Popular Science Monthly/Volume 67/October 1905/The Lapses of Consciousness

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OCTOBER, 1905.



Introductory: The Formula of Conduct.

THE purpose of the present study is to set forth the range of certain common and normal types of thought and conduct that reach expression without the usual and attentive guidance of consciousness. Such subconscious direction of what we think and say and do plays a constant part in the ordinary, and occasionally in the extraordinary, operations of our mental machinery. So long as the operations are successful in purpose, there is little occasion for bringing to the light of our own awareness the process by which the result is accomplished. This is, indeed, the normal emphasis of nature, which places a premium upon the issue, but is relatively indifferent as to the means, giving its sanction of survival to such processes as effectively and economically lead to the desired end. It thus comes about that a variety of procedures may be developed for a common purpose. Owing to the similarity of human needs and endowment, there arise familiar types of mental habits, which become established without definite awareness of their nature or of the manner of their use. It is a peculiar type of straying of the process from the intended path that directs attention to it and makes one aware of a momentary lapse in the relation of issue and purpose; such lapses not only disclose the nature of the ordinary well adjusted relations, but offer an interesting means of determining what otherwise would be but vaguely recognized. As to the conditions favoring such lapses, they are so familiar as to make it sufficient to recall that they occur in moments of weakened or too dispersed attention. It is because the reins are too freely relaxed, or are relaxed at an inopportune moment, that our habits take the bit between the teeth, and, it may be, lead us where we had no intention of wandering. The state of mind in which this, as well as other types of subconscious action, occur, we call distraction; and when it becomes more pronounced, the type of the lapse may become both more variable and indicative of more complex deviations. 'Absent-mindedness' (for which the German has the more telling expression, 'Zerstreutheit') offers the most typical and familiar attitude favorable to the display of these lapses of consciousness, trivial, amusing, but psychologically interesting. It is with the natural history of this familiar species and its varieties that we shall here be occupied.

To obtain a realistic survey of the kind of activities for which the subconscious gearings of our mental machinery are ordinarily held responsible, I instigated an inquiry among a group of persons[2] to whom I had access, asking them little more than to give such accounts of subconscious experiences as they could easily and rather distinctly recall. One need not claim for such a collection anything more than a fairly representative showing of the manner in which the subconscious disports itself in daily life and compels notice by the lack of harmony between intent and execution, or between memory and circumstantial evidence, or by intrusion of the dim and submerged operations into the ken of the conscious self. But as such, and with proper allowance for inaccuracy and prejudice in favor of the more picturesque incidents, their survey may serve as a natural and profitable approach to the general and theoretical interpretations, which form an important goal of the psychologist's efforts.

If one were to set forth the factors of an operation intelligently guided, that is, of a piece of human conduct, simple or complex, he would find that every distinctive phase thereof may, on occasion, be carried on with a markedly lowered, an unusually reduced, degree of the awareness which its performance normally demands. The contours of such a piece of conduct would show in silhouette, first, the perception of the situation by the message brought through eye or ear or other window of the soul; such message is offered to the appropriate powers of the mind for interpretation and for the elaboration, variably intricate, of the suitable response; and the bit of conduct is rounded by the fit and skilled execution of what it has been decided to do or say. What is here appropriate is that one may find any portion or the whole of these successive links in the chain of mental reactions sufficiently and intelligently directed by a subconscious type of adjustment. Though the factors properly form a unit, combining with like units into a series of expanding complexity of kind and number, yet each is naturally viewed as composed of its receptive or perceptive aspect, accompanied by a suitable interpretation through which the process acquires meaning: and again, of its expressive phase, which, as the issue of a preparatory elaboration, becomes not merely a muscular contraction, but a significant piece of conduct. For a different purpose it would become necessary also to consider quite separately and minutely what here must be treated en masse, the inner elaborative processes that bind perception and expression, and thus appraise the dignity of the intellectual response in terms of habit, training, insight, judgment or wisdom. For the present argument, whether we proceed by large general outlines, or by more detailed steps, we shall be able to illustrate that for each stage of the process a counterpart in subconscious terms may be found.

The Motor Lapse and its Sensory Clue.

