#22. How the Unconscious Thinks

It is not only interesting, but practically helpful for the clinician to have a sense of how the unconscious mind works. Since something like 95% of our thinking goes on there, it must be pretty important. I’m approaching the question from the point of view of biology, that is, the available hardware and its capabilities. 

First, let’s recall that since Eric Kandel and others clarified how information is encoded in the brain, we know that any kind of information, whether it is a word, a sound, a concept, an image, a feeling, etc. appears to be encoded in the same way. Let’s look at some basic propositions regarding the brain’s processing of information.

1.     All pieces of information in the brain are encoded as neural networks and pathways, defined by their synapses, such that members tend to fire together.

2.     One chunk of information can tend to trigger another, or it can inhibit the other. There is no other available relationship between two chunks.

3.     One chunk can have a stronger or weaker relationship to another, of either valence.

The basic “thinking” built on these principles is quite simple but powerful and extremely useful, as well as sometimes problematic. We can think of the mind as a metaphor engine, a powerful organ for exploring associations between one “thing” and another. One example is dreaming where metaphors appear to be used to work through whatever problem we might be trying to metabolize. They get more intense when there is something difficult and important that we are trying to wrap our minds around. 

Similarly, in my experience, the best way to work on a difficult problem is to review it before going to bed, then make sure to engage in some “mindless” activity in the morning, during which one can “harvest” the mind’s overnight work. With great regularity, the solution that was inaccessible the night before will pop into consciousness in the morning. Creativity is making use of this capacity to bring things together in ways that normal logic could not have done. To oversimplify, Neurophysiologists identify this kind of activity as arising from the “default network.”

The logic that is native to the brain’s hardware is simple and quite different from formal logic. The thinking we call “logical” is based on relationships between things where the relationships are precisely defined. For example, meaning is highly dependent on relationship words like “identical,” “causes,” “is more important than,” or “similar.” The logic of the physiological brain must make do with only two available relationships. These correspond to the way neural netwoks representing chunks of information can have only two kinds of influence over related networks. They are either excitatory or inhibitory, and therefore the two chunks of information are either “positively associated” or “negatively associated.” Physiologically, the brain is not able to be more precise, at least on the “hardware” level. This native logic functions rapidly, hence, our ability to reel off associations and the rapid ability to think of opposites. It is what Kahneman calls “thinking fast.”

A nice example is our emotional reaction to a scary medical test. Let’s say it’s at test that reveals a 29% chance of having cancer. The unconscious (emotional) mind can’t cope with percentages but responds associatively either to “I’m going to die” or “Everything will be ok.” Or it may flip-flop between the two. With some slow thinking, we may be able to modify the binary options with a more modulated thought that, “It could be bad or good, but more likely good.” That’s where conscious logic can have some impact.

Now things get more complicated

Eric Mandelbaum (2015), in a YouTube lecture, points out that associative logic falls short of explaining everything that goes on in the unconscious mind. Piaget gives a good example:

“A boy touches a pair of scissors that his mother had forbidden him. Nobody saw it. A little later, he walks and crosses a stream on a log; suddenly, it gives way and the boy falls into the stream. “Why did he fall?” The older ones will answer without hesitation that it is because the trunk was eaten away, and that there is no relationship between the two parts of the story. The younger ones, on the contrary, relate the two parts of the story, resisting any kind of suggestion: Why did he fall? “Because he had disobeyed.” “What if I hadn’t disobeyed?” “It would have fallen the same way.” “So why did he fall?” “Because he disobeyed.” Etc.” [ Piaget, Les relations entre l’intelligence et l’affectivité dans le développement de l’enfant (1954). Translation by Michele Rodrigues.]

For the younger child, unconscious logic dominates and has its own rules. This kind of inference plays an important role in the unconscious information processing of our patients. How might we make sense of this alternative logic?

Here I am way beyond my area of professional competence, but I’ll offer some thoughts, based on the hypothesis that unconscious logic follows from the neural architecture of the brain. While I am approaching the problem from the point of view of brain biology, others have come at it from different directions. One alternative, most recently described by Amit Saad (2020) makes use of the mathematical concept of “negationless logic.” Another approach, represented by Eric Mandelbaum (2015) starts from cognitive science and philosophy. 

