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’.
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.