Mind Matters: The Unconscious

When I started my training as a psychologist, I moved in with two students I did not know. One of them told me about an incident the previous year with the other one, "Doug".

Doug went far from home to attend university. Feeling the freedom of being away from parental supervision, Doug partied more than he studied. Then, he suddenly became paralysed in half his body.

Doug ended up in the hospital. The likely diagnosis: a stroke, requiring neurosurgery. But scans showed no brain problem.

A psychiatrist talked with Doug and found out that his schooling was costing his parents a big sum of money. His dad had a business that had started to flounder midway through the year. Finances became tight. Towards the end of the academic year, Doug was failing all his courses and feeling bad about wasting family money.

The attending physician told Doug that he would be fine if he rested for a few weeks. He wrote Doug a note asking teachers to grant him an extension for his final exams. Doug's paralysis disappeared over a few days.

Sigmund Freud would say that Doug had experienced hysterical paralysis. Doug needed a way out of an intolerable situation. His conscious mind could not find one. So his unconscious caused the paralysis.

Doug is not the only person to have what is now called a conversion disorder. Some people in an intolerable situation become blind. These individuals do not realise that there is actually nothing wrong with them physically.

Do you have an unconscious? Yes, you do. It is operating right now, out of your awareness.

Your unconscious keeps a low profile. You are most aware of it when you remember your dreams. Freud called dreams the royal road to the unconsciously. Dreaming involves putting experiences, thoughts, and emotions together, sometimes in unexpected ways.

In one of my recent dreams, I used a time machine to go back in time and transport my three brothers from Nazi times to now. In the dream, I heard army trucks coming our way just before we left 1940. I worried that the boys would experience shock at the modern world. Then I woke up.

Never mind that we were not even alive in 1940. The unconscious is not limited by reality.

I wonder whether unconsciously I want to be a hero. What is cooking in your unconscious?

John Malouff is an Associate Professor at the School of Psychology, University of New England.