The Unconscious mind was much maligned by Freud and his followers. The Unconscious was supposed to be not very co-operative as it was not supposed to be in voluntary control. It made the people, especially in the Western world feel scared of something that no one knew much about.
Hypnosis was about the Unconscious. Freud practiced hypnosis during initial years of his practice. But he gave it up at some stage. My own understanding is that probably Freud was not very knowledgeable about the subject himself. Credit goes to him for being able to think differently and to be able to look at the areas of psychology that few in the Western world had done till his time.
That the Unconscious mind was emotional in nature and controlled our body’s physiology was also known at that time.
As time has passed, we have learnt so much in neuroscience. We now know that a particular part of the nervous system is not in our voluntary control. Just like the Unconscious, it affects our internal organs and controls our blood pressure, heart rate, our digestive system for example. This part of the brain is called the Limbic System. Its various parts and connections affect and are affected by emotions.
However, the scientists called this part of the brain Archicortex or Old Brain or Primitive Brain. This was in comparison to the “more intelligent” Neocortex or New Brain that was responsible for logical thinking. The Western world has been smitten by this part of the nervous system, ignoring and undervaluing the emotional part of the brain because it was just “emotional.” Interestingly, in the Eastern part of the world, the Unconscious has been given due respect for thousands of years. People have been meditating in many forms, in places like India, China and Japan for a few thousand years at least. They were not afraid of the Unconscious. They knew how to “tame” the Unconscious.
One of the key issues that has been overlooked till date is the role that images play in bridging the Old Brain and the New Brain. The images do not have a language. For example, the image of a shoe will bring up a certain image in your mind. If a hundred people knowing a hundred languages have the same image in their mind, they will use a different word in each language to describe it.
A joyful experience will carry same set of images in people speaking different languages. A trauma will be a trauma in French, English or German or Japanese. The images could be same in each case. The languages describing those images will be different. All memories are stored as images (not in languages).
There is a rule that affects how our lives can change. It has to do with how we interpret an image. If we are able to change the interpretation of an imagery experience, the words that describe that event will change too.
A man was driving a car. He passed by a stationary bus at a bus stop, going in the same direction. He did not notice that a woman was crossing the road in front of the bus. There was an accident. The woman hit his dashboard, fell on the road and later died. The driver of the car suffered with trauma and guilt about the accident. It was only when the traumatic emotions were changed, that he got his sleep back to normal.
This is an example of the way the Conscious mind changes its interpretation of the traumatic event.
Why is this important?
The images are created by the Unconscious mind. The interpretation (not the emotional experience) is carried out by the Conscious mind. If the Unconscious mind makes us feel traumatized by holding on to a particular memory, then the Conscious mind interprets it as a trauma. But if the Unconscious mind has the same images and the traumatic emotions are neutralized, the Conscious mind interprets the experience as a learning experience only. The suffering stops.
If we can change the interpretation of every experience that we are scared of, our whole life changes. This is also how a person with Depression can be healed. Many times they would need therapy to help them heal.
That the Unconscious controls your inner organs is an understatement. It controls everything that is not in your awareness including our habits. Many illnesses develop as a result of Stress you experience by the fight between the Conscious and the Unconscious mind.
Anatomically, the hypothalamus, thalamus, hippocampus and amygdala are parts of the Unconscious. So is the pituitary gland that is responsible for secreting many hormones. It is thus responsible for secreting the chemicals that control so many of the body organs.
If you are chronically stressed, your hypothalamus is constantly stimulated. It causes the pituitary to be active all the time. It secretes hormones to keep the body alert with constricting the blood vessels, raising the heart rate, increasing cholesterol in the blood and also suppressing the immune system. The body is in a fight-flight mode for much longer than necessary. If it is a short-term need the body can handle it. But the problem arises when it is unable to switch off to a relaxed mode.
No amount of argument with the Unconscious mind is going to reverse the process of chronic stress. If the Conscious or the Cognitive mind tries to impress upon the Unconscious mind to change its behaviour, it can do so temporarily. But the Unconscious mind is emotional in nature. It can only be changed long term by working with emotions. Logic has limited effect on it.
However, if you know the process of influencing the Unconscious, you are a winner. Many times you have to decide at the cognitive level how you can influence the Unconscious mind. For example, affirmations are used cognitively to influence the Unconscious. When you repeat an affirmation, it is believed to sink into the Unconscious. It does so only when there is imagery and emotion involved with the affirmations.
On the other hand, the Unconscious affects the Conscious mind too. If you have old unresolved emotional issues, for example, you could behave angrily in many situations without realizing that it is happening. This anger may be coming from some old experience in which you were traumatized. As long as that trauma is still affecting you, the Unconscious mind will continue to make you behave angrily in particular situations. When that anger is expressed fully, then the Unconscious mind perceives the situation as peacefully resolved. It is then able to influence the Conscious mind in having better control over your behaviour,
Most of the ills of society are caused by the angry and fearful Unconscious mind of the people who are considered ill or of criminal minds.
Unconscious mind is positively influenced by meditation. Prisoners who meditate experience less stress. (see link below).
Poor lifestyle decisions are associated with trauma symptoms. These decisions come from our thinking mind. This is an evidence that the Unconscious mind affects the decision making through the Conscious mind. If the decision- making is done with a peaceful Unconscious, it is more positive for everyone involved. When the decisions are made from an Unconscious full of anger and fear, vengeful, cruel and loveless behaviour is seen. This behaviuor is not under the person’s control.
Amygdala is a region in the limbic system that gets stimulated when you get angry. It was once understood that it is able to influence the pre-frontal cortex because the fibres run from it to the pre-frontal region. The pre-frontal region is responsible for decision making. The amygdala when it is active sends rapid fires to the pre-frontal cortex, affecting your thinking. As a result, you can make rash decisions when you are angry. Pre-frontal cortex is not supposed to have fibres running from it to the amygdala. So it is unable to send messages to amygdala and cool it down. Scientists explained that this is the reason, when you are angry, your reason usually does not control your anger.
The Unconscious mind is thus a powerful ally to appreciate and a strong enemy if not given its due respect.
Link for how meditation affects stress in prisoners:
A correction officer was doing his duty in the prison. He was suddenly attacked by a prisoner for no reason. The attack was so sudden that he had no time to respond. As he shouted for help, his colleagues arrived to rescue him. He was so shocked that he did not know he was bleeding. He had to be told by a colleague that he was bleeding from his face. He then went for first aid for his injuries. It took a few days for the physical injuries to heal. But then he started to have nightmares. His sleep became disturbed. He started to have flashbacks of the assault. He became irritable and sensitive to slight noise. He had developed symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He had the understanding to appreciate that whatever was happening to him was not logical. But he could not help himself from feeling the way he was feeling.
This is a typical example of the “fight” between the logical Conscious and the “illogical” Unconscious mind.
The logical mind was stating that the event of assault had ended after a few seconds. The Unconscious mind believed that the event was not over yet. He could not sleep and had to resort to take medication to help him sleep. His sleep had been disturbed by his Unconscious mind that had the role to help him survive. It did not want to make him sleep as it was afraid he would be killed if he slept. The Conscious mind, on the other hand, was trying to convince him that everything was well. There was a fight going on between the two. And the correction officer was suffering as a result.
When someone feels depressed, they are preoccupied with negative thoughts of the past. The cognitive Conscious mind is active in the thought processes. The low “feeling” comes from the Unconscious mind. It is also responsible for the sleep disturbance that happens in depression. Now we have a situation that the Unconscious mind does not let the person sleep because it considers the situation as dangerous for the person. The Conscious mind is at odds with it as it is trying to convince the Unconscious that there is no logic for sleeplessness.
Similarly, in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, for example, the obsession is a thought that the Conscious mind gets hooked on. The Unconscious mind is insecure and fearful about the situation. It tries to make the person avoid the anxiety provoking situation. The Conscious mind, on the other hand wants to be convinced that there is nothing wrong in the situation. As the two struggle to convince each other to their own beliefs, the person suffers.
If you look at the various mental health conditions, almost all of them can be understood and explained on the basis of the “fight” between the Conscious and the Unconscious mind. This fight involves a lot of energy for which Cortisol- the stress hormone- is responsible. According to some energy practitioners, it is this excessive energy production that cause the mental / physical problems.
Mostly these conditions are treated with medication based on the principle that they cause neurotransmitter imbalance in the body. But another angle to their treatment can also be based on the understanding that the battle between the Conscious mind and the Unconscious mind can be brought to a halt by helping them work together. If the Unconscious mind is at peace, the Conscious mind has no problems. It is at peace too.
If this angle is appreciated, then we can have another understanding in the treatment of major psychiatric disorders using little or no medications.