Conscious and unconscious

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Derived from [Masters2008], Chapter 4, Conscious and unconscious

Derived from [Masters2009], 1.2, Conscious, subconscious and unconscious

When we're trying to understand BDSM it's often useful to look at different ways in which the functions of the mind can be split into parts so that instead of trying to comprehend the mind as a whole, we can instead look at smaller, self-contained chunks. It's sort of a divide-and-conquer strategy because the whole mind taken at once is very complex. Individual parts of it are instead much easier to grasp.

The conscious and unconscious are two such chunks. Although you can't look at a brain and physically identify the conscious and unconscious parts, we can use them to help us model behaviour, and this can lead us to a better understanding of BDSM.


The conscious part of the mind is what we are aware of. It's where we make decisions, make deliberate choices, consider options, and make plans.

It is also the smallest part. This is important because a lot of what we do in BDSM has very little to do with the conscious mind. This is why, as I have noted elsewhere, that you don't find chess sets or Scrabble® boards in BDSM dungeons. Dungeons aren't the place for intellectual pursuits and are instead where we go to explore and satisfy primal needs and hungers.


The unconscious part of the mind is the part of which we aren't consciously aware. We can only know about the unconscious part through noticing the things we think and do which we actually haven't made a choice to do. We might feel attracted to someone, for example, but it's clearly not something we choose to do. Instead it comes from a part of our mind, the unconscious, and it affects our behaviour and our thoughts.

A large amount of what we do and think is influenced or governed by the unconscious. Sometimes this influence is very powerful. It can be split into two sub-parts:

  • The personal unconscious, and
  • The collective unconscious

And because, by definition, we're not directly aware of these, it's hard to work out exactly what's going on. In them. Often our best clues come from observing others.

Personal unconscious

The personal unconscious is the realm of habits, conditioning, and forgotten memories. It's called personal because it's entirely dependent on, and developed from, our personal experience and how we internally process it. Therefore it is unique to us. No one else has exactly the same experiences, and therefore each personal conscious develops uniquely.

In the world of BDSM, for example, everyone has their own idea of what constitutes a dominant or a submissive. When we see one we immediately recognise them and respond to them without thinking, be it with sexual arousal, a desire to abase ourselves, or whatever. But while the response may be the same for many people, what the actual image is which triggers this response can vary considerably. Some might see a dominant as a bald man in leather chaps, and others might see a woman in extreme high heels clad in red latex.

The image is frequently learned, not built-in. And it's frequently learned without us realising it's happening.

Collective unconscious

The collective unconscious is more profound than the personal unconscious, in the sense that it comes from what is built-in to us purely by virtue of being human.