The Subconscious Mind - Outwitting Our Nerves - A Primer Of Psychotherapy

The Subconscious Mind - Outwitting Our Nerves - A Primer Of Psychotherapy

In which we look below the surface and discover a veritable wonderland


Strangers to Ourselves

Hidden Strings.

A collie dog lies on the hearthrug. A small boy with mischievous intent ties a fine thread to a bone, hides himself behind a chair, and pulls the bone slowly across the floor. The dog is thrown into a fit of terror because he does not know about the hidden string.

A Chinese in the early days of San Francisco stands spell-bound at the sight of a cable car. "No pushee. No pullee. Go allee samee like hellee!" He does not know about the hidden string.

A woman of refinement and culture thinks a thought that horrifies her sensitive soul. It is entirely out of keeping with her character as she knows it. In her misunderstanding she considers it wicked and thrusts it from her, wondering how it ever could have been hers. She does not know about the hidden string.

In the last two chapters we thought together about some of these strings, examining the fibers of which they are made and learning in what directions they pull. We found them to be more powerful than we should have supposed, more insistent and less visible. We found that instinctive desire is the string, the cable that energizes our every act, but that our desires are neither single nor simple, and are but rarely on the surface. Many of us live with them a long time, feeling the tug, but not recognizing the string.

There's a Reason. We take our thoughts and feelings and actions for granted, without stopping very often to wonder where they come from. But there is always a reason. When the law of cause and effect reaches the doorsill of our minds, it does not stop short to give way to the law of chance. We wake up in the morning with a certain thought on top. We say it "just happens." But nothing ever just happens. No thought that ever comes into our heads has been without its history,—its ancestors and its determining causes. But what about dreams? They, at least, you say, have no connections, no past and no future, only a weird, fantastic present. Strange to say, dreams have been found to be as closely related to our real selves, as interwoven with the warp and woof of our lives as are any of our waking thoughts. Even dreams have a reason.

We find ourselves holding certain beliefs and prejudices, interested in certain things and indifferent to others, liking some foods, some colors and disliking others. Search our minds as we will, we find no clue to many of these inner trends. Why?

The answer is simple. The cause is hidden below the surface. If we try to explain ourselves on the basis of the open-to-inspection part of our minds, we must come to the conclusion that we are queer creatures indeed. Only by assuming that there is more to us than we know, can we find any rational basis for the way we think and feel and act.

A Real Mind. We learn of our internal machinery by what it does. We must infer a part of our minds which introspection does not reveal, a mind within the mind, able to work for us even while we are unaware of its existence. This inner mind is usually known as the subconscious, the mind under the level of consciousness. [16] We forget a name, but we know that it will come to us if we think about something else. Presently, out of somewhere, there flashes the word we want. Where was it in the meanwhile, and what hunted it out from among all our other memories and sent it up into consciousness? The something which did that must be capable of conserving memories, of recognizing the right one and of communicating it,—surely a real mind.


Writers of the psycho-analytic school use the word "unconscious" to denote the lower layers of this region, and "fore-conscious" to denote its upper layers. Morton Prince uses the terms "unconscious" and "conscious" to denote the different strata. As there is still a good deal of confusion in the use of terms, it has seemed to us simpler to use throughout only the general term "subconscious."

One evening my collaborator fumbled unsuccessfully for the name of a certain well-known journalist and educator. It was on the tip of her tongue, but it simply would not come, not even the initial letter. In a whimsical mood she said to herself just as she went to sleep, "Little subconscious mind, you find that name to-night." In the middle of the night she awoke, saying, "Williams—Talcott Williams." The subconscious, which has charge of her memories, had been at work while she slept.

The history of literature abounds in stories of under-the-surface work. The man of genius usually waits until the mood is on, until the muse speaks; then all his lifeless material is lighted by new radiance. He feels that some one outside himself is dictating. Often he merely holds the pen while the finished work pours itself out spontaneously as if from a higher source.

But it is not only the man of genius who makes use of these unseen powers. He may have readier access to his subconscious than the rest of us, but he has no monopoly. The most matter-of-fact man often says that he will "sleep over" a knotty problem. He puts it into his mind and then goes about his business, or goes to sleep while this unseen judge weighs and balances, collects related facts, looks first at one side of the question and then at the other, and finally sends up into consciousness a decision full of conviction, a decision that has been formulated so far from the focus of attention that it seems to be something altogether new, a veritable inspiration.

We must infer the subconscious from what it does. Things happen,—there must be a cause. Some of the things that happen presuppose imagination, reason, intelligence, will, emotion, desire, all the elements of mind. We cannot see this mind, but we can see its products. To deny the subconscious is to deny the artist while looking at his picture, to disbelieve in the poet while reading his poem, and to doubt the existence of the explosive while listening to the report. The subconscious is an artist, a poet, and an explosive by turns. If we deny its existence, a good portion of man's doings are unintelligible. If we admit it, many of his actions and his afflictions which have seemed absurd stand out in a new light as purposeful efforts with a real and adequate cause.

