Levels of Consciousness
In what is sometimes termed his topographical hypothesis, Freud viewed the mind as like an iceberg, with its main mass below the threshold of awareness.Â The lesser conscious portion is concerned with immediate data – what is in awareness at a particular time. At a deeper level are the domains of the preconscious and unconscious.Â The preconscious comprises memories, information and skills which are out of awareness at a given time, but which could be made conscious through voluntary effort and attention. Items such as frequently used telephone numbers or the configuration of a typewriter keyboard may be thought of, typically, as preconscious.
By far the most influential level of consciousness in Freudian thinking, however, is the unconscious. This is the territory of information which is buried and not available to consciousness by simple focusing of attention. The contents of the unconscious are kept out of awareness by the mechanism of repression, itself an unconscious process. The unconscious contains sexual and aggressive impulses and the ensuing conflicts from which Freud believed the personality develops.
This formulation of the mind has been considered to represent a third damaging blow to the esteem of humankind: in the late 15th century, Copernicus demonstrated that the earth is not the centre of the universe; soon after Freud’s birth, Darwin supplied strong evidence that humankind, far from being God’s creation, is descended from apes; then Freud himself continued this trend in suggesting that we are not masters of our own destinies, but at the potential whim of primitive unconscious impulses.