The receptive (sensory) and the responsive (motor) phases of a bit of conduct are the ones most readily distinguished; and in regard to these, my data emphasize that the latter occupy the focus of the more common forms of subconscious activity: which means that, though the reduced awareness spreads itself over the whole procedure, it affects more prominently the motor response, the terminal, rather than the initial, phase of conduct; or, that once the nature of a situation is normally perceived, our motor habits step in to perform the appropriate (or unintended) response with submerged awareness, possibly amid distracted attention. A peculiarly apposite recognition of this relation is embodied in the popular game of philopœna. Here a premium is placed upon the guarding of one's subconscious tendency to allow the complacent habit of assent or difference to express itself, and specifically towards one individual, in the conventional 'yes' or 'no'; or in taking what is naturally or unobtrusively offered. It is surprising how quickly this charge upon the subconscious becomes lost amid the more vital interests of social intercourse, how readily the hand is entrapped into an acceptance of what is extended, or the tongue into an automatic 'yes' or 'no,' when the major attention becomes directed to the channels of our real concern. A situation lightly perceived, with still slighter reflection, awakens the natural response; and it is just this relation that my data indicate. Subconscious doing ensues somewhat more readily than subconscious perceiving; while the rôle of subconscious elaboration and interpretation can not be so easily appraised. Yet it must constantly be held in mind that subconscious doing involves and indeed becomes an index of subconscious perceiving, followed typically by some measure of interpretation. And it may be well to illustrate in detail this dependence of a motor action upon a sensory clue, mindful, in our choice of illustrations, of their bearing upon the lapses that form our main pursuit. In other words, we may deliberately charge our subconscious habits with actions that spring from no real sensation. For this attitude, particularly in its personal and social aspects, we have the apt term of affectation. One may affect a lisp, or a foreign pronunciation, or the broad a, or, with the changes of the fashions, an exaggerated hand-shake or manner of raising one's hat; and throughout the series there is constant danger of lapsing back into the natural form of expression. The affectation thus attempts to guide consciously what should be guided subconsciously; it attempts for some special effect to pass current as a natural habit, what really is the issue of a watchful guidance. The actor has professional occasion to cultivate such affectation; and it is sometimes amusing to detect the inexperienced actor reminding himself that he must no longer use his wounded arm, must continue to limp, or to reel, or to exhibit the manners of old age, or of the ruffian, or of the peasant. This artificial relation is interesting in that it presents in exact reverse the ordinary intrusions of the subconscious into the conscious field. The one formula expresses the fact that when the proper sensory clue is present we proceed to react to it without intent; and the other that having only a fictitious sensory clue we fail to act in spite of our resolution.[3]

The simplest type of subconscious motor response consists in carrying out a more or less suitable and habitual action, while remaining unaware of its accomplishment—a lapse, accordingly, not of performance, but of notification of the accomplished service to the conscious self. A. proceeds to wind his watch at a certain stage of his undressing to find it already wound through subconscious habit; B., already retired for the night, leaves his bed to lock the door and finds it securely fastened, and doubtless by his unobservant self; C, working at his desk on a warm summer's day, decides to remove his coat and finds he has already done so; D. looks about distractedly for a particular shirt and finds it on his own person under the one he had decided to discard; E., a clergyman, sends out the contribution plate a second time, much to the consternation of the congregation; F., a railway employee, changes the position of a switch, unaware that he has already reversed it, and wrecks a train: and so on with considerable variation of scene, plot and dramatis personæ. Let me note again that these instances involve a weakened sensory apperception, inasmuch as the second action is initiated because the first performance was so feebly attended to, so distractedly appreciated. Doubtless, more frequently than the complete dropping of the link out of consciousness is the doubt, the query, whether one really has wound the clock, or locked the door, or put out the lights, or posted the letters, or taken one's medicine, or even eaten one's lunch; and one proceeds to verify by actual examination or by some definite memory-clue that it has been done.[4]

I must give at least one instance of this memory-clue and its mode of working. A student, in this case a married student, had been entrusted to attend to some domestic commissions on his way to the university. Suddenly, in seeing the word 'business' in the course of his work, it flashed across his mind that he had forgotten the commissions; yet he was not sure. In trying to recall whether he had made the purchases or not, there clearly echoed in his mind the sound of the squeak of the door in leaving the shop. This sensory impression was his surest indication, and proved to be a reliable one, that he had entered the

shop and performed his errand. The instance is apposite in both senses; first, the occurrence of the word 'business' arouses the dormant association with the earlier, somewhat submerged conduct; and secondly, the attempt to explore in this submerged region proceeds by the persistence of slight sensory impressions—faint afterglows—themselves quite uncertain, and not intrinsically connected with the central and important piece of conduct. As in retracing the more conscious links of memory, so also in the case of the subconscious ones, there is a tendency to reach the focus through some suggestive path from a dimly lighted margin.

Lapses of Confusion and Interchange.

