The concept of the unconscious, which has been especially studied by the psychoanalytic and psychodynamic current. In fact, the unconscious is one of the basic pillars that Sigmund Freud used to elaborate his well-known theories.

But although psychoanalysis can be somewhat complex to understand, sometimes even psychoanalysis has used metaphors or comparisons with other aspects of reality in order to facilitate the understanding of what its theory proposes. One example is Freud’s iceberg metaphor , which we will talk about throughout this article.

Psychoanalysis and consciousness

Psychoanalysis is one of the best known and most popular theoretical currents in the history of psychology, although it is not the most validated and has often been misunderstood by other psychological currents.

This school of thought and theoretical current, whose father and founder is Sigmund Freud, is mainly focused on the study of the unconscious , considering that current human behavior is the product of conflicts between our drive and the repression and management of these by the conscious.

Its emergence largely stems from the currents of thought of the time and from the increasingly medical view of hysteria, and as the years went by the author developed an increasingly complex view of his theory of psychic functioning.

Especially well known are his theories on the psychosexual development of minors (in the oral, anal, phallic, latent and genital stages) and his differentiation between it or pulsional element, self and superego or censorship.

Also relevant is his consideration of the libido or sexual energy as the main source of psychic and pulsional energy, and his profound work on neuroses and female hysteria (especially prevalent in an era of strong sexual repression such as the Victorian, something that must be taken into account when assessing his focus on this aspect).

But to understand all this it is necessary to first understand what the difference is between the conscious and the unconscious , something that can be easily visible thanks to Freud’s iceberg metaphor. Let’s see what it consists of.

Freud’s iceberg metaphor

Freud’s iceberg metaphor is a metaphor through which we intend to show and make visible the existence of instances or parts of our psychic apparatus that are not directly accessible at a voluntary and conscious level . The similarity would be produced between the different parts or instances of consciousness and the vision of an iceberg, a mass of ice floating in the ocean.

This metaphor was not described in detail by Sigmund Freud, but by his followers and intellectuals interested in psychoanalysis, and especially by Stefan Zweig. It is a rather visual explanation of the differences between the psychic instances or levels of consciousness proposed by Freud, which in turn serve as the basis for another of his models.

This model exposes three basic structures that according to Freud conform our personality: the it or primitive and impulsive part that obeys the principle of pleasure , the superego or censoring part derived from the social and learned and the I or element that sublimates the impulses of the it to what is acceptable for the psyche based on the principle of reality.

If we focus on the image of an iceberg seen from land, we are only able to see the part that protrudes from the water, and from time to time we can observe in the water how a small area that is on the edge emerges or is submerged and makes direct contact with the water surface.

However, there is a large part, in fact usually much larger than the visible part, that is submerged and to which we do not have access visually unless we are submerged . This image would be directly comparable and equivalent to the functioning of our psychic structure, specifically at the level of identifying levels of consciousness.

1. The conscious: the emerging part of the iceberg

According to Freud’s ideas, we are able to see only a small part that emerges corresponding to the mental activity that we can detect directly and voluntarily, besides supposing a link between the external world and our mental processes .

We would be in front of the instance known as conscious, totally under our control and where therefore there are no active defense mechanisms to block them. However, it is in this element that our internal psychic energy is most contained, since we exercise direct control over them.

2. The limit between the submerged and the emerged: the preconscious

We can also find a second instance called preconscious, which would correspond to the part of the iceberg that is between the emerged and the submerged in such a way that depending on the movement of the waters and the circumstances it can be seen.

It is the set of those contents that are usually not identifiable to us and that we cannot bring into our consciousness at will, but that can emerge in our psyche abruptly and when we make a great effort to bring them out. According to Freud, in order to do this we must overcome the existence of defence mechanisms that repress these contents through selection or suppression.

3. The unconscious: the great submerged mass

Finally, and perhaps the most relevant instance for psychoanalysis, it corresponds to the great mass of ice that remains submerged and invisible to those who look at the iceberg from the surface, but which is nevertheless basic for the existence of what has emerged.

We are talking about the concept of the unconscious, which would include everything the set of drives, impulses, desires, primary instincts or even repressed memories , which moves on the principle of pleasure and which remain hidden from our consciousness except to the extent that they come to establish a compromise solution to become acceptable to the psychic apparatus.

The unconscious would be our most primary, pure and natural part, in which psychic energy moves with total freedom. It would also be the most intense and the one that most marks our way of being and the direction to follow in life, but it is strongly repressed and censored by diverse defense mechanisms because such contents are unacceptable.

Bibliographic references:

  • Freud, S. (1933). New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis.
  • Jones, E. (2003). Life and Work of Sigmund Freud. Barcelona: Editorial Anagrama.