weighing the influence of the id and superego and deciding what to do. According to Freud, the id and superego were mostly unconscious, so you didn't know they were influencing your choices or thoughts.

It's like an iceberg: you can only see the small part that's floating on the top, but there's way more underneath that's holding it up. So how did the id and superego get down there? Well, according to Freud, it was through repression of painful childhood events.

You'd push the memories to the back of your mind, to the unconscious. You didn't know they were there, but they could still influence your behaviors. There's just a small problem with this.

We have no solid evidence that people repress memories that affect them this way. People forget things, of course, but they don't have memories they think they forgot lurking around in the back of their minds, waiting to be discovered. That doesn't mean the idea of the unconscious mind is wrong, though.

Things can still affect your behavior without you being aware of it. Our understanding of the the unconscious mind has evolved quite a bit since Freud, including a weird phase when scientists thought they could completely explain human behavior without a mind at all. But Freud had a key insight: people could behave in ways they didn't intend, or be influenced to act by things they're unaware of.

We just no longer think of it like whole, secret personalities stowed within us. You can find examples of unconscious processes all over psychology. One major field of study is priming, when people respond differently based on something that happened to them before.

A surprising example of this was a study that asked people to identify some line drawings. The drawings were kind of broken up, so it was hard to tell what they were meant to be. Some subjects got to see the normal pictures beforehand, and another group didn't.

Even though the group that got to see the images beforehand saw them 17 years earlier, they still did better at identifying the drawings. A bunch of people didn't remember that they were even part of the study that long ago. But they were still better at identifying the drawings.

Somehow, seeing the drawings almost two decades earlier had affected their unconscious. There are lots of different types of priming, and it's worth mentioning that there have been a handful of priming studies that couldn't be reproduced, and even a few that were fraudulent. But this kind of memory priming has been a pretty reliable effect that's been studied for decades.

And there are loads more processes that we know must be unconscious— like implicit biases, and the procedural memories that store information on how to do things like tie your shoes. Which means there was a big kernel of truth in Freud's theory: the unconscious mind must exist, because experimenters can see the way things we're not aware of change our behavior. So we might not always know why we behave the way we do, or the real reasons behind our thoughts and feelings.

There's a whole lot going on in your mind under the surface. This episode is brought to you by The Great Courses Plus, where you can get unlimited access to over 7,000 different video lectures taught by award winning professors from the Ivy League and other top schools around the world, about anything that interests you ... science, literature, even how to cook, or psychology, like this video from Professor Daniel N. Robinson, called Consciousness and Its Implications.

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