In psychology, the word subconscious is the part of consciousness that is not currently in focal awareness. The word "subconscious" represents an anglicized version of the French subconscient as coined by the psychologist Pierre Janet (1859–1947), who argued that underneath the layers of critical-thought functions of the conscious mind lay a powerful awareness that he called the subconscious mind.
Sigmund Freud first used the term "subconscious" in 1893 to describe associations and impulses that are not accessible to consciousness. He later abandoned the term in favor of unconscious, noting the following:
"If someone talks of subconsciousness, I cannot tell whether he means the term topographically – to indicate something lying in the mind beneath consciousness – or qualitatively – to indicate another consciousness, a subterranean one, as it were. He is probably not clear about any of it. The only trustworthy antithesis is between conscious and unconscious."
In 1896, in Letter 52, Freud introduced the stratification of mental processes, noting that memory-traces are occasionally re-arranged in accordance with new circumstances. In this theory, he differentiated between Wahrnehmungszeichen ("Indication of perception"), Unbewusstein ("the unconscious") and Vorbewusstein ("the Preconscious"). From this point forward, Freud no longer used the term "subconscious" because, in his opinion, it failed to differentiate whether content and the processing occurred in the unconscious or preconscious mind.
Carl Jung said that since there is a limit to what can be held in conscious focal awareness, an alternative storehouse of one's knowledge and prior experience is needed. This alternative storehouse is often referred to as the subconscious.
In the social sciences, the term subconscious, was resurrected in an article by Stajkovic, Locke, and Blair (2006) who referred to subconscious motivation as occurring "without intention, awareness, and conscious guidance." A review of early research on the subconscious can be found in Latham, Stajkovic, and Locke (2010).
Scholars have used other adjectives with similar meanings, such as unconscious, preconscious, and nonconscious, to describe mental processing without conscious awareness. The distinctions among these terms are subtle, but the term subconscious refers to both mental processing that occurs below awareness, such as the pushing up of unconscious content into consciousness, and to associations and content that reside below conscious awareness, but are capable of becoming conscious again.
Selecting one exclusive term presents theoretical tradeoffs, and empirical evidence does not yet exist to point exactly where the threshold of "below" or "without" consciousness is, because parts of the process are transitory.
The idea of the subconscious as a powerful or potent agency has allowed the term to become prominent in New Age and self-help literature, in which investigating or controlling its supposed knowledge or power is seen as advantageous. In the New Age community, techniques such as autosuggestion and affirmations are believed to harness the power of the subconscious to influence a person's life and real-world outcomes, even curing sickness. Skeptical Inquirer magazine criticized the lack of falsifiability and testability of these claims. Physicist Ali Alousi, for instance, criticized it as unmeasurable and questioned the likelihood that thoughts can affect anything outside the head. In addition, critics have asserted that the evidence provided is usually anecdotal and that, because of the self-selecting nature of the positive reports, as well as the subjective nature of any results, these reports are susceptible to confirmation bias and selection bias.
Psychologists and psychiatrists use the term "unconscious" in traditional practices, where metaphysical and New Age literature, often use the term subconscious. It should not, however, be inferred that the concept of the unconscious and the New Age concept of the subconscious are precisely equivalent, even though they both warrant consideration of mental processes of the brain. Psychologists and psychiatrists take a much more limited view of the capabilities of the unconscious than are represented by New Age depiction of the subconscious. There are a number of methods in use in the contemporary New Age and paranormal communities that affect the latter:
Such material has mostly become unconscious because — in a manner of speaking — there is no room for it in the conscious mind. Some of one's thoughts lose their emotional energy and become subliminal (that is to say, they no longer receive so much of our conscious attention) because they have come to seem uninteresting or irrelevant, or because there is some reason why we wish to push them out of sight. It is, in fact, normal and necessary for us to "forget" in this fashion, in order to make room in our conscious minds for new impressions and ideas. If this did not happen, everything we experienced would remain above the threshold of consciousness and our minds would become impossibly cluttered.Compare memory.