Understanding how your mind works is the first step to Mental Wellness

What Does the Psyche Mean?

Understanding how the mind works can give you an idea of how to manage your thoughts or emotions. However, trying to define the meaning of The Psyche may not be a simple task. After all, how can you possibly explain something you can’t see?

The American Psychological Association’s meaning for the psyche is the mind in its totality. But what exactly does the “mind in its totality” mean? Does this mean that the mind is divided into different sections that when added up, makes a whole?

Let’s take a path down the history lane to see how the psyche has been defined according to different philosophers and psychologists.

Psyche Meaning

The study of how the mind works has been debated way back to the times of Plato (400 years Before Christ). He defined the psyche as the essence of a person. Similarly, other philosophers, such as Hippocrates and Descartes, viewed the brain as the “seat of the soul”. Either way, the Psyche has been widely defined as the “mind, spirit, or soul”, and each word has been used interchangeably to define the same concept.

It was because of Wilhem Wundt, the father of psychology, that the structure of the psyche started to be studied in a scientifically. He believed that the psyche could be objectively studied by using introspection, which can be conducted by observing one’s own consciousness or awareness. The funding of his experimental laboratory in 1879 broke ground for future empirical studies of the psyche.

By using scientific data, questions about the psyche could now be answered. This is how the science of psychology developed. As different areas in psychology started to emerge, so did different perspectives on what the psyche means.

Psyche Meaning (Psychoanlytic Perspective)

Sigmund Freud

At the end of the 1800s, Sigmund Freud began his studies into the psyche. His findings on the unconscious revolutionized the science of Psychology.

According to Freud, there are three states of consciousness within the psyche:

The Unconscious

The Unconscious →  Mysterious and secret “side” of the mind that stores content that may or may not be harmful to our conscious “side”. An example may be traumatic experiences from early childhood, such as child abuse or neglect.

Content within the unconscious may never come into awareness, although it is psychoanalytic therapy’s goal to make this happen. By suppressing the Preconscious through analytical work, this content may become conscious. When this happens, this content first passes through the preconscious.

The Preconscious

The Unconscious
Emotions are different! They can pass directly from the unconscious to the conscious or vice-versa!

Preconscious→ Is like a bridge to consciousness. In this state of mind, ideas can be brought into awareness by applying some effort. An example could be trying to recall a friend’s phone number, or thinking about the answers to an exam. 

The Conscious

 The Conscious→ Every thought, feeling, or sensation that we are aware of and that we have direct access to. Freud considers this side of the brain as merely “the tip of the iceberg” since it only constitutes a very minimal part of the mental activity within the psyche. 

Unconscious forces

Within the unconscious, you can find hidden “forces” or structures that with their dynamic interaction make up each of our unique personalities. These structures play the most significant and defining roles within the psyche for they strongly influence our thoughts and actions.

Freud named these structures: the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. 

The Id

The first structure, the Id is pure psychic energy. In this state of mind, all the human impulses and basic human pulses come to life. It is completely and utterly unconscious. It is the primary structure because it is the only existent one when we are born. Babies are only driven by needs and impulses.

Freud strongly emphasizes that these needs and impulses, such as sex, aggression, and pleasure, exert a strong influence on each unique personality.

The Ego

Freud then describes the Ego as a phenomenon that materializes as soon as we start having interactions with the outer world. It is the external influence that constructs the Ego, or in other words, the personality. Unlike the Id, it is conscious, however, the most significant and defining activity that occurs within the Ego is unconscious. These unconscious forces within the Ego control the id and the superego. It is the mediator.

How strong an Ego is, will depend on the individual’s interaction with its parental figures while growing up. If parents allow children to self-regulate their emotions from a very early age they consequently acquire inner strength. If a child isn’t able to regain independence, or in other words, differentiate him or herself from either one of their parents, then they will grow up depending on external figures that will make them feel “complete”. This is another definition of codependency.

The Superego

The third phenomenon, the Superego, surges from the Ego.  It requires a high mental activity, both conscious and unconscious. Another word for Superego could be “Self- Criticism”, and if it overthrows the Ego, it generates an inner guilt sensation that may, at times, impede mental wellness. (It may cause depression and/or low self-esteem). How strong the voice of Self Criticism will be, will depend on how punishing or hurtful, authority figures were with you while growing up. 

Interaction Between Forces

The ego functions as a balance between the Id and the Superego. The id demands immediate satisfaction for pleasure, while the superego tries to follow a moral principle by controlling or suppressing the Id. If either one of these forces overthrows the Ego, it leads to an inner conflict, resulting in anxiety. A healthy psyche would be one where balance reigns.

To protect itself from anxiety, the Ego constructs defense mechanisms such as repression (removing anxious thoughts from consciousness) and sublimation (the transformation of inappropriate impulses to socially accepted ones). An example of repression could be losing memory of a traumatic experience. An example of sublimation would be channeling anger towards exercising or any other socially accepted practice.

Carl Jung

With his publication Structure & Dynamics of the Psyche, Carl Jung, like Sigmund Freud, made contributions that helped shape how the structure of the human mind is viewed today. His contributions concerning the unconscious may seem contradictory to Freud’s ideas. Yet, they are seen as complementary to some. 

Like Freud, Jung believed that the conscious is the part of the mind that stores everything we are aware of. According to him, the Ego guides it. He also believed that the Ego controls what remains unconscious, into what he named as the personal unconscious.

What significantly differentiates Jung’s theories from Freud’s, is based on the Collective Unconscious, which he considers to be the true basis of the individual psyche. According to him, the collective unconscious stores instinctive patterns, or archetypes, that have been passed on as ancestral heritage. They are collective because all humans share these.