The Submerged Nine Tenths. The more deeply psychologists and physicians have studied into these things, the more certainly have they been forced to the conclusion that the conscious mind of man, the part that he can explore at will, is by far the smaller part of his personality. Since this is to some people a rather startling proposition, we can do no better than quote the following statement from White on the relation of consciousness to the rest of the psychic life:

Consciousness includes only that of which we are aware, while outside of this somewhat restricted area there lies a much wider area in which lie the deeper motives for conduct, and which not only operates to control conduct, but also dictates what may and what may not become conscious. Stanley Hall has very forcibly put the matter by using the illustration of the iceberg. Only one-tenth of the iceberg is visible above water; nine-tenths is beneath the surface. It may appear in a given instance that the iceberg is being carried along by the prevailing winds and surface currents, but if we keep our eyes open we shall sooner or later see a berg going in the face of the wind, and, so, apparently putting to naught all the laws of aerodynamics. We can understand this only when we come to realize that much the greater portion of the berg is beneath the surface and that it is moving in response to invisible forces addressed against this submerged portion.

Consciousness only arises late in the course of evolution and only in connection with adjustments that are relatively complex. When the same or similar conditions in the environment are repeatedly presented to the organism so that it is called upon to react in a similar and almost identical way each time, there tends to be organized a mechanism of reaction which becomes more and more automatic and is accompanied by a state of mind of less and less awareness. [17]


White: Mechanisms of Character Formation.

It is easy to see the economy of this arrangement which provides ready-made patterns of reaction for habitual situations and leaves consciousness free for new decisions. Since an automatic action, traveling along well-worn brain paths, consumes little energy and causes the minimum of fatigue, the plan not only frees consciousness from a confusing number of details, but also works for the conservation of energy. While consciousness is busy lighting up the special problems of the moment, the vast mass of life's demands are taken care of by the subconscious, which constitutes the bulk of the mind. "Properly speaking, the unconscious is the real psyche." [18]


Freud: Interpretation of Dreams, p. 486.

The Heart of Psychology. In the face of all this, it is not to be wondered at that the problem of the subconscious has been called not one problem of psychology but the problem. It cannot be denied that the discoveries which have already been made as to its activities have been of immense practical importance in the understanding of normal conduct and in the treatment of the psycho-neuroses.

If some of the methods—such as hypnosis, automatic writing, and interpretation of dreams—which are used to investigate its activities seem to savor of the charlatan and the mountebank, it is because they have occasionally been appropriated by the ignorant and the unscrupulous. Their real setting is the psychological laboratory and the physician's office. In the hands of men like Sigmund Freud, Boris Sidis, and Morton Prince, they are as scientific as the apparatus of any other laboratory and their findings are as susceptible of proof. We may, then, go forward with the conviction that we are walking on solid ground and that the main paths, at least, will turn into beaten highways.

Ancestral Memories

Race-Memories. An individual as he stands at any moment is the product of his past,—the past which he has inherited and the past which he has lived. In other words, he is a bundle of memories accumulated through the experience of the race, and through his own experience as a person. Some of these memories are conscious, and these he calls his, while others fail to reach consciousness and are not recognized as part of his assets.

The instincts form the starting-point of mind, conscious and subconscious, and are the foundation upon which the rest is built. They often show themselves as part of our conscious lives, but their roots are laid deep in the subconscious from which they can never be eradicated. This deepest-laid instinctive layer of the subconscious is little subject to change. It represents the earlier adjustments of the race, crystallized into habit. It takes no account of the differences between the present and the past. It knows no culture, no reason, no lately acquired prudence. It is all energy and can only wish, or urge toward action. But since only those race-memories became instincts which had proved needful to the race in the long run, they are on the whole beneficent forces, working for the good of the race and the good of the individual, if he learns how to handle them aright and to adapt them to present conditions.

This instinctive urge toward action arouses in the individual an organic response that is felt as a tension or craving and is mainly dependent upon its own chemical constitution at the moment. Hunger is the sensation caused by the little muscular contractions in the stomach when the body is low in its food supply. Sudden fright is felt as an all-gone sensation "at the pit of the stomach." What really happens is a tightening up of the circular muscles of the blood-vessels lying in the network of the solar plexus, and a spasm of the muscles of the digestive tract. The hungry stomach impels to action until satisfied; the physical discomfort in fear impels toward measures of safety. The apparatus that is made use of by the subconscious in carrying out this instinctive urge is called the autonomic nervous system. [19] It regulates all the functions of living, not only under the stress of emotion, but during every moment of waking or sleeping.


Kempf: "The Tonus of Automatic Segments as a Cause of Abnormal Behavior," Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases, January, 1921.

A Capable Manager. The conscious mind could not possibly send messages to the numerous glands that fit the body for action, nor attend to all the delicate adjustments that enter into the process. The conscious mind in most of us does not even know of the existence of the organs and secretions involved, but something sends the messages and it is something that has a remarkable likeness to mind as we usually think of mind,—something which takes advantage of the past and gages means to an end with a nicety that excites our wonder.

Take no Anxious Thought. We take food into our stomachs and forget about it, if we are wise; and this subconscious overseer who through millions of years of experience has learned how to digest food does the rest. As with digestion, so with our heart-action; we lie down at night fairly sure that there will be no break in the regular rhythm of its beat. The subconscious overseer is "on the job" and he never rests. No matter how hard we sleep, he never lets us forget to take a breath; and if we trust him, he is very likely to wake us up at the appointed time in the morning. Also, if we trust him, he carries us off to sleep as though we were babies. Has he not had long practice in the days before insomnia was invented?

