Subconscious vs. Unconscious: Writer Russ Juskalian, Two Psychologists, Freud, and Wikipedia Respond to Your Comments

Writer Russ Juskalian’s story on cryptomnesia had a lot of readers talking—specifically, about our use of unconscious over subconscious when discussing the practice of copying other people's work without realizing it. So we asked Russ to further explain the language he used in the article. His response, below:

Unconscious, as a few people pointed out, can mean “not conscious”—as in knocked out. But the term also means unaware of, or “done or existing without one realizing.” Those are adjectives. As a noun, “the unconscious” is the part of the brain that the conscious does not have access to.

In fact, the title of the Marsh study mentioned in the story is “Eliciting Cryptomnesia: Unconscious Plagiarism in a Puzzle Task.” Richard Marsh [a professor of psychology at the University of Georgia] uses the term “unconscious” throughout his paper—but doesn’t use “subconscious” in a single instance. A quick check of the scientific literature turns up many references to cryptomnesia as “unconscious plagiarism.”

Marsh had this to say, via e-mail:

[“Subconscious”] has a historical connotation coming from the subliminal priming literature in visual and auditory perception. The other connotation of subconscious is that the information is sort of hanging around in a sort of activated state, waiting to be used. These connotations are completely antithetical to inadvertently borrowing ideas (or pieces thereof) that one was exposed to months or years before. I just got off the phone with the leading expert in memory and he agrees with the foregoing. The term “unconscious” is correct and the term “subconscious” is wrong.

When I asked Dan Schacter [a professor of psychology at Harvard] about the usage, his response via e-mail was this:

I have never seen cryptomnesia referred to as “subconscious plagiarism” in any of the literature I've read, whereas “unconscious plagiarism” is a commonly used term. In fact, “subconscious” is virtually never used in modern-day cognitive psychology or cognitive neuroscience to describe any of the phenomena of interest to the article.

Freud even wrote this (as found on Wikipedia, but checked using and searching for “subconsciousness” in the book The Question of Lay Analysis) [Editor’s note: as befitting of someone writing about plagiarism, Russ takes both accuracy and attribution very seriously. I was considering deleting both the Wiki and Amazon references since the quote seems to hold up, but wanted you all to see the dedication.]:

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.

For more reading, it’s worth checking out the following Wikipedia entries—not as the final word, but as a good place to start:

The unconscious mind might be defined as that part of the mind which gives rise to a collection of mental phenomena that manifest in a person’s mind but which the person is not aware of at the time of their occurrence. These phenomena include unconscious feelings, unconscious or automatic skills, unnoticed perceptions, unconscious thoughts, unconscious habits and automatic reactions, complexes, hidden phobias and concealed desires.

The term subconscious is used in many different contexts and has no single or precise definition. This greatly limits its significance as a meaning-bearing concept, and in consequence the word tends to be avoided in academic and scientific settings.