Let’s look at how the binary logic native to the brain might morph into something more sophisticated. Let’s start with neural networks representing “big” and “little.” Each one occupies a neural network and they are negatively associated, or “opposites.” Piaget describes how concepts can grow by assimilation or accommodation. In assimilation, the old concept is expanded to assimilate new information. But in accommodation, the difference is too big, and a new concept is created. So how does the binary unconscious mind deal with something midway between big and little? It could loosen the concept of one or the other or it could generate a new concept, a new neural network containing the concept, “Big, but not that big.” That’s how we might arrive at a new “Goldilocks” conceptualization. If that new concept takes up residence in a neural network, we have gone beyond binary logic without altering the neurophysiology. We now have three “things,” “little,” “big,” and “big-ish.” This moves us beyond binary into the realm of variable degrees of things. Each intermediary concept can accumulate its own associations and connotations, which, in turn, are related as “positively associated” or “negatively associated,” or perhaps both, as we will see below regarding contradictions. 

Perhaps the younger child in Piaget’s example has a nonverbal concept for “disobedience deserves punishment.” By association, that concept fits (is positively associated) with the fall from the log. For the older child, adult logic is available and filters out the unconscious kind. For the younger child (or in psychosis), conscious verbal logic does not intervene, so the logic of association is what provides the answer.

What is remarkable is that by building up a vast hierarchy of positive and negative associations between units of mental content, we arrive at a system that has an enormous capacity for thinking and inference. If we compare the unconscious mind’s processing to a test procedure, unconscious logic allows a large proportion of false positives, while adult logic is much more ready to eliminate thinking that is “illogical.” We can often witness this interaction as the adult logical mind evaluates and filters out ideas that don’t “make sense.” That is presumably what was going on with the older children in Piaget’s example.

More Complications

Freud described the characteristics of unconscious logic, observing that the unconscious has no concept for negation. He was right. Try to tell a small child that monsters don’t exist. The child will have a hard time and will prefer that the monster is somewhere else, rather than nonexistent. This makes perfect sense. If a “thing” is embodied as a neural network made up of cells that tend to fire together, then what is the absence of a thing? The only way to stretch the hardware to grapple with zero is to have a thing that represents the absence of a thing! As I am seeing it, accommodation allows for adding new concepts, and, eventually, one of those is the concept of “nought” or zero or non-existence. This begins to be available at about age four.

Similarly, Freud says that the unconscious cannot conceive of time. I believe research would show that to be correct for younger children, but unconscious pathology with origins around five does seem to show an appreciation for the “arc of time.” As described in TIFT #10 (https://howtherapyworks.com/the-secret-power-of-fairytales/), children of that age can and do derive hope from imagining that “someday” they will be able to overcome the limitations that cause the pain in the present. Piaget puts it thus: “Grasping time is tantamount to freeing oneself from the present.” It appears that this sophisticated understanding may still be based on acquiring a thing that represents the arc of time and has associations with hope and positive expectation.

Another complication is that this system of logic invites contradictions. The enemy of my friend is my enemy. Amy is my friend.  Jack is my friend.  Jack is the enemy of Amy. So Jack must also be my enemy. The unconscious mind has no trouble holding contradictions. They only cause trouble when they come into the realm of conscious logic which can and often does happen in the course of psychotherapy. The clash of contradictions is a frequent trigger for defenses like denial and rationalization. 


Unconscious logic is not only operative in children and pathology. It forms a large part of our adult conscious information processing. If you are not convinced, then watch a pharmaceutical advertisement with captions on and the sound turned off. You will experience two channels of communication with opposite messages, one encouraging you to associate smiles and happiness with the drug and the other saying that taking it may kill you. Unconscious thought is not only a source of error. It is what gives us access to possibilities we might not otherwise see. We can cultivate its contribution to problems solving and creativity in our own lives and, with some curiosity and attention, we can cultivate awareness of how both forms of thinking are in constant interaction.

More relevant to our subject, one of the skills of the therapist is to be able to construct a “theory of mind” to get into the shoes and mind of our patients. Since many EMPs (entrenched maladaptive patterns, the targets of psychotherapy) come from the unconscious mind at various ages it will help us greatly to understand this alternative form of logic and how it evolves.

Jeffery Smith MD

Featured photo by: Fakurian Design, Unsplash


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