First Aid to the Injured. In times of infection or injury, this subconscious manager is better than any doctor. The doctors say with truth that they only assist nature. If the infection is internal, antitoxins are produced within the body. If the injury is external, like a cut, the messages fly, and white blood-corpuscles are marshaled to take care of poisons and build up the tissue. If the injury is of the kind that needs rest, the subconscious doctor knows it. He therefore causes pain and rigidity, in order to induce us to hold the injured part still until it is restored.

Crile reminds us of a fact that is often noticed by surgeons. If patients under ether are handled roughly, especially in the intestinal region, respiration quickens and there are tremors and even convulsive efforts which interfere with the surgeon's work. The conscious mind cannot feel. It is asleep. But the subconscious mind, whose business it is to protect the body, is trying to get away from injury. The body uses up as much energy as though it had run for miles, and when the patient wakes up, we say that he is suffering from shock. The subconscious mind which is not affected by ether, has been exhausting itself in a vain attempt to get the body away from harm.

A Tireless Servant. When the conscious mind undertakes a job, it is always more or less subject to fatigue. But the subconscious after its long practice seems never to tire. We say that its activities have become automatic. With all its inherited skill, the subconscious, if left to itself, can be depended upon to run the bodily machinery without effort and without hitch. The only things that can interfere with its work are the wrong kind of emotions and the wrong kind of suggestions from the conscious mind. Barring these, it goes its way like a trusty servant, looking after details and leaving its master's mind free for other things. Having been "in the family" for generations, it knows its business and resents any interference with its duties or any infringement of its rights.

No man, then, comes into this world without inheritance: he receives from his ancestors two goodly sets of heirlooms, the instincts and the mechanism which carries on bodily functions. This is the capital with which man starts life; but immediately he begins increasing this capital, adding memories from his own experience to the accumulated race-records.

Personal Memories

No more startling secret has been unearthed by science than the discovery of the length and minuteness of our memories. No matter how much one may think he has forgotten, the tablets of his mind are closely written with records of infinitesimal experiences, shadowy sensations, old happenings which the conscious self has lost entirely and would scarcely recognize as its own. Many of these brain records, or neurograms, as Prince calls them, are never aroused from their dormant conditions. But others, aroused by emotion or association of ideas, may after years of inactivity, come forth again either as conscious memories or as subconscious forces, or even as physiological memories,—bodily repetitions of the pains, palpitations, and tremors of old emotional experiences.

Irresistible Childhood. An experience that is forgotten is not necessarily lost. Although the first few years of childhood are lost to conscious memory, these years outweigh all others in their influence on character. The Jesuit priest was right when he said, "Give me a child until he is six years old, and he will be a Catholic all his life." As Frink has so ably shown, the determining factors that enter into any adult choice, such as the choice of the Catholic or the Protestant faith, are in a large measure made up of subconscious memories from early childhood, forgotten memories of Sunday-school and church, of lessons at home or passages in books,—experiences which no voluntary effort could recall, but which still live unrecognized in our mature judgments and beliefs. Naturally we do not acknowledge these subconscious motives. We like to believe that all our decisions are based on reason, and so we invent plausible arguments for our attitudes and our actions, arguments which we ourselves implicitly believe. This process of substituting a plausible reason for a subconscious one is known as rationalization, a process which every one of us engages in many times a day.

It is indeed true that the child is father to the man. Those first impressionable years, when we believed implicitly whatever any one told us and when through ignorance we reacted emotionally to ordinary experiences, are molding us still, making us the men and women we are to-day, coloring with childish ideas many of the attitudes of our supposedly reasoning life. Bergson says:

The unconscious is our historical past. In reality the past is preserved automatically. In its entirety probably it follows us at every instant; all that we have felt, thought and willed from our earliest infancy is there, leaning over the present which is about to join it, pressing against the portals of consciousness that would fain leave it outside.

Spontaneous Outbursts. "How do we know all this?" some one says. "What is the evidence for these sweeping statements? If we cannot remember, how can we discover these strange memories that are so powerful but so elusive? If they are below the level of consciousness, are they not, in the very nature of the case, forever hidden from view, in the sphere of the occult rather than that of science?"

The answer to these questions is determined by one important fact; the line between the conscious and subconscious minds does not always remain in the same place; the "threshold of consciousness" is sometimes displaced, automatically allowing these buried memories to come to the surface. In sleep and delirium, in trance and hallucination, in hysteria and intoxication, the tables are turned; the restraining hand of the conscious mind is loosened and the submerged self comes forth with all its ancient memories.

It is a common experience to have a patient in delirium repeat long-forgotten verses or descriptions of events that the "real man" has lost entirely. The renowned servant-girl, quoted by Hudson, who in delirium recited passage after passage of Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, which she had heard her one-time master repeat in his study, is typical of many such instances. [20]


Hudson: The Law of Psychic Phenomena, p. 44. Quoted from Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, Vol. I, p. 117 (edit. 1847).

