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These words have subtle distinctions in related research fields, but even there are often considered interchangeable or just an matter of tradition/trendiness in a particular field. Since I am a bit entrenched in that environment, I don't have perspective on what is common outside of academia.

In normal, everyday conversation, which is more common? If they are both used, do they have commonly understood distinctions in meaning?

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

From what I know, unconscious stands for something, or better yet someone who is usually conscious, but currently temporarily unconscious. For example when you hit your head and fall down unconscious.

After the accident I was unconscious for hours.

On the other hand, nonconscious, which isn't used very often, stands for something what's never conscious. Like a plant, a tree, or for the sake of the argument, a rock.

In these horrible winter temperatures the trees are lucky to be nonconscious.

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... and that leaves "subconscious" ... :) – Angada Oct 16 '11 at 3:46
I don't think you can mix up that one with any of those in my answer, can you? – RiMMER Oct 16 '11 at 3:46
ha, no. Just pointing it out as filling in the next relevant definition (advanced cognitive processing that occurs automatically without awareness). However, I do think that "unconscious" is often used for all three definitions, and "nonconscious" for both of the last two. – Angada Oct 16 '11 at 3:49
... which was the meaning I originally had in mind when I posted this question. I am laughing, because apparently, it applies to neither. – Angada Oct 16 '11 at 4:05
@FumbleFingers: I think I can call them lucky from my own perspective without their feeling the same, but that's a rather philosophical question. – RiMMER Oct 16 '11 at 4:27

Nonconcious pretty much flatlines against unconcious in Google NGrams, as one might expect. enter image description here

I'm not going to present any particular semantic distinctions. I'm sure there will be conflicting distinctions, and personally I don't think the word nonconscious has sufficient currency to be worth defining anyway, outside of specialised contexts where it's effectively "trade jargon" to avoid the connotations of unconscious/subconscious.

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Nonconscious is the preferred term in many (most?) modern academic contexts. You are right, I did not use Google NGrams, I just did a basic Google search and read the Wikipedia page. Thank you for pulling this up. – Angada Oct 16 '11 at 3:40
@Angada: I'm not an academic in any of the modern fields that would use it, but I think in general nonconcious simply means lacking any element of conciousness in those contexts. A thing that never lived or thought could be nonconcious, just as it could be nonliving (though we're more likely to hyphenate that one). – FumbleFingers Oct 16 '11 at 3:59
that is helpful insight, thank you. I would never have thought of that, as, in my field, it means what I now think most would call "subconscious." But it makes sense. I knew I was out of touch with common usage. – Angada Oct 16 '11 at 4:01
@Angada: I know subconscious isn't normally used in fields like cognitive psychology these days, partly because it's a vague term with unwanted connotations from a largely-discredited past. A layman might think of the subconscious as some kind of "inner persona" that generates dreams, for example, but I don't think any serious researcher would want those connotations. – FumbleFingers Oct 16 '11 at 4:19
yes, exactly. So, what word do you think would best communicate to a layperson the automatic environmental processing that occurs in the brain outside of conscious awareness? I academia, I would say nonconscious. But apparently that mean "never conscious" in the real world. This is exactly the point of my question. – Angada Oct 16 '11 at 4:23

I think nonconscious, unconscious, and subconscious all mean the same thing: mental processes that people are not consciously aware of.

According to Freud's Topology of Mind, there are three levels of mind: The Conscious Mind (reality), The Preconscious Mind (Morality, our beliefs, values, and ideals), and The Subconscious Mind (Pleasure, what people want: food, sex, possessions, power, etc.). The preconscious can be brought to the consious mind easily, but the subconscious cannot. We are completely unaware of the subconsious.

For instance, habits are completely subconsious automatic processes that are guided by beliefs, expectations, and rewards put in place by our society. Nonconscious, unconscious, or subconscious would be correct to use — but personally, I think subconscious is best because it suggests we are still affected at this level of mind, where unconscious or nonconscious suggest we cannot be influenced by our surroundings.

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Nonconscious is a cognitive term, and is unawareness. Unconscious is a psychoanalytic-Freudian term, mainly emotional.

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Casualty departments deal with unconscious patients all the time, and don't believe Freud invented the term. – TimLymington Nov 1 '14 at 20:07

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