Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/March 1888/The Antechamber of Consciousness
|THE ANTECHAMBER OF CONSCIOUSNESS.|
THACKERAY, in that delightful "Roundabout Paper," "De Finibus," confidentially discusses with the reader the genesis of his literary creations. In introducing the subject of this article I shall quote this passage as presenting a pleasing exposition of a certain phase of literary work that is accomplished apparently without any action of the will to account for the result: "I have been surprised at the observations made by some of my characters. It seems as if an occult power was moving the pen. The personage does or says something, and I ask, 'How the dickens did he come to think of that?' Every man has observed in dreams the vast dramatic power that is evinced—I won't say the surprising power, for nothing does surprise you in dreams—but those strange characters you meet make instant observations, of which you never can have thought previously. In like manner the imagination foretells things; we spake anon of the afflated style, when a writer is like a pythoness on her oracle tripod, and mighty words—words which he can not help—come blowing, and whistling, and moaning through the speaking-tubes of his bodily organ." Our literature is full of suggestions such as this, pointing to an intellectual workhouse where all is unknown, but from which comes forth polished, finished work, done how or where we know not.
My attention for some years has been directed to the subject of unconscious cerebration, as it is called, and to the literature of the subject, from the suggestion of its existence by Leibnitz, to its present exposition by Carpenter, Holmes, and Miss Cobbe. It was with a desire to throw the light of further-collected facts upon the relation of a conscious activity to a possible unconscious cerebral activity that I undertook the task of collecting the necessary data. The method employed in collecting these data was the well-known one of the distribution of printed questions to be answered from personal experience. While much of the ground has been gone over before, the questions at issue have been tested largely upon hearsay evidence—tales that somebody has told of somebody else; hence, with our human infirmities, the generalization founded on such facts can fairly be questioned. From a distribution of over six hundred copies of a set of questions upon this subject, I have received one hundred and two answers, largely from professional men and women, and from the students of the upper classes of our leading American colleges, each paper subscribed with the name, age, and address of the sender. In obtaining this mass of material, I have been placed under great obligations to President McCosh; to Professor George P. Fisher, of Yale College; Professor William James, of Harvard College; President Robinson, of Brown; Professor Osborn, of Princeton; Professor Stanley Hall, of Johns Hopkins; Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, of Columbia; and Professor Torrey, of the University of Vermont. The healthy, normal side of this subject is the only one I shall attempt to consider, leaving the questions of morbid pathology to those who alone can weigh the evidence it throws upon the subject.
If, in our experience, we witness an effect, we know, by the inexorable logic of science, that its existence must be due to some efficient cause. "Verily a tree is known by its fruit" is sound teaching and sound sense—it is axiomatic. If a solution of a mathematical problem can really be revealed to us in consciousness, while we are busied about other things, it must inevitably have been performed by means of the processes which regularly lead to such a result, even if we are not conscious at the time of employing such processes. It could not have come spontaneously, but only as the result. As a consequence, in such a case we would be bound to predicate some exercise of intellectual powers, actively working during unconsciousness. The circular before referred to comprised eleven questions; those, the results of which are specially used here, are as follow:
"2. "When you are, do you feel some trouble or weight in your effort?
"3. When you are not, does the idea ever, when it occurs, seem to have come back spontaneously, without being suggested by any perceived association of ideas?"
Third Question.—"During sleep, have you ever pursued a logical, connected train of thought upon some topic or problem in which you have reached some conclusion, and the steps and conclusions of which you have remembered on awakening?"
Sixth Question.—"1. Can you wake precisely at a given hour, determined upon before going to sleep, without waking up many times before the appointed time?
"2. If you can, then (a) is this habitual, or do you often fail? (b) Are you conscious, before waking, of any feeling? (describe it), or (c) do you come directly from oblivion into consciousness?"
Ninth Question.—"When perplexed at your progress in any work (mathematical, professional, literary, chess, puzzles, etc.), have you ever left it unfinished and turned your attention to other things, and, after some time, on voluntarily returning to it, have found yourself able at once to satisfactorily master it?" Tenth Question.—"1. Have you ever been conscious of having involuntarily discovered something new—e. g., an invention, a literary or poetical creation, a mathematical solution, etc.?"2. If yes, then has this flashed into consciousness in the form of a clear conception?"
In order to set forth logically the results of the answers received, I shall group them according to the following analysis: Does there exist in man the power to exert intellectual activity during unconsciousness in these several forms?
First. When the effort is simple by reproducing past experiences in obedience to a mandate of will.
Second. By comparing related facts and arriving at a settled judgment.
Third. When the effort is more complex by continuing old trains of thought begun in consciousness and proceeding logically, step by step, to a rational settled conclusion.
Fourth. When the effort is most complex, by commencing and continuing new trains of thought without having voluntarily undertaken or continued them, and arriving at results of original creation as inventions, literary and musical creations, etc.
First. The first division of the subject is restricted to the antechamber of consciousness; it contains the inquiry as to the possibility of working for a lost idea, fact or fancy, while consciously devoting one's whole attention to something else. This established, it must follow that during the unconscious interval which intervenes between the desire for the lost object and its occurrence in consciousness, an intellectual activity was at work similar in all respects to the conscious activity, minus the element of self-looking, at self-working. Some of the instances given in the answers, worthy of being cited as illustrations, are as follow:
1. Miss H——, of Princeton, writes: "Yesterday I tried at breakfast to recollect the name of Azimolate Khan, but could only remember that it began with 'Az.' I felt vexed for a moment only, and totally forgot it, being absorbed in an interesting subject. In about ten minutes I said aloud, 'It is Azimolate Khan!' and was scarcely conscious that I had said it, it came so suddenly to me."
2. Mr. V——, of Brooklyn, New York city, writes: "While writing a paper on a medical subject I had occasion to use the technical term for a swoon, which I could not recall. At this point, being obliged to attend a lecture, spontaneously and apparently without reason—for the two subjects had no connection—the word 'syncope' shot across my mind; immediately after, the medical paper came into my mind."
3. Mr. L——, of New York, writes: "One case I remember. I was trying to think of the name of a book and gave it up. About half an hour after I was talking of something else, when all of a sudden I blurted out the name without any conscious volition on my part, or without thinking anything about the book at all."
4. The writer, being asked who was the author of the pamphlet entitled "Taxation no Tyranny," although knowing well, was unable to answer. Two days afterward, while working at a law brief, suddenly said aloud, "Dr. Johnson wrote 'Taxation no Tyranny.'" We took pains to examine the writing before him and the chain of reasoning engaged in at the time, but could not find the slightest suggestion of the answer. He had apparently forgotten entirely about the question asked him for at least forty-eight hours prior to answering it, and had experienced no trouble or weight of mind in the interval.
5. Mr. B——, of New York city, writes: "Only recently, being asked a lady's name, I found myself only able to recall the surname. I said, 'I will think of the other—wait a moment.' Walking along the street a few minutes later, I heard one small boy say to another, 'You lie like——!' Instantly, I was conscious that something in that phrase bore upon something else that I had been thinking about, but what it was I could not tell. An hour or so later, when occupied in writing, it flashed upon me that the name of the lady that I was searching for was 'Lila,' and instantaneously the relevancy of the phrase overheard in the street came to me; it was the resemblance in sound, 'Lila,' to 'lie like.'"
Under this head the statistical result may be summed up thus: Ninety-five persons answered this particular inquiry. Of these, ninety-one per cent state that they have had similar experiences, three per cent have not. With forty per cent there was often an oppressive feeling of trouble or anxiety experienced just before the solution had come, and not then attributable to anything in particular; but after the answer had come, twenty per cent almost instinctively attributed this oppression to the fatigue of mental effort involved in finding the answer. With sixty per cent no oppression was noted; about thirty per cent noticed that the answers frequently came after comparative rest or sleep, and seventy per cent have not noticed the time of the recovery. Almost every individual says concerning these experiences, "They are of such frequent occurrence that when they happen I pay no special attention to them."
Second. If, while unconscious, it is possible to attain the result that can only come from reckoning—a judgment founded on the comparative relations of a unit—this must be the result of an intellectual activity which exists unknown to the conscious self, and entirely escapes all notice from the moderately keen eye of self-consciousness. Most people can approximately tell what hour of the day it is without consulting a timepiece, and, the less they are in the habit of depending upon such a luxury, the more accurate their computation is likely to be. This computation is founded on a calculation of the comparative value of the time between two known points translated into the arbitrary measure of hours and minutes. A calculation is performed, however quickly or unconsciously. The question of being able to wake from a sound sleep at an unusual time, in obedience to an act of will registered before going to sleep, brings this phenomenon with this subdivision. The answers to the question in this connection are as follow:
1. Mr. L——, of Philadelphia, writes: "I can wake within a few minutes of a given time without effort. Habitually I wake within a few minutes of a fixed time. I can, however, wake without effort at a different time."
2. Miss B——, of New York city: "Yes, at an early or unusual hour, by repeating the time to myself once or twice before going to sleep. I seldom wake before the hour determined upon, and never fail to wake then. I come directly into full consciousness at all times."
3. Mr. A——, of Omaha, Nebraska: "Yes, within three minutes."
4. Mrs. Y——, of Paterson, New Jersey: "Can awaken at a given hour determined upon without waking before at all. Have not found it necessary to do so often, but have never failed in the attempt. Come directly from oblivion into consciousness."
5. Mr. C——, of Orange, New Jersey: "Have never overslept when my mind has been charged before retiring."
6. Mr. B——, of Paterson, New Jersey: "I was intrusted by the attending physician with the administering of medicines to my wife, who was very dangerously ill. It was of the greatest importance that a certain medicine should be given every two hours as exactly as possible, day and night. I am an extraordinarily sound sleeper; but, for six weeks, I woke up every two hours methodically, and never missed giving the medicines once during that time. I always came directly from oblivion into consciousness. During the first few nights I was as exact and methodical as in the last."
The statistical result is as follows: Forty per cent claim to have this power in a "strongly marked degree; they can wake up at an unusual hour without having their rest at all disturbed prior to their awaking. Of this forty per cent, about fifty per cent say that they are conscious of being troubled just before the real light of consciousness has risen; the other fifty per cent say that they only know that at the predetermined time they are awake. The sixty per cent who do not possess this power in a marked degree are about evenly divided, one half spending their night continually disturbed by false alarms, and the other fifty per cent sleep peacefully on with rest unbroken, either at, before, or after the appointed hour for awaking. I find that I overlooked one important point in this inquiry, namely, whether those who can wake up at almost the minute of the given hour possess a similarly accurate power of measuring time in consciousness.
To sum up the conclusions on this point: Many people during a state of perfect unconsciousness can accurately measure time as well as and often better than they can in consciousness, when they largely rely upon an artificial time-computer. In doing this they may perform an intellectual process similar in all respects to the conscious act of calculating a distance between known points.
Third. This division covers a wide field of intellectual activity, and the inquiry is here directed to the result of systematically connected thought, omitting only original research which is considered later. Is there unconscious reasoning of a complex kind employed when old work begun in consciousness is carried on or brought to a logical conclusion unknown to the thinker, as in the cases of solving mathematical problems and the like? Let the facts speak for themselves:
1. Mr, T——, of Metuchen, New Jersey, writes: "I had earnestly been trying to make a trial-balance, and had at last left off working—the summary of the Dr. and Cr., sides of the account showing a difference of £2 10s. 0d., the Dr. side being so much smaller. The error I had not found on Saturday night when I left the counting-house. On this same Saturday night I retired, feeling nervous and angry with myself. Some time in the night I dreamed thus: I was seated at my desk in the counting-house and in a good light; everything was orderly and natural, the ledger lying open before me. I was looking over the balances of the accounts and comparing them with the sums in the trial balance-sheet. Soon I came to a small account having a debit balance of £2 10s. 0d. I looked at it, called myself sundry uncomplimentary names, spoke to myself in a deprecating manner of my own eyes, and at last put the £2 10s. 0d., to its proper side of the trial balance-sheet, shut up and went home. Here the dream abruptly ended. I arose at the usual Sunday time, dressed carefully, breakfasted, went to call upon some young lady friends, and to go to church, especially with one of them. Suddenly, the dream flashed on my memory. I went for the keys, opened the office, also the safe: got the ledger, turned to the folio my dream indicated. There was the account whose balance was the sum wanted, and which I had omitted to put in the balance-sheet where it was now put, and my year's posting proved correct."
2. Mrs. R——, of Wakefield, Rhode Island, writes: "When perplexed by work, often leave it and find the thing easy after a little while. Once, while working at a chess-puzzle for several evenings, I went to bed, fell asleep, and worked it correctly; sprang out of bed, found it correct, and wrote it down for fear of forgetting it; found it right in the morning, I had worked at the puzzle so long that it was perfectly familiar, and, before going to sleep, lay thinking of new moves; the right one was merely a continuation of my waking thoughts."
3. Mr. S——, of New York city, writes: "I remember but one instance, in which case, when about nineteen years of age, I correctly solved a mathematical problem, during a sound sleep, so far as I could judge, which had puzzled me before going to bed." 4. Mr. F——, of Brooklyn, New York, writes: "I was studying algebra, in which I was quite interested, and had an example to do in six unknown quantities. I worked at it in the evening, and after an hour or two gave it up and went to bed. That night I dreamed the way to do it was so-and-so, and arrived at the right answer. On awakening in the morning I tried it before I got up, and, following the way suggested in the dream, got the correct answer."
5. Mrs. B——, of New York city, writes: "In guessing double acrostics, of which I am very fond, I often carry a question on in my mind without giving it any particular attention, until at last the answer suddenly occurs to me."
6. Mr. F——, of Westerly, Rhode Island, writes: "Have worked out many algebraic or geometrical problems during sleep. Have, when some years ago in Worcester Academy, scanned some fifty or seventy-five lines of Virgil, not yet translated, except ten or fifteen, felt tired, went to bed, in sleep accurately translated all of it, and remembered it on waking,"
7. Mrs. B——, of New York city, writes: "In reading a difficult language, I read the text over without attempting to translate, getting as much of the sense as this perusal may give; then I leave it for a few hours and return to it later, to find its difficulties solved—this is not the case when the second follows directly on the first."
8. Dr. S——, of New York city, writes: "I remember, when in college, having been engaged all the evening in working on a geometrical problem and going to bed with it unsolved; having an uneasy sleep, in which I dreamed of geometrical figures and of working with them; and, on awaking in the night, the solution of the problem suggested itself to my mind, which solution I remembered and found correct next day."
9. Mrs. X——, of Paterson, New Jersey, writes: "Have played a game of whist in my sleep and deplored the mistakes I have made while awake; gone over the whole game, replayed it in sleep, with much better results and to my entire satisfaction."
The following cases belong to the same class, and demonstrate that perception in consciousness often occurs long after the perception of the fact has been fully grasped by the individual unconsciously. The discussion of the relations of consciousness to unconsciousness will appear later:
10. Mr. B—— (a Frenchman) writes as follows: "I once received a French letter from Paris, describing a race, and ending with the English words, "O how I am sorry!" I could not decipher the words when awake, but it came to me in sleep as it was written, and I made it out perfectly then."
11. Mrs. D—— writes as follows: "On one occasion, having written a note, I received a note which conveyed to my mind the idea that the writer had entirely misunderstood my communication. I fell asleep while composing a reply which should set the matter straight, and awoke with an instantaneous certainty that an erroneous punctuation had obscured the writer' s meaning, which in reality coincided with my intention and required no answer. Evidently, the mental accuracy was greater when asleep than when awake—very humiliating."
12. Mrs. P——, of Omaha, writes: "I have many times heard remarks, the significance of which I did not fully comprehend at the time, and weeks afterward have had them flash suddenly into my mind with all their import."
The statistical result is as follows: About eighty-five per cent of those answering claim to have arrived at definite results of work begun in consciousness and left unfinished—at results of a finished logical nature—at results that could come only by bridging the gap between the beginning and partial continuation in consciousness, and the perfected conclusion by predicating the existence and operation of unconscious intellectual effort as the necessary cause of the known result. Fifteen per cent state that they have no experience concerning the phenomena inquired about. Of those answering affirmatively, nearly fifty per cent give examples to corroborate their assertions.
Fourth. The fourth division is of intellectual activity producing new ideas, creations, and inventions, when there has been no conscious beginning. Does such work proceed in unconsciousness? Some of the facts brought to light by the circular are as follow:
1. Miss P——, of New York city: "While reading the 'Evening Post' I happened to observe an anagram offered for solution. The anagram was, 'Got a scant religion.' I read the paragraph aloud to a friend sitting near me, and then turned to something else, a novel in which I was interested, and which quite absorbed me, and gave the anagram no further thought. I never consciously thought of the anagram until the following morning, when, as I was walking and trying to recall a dream, the word 'Congregationalist' flashed through my mind. The word had no connection with my dream, and came to me so suddenly and involuntarily on my part, that I was obliged to think for a moment before I could connect it with anything, and then it occurred to me that it was the solution of the anagram which I had read the evening before."
2. Mr. P——, of Omaha: "I had to perform endless multiplications at school as a task, and suddenly became conscious of a law governing the process which enabled me to attain the result almost instantaneously; discovery flashed into consciousness as a clear conception."
3. Mrs. H——, of Bergen Point, New Jersey: "Have often awakened with a part of an essay all ready, with a letter wholly prepared once or twice, with a few stanzas composed on subjects that I had endeavored to treat in rhyme; once or twice also on subjects that I had not attempted or thought to write upon in verse; example, 'The Educated Alligator,' which you have. These, on waking, have come into memory without effort."
4. Mr. S——, of New York city: "In my senior year at college I had an essay to write that troubled me unusually. After trying to decide upon the subject until quite late, I fell asleep and dreamed not only of the subject, but of the analysis and of all the details. The next morning I wrote out just what I had dreamed, and found it far more satisfactory than anything I had ever done in the same line before."
5. Mrs. H——, of New York city: "Yes, many times. A carol (the author is unknown), which has been sung in many of our New York churches, came into my mind, words and music simultaneously, after I had been reading till long past midnight. There was nothing in the book to suggest the carol, and I was walking toward the door for the purpose of retiring, when the words and music came to me as involuntarily and distinctly as if it had been something to which I was an unexpected listener. So with similar productions—I often write as if from dictation—quite unprepared for what is coming," etc.
6. Mrs. ——, of New York city: "I have written a good deal of verse of various kinds—sometimes this has flashed into my mind as a clear conception, but more frequently slower. In one case, I wrote a long piece, of a rather satiric character, in easy rhythm, as fast as I could set down the words, and it needed little or no revision—usually I am dissatisfied with my first copies."
7. Mrs. ——, of New York city: "In half sleep, after consciousness is gone, I am frequently startled wide awake by the recollection of some forgotten duty—or by some entirely new idea, usually something that is practical in character, and works well when put into shape. Measured by my normal standard, these ideas are usually above the medium in clearness and precision, completeness and practical value. They are new thoughts, but rather expedients, business suggestions; for instance, the idea of writing a series of articles for 'Scribner's Monthly ' on microscopic studies of vegetable and animal life in its completeness came to me in this way—articles which appeared and have since appeared in book-form, and laid the foundation of most of my work since."
8. Mr. S——, of Philadelphia: "While walking alone, busily engaged in trying to settle a business question—so intent as to have my head down, and quite oblivious to anything around me—an original conundrum presented itself to my mind. (I confess to a slight weakness for punning, but rather despise conundrums, and this is the first and only one I ever concocted.) The conundrum was as much an interruption of my course of thought as if another person had come to me—it was, 'Why is so much bread baked? Because it is all (k)needed.'"
The results of the answers in this subdivision may be summed up as follows: Only thirty per cent claim to have suddenly discovered the results of creative effort, which they would venture to call new, in the line of practical inventions, poetry, literary conceptions, mathematical solutions, and the like; these creations appeared suddenly, most often while the individuals were engaged on matters foreign to the discovery. About forty per cent do not answer the question, and thirty per cent answer in the negative, while, of those answering affirmatively, only about twenty-five per cent are able to give examples.
To clearly apprehend the significance of the facts thus set forth, it is necessary to understand thoroughly the conception of human consciousness. The chief difficulty which obscures this subject is a lack of proper differentiation between self-consciousness and consciousness, in their several relations to human unconsciousness. Self-consciousness is the intellectual perception by which the ego recognizes the ego as seeing, thinking, judging, feeling, etc. Consciousness, though often confounded with self-consciousness, is not a synonym for it, but is merely the environment in which self-consciousness is manifested. Human consciousness is not an intellectual property or state of the mind—it is purely a state of nervous activity; it is nervous energy in a most intensified form. Human unconsciousness is a less intensive state of nervous activity, wherein self-consciousness can not be manifested.
Nervous activity is ever the same in kind, and, while there is a great difference between the simplest reflex action and the highly developed state of consciousness, yet this is one of degree alone. Intellectual activity is ever present in the brain, and every moment is producing new results without cessation from birth to the grave. As a condition precedent to the existence of these results of our changing thought-life, the brain requires a supply of blood commensurate to the calls made upon the nervous energy and corresponding to the intensity of its activity.
There is a broad belt of border-land between consciousness and unconsciousness, whose limits are uncertain, yet where the manifestations of intellectual activity are recognized, which prove the kinship of the life of those two great regions. The world judges each individual by his intellectual activity manifested in consciousness. Upon this our judgment of him is based, as this can be the only known or possible method of determination. Many "mute inglorious Miltons" undoubtedly exist, yet for the world they do not really exist. Shakespeare produced the character of Hamlet, Hamlet came through the door of Shakespeare's consciousness to greet and astonish the world, yet Hamlet and Lear and all the glorious company of Shakespeare's known creations represent not a tenth part of the finished idealized conceptions of character that were born in Shakespeare's brain while he, unconscious of his labor, acted or wrote or dreamed after an evening of sack at the "Mermaid" with "rare Ben Jonson."
That indefinable personal equation which distinguishes the individual from all others is the limit and condition of his unconscious intellectual activity. Newton discovered the workings of the law of gravitation and happily perceived it in his phase of consciousness, and the world has become so much the wiser on account of this accident. The workings of other laws of Nature he undoubtedly formulated to just as definite and logical conclusions, yet these he and the world have never known. It is most improbable that Sir Isaac Newton in consciousness or unconsciousness ever created a finished ideal like Becky Sharp or the Heathen Chinee. The novelist Dumas, after a period of active living and omnivorous reading, would board his yacht on the Mediterranean, and lie half torpid and dreaming day after day on her deck, hardly noticing his environment; then suddenly would change from this state and betake himself to work, summoning into existence the results of his unconscious intellectual activity, dashing off chapter after chapter, not of some work on theology, but of a novel. So perhaps were Chicot and the immortal Athos, Porthos, and Aramis conceived. The limitations of the personal equation forbid the idea of an intellectual activity existing in unconsciousness unlike that found in consciousness. On the contrary, we are forced to predicate an absolute relation in kind between the results of such activity in the two distinct phases of our life; just as when we see the fossil types characterizing a Silurian stratum cropping out horizontally on some hillside, we can as surely determine what will distinguish the fossil forms of the interior of that hill as if we summoned an army to remove the incubus and lay bare for our scrutiny the stratum at the center.
Having once possessed knowledge, we can never lose it; the power to use it may be temporarily lost, but there is no knowing when the proper chord may not be struck, and the old fact of memory or the old problem long worked out may not be regained. All our experiences may fade away into the realm of unconsciousness, yet they are not lost, they are only dormant and biding their time. In consciousness we find the means by which we can exercise self-consciousness, and thus know our own existence. In this most specialized form of purely nervous activity, the ego is discerned as an ego endowed with reason, will, and conscience. What the genesis of consciousness from unconsciousness is, we know not; there is as great a gap here as the step from nothing to life, and there we must stop, seeing our limitations with reverent agnosticism and recognizing the folly and futility of further investigations. The materialization of consciousness has been ordered by science and it must be recognized as a fact. Mind and body unquestionably react, but the psychologists have, in the past, mingled too great an amount of matter with mind, and science is now surely, but certainly and with pitiless accuracy, separating the two, pointing out the clay that was mixed with the metal supposed to be pure, and relegating the baser substance to its proper place. The fact that consciousness is a mere phase of nervous activity, pertaining to the body and consequently of the earth, earthy, has nothing to do with the mortality or the immortality of the ego y it is an argument neither for nor against the existence of a soul, A dog possesses clearly defined consciousness, and yet it is not necessary to predicate a soul as the accompaniment of this possession; to argue thus is to degrade the meaning of the word soul. Consciousness is but a part of normal flesh-and-blood existence; it is nourished and stimulated by a generous supply of healthy blood, and becomes changed and unhealthy by disease. It seems probable that in the vast land of unconsciousness, intellectual activity becomes manifold, and each of the many sides of our nature, untrammeled by the restraints of conscious volition, carries on a ceaseless activity, the results of which we sometimes receive and recognize in consciousness.