Jung then states that the unconscious is expressed in a mythical manner. This means that our unconscious speaks symbolically, and uses visual representations that are prominent in mythology. These visual patterns are not acquired, but have been inherited “from the dim ages of the past.” 

The unconscious, as the totality of all archetypes, is the deposit of all human experience right back to its remotest beginnings.

Carl Jung

The unconscious is also the source of instinctive behaviors in humans. Even though archetypes are common to all humans, each person expresses them differently. Its interactions with individual experiences lead to the formation of unique sets of personalities.  

Psychoanalytic approach to psychology

The veracity of the psychoanalytic approach to psychology has been questioned ever since its first theories in the late 1800s.

For starters, Freud’s and Jung’s theories are based on subjective observations about their patients. They develop several hypotheses, but no specific scientific proof that backs up their hypotheses. 

On another hand, Psychoanalysis describes the “how”, but not the “when” of human behavior or emotion. With these theories, you could figure out why someone is upset, or angry, but not predict when these feelings may emerge.

In addition, Freud’s emphasis on how sex and aggression impact a person’s personality has been widely critiqued by other scientists in the area. It has also been questioned whether parental influence during early childhood is such a determinant in a personality’s formation. Even though it may be pivotal, it is not the only determinant.

To sum up, psychoanalytic foundations may not be based on verifiable observations. The way it describes the psyche may not have a strong empirical foundation. However, its application to mental distress can be very effective. 

Why psychoanalysis actually helps 

According to psychoanalysis, some emotions or ideas sometimes hide in the unconscious because of the emotional pain they may cause if they were conscious. Unconscious forces within the psyche work hard to keep these emotions or thoughts hidden.

However, they’ve gotta come out somehow! And they do come out as physical pain, ailments, or emotional disorders. In fact, pain and other intense emotions are even able to shape an individual’s personality. How much baggage someone has, easily determines their toxicity level.

To solve this issue, these hidden emotions must come to life. One of the first steps for acquiring mental wellness is to vent out the unknown. Freud was a firm believer that talking cures

At the same time, Jung believed that to acquire mental wellness, it is important to integrate the unconscious and conscious realms of the human mind. This process is called individuation and it is also known as a path of self-knowledge or quest for wholeness. The failure to reach individuation gives place to a fragmented individual and may cause psychological disturbances.

Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness of other people. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely. Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.

Carl Jung

Psyche Meaning (Behavioral Perspective)

Behaviorism surged in the early 1900s as a response to Psychoanalytic theories. It can easily be seen as “the other side of the coin”. Behaviorists believed the mind to be too abstract and too complex to even be bothered to study it. They thought that there were no means to analyze the mind objectively. They also critique psychoanalysis’ incapability of predicting behavior.

According to behaviorists, it is the environment and not the mind, that controls a person’s actions. This is why they focused their studies on observing human behavior. They viewed the mind as a “black box” (O). It is an entity that cannot be explained, and that serves the sole purpose of converting stimulus (S) to a response (R) 

The stimulus (S) in the environment causes an organism (O) to produce a response (R).

Its application in modern-day psychology includes the use of reinforcements to strengthen behavior and punishments to decrease the frequency of a behavior. It is widely used to modify children’s behavior as well as a tool for promoting children’s learning.

Psyche Meaning (Cognitive Perspective)

Behaviorism was soon opposed by the rise of Cognitive Psychology in the 1960s. Cognitive psychologists’ perspective on how the psyche works is quite different from behaviorists and psychoanalysts. Their perspective is much more focused on studying information processing. They compare the mind to a computer and emphasize on mental processes to explain perception, memory, and attention, as well as language acquisition.

The development of Cognitive Psychology has been crucial in modern-day Psychology, due to its vast contributions to learning. Understanding mental processes such as memory and attention as well as how emotional wellbeing affects acquiring knowledge. This has been necessary to improve teaching and learning in general.

Cognitive Psychology has also been able to further investigate how the mind works by combining its forces with neuroscience.

Within Neuropsychology, it is possible to study the brain and how it influences a person’s cognition and behaviors by using advanced technology such as PET, CAT , and MRI scans. These brain scans can provide an accurate picture of mental processes as they are occurring. 

To wrap this up…

The meaning for the psyche has been defined in every form and way, and under different perspectives and angles. It is a very complex and abstract concept, however, having an idea of how the mind functions give us some control over our thoughts, emotions, and learning.

That being said, you can conclude that the first step towards mental wellness is determining how the mind works. By understanding basic emotions, their origins, and your unique mental processes, you can identify what triggers you as well as what’s beneficial for you. By having a peek at your inner world and observing how it responds to external factors, you’re able to regulate your emotions and healthily process your thoughts.

Sarah Peláez is a Clinical Psychologist, Learning Therapist, and author of “The Psychology of Intuition.”

How to reference this article

Pelaez.S (2020). What does the Psyche mean? PsycheSpot https://www.psychespot.com/mental-awareness/what-does-the-psyche-mean?/

APPA style References

Association, A. P. (10 de 06 de 2020). American Psychological Association. American Psychological Association: https://dictionary.apa.org/psyche

Freud, S. (1915). The unconscious. SE, 14: 159-204.

Freud,S. (1923). The Ego and the Id. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIX (1923-1925): The Ego and the Id and Other Works, 1-66

Friedenberg, J., & Silverman, G. (2011). Cognitive science: An introduction to the study of mind. Sage.

Jones, D., Wirth, J. M., & Schwartz, M. (Eds.). (2009). The Gift of Logos: Essays in Continental Philosophy. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Jung, C. G. (2014). The structure & dynamics of the psyche. Routledge.

Image by hainguyenrp from Pixabay


Emotional Pain


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