There has been much debate as to whether consciousness causes behaviour; or whether behaviour causes consciousness. Mentalists and phenomenologists claim that consciousness causes behaviour (i.e. We do what we think or feel we should do). There isn’t always a consistency though between our conscious experience and our behaviour.

Often, we do things which we didn’t mean to do. Indeed, sometimes our behaviour determines our conscious experience (i.e. we are sad because we cry, or we are afraid because we tremble). We can safely say nevertheless, that the relationship between consciousness and behaviour is one of mutual influence or mutual interaction.


It is clear from the discussion so far that there are variants or degrees of consciousness that we experience throughout the day. Yet we are not fully conscious of much of our behaviour. Remember the last time someone asked, “What are you thinking?” and you replied “Nothing” yet knew that some level of activity was happening in your brain. You were simply unable to retrieve it from memory because it seemed far away. This common experience of not knowing what we are thinking or of not being fully conscious contradicts the rationalist attitude expounded by the philosopher Descartes.

Rationalism was a school of thought that regarded conscious thought and will as the primary stuff of our being, and was expressed in Descartes’ dictum, “I think, therefore I am”. Yet experience tells us that when we are not actively thinking, we still exist, and we still sense ourselves as conscious beings.

Sigmund Freud distinguished between conscious, pre-conscious and unconscious. The unconscious has also become known as the subconscious.

*Pre-conscious material is that which is not presently conscious, but which can be retrieved through memory and focussing.  The preconscious contains all memories and ideas capable of becoming conscious.

*The Unconscious (as postulated by Freud), or subconscious level – is a level of awareness at which information is stored and from where it can be retrieved when needed. It is a deeper level of consciousness that holds all of our repressed and denied feelings, emotions and motives, which have been hidden away, even from ourselves.  we learnt that they brought us shame, guilt, or the disapproval of others. Because the unconscious holds what we really think, feel and desire, Freud proposed that the “the unconscious must be assumed to be the basis of all physical life”; the unconscious, rather than the conscious, is the true psychological reality. But since it is also the place of our greatest fears, it is not readily accessible. Instead, we gain insights into what is contained there (into what fears and desires we hid there as children) through our dreams, behaviours and slips of the tongue. Access to unconscious material requires the use of special techniques such as dream analysis or hypnosis.

The subconscious can influence our behaviour without our being aware of it. For instance, we might tap our pencil on our desk during a tense moment without realising that we are doing it, but as soon as we notice, we can quickly understand that the action was an expression of anxiety. Many believe that the subconscious can be made to purposely store information such as subliminal messages that will affect our behaviour. This has not yet been proven.

What does appear to be the case is that the subconscious stores our memories and experiences for access when we want or need them, and that these memories and experiences can affect our decisions and behaviour without our realising, though when we question our actions, we can usually find the reasons by digging just a little deeper. The subconscious also allows us to perform routine actions “without thinking”.

Freud’s theory of the unconscious gave us a way to describe levels of psychological activity which are not fully conscious. Freud questioned the long-held assumption that consciousness is the nucleus of the personality and in his theory of the unconscious, consciousness becomes radically de-centred if not completely re-defined. The pre-Freudian assumption that the individual is centred in consciousness no longer holds, and the notion that our psyche is our consciousness is abandoned. At one stage, though, Freud stated that it was misleading to regard the unconscious and consciousness as two separate structures in the mind, for this created artificial barriers between two psychological processes which are in constant, dynamic interplay.

The continuum approach seems most appropriate if we consider how frequently we experience an altered state of consciousness. Freud’s student, Jung, postulated that the levels of consciousness are arbitrary and fluid, and that anything in the unconscious can be intentionally made conscious (though sometimes requiring the help of psychoanalysis). Jung also postulated another level of consciousness – the Collective Unconscious – which is shared by all human beings and from which arise the constant and abiding ideas and themes of cultural myths, individual dreams and human experience.  Jung believed that consciousness had an even deeper level that also interacted with all other levels of consciousness: the collective unconscious, which is a universal consciousness rather than the individual consciousness Freud spoke of.  This collective unconscious is expressed in our dreams, art, stories, myths, fears, psychological disorders and indeed, in all human symbolic acts, for it is the shared human consciousness in which the memories and experiences of humans are stored. Unlike Freud, however, Jung did not believe that the individual was centred in the unconscious but was urged forward by the ego towards self actualisation in the world.

His main interest in the unconscious was to help others bring it into conscious awareness so that they were no longer shackled to the past but could move forward to personal growth.

In modern times a group of French theorists guided by the work of Jacque Lacan made it their central concern to explore the radical (and vastly overlooked) implications of Freud’s work, and we can expect that it will continue to enrich our understanding of consciousness as we gain new insights. Another recent development which affects theories of consciousness is that of computer simulation, formulated by Herbert Simon in the 1950’s. According to Simon, psychological phenomena could be simulated by using a computer. Certain aspects of human consciousness could thus be described in terms of information processing systems. The five senses provide an input channel for information; mental operations are applied to the information, and the resultant structure is stored in memory.