What Is the Unconscious? A Novel Taxonomy of Psychoanalytic, Psychological, Neuroscientific, and Philosophical Concepts

  • Georg NorthoffEmail author


The concepts of consciousness and unconscious have been widely debated in neuroscience, psychoanalysis, and philosophy. Thereby, three different lines of thoughts often get confused. One the hand, consciousness is distinguished from the unconscious; this is, for instance, the case in psychoanalysis and more specifically Freud when he distinguishes psychological material and contents in consciousness from the ones remaining preconscious or dynamic unconscious. Current neuroscience and psychology associate the distinction between consciousness and unconscious rather different modes in which the same functions, affective, cognitive, etc. can appear and thus be quasi duplicated. Finally, philosophy associates the distinction between consciousness and unconscious with a principal difference between mind and brain and thus mental and neuronal states. To bridge the gap between these three lines, I here suggest a novel conceptual characterization. I distinguish the principal conscious from the principal unconscious: The principal conscious describes those states that in principle can become conscious and thus have the potential for consciousness independent of whether they are actually conscious, preconscious, or dynamically unconscious, while the principal unconscious refers to the principal impossibility of a state becoming conscious because it may simply be coded in the wrong format. I show that this conceptual distinction between principal conscious and principal unconscious carries important implications for empirical, i.e., neuronal matters and that both concepts may be associated with different neuronal mechanisms. I here refer to the brain’s intrinsic activity, its resting state activity, and how that impacts subsequent stimulus-induced activity as mediated by a particular set of regions in the brain’s midline, the cortical midline structures. Finally, I indicate that this distinction may also be relevant to psychoanalysis and philosophy alike in opening the door to bridge the gap between mind and brain and thus between mental and neuronal states.


Consciousness Unconscious Philosophy Cortical midline structures Neuroscience Psychoanalysis 


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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Mind, Brain Imaging, and Neuroethics, Institute of Mental Health ResearchUniversity of OttawaOttawaCanada

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