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The return of the Unconscious


I was driving along a motorway at roughly 70 mph when I realised suddenly that I was not in control. I’d gone somewhere else, and spent the last five minutes or so thinking about my book in some virtual study in my mind. And yet, despite the car being unmanned as it hurtled down the A40, it did not crash. Indeed, it had accelerated, braked, changed lanes. Who was performing these tasks, if not I? Google? No, it was another part of me. A less conscious part of my mind, which can apparently drive…often better than ‘I’ can.

Ah the unconscious. 100 years ago, in 1915, Sigmund Freud triumphantly announced its discovery in his essay ‘The Unconscious’. In fact, he was late to the South Pole – scientists like Pierre Janet,  Wilhelm Wundt, William James and Frederic Myers had been pottering around down there for at least 30 years, and mystics like Augustine had been exploring it for some centuries. But Freud planted his flag with sufficient triumph to claim the credit – he is still credited as ‘the discoverer of the unconscious’ by neuroscientist David Eagleman in his new TV series on the brain.

Freud’s announcement caught the public imagination. It was exciting to think that beneath Victorian respectability lurked an underworld of sex, violence and occult forces. It was also a useful idea for psychologists, helping to explain various non-rational phenomena – dreams, hypnotic states, hysterical or what today we call psychosomatic illnesses, dissociation, creative inspiration, religious experiences, and even possibly paranormal experiences like telepathy and clairvoyance.

As I’ve been researching ecstatic experiences for my next book, I’ve found myself returning to the concept of the unconscious or subliminal self. I’ve been particularly drawn to the research of William James, author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, and a British psychologist called Frederic Myers, who was a key influence on James and on other altered states explorers like Aldous Huxley.

To my mind, Myers and James are still the best theorists of ecstatic experience, which they explain as moments when our conscious ego opens up to the ‘subliminal self’, and we experience a loss of control but also a sense of enhanced energy, power and information rushing up from beyond the ego. The experience of ego-dissolution and the confrontation with the daemonic subconscious can be terrifying, but it can also be healing and inspirational – as Myers put it, anticipating Jung, the subliminal self is both a ‘rubbish dump’ and a ‘treasure trove’.

Frederic Myers' contribution to psychology is only beginning to be appreciated
Myers’ contribution to psychology is only beginning to be appreciated

Myers – following Plotinus – argued that there are multiple programmes of consciousness running at any one time. We have a sort of integrating higher consciousness which can access these different levels, a bit like Leonardo di Caprio getting out of the elevator at different floors of his psyche in Inception. When we fall asleep, for example, have you noticed how it feels not like you begin dreaming, like the start of a movie, but rather that you have entered a theatre where the movie is already running?

Both Myers and James – but particularly Myers – also argued that the subliminal self is not bounded to the body or to the individual ego, but is actually a sort of Greater Mind, connected to other minds, other selves, both living and dead. We are like trees connected to each other by our subliminal roots, in a huge forest that is one organism, although each tree mistakenly thinks it’s separate and alone. When we die, Myers thought, we transition from the limited consciousness of the individual ego to the expanded consciousness of this Greater Mind.

The Kraken awakens

Alas, the idea of the subliminal self sank in the course of 20th century thought. Freudian psychoanalysis was too unempirical, and too sex-obsessed, while James, Myers and Jung were too spiritual. In psychology, depth psychology was displaced by behaviourism, which dismissed consciousness and focused on how humans behaved in response to external stimuli. Analytic philosophy also ignored both subconsciousness and consciousness, focusing instead on logic and language.

Yet in the last two decades, the subliminal self has shown signs of re-surfacing. From around the late 80s, cognitive psychologists began to explore how much of our thinking happens subliminally and automatically, from memory to arithmetic to stimulus-interpretation. The ‘cognitive unconscious’ does a lot of our thinking for us, making rapid calculations based on heuristics or biases which we’re not aware of. Our conscious thinking is driven by ‘core beliefs’ or ‘schema’ which frame our experience of reality and guide our interpretations.

The subconscious plays a central role in what is today the dominant consensus about consciousness – the ‘global workspace theory’ , developed by neuroscientist Bernard Baars in the 1990s and now broadly accepted by other consciousness researchers like Dennett, Edelman, Damasio and Tonioni.

