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Your secret mind: A Stanford psychiatrist discusses tapping the motivational unconscious

Sigmund Freud popularized the idea that desires and motivations bubble in our unconscious mind and influence our behavior in the early 1900s. Since then, neurologists and psychiatrists have deepened their understanding of the layers of the mind. Stanford psychiatrist Hans Steiner, MD, explores the science of the motivational unconscious in his Stanford Continuing Studies course this quarter.

In the following Q&A, he discusses exciting advances in research about the motivational unconscious as well as how it manifests in our actions and creative work.

What is the motivational unconscious and how does it relate to our traditional understanding of the unconscious and the conscious mind?

At any given moment, there are multiple layers of activity within our brains. We can categorize these layers of activity into the conscious mind, the motivational unconscious and non-conscious machine language. Mental processes that are in our awareness and that we can focus on are defined as conscious mentation. For example, if you are watching a movie, your consciousness might include the visual stimuli on the screen, the verbal dialogue, the background music, the sound of the person next to you eating popcorn, etc.

The layer of mental activity underneath our consciousness is the motivational unconscious. This consists of mental processes that usually operate outside of our awareness but can be accessible, and thus the motivational unconscious can be made conscious. Even though we are not generally aware of unconscious mental activity, it has significant effects on our behavior, opinions and emotional reactions. For example, your motivational unconscious processes will dictate your perception of the movie and how you react to it emotionally.

Finally, the deepest layer of mental activity is non-conscious mentation. These are mental processes, like neuronal activity, that are never accessible to our awareness and, as a result, cannot be made conscious. This is the part of your brain that is controlling your breathing while watching the movie.

How do psychiatrists evaluate and understand the motivational unconscious in patients? What methods do they use?

When talking with a patient, psychiatrists pay attention to the emotional undertones of the conversation. It is these emotional undercurrents, not necessarily the words themselves, that can provide insight into the motivational unconscious. By following this emotional stream, psychiatrists can gain access to the unconscious processes that are shaping our behavior.

A second tool psychiatrists use to evaluate the motivational unconscious is the analysis of facial expressions.  While we often have control over our word choice, we are often not aware of small changes in our facial expressions and body language while we talk. These can be very helpful indicators of what is going on in the unconscious level.

Finally, psychiatrists utilize various questionnaires, called psychometrics, to analyze a patient's repressive tendencies, emotional reactivity and defenses. Defenses are coping mechanisms that we all employ in order to shield us from difficult things that we may not want to think about. By understanding how a patient copes under adverse circumstances and how much they may repress or deny negative emotions, psychiatrists can better determine how to access their motivational unconscious.

Modern psychiatry has been able to probe the motivational unconscious due to advances in neuroscience and insights from psychoanalysis. What are some of the most exciting recent advances in this area?

Some of the most exciting advances in this area have utilized brain imaging to map out areas of cognition. We now have evidence that specific areas of the brain become active when we are involved in internally focused tasks--versus focused on the external environment. This suggests that different cognitive processes, including motivational unconscious processes, lie within specific areas of the brain. For example, different areas of the brain become active when subjects are engaged in autobiographical memory, envisioning the future, theory of mind (conceiving of the perspective of another person) and moral decision making. Understanding the anatomical basis of the motivational unconscious could have exciting implications for psychiatry and in understanding psychopathology.

You have studied aspects of the unconscious and their relation to psychopathology  and aggression. How does our motivational unconscious manifest in our personality and actions?

A good example of how the motivational unconscious manifests in our actions is the famous painter, Rene Magritte. As a young boy, Magritte witnessed the tragic death of his mother. As an adult, violent themes and somewhat disturbing images continually crept into his paintings. Yet, he seemed unaware of the correlation between his paintings and his traumatic childhood. While it was not his conscious, deliberate intention to paint about the death of his mother, his unconscious mental processes motivated him to do so. While this may be a more extreme example, all of us have unconscious processes that influence our behavior, perspective, interpretation of events and emotional reactions.

Can we access our unconscious mind to gain creative insights or to motivate us?

There are a few different ways to access our unconscious mind. Slips of the tongue, or "Freudian slips," are one way to gain information about what is happening in our unconscious mind. Paying attention to our memes, the rules that we live by and that shape our behavior, is another way to get a glimpse into our unconsciousness.

Dreams are also often a reflection of what is happening within our unconscious mentation. Keeping a dream journal can therefore be a powerful way to look at one's motivational unconsciousness.

Expressive writing is another way to access unconscious mental activity. The goal with expressive writing is to record a stream of consciousness driven by emotions rather than facts. In doing this, we are often able to access mental processes that may otherwise remain below the level of awareness.

Finally, our motivational unconscious can unintentionally creep into our creative work, without us even being aware of it. Therefore, by paying attention to themes and patterns in our creative work and to what creative work we are drawn to, we gain access to our motivational unconscious mentation.

Steiner's responses were written with help from Rebecca Hall and Carrie Leontis.

Previously: Probing the underlying causes of mental illness, The importance of--and bias against--creativity and How the brain works during improvisation

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