Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

On dry spells and unconscious work

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Timothy Wilson’s book Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious helped me better understand some of the processes that make up “me,” and how great a role unconscious processes — of which, of course, we have no awareness (though occasional glimpses) — play in that.

It came up recently in an exchange on Mastodon, when someone wrote about how a protracted dry spell is often a secretly fertile time when unconscious processes are working out what will drive us forward.

During the dry spell, we are not aware of the unconscious processes at work, so the time feels fallow even though our unconscious is busily at work, constructing new connections and new channels. 

During these dry spells, we don’t feel calm and relaxed but almost tense with an effort to make something happen, to break through. It occurred to me that perhaps what we feel is spillover from the unconscious activity — we feel the effort, but we don’t see what is causing it or what it is accomplishing. We’re bystanders on the conscious side of a semi-permeable wall and what comes through is not what’s being done by the emotional component of the work. And because we don’t see what is happening — all that must be done to connect things and make new channels — we are impatient. We feel as though we (our conscious selves) are making the effort and nothing is happening. I think that we are, rather, feeling the effort and don’t know enough to be patient and wait for the result to be achieved. The prototypical example is the adult starting to learn to play the piano. He wants to play easily at first and he feels the effort as the unconscious works to sort out the new skill, but he thinks the effort is in his conscious mind driving his fingers over the keys. He must do that, but that’s not the real effort (which is giving the unconscious the practice it needs to learn) and the sense of effort is, I think, what leaks through from the unconscious’s struggle to integrate this skill.

This sort of spillover from our unconscious work is more evident when someone first starts learning the game of Go/Baduk — something I recommend (see this site). Go depends heavily on pattern recognition, and that unconscious facility — the pattern-recognition subroutine, as it were — is employed in many spheres, such as learning a language, learning to play music, learning dance or sports — and learning Go.

In Go, a stone or a group of stones is captured (and removed from the board) when it (or they) are not connected to any vacant intersections — when they are smothered, as it were. A single stone on the board — not on an edge — is connected to 4 vacant intersections: one above and one below, and one to either side. When three of these are occupied, the stone can be taken on the next move.

Early in the process of learning Go, people suddenly start feeling that in real-life contexts. If they are in a group with someone on either side and they’re talking to someone in front of them, they will suddenly feel the danger that if someone comes up behind them, they will be captured. It’s a feeling, not a conscious thought, and it’s distinct.

Or in driving on a multilane highway, if they have a car on either side and they come closer to a car in front, they will feel that a car behind them will capture them.

I think these feelings are spillovers from the unconscious at work — and specifically that unconscious pattern-recognition subroutine. It’s working so hard to integrate these new patterns into its library that they spill over into the conscious mind. If you have ever learned a foreign language, you will have noticed the same feelings of effort and the occasional lifting of a veil when a string of gibberish switches into a clear thought.

Freud thought that the unconscious would slip through when the conscious mind was distracted — the famous Freudian slip, when one blurts out something that they may not consciously have thought to say. The usual explanation is that the error was because one was tired or distracted, but as Freud pointed out, that is like attributing a robbery on a dark and isolated street to the darkness and isolation. Those are not what robbed the person; they just provided the conditions for a robbery. The robber took advantage of the darkness and isolation to strike, just as the unconscious takes advantage of the conscious self’s being tired or distracted to come into the open.

Nowadays, I don’t consider this view so valid as I once did. It strikes me as giving the conscious self more power and autonomy than it actually possesses. The conscious self seems more like the passenger in a howdah on an elephant. The elephant — the unconscious — goes and does what it wants, and the passenger makes up reasons why he wanted to go there and do that. (This is particularly evident in stage acts in which hypnotized people are given post-hypnotic suggestions to someone to, say, squawk like a chicken when they hear the word “book.” When “book” is said and the person squawks, if you ask them why they did that, they will come up with various reasons — the conscious mind is a rationalizing engine. This is familiar to people who attempt to rely on willpower to diet: their conscious mind can come up with lots of reasons to eat what they want.)

Wilson’s book, mentioned above, is in the list of books I find myself repeatedly recommending, and another book in that list is relevant to this topic: Daniel Goleman’s Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception. That book discusses how the unconscious pulls the wool over the eyes of the conscious — and why it does that. It’s a book well worth reading since it can help you spot some instances when your own unconscious spills over into the open. Initially, that can be hard to recognize, because we have somehow trained ourselves not to see it, not to be aware of it. But with practice, you can see it at work.

Here’s another book very much on that topic, in which Marion Milner describes her own journey of discovery to see what her own unconscious mind was up to. The encounters are interesting and in some cases have quite practical application. This book, too, is found on that booklist. It is A Life of One’s Own.

Written by Leisureguy

7 February 2023 at 11:46 am

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