The unconscious mind as a deceiver

All these techniques ignore something that I feel is central to the unconscious mind. It is inherently a deceiver. It holds on very strongly to anything in its grasp, and whatever it does let up is usually censored or disguised in some way. Hence, of course, the psychiatric art of ‘interpreting’ dreams—they are never straightforward accounts of whatever is troubling the dreamer. I talk about a typical dream deception in The Aha! Moment.22 Elias Howe, one of the inventors of the sewing machine, had a dream in which he was being led out to execution by warriors with spears—spears which had a hole in the blade, near the point. He woke up, realizing the implication for his sewing machine: the eye of the needle should be near its point! Howe’s insight, which must have come from his unconscious mind, determined the whole design of his machine. Indeed, every modern sewing machine follows Howe: it also has a needle with its eye near the point. Freud reckoned that the unconscious mind was tricky and jokey; I go further, and like the biologist Trivers’s feel that it is actively misleading. Trivers has claimed that the unconscious mind developed in higher animals to store those dangerous truths that are best kept from other animals. Such worrying truths might include, for example, their position in the pecking order, their hopes of becoming pack leader, and their special friends, enemies, teachers or pupils in the pack. Once these dangerous truths are firmly repressed into the unconscious mind, the animal can lie about them to the other animals. The best liars consciously believe their own lies, and feel quite truthful—this notion is behind George Orwell’s terrible technique of ‘doublethink’, as expounded in his novel 1984. The unconscious mind exists to hold ‘personal political’ information safely. This allows the conscious mind, which knows nothing about such worrying realities, to lie about them convincingly. Accordingly, the unconscious mind is not merely weak and easily shouted down: its strategy of deception demands that it be completely silent. That is why, even by the most drastic ‘stilling’ of the conscious mind, we are almost never aware of it. In human beings, however, I suspect that it may have a further job: it acts as an ‘overflow’ memory for information that comes in, but cannot easily be held in the limited memory regions of the human brain. However, it probably developed as a form of deception.

Deception seems to be a fundamental part of any information system. In MIT in the 1970s, the first computer was built to be shared by several human users. Its operators were surprised to find that each file needed some sort of personal identifier such as a password, by which each user could protect his or her work from interference from others—possibly from pure jokey malice, but possibly also as a way of gaining some sort of advantage. Those jokers were the forerunners of a whole tribe of malicious ‘hackers’ whose skill is to penetrate information schemes for gain. We are now seeing the same sort of process at work on the internet, with the development of various ‘worms’, ‘viruses’, ‘back doors’, ‘honeypots’ and so on. I suspect that in the course of evolution, a large set of ways for extracting modes of information has evolved, together with another whole variety of defensive strategies against it. It interests me, for example, that in the process of digestion (above), all the information in the swallowed food is destroyed before the swallower makes any attempt to use it for personal gain. When I encounter some informational oddity, such as the way that a mentally ill person seems to prefer being ill to becoming aware of the hidden information which might help a psychiatrist (Chapter 8), I ponder that I might have stumbled onto a guard mechanism that makes evolutionary sense. And, of course, my schemes for recovering information from the unknown world via the unconscious mind, have to include strategies against the many deceits and misdirections they are likely to encounter (Chapter 16).

Quite apart from its possible use in guarding against misinformation, the human brain seems not even to be fully used as a holder of true and useful information—as shown by its apparent ability to provide seemingly vacant secondary sites for information lost by a partial brain failure elsewhere (such as a stroke; Chapter 3). Indeed, I have failed to define any believable guess at its storage capacity (Appendix D). I even speculate that we may hold excess information in non-material form, in the unknown world ‘outside the diving bell’. This may seem outrageous to readers who automatically assume (as I once did) that everything we know is held in the brain in material form, somewhere in that storage capacity. Yet I like the idea that our unconscious connection to that world may at least allow us to have some access to non-material information. Indeed, I suspect that even some part of our unconscious mind may be there—which is perhaps why it is so hard for psychiatrists to get at. It interests me that the Victorian poet Cosmo Monkhouse, in his poem ‘Any Soul to Any Body’, takes the physical body as inherently truthful, while the non-material soul often lies. The body sometimes betrays those lies by (for example) blushing or stammering. This fits the notion that it is the non-material element of a person or an animal which is the inherent deceiver.

Accordingly, all dealings with the unconscious mind must expect deceit, and need some way of penetrating it. There are many cases of insights that have turned out entirely fictitious. Kipling’s poem ‘En-dor’ (I refer to it in Chapter 15) has the line: ‘Lying spirits perplex us sore’— and his bitter words may have come from life. The most dramatic psychic guessing systems are still mainly wrong. The most successful attempt to get useful information from the non-material world was probably the automatic writing system deployed by Bond and Alleyne (Chapter 15). These investigators found useful information about the Glastonbury Edgar Chapel but never got anywhere with the Loretto Chapel. Even the clever cross-correspondence scheme apparently hatched after death by Myers, Gurney and Sidgwick (Chapter 15) was never unambiguously interpreted. So I feel that while chattering monkeys may be deafening, they are not really fundamental. The voice of the unconscious mind is not so much weak as deceptive. The problem is not just one of removing a strong noise which swamps a weak signal. You need some way of unwrapping or deciphering something which is inherently disguised.

So what should we think about monkey chatter? Several ways of removing it, or at least of reducing it, seem not to have released any significant amount of new psychic ability. My own feeling is that the conscious mind is entirely used to constant monkey chatter, and has its own way of cutting through it to attend to an important new signal. Thus, a sleeping mother may be quite undisturbed by the racket of a passing train, and yet may wake instantly if her baby starts to whimper. Again, I recall waking at once on hearing the odd quiet noise of a falling waterdrop (the roof had started to leak). I have read that one way to be creative is to be the driver on a car journey. The conscious mind is then occupied with many trivial tasks. This keeps it active and out of the way, leaving the unconscious mind to think its own thoughts. The scheme just gives those chattering monkeys something unimportant to chatter about, and lets them get on with it. I feel they are not the main barrier to reaching the unconscious mind. That problem lies deeper. We have to look more carefully at the deceitfulness of the human unconscious, and devise ways of outwitting it, or of correcting its distortions.

 
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