Baars argues that there are multiple programmes running in the brain at any one time outside of conscious awareness, and consciousness selectivity focuses and integrates the information coming from these programmes. He compares consciousness to a beam of light on a stage – there is a great deal of activity taking place in the darkness of the theatre, and the light moves around, picking up action and bringing it into focus and significance.

To use a computer metaphor, our mind is continuously running programmes, and our conscious awareness is limited, so there is a sort of queue for tasks to come to consciousness when action is required. For example, we are dreaming, and we faintly hear our alarm going off, and integrate it into the dream. But as it goes on and perhaps gets louder, it rises up the queue of tasks, and eventually we shift from the interior focus of dreaming to the exterior-focus of waking consciousness.

So how does global workspace theory fit with the older theory of the subliminal self, as found in Myers and James? Is there a place within it for the more exotic and interesting phenomena which these psychologists explored – dreams, visions, trips, religious experiences, contemplative states and so on?

I think there is. Take the example of psychedelic experiences. We know from recent research that trips destabilise the functioning of various cognitive programmes, leading to a flood of usually subliminal interior information into consciousness. It is as if the house lights were suddenly switched on in the theatre of the mind, and scripts that normally run unconsciously in the background become apparent. That means we can intervene and change unconscious or automatic scripts – overcoming deep-seated fears or addictions, for example.

In contemplative states, we can train our mind so that the faint beam of attentive consciousness becomes stronger and broader –  this also enables us to become aware of unconscious elements in the darkness of the theatre, like props on stage that we keep bumping into, and to intervene, move them around, or even remove them if necessary.

Through training, we can expand the light in the theatre of our mind, use more of the theatre. I think of the memory-training techniques practiced by Roman philosophers, medieval monks and Renaissance magi, in which adepts imagine a ‘mind palace’ and then use imagery to store vast amounts of information. A friend of mine, Ed Cooke, taught himself this technique when he was in his 20s and became the world memory champion. He once memorised the entirety of Paradise Lost. Here’s an interview with him by Tim Ferris.

This talk of ‘cognitive unconscious’ and ‘information-integration’ makes it all sound quite rational and computational. In fact, cognitive psychologists recognise that much unconscious and automatic thinking and information-integration happens through images and metaphors. Again, this was an insight first put forward by Myers, who spoke of the ‘mythopoetic’ language of the subliminal self. We can examine this mythopoetic realm through the microscope of psychedelic experience – the world of the trip, like the dream-world, is a sort of movie theatre, in which information is presented as lurid shlock B-movie adventure.

By the by, global workspace theory was in the news last week, when a new study discovered that subliminal or unconscious thinking shows up as similar to conscious thinking in brain scans. Again, this supports Myers and James’ idea that ‘unconscious thinking’ is not actually entirely unconscious. Instead, there are multiple programmes running at the same time, at different levels of consciousness. You are here reading, but you’re also still dreaming. And beneath it all, your heart is in continuous communication with the Divine. That’s what Plotinus thought anyway.

What global workspace theory doesn’t do, of course, is explain what consciousness is, as opposed to what it does. What is this thing which we can expand, stretch, focus, alter, send out like ectoplasm, send racing to the moon and back, and stretch across time and space? How does it relate to play? How does it relate to love? Global workspace theory, lets face it, doesn’t sound much fun, and one obvious characteristic of consciousness in both children and mammals is it loves to play. And so I put forward to you my own theory of consciousness: Global Fun-House. You heard it here first.

Bernard McGinn on the future of mysticism

Professor Bernard McGinn of the University of Chicago is the leading historian of Christian mysticism. He’s written five of a projected seven volumes of his history of mysticism, called The Presence of God, which have traced the evolution of Christian mysticism from Jesus to the 1550s. He’s now working on the sixth volume, exploring mysticism during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. I contacted him because I was impatient to hear his views about what happened to mysticism in the modern era. Did it lose its central place because of the Reformation and Dissolution of the Monasteries? Did the rise of rationalism destroy it? Was it kept alive outside of monasteries by 17th century poets? Is it taking new forms in the New Age era, such as nature mysticism or sexual mysticism? Let’s find out!

Has contemplation become less central to Western Christianity?