A young girl of nineteen, a patient of mine, lapsed for several weeks into a dissociated state in which she forgot all the memories and ideas of her adult life, and returned to the period of her childhood. She used to say that she saw things inside her head and would accurately describe events that took place before she was two years of age,—scenes which she had completely forgotten in her normal life. One day when I asked her to tell me what she was seeing, she began to talk about "little sister" (herself) and "little brother." "Little sister and brother were the two little folks that lived with their mother and their daddy and they were playing on the sand-pile. You know there was only one sand-pile, not like all the ones they have down here (at the seaside), and they had a bucket that they would put sand in and they would dump it out again and they would make nice things, you know; they would play with their little dog Ponto and he was white with black and brown spots on him. Little brother had white hair and he was bigger than little sister and he had a little waist with ruffles down the front and around the collar and a black coat that came down to his knees and it had two little white bands around it. Some of the waists he wore had blue specks and some had red and black specks in it.

"Little sister had yellow curls and she had a blue coat with jiggly streaks of white in it, and she had a little white bonnet that was crocheted, and she had little blue mittens on that were tied to a string that went around her neck and down the other arm. It got pretty cold where they lived. Little sister and little brother would go out to the pile of leaves and jump on them and bounce and they would crackle. The leaves came down from the trees all of a sudden when they got tired, and they were different colors, brown and red. Little sister could walk then but she could not walk one other time before then; she could stand up by holding to a chair, but she could not go herself. One morning Big Tom said 'Run to Daddy' and she went to her daddy, and after that she always walked; they were glad and she was glad. She walked all day long. Big Tom was a man who used to help Daddy and little sister always liked him. He was a nice man."

The mother verified this scene of the first walking, saying that it had occurred on her own wedding-anniversary when the child was twenty-three months old.

One night I heard the same patient talk in her sleep in the slow and hesitating manner of a child reading phonetically from a printed page. I soon recognized the words as those of a poem of Tagore's, called "My Prayer," and remembered that a magazine containing the poem had been lying on the bed during the day. When she had finished I wakened her, saying, "Now tell me what you have been dreaming." She answered in her childish way, "I think I do not dream." She went to sleep immediately and again repeated the poem, word for word, without a single mistake. Again I awakened her with the words, "Now tell me what you have been dreaming." And again she answered, "I think I do not dream." I said: "But yes; don't you remember you were just saying, 'When the time comes for me to go'?" (the last line of the poem). "Oh, yes," she said, "I was seeing it, and I think I'll not go to sleep again. It tires me so to see it."

While she was awake she had no recollection of having seen the poem and was indeed in her dissociated state quite incapable of understanding its meaning. Asleep, she saw every word as plainly as if the page had been before her eyes.

The distorted pictures of dreams are always made of the material which past experiences have furnished and which have in many cases been dropped out of consciousness for years only to rise out of their long oblivion when the conscious mind has been put to sleep.

Unearthing Old Experiences. However, psychology does not have to wait for buried memories to come forth of their own free will. It has a number of successful ways of summoning them from their hiding-place and helping them across the line into consciousness. In the hands of skilled investigators and therapeutists, hypnosis, hypnoidization, automatic writing, crystal-gazing, abstraction, free association, word-association, and interpretation of dreams have all been repeatedly successful in bringing to light memories which apparently have been for many years completely blotted out of mind. As we become better acquainted with these technical devices we shall find that there are four kinds of experiences whose records are carefully stored away in our minds. Some were always so far from the center of our attention that we could swear they never had been ours; others, although once present in consciousness, were so trivial and unimportant that it seems ridiculous to suppose them conserved; others never came into our waking minds at all and entered our lives only in special states, such as sleep or delirium or dreams. All these we should expect to forget; the astonishing thing is that they ever were conserved. But there is a fourth class that is different. It is made up of experiences that were so vital, so emotional, so closely woven into the fiber of our being that it seems impossible that they ever could be forgotten. Let us look at a few examples of records of all these four kinds of experiences, examples chosen from hundreds of their kind as illustrations of the all-embracing character of buried memories. [21]


For further examples see Prince, The Unconscious; Prince, The Dissociation of a Personality, and Hudson, The Law of Psychic Phenomena.

Out of the Corners of Our Eyes. In the first place, we are much more observing than we imagine. We may be so interested in our own thoughts that details of our environment are entirely lost on the conscious mind, but the subconscious has its eyes open, and its ears. People in hypnosis have been known to repeat verbatim whole passages from newspapers which they had never consciously read. While they were busy with one column, their wide-awake subconscious was devouring the next one, and remembering it. Prince relates the story of a young woman who unconsciously "took in" the details of a friend's appearance:

I asked B.C.A. (without warning and after having covered her eyes) to describe the dress of a friend who was present and with whom she had been conversing perhaps some twenty minutes. She was unable to do so beyond saying that he wore dark clothes. I then found that I myself was unable to give a more detailed description of his dress, although we had lunched and been together about two hours. B.C.A. was then asked to write a description automatically. Her hand wrote as follows (she was unaware that her hand was writing):

"He has on a dark greenish gray suit, a stripe in it—little rough stripe; black bow cravat; shirt with three little stripes in it; black laced shoes; false teeth; one finger gone; three buttons on his coat."

The written description was absolutely correct. The stripes in the coat were almost invisible. I had not noticed his teeth or the loss of a finger and we had to count the buttons to make sure of their number owing to their partial concealment by the folds of the unbuttoned coat. The shoe-strings I am sure under the conditions would have escaped nearly every one's notice. [22]


Prince: The Unconscious, p. 53.

