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In psychoanalysis, preconscious are the thoughts which are unconscious at the particular moment in question, but which are not repressed and are therefore available for recall and easily 'capable of becoming conscious'—a phrase attributed by Sigmund Freud to Joseph Breuer.[1]

Freud contrasted the preconscious (Psc.; German: das Vorbewusste) to both the conscious (Cs.; das Bewusste) and the unconscious (Ucs.; das Unbewusste) in his so-called topographical system of the mind.[2]

Preconscious can also refer to information that is available for cognitive processing but that currently lies outside conscious awareness. One of the most common forms of preconscious processing is priming (psychology). Other common forms of preconscious processing are tip of the tongue phenomenon and blindsight.[3]

The topographical system

"Preconscious" thoughts in classical psychoanalysis are thus "unconscious" in a merely "descriptive" sense, as opposed to a "dynamic" one, the topographical system thus permitting itself to:[4]

"distinguish two kinds of unconscious—one which is easily, under frequently occurring circumstances, transformed into something conscious, and another with which this transformation is difficult and takes place only subject to a considerable expenditure of effort or possibly never at all. [...] We call the unconscious which is only latent, and thus easily becomes conscious, the 'preconscious', and retain the term 'unconscious' for the other".

As explained by David Stafford-Clark,[5]

"If consciousness is then the sum total of everything of which we are aware, pre-consciousness is the reservoir of everything we can remember, all that is accessible to voluntary recall: the storehouse of memory. This leaves the unconscious area of mental life to contain all the more primitive drives and impulses influencing our actions without our necessarily ever becoming fully aware of them, together with every important constellation of ideas or memories with a strong emotional charge, which have at one time been present in consciousness but have since been repressed so that they are no longer available to it, even through introspection or attempts at memory".

Freud's original German term for the preconscious was das Vorbewusste,[6] the unconscious being das Unbewusste.


Freud saw the preconscious as characterised by reality-testing, recallable memories, and (above all) links to word-presentations—the key distinction from the contents of the unconscious.[7]

Structural theory

The structural theory of id, ego and superego which Freud introduced in 1923 did not replace, but overlap with Freud's earlier division between conscious, preconscious, and unconscious, Freud refusing to regret that "the three qualities of consciousness and the three provinces of the mental apparatus do not fall together into three peaceable couples".[8]

In therapy

Much of the work of the therapist takes place at a preconscious level in a clinical situation.[9] Conversely, it is possible to distinguish among the patient's products preconscious transference phantasies from unconscious ones.[10]

Eric Berne considered that the preconscious covered a much wider area of the mind than was generally recognised, a 'cult' of the unconscious leading to its over-estimation by both analyst and analysand.[11]

See also


  1. Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology (PFL 11) p. 175
  2. Freud, Metapsychology pp. 196–8
  3. Robert J. Sternberg and Karin Sternberg, Cognitive Psychology (2012) p. 180
  4. Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (PFL 2) p. 103
  5. David Stafford-Clark, What Freud Really Said (1965)
  6. Freud, Metapsychology p. 53n
  7. Freud, Metapsychology pp. 192–207
  8. Freud, New Introductory Lectures p. 104
  9. Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (1990) p. 15
  10. Joseph J. Sandler, Freud's Models of the Mind (1997) p. 105
  11. Eric Berne, What Do You Say After You Say Hello? (1974) p. 404

Further reading

External links