Well, it certainly has a less public resonance than it did in the medieval period and even afterwards in Early Modernity. Fifty-sixty years ago, the answer would have been a strong “yes,” but the interest in Eastern religions and their meditative-contemplative traditions, beginning in the 1950s, has made a difference. Many Christians, lay and clerical (how many I don’t know), engage in contemplative practices today.

Did the Reformation and Counter-Reformation lead to a greater suspicion of mysticism?

Many Reformers, especially in the Calvinist tradition, were suspicious of mysticism. Luther was not a mystic, but praised some mystics and used their ideas. There is certainly a tradition of Protestant mysticism, especially in Lutheranism. Mysticism remained central, if at times controversial, in Roman Catholicism down to the Quietist controversy (ca. 1675-1700), when it was condemned and pushed to the margins.

Professor McGinn
Professor McGinn

What effect did the dissolution of the monasteries have on the contemplative tradition?

Remember there are two dissolutions: England in the sixteenth century and continental Europe during and after the Napoleonic Wars. In England, there was certainly an effect, because the Carthusian houses were centers for contemplation and the publication of mystical texts.

To what extent would you say that, in England, contemplative poetry (Donne, Traherne, Herbert etc) took up some of the role of contemplation for the laity, which used to be provided by devotional books created by monasteries?

I believe it had a strong effect in keeping mysticism alive in new contexts. As a matter of fact, I’m now writing a chapter on this for vol. 6 of my history of mysticism.

My own initial research suggests Protestant meditation endured and found new forms – but it seems the apophatic tradition of mysticism (which emphasizes the incomprehensibility of God) in particular was lost. Is that true?

I am learning more about this, but my ideas are still not firm. Louis Martz spoke about the ‘poetry of meditation‘ in the 16th and 17th century [ie that poets like Donne and Herbert adopted and kept alive monastic contemplative practices], and I think this may be correct. Apophaticism remained strong in 16th century Spain and in 17th century France, but I’m inclined to think it was diminished (not lost) in England.

Mysticism was visual / visionary as well as verbal in pre-Reformation culture. Considering the Protestant revolt aganst iconography and the triumph of the Biblical Word, did Protestant meditation become less visual / visionary and more verbal?

I would not over-generalize here. Late medieval mysticism had many visual aspects (see J. Hamburger et al.), but some Catholic and Protestant mystics in the 16th-17th centuries made use of visual materials, e.g., emblems and emblem books (like Jacob Boehme).

As mainstream christianity (Protestant and Catholic) became more rationalist and anti-enthusiast in the 17th century, would you say it lost the positive idea of ecstatic states beyond rationalism?

Definitely. The Enlightenment thinkers were very anti-ecstatic; but the Romantics were not.

You’ve written that mysticism is always changing with new layers appear over older layers – and that one new layer may be a new attitude to sexuality. Could you say a bit more about that? Where do you see this new layer appearing?

Yes, layering is one of the ways I use to understand the variety of the history of mysticism. Vol. 3 of my history tries to lay out a shift from a largely biblical eroticism based on the Song of Songs to a more a more personal, ecstatic, excessive eroticism beginning with Richard of St. Victor at the end of the 12th-century and developed in various ways, mostly (not solely) by female mystics, in the late Middle Ages. I’m afraid that’s all I can say on this complicated issue here.

What about attitudes to nature – do you see signs of the emergence of a more nature-focused mysticism or spirituality?

Nature mysticism has always been present in the  West. See, for example, some of the Hermetic literature, Eriugena, some 12th century figures, Francis of Assisi, Luis de Leon, etc. I think it may be correct to see “nature mysticism,” which means different things to different folk, growing in the 19th and 20th centuries (e.g., Richard Jeffries). The current ecological awareness seems to have encouraged new forms of nature mysticism — all to the good.

To what extent do you think western Protestant christianity is overly suspicious and condemnatory of contemplation today? And where could interested lay people go to try and study / practice contemplation today?

It’s hard to generalize. Are the Evangelicals much interested in contemplation? I doubt it, but I have met Evangelicals who are. In the mainline Protestant denominations I sense a growing interest in contemplation and mysticism, but, not being a religious sociologist (nor a Protestant), my evidence is circumstantial.