Automatic writing, the method used to uncover this subconscious perception, is a favorite method with some investigators and is often used by Morton Prince. The hand writes without the direction of the personal consciousness and usually without the person's being aware that it is writing. A dissociated person does this very easily; other people can cultivate the ability, and perhaps most of us approach it when we are at the telephone, busily writing or drawing remarkable pictures while the rest of us is engaged in conversation.

The present epidemic of the Ouija board shows how many persons there are who are able to switch off the conscious mind and let the subconscious control the muscles that are used in writing. The fact that the writer has no understanding of what he is doing and believes himself directed by some outside power, in no way interferes with the subconscious phenomenon.

Everyday Doings. Besides perceptions which were originally so far from the focus of attention that the conscious mind never caught them at all, there are the little experiences of everyday life, fleeting thoughts and impressions which occupy us for a minute and then disappear. Every experience is a dynamic fact and no matter how trivial the experience may be or how completely forgotten, it still exists as a part of the personality.

An amusing example of the everyday kind of forgotten experience occurred during the writing of this chapter. I wrote a sentence which pleased me very well. This is the sentence: "In the esthetic processes of evolution they [man's desires] have sunk below the surface as soon as formed, and have been covered over by an elastic and snug-fitting consciousness as the skin covers in the tissues and organs of the body." After showing this passage to my collaborator and remarking that this figure had never been used before, I was partly chagrined and partly amused to have her bring me the following sentence from White and Jelliffe: "Consciousness covered over and obscured the inner organs of the psyche just as the skin hides the inner organs of the body from vision." My originality had vanished and I was close to plagiarism. Indeed, if a history of plagiarism could be written, it would probably abound in just such stories. I had read the article containing this sentence only once, about three years before, and had never quoted it or consciously thought of it. It had lain buried for three years, only to come forth as an original idea of my own. Who knows how many times we all do just this thing without catching ourselves in the trick?

Back-Door Memories. There are other kinds of memories which hide in the subconscious, memories of experiences which have not come in by the front door, but have entered the mind during special states, such as sleep, delirium, intoxication, or hypnosis. What is known as post-hypnotic suggestion is the functioning of a suggestion received during hypnosis and emerging later as an impulse without being recognized as a memory. A man in a hypnotic state is told that at five o'clock he will take off his clothes and go to bed, without remembering that such a suggestion has been given him. He awakens with no recollection of the suggestion, but at five o'clock he suddenly feels impelled to go to bed, even though his unreasonable desire puts him into a highly embarrassing position. The suggestion, to be thus effective, must have been conserved somewhere in his mind outside of consciousness.

Suggestions that enter the mind during the normal sleep are also recorded,—a fact that carries a warning to people who are in the habit of talking of all sorts of matters while in the room with sleeping children. I have sometimes suggested to sleeping patients that on waking they will remember and tell me the cause of their symptoms. The following example shows not only the conservation of impressions gained in sleep, but also the sway of forgotten ideas of childhood, still strong in mature years. This young woman, a trained nurse, with many marked symptoms of hysteria, had been asked casually to bring a book from the Public Library. She cried out in consternation, "Oh, no, I am afraid!" After a good deal of urging she finally brought the book, although at the cost of considerable effort. Later, while she was taking a nap, I said to her, "You will not remember that I have talked to you. You will stay asleep while I am talking and while you are asleep there will come to your mind the reasons why you are afraid to go to the Public Library. When you waken, you will tell me all about it." Upon awakening, she said: "Oh, do you know, I can tell you why I have always been afraid to go to the Public Library. While I was in Parochial School, Father —— used to come in and tell us children to use the books out of the school library and never to go to the Public Library." I questioned her concerning her idea of the reason for such an injunction and what she thought was in the books which she was told not to read. She hesitatingly stated that it was her idea, even in childhood, that the books dealt with topics concerning the tabooed subject of the birth of children and kindred matters.

Smoldering Volcanoes. Let us now consider those emotional experiences which seem far too compelling to be forgotten, but which may live within us for years without giving any evidence of their existence. Memories like these are apt to be anything but a dead past.

Many of my own patients have uncovered emotional memories through simply talking out to me whatever came into their minds, laying aside their critical faculty and letting their minds wander on into whatever paths association led them. This is known as the free-association method, and simple as it seems, is one of the most effective in uncovering memories which have been forgotten for years. One of my patients, a refined, highly educated woman of middle age, had suffered for two years with almost constant nausea. One day, after a long talk, with no suggestion on my part, only an occasional, "What does that remind you of?" she told with great emotion an experience which she had had at eighteen years of age, in which she had for a moment been sexually attracted to a boy friend, but had recoiled as soon as she realized where her impulse was leading her. She had been so horrified at the idea of her degradation, so nauseated at what she considered her sin, that she had put it out of her mind, denied that such a thought had ever been hers, repressed the desire into the subconscious, where it had continued to function unsatisfied, unassimilated with her mature judgments. Her nausea was the symbol of a moral disgust. Physical nausea she was willing to acknowledge, but not this other thing. Upon reciting this old experience, with every sign of the original shame, she cried: "Oh, Doctor! why did you bring this up? I had forgotten it. I haven't thought of it in thirty years." I reminded her that I couldn't bring it up,—I had never known anything about it. With the emotional incoming of this memory and the saner attitude toward it which the mature woman's mind was able to take, the nausea disappeared for good. This case is typical of the psycho-neuroses and we shall have occasion to refer to it again. The present emphasis is on the fact that an emotional memory may be buried for many years while it still retains the power of reappearing in more or less disguised manifestation.

