The ‘chattering monkey’ theory: does the conscious mind shout down the unconscious one?

Many psychiatrists, and at least one novelist, have speculated that the unconscious mind is much bigger than the conscious mind. And yet we know nothing about it. Freud has proposed that it forms the basis of the true personality. His ‘id’ lives there, and much psychiatry is devoted to recovering ‘repressed memories’ or ‘repressed aspects of the personality’ which are pushed down there, so that the conscious mind can never be aware of them. Occasionally the unconscious mind pushes new and important creative ideas up into the conscious mind, and these sudden mental explosions can sometimes transform their whole field. I have noted several intriguing examples23 of such sudden creative insights. Yet the unconscious mind is usually quite silent. Since I suspect that the unconscious mind may be crucial for consciousness, I am very interested in the idea that it sometimes tries weakly to touch that consciousness.

One common notion of normal life is that our awareness is dominated by the loud ‘chattering monkeys’ of the conscious mind. To become aware of the quiet voice of the unconscious mind, we need to ‘still’ those chattering monkeys. This makes some sort of sense; our mental efforts are usually centred on what the brain is telling us consciously. We are always aware of the inputs to it from our senses, its cogitations on what they imply about the world around us, and its resulting outputs to our muscles. In order to listen to the still, small voice of the unconscious mind, we need to still the loud monkeys of the conscious mind. In general, I fear, this does not work; many psychiatric efforts to get at the unconscious mind this way have failed to deliver the goods. Nonetheless it remains an interesting ploy. In the paragraphs below, I discuss five ways of stilling the mind: dreams, mental relaxation, meditation, hypnosis, and sensory deprivation.

I consider dreams more fully elsewhere (Chapter 10). They occur when the subject is asleep and are presumably created by a mind free of monkey chatter. They generally appear pretty senseless, and seldom have any clear message: often they seem entirely random. I assume that the unconscious mind invents them, but in the process of pushing them ‘upstairs’ it censors and disguises them strongly (that deception is presumably part of its strategy for pushing anything upstairs). Psychiatrists have often studied dreams as a way into the unconscious mind, but have needed subtle ‘interpretations’ to get anywhere.

A very simple way of stilling the monkeys is just by mental relaxation. Many subjects try to relax naturally before, for example, a card-guessing experiment. More dedicated experiments have explored physical relaxation as well. Thus, an electrical myograph (a device for looking for tension in muscles) has been used to encourage the subject to relax totally, and just ‘let go’ of the body. Ideally, the mind should go blank as well. The outcome seems to be that extrasensory ability is enhanced, detectably but not dramatically.

Another way of quietening those chattering monkeys is meditation. We can probably take it as a more intense and directed form of mental relaxation. Gautama Buddha is said to have meditated for years before suddenly receiving, under a now famous tree, the enlightenment which resulted in the establishment of a major religion. The ancient Indian gurus, sages and yogis explored several techniques of meditation. The earliest written record may be that of Patanjali, who is often considered the founder of the Raja system of yoga. He divided his technique into five initial stages, which appear to have been concerned with eliminating external distraction. The later three stages required increasing concentration on one target image or object. In the final stage, samadhi, the attention of the meditator had to be ‘totally absorbed’ by the target. When that target was finally given up, the mind was completely still.

Modern meditators have sought to monitor their success at stilling the mind by exploiting current electronic brain devices. Thus, electroencephalography puts a number of electrodes around the head, and picks out various electrical rhythms in the brain. One of them, the alpha rhythm, seems linked to sensory input. It is usually broken up by sensory input (e.g. from the eyes) but is maintained by effective meditators. Several investigators in paranormal laboratories have explored meditation to see if it enhances paranormal ability. The results were often encouraging, but were not so striking as to indicate a new and powerful way forward.

Another way of quietening those monkeys is by hypnosis. This was explored in the late 1700s by Friedrich Mesmer, whose theory of ‘animal magnetism’ was soon superseded. However, in medical hands hypnosis became a way in which a patient could be usefully anaesthetized, but still remain conscious and tractable. In this passive state, the patient essentially abandoned all physiological control to the hypnotist. That patient could be subjected to treatments (such as tooth extraction) that would be painful or troublesome in normal consciousness. Hypnotized subjects have been studied in psychic research to see if the hypnotic state releases useful paranormal abilities. Again, the answer seems to be no, or not much.

Yet another way of ‘stilling the mind’ may be sensory deprivation. The basic idea is to inhibit as many sensory inputs as you can, so the brain gets as little physical data as possible. It then, perhaps, has to attend to the weak awarenesses that come to it from the unconscious mind. If so, psychic awareness and ability could well rise usefully. The great physicist Richard Feynman is among those who have tried it. He liked the idea of getting ‘hallucinations’ in the sensory-deprivation tanks employed by John Lilly. Lilly’s tanks contained a solution of magnesium sulfate (Epsom Salts: the solution is harmless, but denser than water), held in darkness and silence and close to body heat. When a subject got into such a tank, he or she floated easily, could breathe easily, but received essentially no signals from the eyes or ears, and no thermal information from the skin. The operators could also make the subject a bit dopey with a low dose of the anaesthetic ketamine. Feynman found that he could move his ‘ego’ about. Most people normally have the sense that ‘they’ are in their brain, a bit behind the eyes; Feynman could shift his ego around his body, and even outside the room! Feynman had talked to someone who had been in India and had been informed by a guru, and he later called this an ‘out-of-body’ or OBE experience (I briefly note them in Chapter 10). Feynman managed to have several hallucinations in one of Lilly’s sensory- deprivation tanks, but reckoned they came from things he had been thinking about before he went into it. He never reported having any hallucination that seemed to come from outside his own experience.

Many other people have explored sensory deprivation, both for its own sake and as a way of encouraging paranormal experiences. Thus, in the ‘ganzfeld’ technique (which I discuss in Chapter 8), each eye of the subject is covered by half a ping-pong ball. The result is an unpatterned visual sensation rather like the ‘whiteout’ dreaded by arctic explorers, in which weather conditions and falling snow totally defeat the visual sense. The subject of the ganzfeld method also has his or her ears saturated by headphones carrying unpatterned ‘white noise’. Restricted in this way, the subject seems to be receptive to extrasensory perceptions at greater than chance levels, but not dramatically so.

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