n 1909 five men converged on clark University in massachUsetts to
conquer the New World with an idea. At the head of this little troupe
was psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Ten years earlier Freud had
introduced a new treatment for what was called “hysteria” in his book
The Interpretation of Dreams. This work also introduced a scandalous
view of the human psyche: underneath the surface of consciousness
roils a largely inaccessible cauldron of deeply rooted drives, especially
of sexual energy (the libido). These drives, held in check by socially inculcated
morality, vent themselves in slips of the tongue, dreams and neuroses. The slips in
turn provide evidence of the unconscious mind.
At the invitation of psychologist G. Stanley Hall,
Freud delivered five lectures at Clark. In the audience
was philosopher William James, who had traveled
from Harvard University to meet Freud. It is said that,
as James departed, he told Freud, “The future of psy-
chology belongs to your work.” And he was right.
The view that human beings are driven by dark emo-
tional forces over which they have little or no control
remains widespread. In this conception, the urgings of
the conscious mind constantly battle the secret
desires of the unconscious. Just how rooted the idea
of a dark unconscious has become in popular culture
can be seen in the 2015 Pixar film Inside Out. Here the
unconscious mind of a girl named Riley is filled with
troublemakers and fears and housed in a closed space.
People like to think of the unconscious as a place
where we can shove uncomfortable thoughts and
impulses because we want to believe that conscious
thought directs our actions; if it did not, we would
seemingly have no control over our lives.
This image could hardly be less accurate, however.
Recent research indicates that conscious and uncon-
scious processes do not usually operate in opposition.
They are not competitors wrestling for hegemony over
our psyche. They are not even separate spheres, as
Freud’s later classification into the ego, id and superego
would suggest. Rather there is only one mind in which
conscious and unconscious strands are interwoven. In
fact, even our most reasonable thoughts and actions
mainly result from automatic, unconscious processes.
THE PREDICTIVE MIND
A revolutionary, and now widely accepted, counter-
model to Freud’s scheme goes by the term “predictive
mind.” The theory comes in different flavors, but over-
all it holds that automatic processes play a central role
in the mind, allowing us to predict events quickly and
accurately as they arise. Learning, experience and
consciousness constantly improve our implicit, or
unconscious, predictions, and we take note of events
only when the predictions fail. That is, we become
conscious of circumstances when they merit our
attention. This automaticity enables us to function
smoothly in the world, and becoming conscious when
predictions fail enables us to avoid the pitfalls of auto-
matic processing and adjust to changes in our envi-
ronment. In a simplified example, unconscious pro-
cesses predict the trajectory of a ball tossed to us and
Steve Ayan is a psychologist and
an editor at Gehirn&Geist.
Research on the unconscious mind has shown that the brain
makes judgments and decisions quickly and automatically. It contin-
uously makes predictions about future events.
According to the theory of the “predictive mind,” consciousness
arises only when the brain’s implicit expectations fail to materialize.
Higher cognitive processing in the cerebral cortex can occur with-
out consciousness. The regions of the brain responsible for the
emotions and motives, not the cortex, direct our conscious attention.