Repressed Memories. If we ask how so burning a memory could escape from the consciousness of a grown woman, we are driven to the conclusion that this forgetting can be the result of no mere quiet fading away, but that there must have been some active force at work which kept the memory from coming into awareness. It was not lost. It was not passive. Out of sight was not out of mind. There must have been a reason for its expulsion from the personal consciousness. In fact, we find that there is a reason. We find that whenever a vital emotional experience disappears from view, it is because it is too painful to be endured in consciousness. Nor is it ever the pain of an impersonal experience or even the thought of what some one else has done to us that drives a memory out of mind. As a matter of fact, we never expel a memory except when it bears directly on ourselves and on our own opinion of ourselves. We can stand almost anything else, but we cannot stand an idea that does not fit in with our ideal for ourselves. This is not the pious ideal that we should like to live up to and that we hope to attain some day, not the ideal that we think we ought to have—like never speaking ill of others or never being selfish—but the secret picture that each of us has, locked away within him, the specifications of ourselves reduced to their lowest terms, below which we cannot go. Energized by the instinct of positive self-feeling, and organized with the moral sentiments which we have acquired from education and the ideals of society, especially those acquired in early childhood, this ideal of ourselves becomes incorporated into our conscience and is an absolute necessity for our happiness.

We have found that when two emotions clash, one drives out the other. So in this case, the woman's positive self-feeling of self-respect, combined with disgust, drove from the field that other emotion of the reproductive instinct which was trying to get expression. Speaking technically, one repressed the other. The woman said to herself, "No, I never could have had such a thought," and promptly forgot it. Needless to say, this kind of handling did not kill the impulse. Buried in the depths of her soul, it continued to live like a live coal, until in later years, fanned by the wind of some new experience, it burst into flame.

In this case the wish had originally flashed into awareness for an instant, but very often the impulse never gets into consciousness at all. The upper layers of the subconscious, where the acquired ideals live, automatically work to keep down any desires which are thought to be out of keeping with the person as he knows himself. He then would emphatically deny that such desires had ever had any place in his life.

Freud has called this repressing force the psychic censor. To get into consciousness, any idea from the subconscious must be able to pass this censor. This force seems to be a combination of the self-regarding and herd-instincts, which dispute with the instinct for reproduction the right to "the common path" for expression.

A considerable part of any person's subconscious is made up of memories, wishes, impulses, which are repressed in this way. Of course any instinctive desire may be repressed, but it is easy to understand why the most frequently denied impulse, the instinct of reproduction, against whose urgency society has cultivated so strong a feeling, should be repressed more frequently than any other. [23]


See foot-note, p. 145, Chap. VII.

Past and Present. It matters not, then, in what state experiences come to us, whether in sleep or delirium, intoxication or hypnosis, or in the normal waking condition. They are conserved and may exert great influence on our normal lives. It matters not whether the experiences be full of meaning and emotion or whether they be so slight as to pass unnoticed, they are conserved. It matters not whether these experiences be mere sense-impressions, or inner thoughts, whether they be unacknowledged hopes or fears, undesirable moods and unworthy desires or fine aspirations and lofty ideals. They are conserved and they may at a later day rise up to bless or to curse us long after we had thought them buried in the past. The present is the product of the past. It is the past plus an element of choice which keeps us from settling down in the despair of fatalism and enables us to do something toward making the present that is, a help and not a stumbling-block to the present that is to be.

Some Habits of the Subconscious

The Association of Ideas. It is only by something akin to poetic license that we can speak of lower and higher strata of mind. When we carry over the language of material things into the less easily pictured psychic realm, it is sometimes well to remind ourselves that figures of speech, if taken too literally, are more misleading than illuminating. When we speak of the deep-laid instinctive lower levels of mind and the higher acquired levels, we must not imagine that these strata are really laid in neat, mutually exclusive layers, one on top of the other in the chambers of the mind. Nor must we imagine the mental elements of instinct, idea, and memory as jumbled together in chaotic confusion, or in scattered isolated units. As a matter of fact, the best word to picture the inside of our minds is the word "group." We do not know just how ideas and instincts can group themselves together, but we do know that by some arrangement of brain paths and nerve-connections, the laws of association of ideas and of habit take our mental experiences and organize them into more or less permanent systems. Instinctive emotions tend to organize themselves around ideas to form sentiments; ideas or sentiments, which through repetition or emotion are associated together, tend to stay together in groups or complexes which act as a whole; complexes which pertain to the same interests tend to bind themselves into larger systems or constellations, forming moods, or sides to one's character. It is not highly important to differentiate in every case a sentiment from a complex, or a complex from a constellation, especially as many writers use "complex" as the generic term for all sorts of groups; but a general understanding of the much-used word "complex" is necessary for a comprehension of modern literature on psychology, psychotherapy or general education.

