Harvard Health Letter

Ask the doctor: Unconscious or subconscious: Which is the correct term?

Q. I've always used the word subconscious when talking about thoughts that are buried. But someone corrected me recently and said unconscious is the correct term. Have I been using the wrong word?

A. The term unconscious (or unconscious mind) is most closely associated with Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis, although the general notion goes back much further. For Freud, however, the idea that memories, feelings, and other mental content outside conscious awareness could affect people took on a new, practical significance. It was a key element of the theory he developed to explain the causes of mental disorders and how to treat them. Put in the simplest terms, Freud theorized that hidden mental contents caused many mental health problems. As he understood it, those mental contents had been "repressed" and, in some sense, forced into the unconscious. Freud's route to health was to unearth them.

In Freud's native German, the words are similar (das Unterbewusste is subconscious and das Unbewusste is unconscious) and, initially, he used them interchangeably. But eventually, Freud settled on unconscious as his preferred term, and in the professional psychiatric literature, unconscious is now used much more often than subconscious, so in that way, unconscious is the more correct term.

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