Harvard Mental Health Letter

Questions & answers

Q. What is the difference between the "unconscious" and the "subconscious?"

A. My close friend got caught up in a debate about these terms during a holiday dinner. And then he contacted me by e-mail when he discovered that it is hard to find a definition agreeable to all mental health professionals, let alone others — for example, neuroscientists or journalists — who also write about mental phenomena.

The term "unconscious" or "unconscious mind" is most closely associated with Freud and psychoanalysis, but the general notion pre-dates Freud by hundreds if not thousands of years. For Freud, however, the idea of memories, feelings, and other mental content outside conscious awareness took on a new, practical significance. It was a key element of the theory he was developing to explain the causes of mental disorders and how to treat them.

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