"What Is a Complex?" Reduced to its lowest terms, a complex is a group. It may be simply a group of associated movements, like lacing one's shoes or knitting; it may be a group of movements and ideas, like typewriting or piano-playing, which through repetition have become automatic or subconscious; it may be merely a group of ideas, such as the days of the week, the alphabet or the multiplication table. In all these types it is repetition working through the law of habit that ties the ideas and movements together into an organic whole. Usually, however, the word complex is reserved for psychic elements that are bound together by emotion. In this sense, a complex is an emotional thought-habit. Frink's definition, which is one of the simplest, recognizes only this emotional type: "A complex is a system of connected ideas, having a strong emotional tone, and displaying a tendency to produce or influence conscious thought and action in a definite and predetermined direction." [24]


Frink: "What Is a Complex?" Journal American Medical Assoc., Vol. LXII, No. 12, Mar. 21, 1914.

Emotion and repetition are the great welders of complexes. Emotion is the strongest cement in the world. A single emotional experience suffices to bind together ideas that were originally as far apart as the poles.

Sometimes a complex includes not only ideas, movements, and emotions, but physiological disturbances and sensations. Some people cannot go aboard a stationary ship without vomiting, nor see a rose, even though it prove to be a wax one, without the sneezing and watery eyes of hay-fever. This is what is known as a "conditioned reflex." Past associations plus fear have so welded together idea and bodily manifestation that one follows the other as a matter of course, long after the real cause is removed. In such ways innumerable nervous symptoms arise. The same laws which form healthy complexes, and, indeed, which make all education possible, may thus be responsible for the unhealthy mal-adaptive association-habits which lie back of a neurosis. Fortunately, a knowledge of this fact furnishes the clue to the re-education that brings recovery.

A complex may be either conscious or unconscious, but as it usually happens that either all or part of its elements are below the surface, the word is oftenest used to mean those buried systems of the subconscious mind that influence thought or behavior without themselves being open to scrutiny. It is these buried complexes, memory groups, gathered through the years of experience, that determine action in uniform and easily prophesied directions. Every individual has a definite complex about religion, about politics, about patriotism, about business, and it is the sum of these buried complexes which makes up his total personality.

Displacement. Association or grouping is, then, an intrinsic power of mind; but as all life seems to be built on opposites—light and darkness, heat and cold, love and hate—so mind, which is capable of association, is capable also of displacement or the splitting apart of elements which belong together. There is such a thing as the simple breaking up of complexes, when education or experience or neglect separate ideas and emotions which had been previously welded together; but displacement is another matter. Here there is still a path between idea and emotion; they still belong to the same complex, but the connection is lost sight of. The impulse or emotion attaches itself to another substitute idea which is related to the first but which is more acceptable to the personality. Sometimes the original idea is forgotten; repressed, or dissociated into the subconscious, as in anxiety neurosis; and sometimes it is merely shorn of its emotional interest and remembered as an unrelated or insignificant idea, as in compulsion neurosis.

Transference. Another kind of displacement which seems hard to believe possible until it is repeatedly encountered in intelligent human beings is the process called transference, by which everybody at some time or other acts toward the people he meets, not according to rational standards but according to old unconscious attitudes toward other people. Each of us carries, within, subconscious pictures of the people who surrounded us when we were children; and now when we meet a new person we are likely unconsciously to say to ourselves—not, "This person has eyebrows like my mother, or a voice like my nurse," or, "This person bosses me around as my father used to do," but, "This is my mother, this is my nurse, this is my father." Whereupon we may proceed to act toward that person very much as we did toward the original person in childhood.

Transference is subconsciously identifying one person with another and behaving toward the one as if he were that other. Analysis has discovered that many a man's hostile attitude toward the state or religion or authority in general, is nothing more than this kind of displacement of his childhood's attitude toward authority in the person of his perhaps too-domineering father. Many a woman has married a husband, not for what he was in himself, but because she unconsciously identified him with her childish image of her father.

Students of human nature have always recognized the kind of displacement which transfers the sense of guilt from some major act or attitude to a minor one which is more easily faced, just as Lady Macbeth felt that by washing her hands she might free herself from her deeper stain. This is a frequent mechanism in the psychoneuroses—not that neurotics are likely to have committed any great crime, but that they feel subconsciously that some of their wishes or thoughts are wicked.

The Phenomena of Dissociation. When an idea or a complex, a perception or a memory is either temporarily or permanently shoved out of consciousness into the subconscious, it is said to be dissociated. When we are asleep, the part of us that is usually conscious is dissociated and the submerged part takes the stage. When we forget our surroundings in concentration or absent-mindedness, a part of us is dissociated and our friends say that we are "not all there," or as popular slang has it, "Nobody home." When a mood or system of complexes drives out all other moods, one becomes "a different person." But if this normal dissociation is carried a step farther, we may lose the power to put ourselves together again, and then we may truly be said to be dissociated. Almost any part of us is subject to this kind of apparent loss. In neurasthenia the happy, healthy complexes which have hitherto dominated our lives may be split off and left lying dormant in the subconscious; or the power of will or concentration may seem to be gone. In hysteria we may seem to lose the ability to see or feel or walk, or we may lose for the time all recollection of certain past events, or of whole periods of our lives, or of everything but one system of ideas which monopolizes the field of attention. Sometimes great systems of memories, instincts, and complexes are alternately shifted in and out of gear, leaving first one kind of person on top and then another. [25] Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is not so fantastic a character as he seems. Any one who doubts the ability of the mind to split itself up into two or more distinct personalities, entertaining totally different conceptions of life, disliking each other, playing tricks on each other, writing notes to each other, and carrying on a perpetual feud as each tries to get the upper hand, should read Morton Prince's "Dissociation of a Personality," a fascinating account of his famous case, Miss Beauchamp.


