The Conscious And The Unconscious Mind

When thinking, we are only aware of a tiny fragment of thought at once; one thing, like a word on a page in a sentence. We have a memory of the sentence so far, and so can discern something about the information flow of our minds, and we might be preparing on some level for the up-and-coming words. In another part of our heads we have a sense of free thought, a feeling that we can dart to a new sentence if desired.

In a busy day we have several mental books to hand, several books of thoughts within reach, at our mental fingertips. We can grab these books at will, and turn our thinking towards them.

Most of the writing, filing, and sorting of the books in our minds happens beyond our conscious awareness, as though an invisible librarian is constantly ordering the vast catalogue of our knowledge. If you consider that you can read one word of one sentence each day; this fleeting thing we call conscious thinking, and then consider all of what you actually know, then it becomes obvious that the great majority of the ordering process; to write, to file, and store that vast library of our knowledge, must happen in the shadowed background of our minds.

This filing process takes place constantly; well, perhaps it does, it is beyond our awareness, so by definition we cannot ever tell. At the very least, every memory must be recorded, that's what memory means. Every recollection of a memory is recorded too; we don't remember what we don't recall. Do unrecalled memories exist? Yes, but only if and when we recall them. We can't say that they certainly exist when we don't recall them; in that circumstance they are identical to not being there at all. This principle of bringing into existence by observation seems to reflect a quantum-mechanical principle that something exists to the extent it is perceived.

It is clear that our experience of being conscious involves a sense of our own thoughts and memories, not just the sensory experiences of the outside world.

Consider every sense you have; sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste, and how active each sense is at each minute of the day, and how many memories of each sense must be created. It is only then that you can consider the enormity of the work that the human brain must complete, and all without your tiny fragment of experience of the now that we call consciousness.

The word 'unconscious' has been used over and over again, and even in today's English it can refer to people who look asleep, or are sedated, as well as thoughts that we are not aware of. Here, I define it as those thoughts, those automatic and indirectable actions of the invisible librarian.

If unconscious thoughts are indirectable and not subject to our control, are they creative? Isn't creativity the ability to assess and choose something consciously?

There are degrees of awareness and freedom to control. Is control necessary for creativity? Perhaps one of the main benefits of unconscious creation is that is it not directly controlled, although we can't tell if unconscious thoughts are controlled or not, because, well, they are unconscious, and beyond the gaze of our mental senses. Can we have free will without awareness of it?

No. Free will is the sensation and feeling of being in control, and little else. The river of our thoughts flows. If we are unable to see the river and have no awareness of any control over its direction, then the point seems moot. The path of our unconscious thoughts surely flows in some direction, but if we are not aware of that direction, then any secret ways in which we are changing its path are, perhaps, unimportant; but only perhaps. We might have some influence over an unseen process, but merely be unable to predict or determine any outcome. This might be like a blind man prodding the driver of a coach and horses. He might be able to influence the journey, but know little else about it.

Control or intelligence aren't always useful for creativity, and perhaps the element of chance, or the very lack of willpower, is what is beneficial to the artist. A machine can be creative in this way, even an object with no intelligence at all. Drop a glass cup; its fragments form a pattern. Some curatorial control is necessary to filter what is a meaningful pattern, and what is not, but the cup itself constituted an important new source of information.

Apart from its capacity for a spontaneity untrammelled by will, the unconscious can be more inventive than our conscious minds because it has access to a vast panoply of source information, far larger than the surface pages that our daily minds flick though. There are levels to our thoughts, with immediate thoughts and memories occupying our immediate times, those things which skim lightly over the hot surface of our boiling star minds. Then there are slightly more distant thoughts that take slightly longer to reach, then more distant thoughts and memories, and more, deeper and deeper. The deep thoughts are too far away for us to think with fast enough to be of daily use.

Perhaps what we know as conscious awareness and control is simply a matter of access speed. If so, then those with more agile brains would literally be more conscious; they would have direct, fast access to more knowledge.

This article is a edited extract from my book 21st Century Surrealism.

Mark Sheeky, 26 July 2018