Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

A toast to your unconscious mind

We like to think that we can control the contents of our mind, but if we watch ourselves think, we will quickly realize that this isn’t so.

If you don’t believe me, try this experiment. Sit in a quiet room for five minutes, during which time you stare at a blank wall and try to empty your mind of thoughts. Unless you are an exceptional person, you won’t succeed. You might find yourself thinking about what you will have for dinner or about something your significant other said—or failed to say.

You might also have experienced the ideas-from-without phenomenon while doing a crossword puzzle. You needed, say, a three-letter word meaning eggs. You pondered the clue for a minute and drew a complete blank. And then, when you had given up on the puzzle and turned your attention to other things, the answer came to you: ova!

And of course, while you are sleeping, your mind is periodically filled with ideas not of your choosing. We call them dreams, and they can be wildly creative. A gopher singing the blues! How crazy is that?

What is the source of all these ideas? Your unconscious mind.

For your unconscious mind, coming up with answers to crossword puzzle questions is child’s play. It can also solve complex problems. Indeed, if you think back, you will realize that your unconscious mind was the source of some of your best ideas. It saw connections you didn’t see, and it considered possibilities you didn’t consider. As a result, it was able to solve problems that boggled your conscious mind.

It is easy, however, to downplay the role your unconscious mind plays in your mental life. This is because your conscious mind is perfectly happy to take credit for the gems that your unconscious mind hands it. But face it, without the ongoing efforts of your unconscious mind, your conscious mind would flounder.

Once you admit that your unconscious mind is the source of whatever brilliance you possess, you can take steps to extract the maximum possible benefit from your association with it. What you will quickly discover is that it can’t be ordered about.

You can’t, for example, wake up one morning and say, “Unconscious mind, today I want you to prove Goldbach’s Conjecture,” one of the great unsolved problems of mathematics. On hearing this request, your unconscious mind will simply laugh—not that you will realize that it is doing so.

What you must instead do is interest your unconscious mind in working on a problem by working on it with your conscious mind. It might take hours, days, or even weeks of unsuccessful conscious effort before your unconscious mind takes an interest. You will know that it has because you will start experiencing aha moments with respect to that problem.

The period when you are trying to interest your unconscious mind in a problem can be deeply frustrating. A writer might sit there for days or weeks writing a draft of a novel, knowing from experience that there is little chance that the words she has written will make it into the final draft. Instead, they will be thrown away when inspiration strikes and the structure of the novel is finally revealed to her. When this finally happens, she might describe the event as a visit from her muse.

Mathematicians also know from experience that the first step in proving a theorem is to fill wastebaskets with failed attempts at proving it. They know that such efforts are simply the price that must be paid to get their unconscious mind interested in a theorem so that it can reveal the trick to proving it.

Writers and mathematicians undertake their conscious efforts knowing that even if their unconscious mind takes an interest in a problem, there is a chance that it won’t deliver the goods. What has happened, in such cases, is that their conscious mind—which as we have seen isn’t that bright—has foolishly chosen to work on a problem that is so difficult that not even their brilliant unconscious mind can solve it.

Because serious problem-solving starts with this leap of faith, it makes it that much sweeter when your unconscious mind does deliver the goods. It is like watching a magic show in which you are both the magician and the audience. And if you have any humility at all, you will, at the dinner you have to celebrate “your” breakthrough insight, drink a toast to your unconscious mind.

Headline image credit: Pensive woman. CC0 via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *