Subconscious vs. Unconscious: What’s the Difference?

In English, many words can change meaning by adding different prefixes. Two common prefixes are un- and sub-.

Sub- means below something else, and un- means the opposite of the original word. A level below another level is a sublevel. An event that is not likely to happen is unlikely to happen.

Prefixes aren’t always this straightforward, though. By extension of the same rules, unconscious would mean not conscious, and subconscious would mean below consciousness.

The difference between “not conscious” and “below consciousness” might seem trivial, but, in certain situations, subconscious or unconscious have specific uses, and it’s important to pay attention to which is the correct term.

What is the Difference Between Subconscious and Unconscious?

In this article, I will compare subconscious vs. unconscious, and I will use each in a sentence to illustrate how to use them. Plus, at the end, I will show you a useful trick to remember when each word is appropriate.

When to Use Subconscious

subconsciously versus unconsciouslyWhat does subconscious mean? Subconscious is sometimes an adjective, where it refers to thoughts and processes in the mind of which a person is not directly aware. Desires, motivations, and fears can often be subconscious.

Here are some examples:

  • The subconscious mind is full of complex phenomena that are not well understood, even among psychologists.
  • Nick’s hunger for hors d’oeuvres was driven by a subconscious desire to be invited to Jay’s mansion for a trendy dinner party.
  • Your elders might harbor a mild subconscious jealousy about your situation for reasons other than time. –USA Today

Sometimes, subconscious might be used to describe an action (often a habit) that a person doesn’t realize they are doing, like in the sentence below:

  • Asbeta’s subconscious singing annoyed Reyna.

Subconscious can also be a noun, where it refers broadly to the part of the mind where such thoughts and processes take place, like in the following sentence:

  • Dreams express the hidden desires of the subconscious.

In other words, something is said to be subconscious when it is beneath your conscience. You are still awake and perceiving the outside world, but there is something beneath—or perhaps beyond—your conscious that is also influencing you.

A subconscious negative feeling you have towards a type of food might be the result of getting food poisoning from it as a child that you have since forgotten.

Something that is subconscious is usually passive, and you are not actively thinking about it.

When to Use Unconscious

unconscious definition subconscious definitionWhat does unconscious mean? Unconscious as an adjective means not awake or passed out, a condition often brought about through use of force. Unconscious is sometimes also used synonymously with asleep. Here are some examples:

  • The baseball hit the player in the head and knocked him unconscious.
  • Rebecca was tired after a long day, and she was already unconscious by the time her head hit the pillow.
  • Miesha Tate pulled off one of the most dramatic submission victories in title fight history by choking Holly Holm unconscious in the fifth round to capture the women’s bantamweight title. –ESPN

Sometimes unconscious is used synonymously with subconscious. This usage is conventional in psychoanalysis. In other contexts, subconscious is usually more accurate.

Unconscious can also be used as a noun, especially in psychoanalysis, where it shares a meaning with subconscious in its noun form. This usage is uncommon, but here is an example:

  • The ego rules over the realm of the unconscious.

Trick to Remember the Difference

define unconscious and define subconsciouslyMany people use unconscious and subconscious interchangeably as a noun. If you are trying to publish an article in a peer reviewed psychoanalysis journal, use unconscious. Outside of this context, these nouns have become synonymous.

As adjectives, however, subconscious and unconscious are not freely interchangeable. If a person has fallen asleep or been knocked out, they are unconscious, not subconscious.

If a person is alert but doesn’t realize they are thinking or doing something, the thought or action is subconscious, not unconscious. Fears or desires that motivate a person, but of which that person is not directly aware, are also subconscious.

You can remember the difference by remembering that a submarine travels below the surface of the water much in the same way that subconscious thoughts and actions happen below the surface of consciousness.

Summary: Unconscious vs. Subconscious

Is it subconscious or unconscious? Subconscious and unconscious seem like they would have similar meanings. In some contexts, they do. In others, it’s important to know the difference between these terms.

  • Unconscious means not awake or lacking awareness.
  • Subconscious refers to thoughts, actions or brain processes of which a person is not directly aware.

Just like a submarine travels below the water, something that is subconscious exists below normal consciousness. If you have trouble using unconscious or subconscious in your writing, you can use this trick to know which term is correct.