When a memory or system of memories is suddenly lost from consciousness the person is said to be suffering from amnesia or pathological loss of memory.

Internal Warfare. Conflict, often accentuated by shock or fatigue, represses or drives down certain ideas, perceptions, wishes, memories, or complexes into the subconscious, where they remain, sometimes dormant and passive but often dynamic, emotional, carrying on an over-excited, automatic activity, freed from the control of reason and the modifying influence of other ideas, and able to cause almost any kind of disturbance. So long as there is team-work between the various parts of our personality we are able to act as a unit; but just as soon as we break up into factions with no communication between the warring camps, so soon do we become quite incapable of coördination or adjustment, like a nation torn by civil war. Many of the seemingly fantastic and bizarre mental phenomena of which a human being is capable are the result of this kind of disintegration.

However, nature has a remarkable power for righting herself, and it is only under an accumulation of unfortunate circumstances that there appears a neurosis, which is nothing more than a functioning of certain parts of the personality with all the rest dissociated. We shall later inquire more fully into the causes that lead up to such a result and shall find that the mechanisms involved are these processes of organization and disorganization by which mind is wont to group together or separate the various elements within its borders.


Gathering up our impressions, we find a number of outstanding qualities which we may summarize in the following way:

The Subconscious is:

1 Vast yet Explorable

The fraction that could accurately show the relation of the conscious to the unconscious part of ourselves would have such a small numerator and such a huge denominator that we might well wonder where consciousness came in at all. [26] Some one has likened the subconscious to the great far-reaching depths of the Mammoth Cave, and consciousness to the tiny, flickering lamp which we carry to light our way in the darkness. However, ever the subconscious mind is becoming explorable, and it may be that science is giving the tiny lamp the revealing power of a great searchlight.


"The entire active life of the individual may be represented by a fraction, the numerator of which is any particular moment, the denominator is the rich inheritance of the past."—Jelliffe: "The Technique of Psychoanalysis," Psychoanalytic Review, Vol. III, No. 2, p. 164.

2 Ancient yet Modern

The lowest layers of the subconscious, represented by the instincts, are as old as life itself, with their lineage reaching back in direct and unbroken line to the first living things on the ooze of the ocean floor. The higher strata are more modern, full, and accurate records of our own lifetime, beginning with our first cry and ending with to-day's thoughts.

3 Primitive yet Refined

The lowest level, representing the past of the race, is primitive like a savage, and infantile, like a child; it is instinctive, unalterable, and universal; it knows no restraint, no culture, and no prudence. The higher level, the storehouse of individual experience, bears the marks of acquired ideals, of cultivated refinement, and represents among other things the precepts and prudence of civilized society.

4 Emotional yet Intellectual

Our records of the past are not dead archives, but living forces—persistent, urging, dynamic and emotional. They give meaning to new experiences, color our judgments, shape our beliefs, determine our interests, and, if wrongly handled, make their way into consciousness as neurotic symptoms.

However, the subconscious is not all emotion. It is a mind capable of elaborate thought, able to calculate, to scheme, to answer doubts, to solve problems, to fabricate the purposeful, fantastic allegories of dreams and to create from mere knowledge the inspired works of genius.

But the subconscious has one great limitation, it cannot reason inductively. Given a premise, this mind can reason as unerringly as the most skilful logician; that is, it can reason deductively, but it cannot arrive at a general conclusion from a number of particular facts. However, except for inductive reasoning and awareness, the subconscious seems to possess all the attributes of conscious mind and is in fact an intellectual force to be reckoned with.

5 Organized yet Disorganizable

The subconscious mind is a highly organized institution, but like all such institutions it is liable to disorganization when rent by internal dissension. Ordinarily it keeps its ideas and emotions, its complexes and moods in fairly accurate order, but when upset by emotional warfare, it gets its records confused and falls into a chaotic state which makes regular business impossible.

6 Masterful yet Obedient

The subconscious, which is master of the body, is in normal life the servant of consciousness. One of its outstanding qualities is suggestibility. Since it cannot reason from particulars to a general conclusion it takes any statement given it by consciousness, believes it implicitly and acts accordingly.

The pilot wheel of the ship is, after all, the conscious mind, insignificant in size when compared with the great mass of the vessel, but all-powerful in its ability to direct the course of the voyage.

Nervous persons are people who are too much under the sway of the subconscious; so, too, are some geniuses, who narrowly escape a neurosis by finding a more useful outlet for their subconscious energies. While the poet, the inventor, and the neurotic are likely to be too largely controlled by the subconscious, the average man is to a greater extent ruled by the conscious mind; and the highest type of genius is the man whose conscious and subconscious minds work together in perfect harmony, each up to its full power.

If, as many believe, the next great strides of science are to be in this direction, it may pay some of us to be pioneers in learning how to make use of these undeveloped riches of memory, organization, and surplus energy. The subconscious, which can on occasion behave like a very devil within us, is, when rightly used, our greatest asset, the source of powers whose appearance in the occasional individual has been considered almost superhuman, but which prove to be characteristically human, the common inheritance of the race of man.

Excerpt From Outwitting Our Nerves - A Primer Of Psychotherapy By Josephine A. Jackson, M.D. And Helen M.Salisbury