Though this failure to make an impression upon the mental register offers the simplest formula of a subconscious lapse, it does not present the most common occurrence, presumably because it requires a somewhat marked degree of absorption or absent-mindedness. The most frequent type is that in which an action—usually partially inappropriate—is performed under the impression that it is a different, an intended and appropriate one. The first type is thus the suppression, obliteration, or omission of a strand in the network, the second a partial substitution. Here belong the many comedies of errors, trivial or embarrassing rather than momentous, in the lighter scenes of life's dramas. Cases of going off with a stranger's hat or cloak or umbrella or even his horse and carriage occur constantly, and furnish evidence that the absence of the signs by which we ordinarily recognize our own may itself go unheeded. The successful action of the process appears in the familiar feeling of suddenly missing something, at first not a definite something—cane, umbrella, parcel, book, shopping bag—which one has been carrying and has forgotten at some absorbed point of the day's commissions. It takes but a slight measure of distraction to submerge these superficial impressions so that they fail to perform the service usually expected of them. Lapses that intrinsically have the same status appear in varied situations: students occasionally go to the wrong class room; or find themselves on the way to the university on a Sunday; a college girl appears ready for a social evening in toilette de bal with a 'history' note-book in hand; an actress makes a hurried entrance upon the stage, having snatched a whisk-broom as a fan; a clerk, eating a hurried lunch and eager to start on his bicycle upon an important errand, finds himself carrying his chair out of doors, and making the initial movement to mount it as the iron steed. That here, as throughout the series, the degree of confusion depends upon the depth—momentary and temperamental—of the distraction may be taken for granted, and is definitely ascertainable in many cases; it is this dominant factor that, when written large, furnishes the clue to the more striking and the more abnormal occurrences. It is, for instance, pertinent to note that a student who on leaving his class-room instantly observes that the hat and umbrella that hang upon his hook are not his, had not noticed this fact when he had taken these articles from his room-mate in the morning, and used them. The morning exchange occurs when the attention is not particularly directed to the recognizable personal marks of the articles; but in choosing one's own belongings from half a hundred others the identification process is more attentively demanded.

There is a characteristic and common variety of this substitution-lapse that consists in the interchange of parts of two activities, both of which are partially present to the mind. Sometimes the two activities are allied members of what may be regarded as a single occupation: sometimes the two are curiously unrelated, their connection being only that they are charged upon a common consciousness. Of the former I have quite an array of instances. There is the serving of the strawberry hulls while the berries are left in the pantry; the placing of the coffee-strainer on the tray while leaving the cup of coffee in the kitchen; the sprinkling of sugar on one's egg and dropping the salt in the coffee-cup; the placing of the washed dishes in the refrigerator and of the 'left-overs' of the meal in the pantry; the attempt to thread one's thimble; the intermittent dipping of the pen in the mucilage bottle and of the brush in the ink, while writing labels and pasting them on glasses; even the dropping of the watch into the boiling water, while consulting the egg to gauge the time; or, in the excitement of a fire, the throwing of a lamp out of the window while carefully carrying down the bedclothes. The more striking interchanges are naturally those of unrelated activities. The mind is charged with two tasks; and the round peg drops into the square hole. A young lady, upon receiving a letter while she is engaged in putting her hat away, tosses the perused sheets into the hat-box, and places the hat in the wastepaper basket. Under similar circumstances, with a book in one hand and some discarded papers in the other, the book is thrown into the fire or is rescued just as it is ready to leave the hand. A servant, instructed to fill the reservoir of the kitchen-stove with water and the grate with coal, drops the coal into the reservoir, but 'comes to' in the act of carrying water to the hot grate. Quite common is the throwing away of the article while retaining the wrapping, even when it happens to be a caramel, and the paper is put into the mouth. Unusual and yet natural is the instance of the young lady seated in the train and eating a banana, who, upon the approach of the conductor to collect the tickets, realizes that she has thrown her purse containing the ticket out of the window, while carefully placing the banana-peel in her hand-bag; or that of a young man, absorbed in a novel, conscious of the fading light, but too interested to stop to light the lamp, and also conscious of a growing thirst, at length gets a match, then proceeds to the faucet and finds himself applying the match to the running water. Yet another interesting variation ensues when one or both of the two commissions requires verbal expression. Then we may encounter such confusions as that of the young lady asking a post-office clerk for 'individual salt-cellars' or another demanding of a like official some 'gray matter.' The astonished clerk may have guessed in the first instance that the young lady had two commissions on her mind, one for the article demanded and another for stamps, and had uttered on the wrong occasion the request upon which her thoughts were bent; but he could hardly have surmised that the other was so occupied with an approaching examination in physiology that 'postal card' was intended when 'gray matter' was spoken. The last is paralleled by a third student who after a sleepless night asked his neighbor at the breakfast table for the 'sleep' when he wanted the 'cream.' There is a combined linguistic and psychological interest in these verbal lapses that entitles them to a more detailed consideration.[5]

Lapses of Persistence: Conflict of Habits.

I shall refer to two other types of subconscious activities in which the motor factors are prominent. One of these relates to the unintentional resumption of discarded habits after a rather long period of disuse. I have records of students trying to enter or actually entering rooms which they had occupied a term or several terms previously; and Professor James records that upon revisiting Paris after an absence of ten years, he found himself in the street in which he had attended school, and in a brown study reached quite unintentionally the door of the lodging several streets away in which in that earlier day he had resided. I have records from other sources of men recently married, returning to the parental home, momentarily oblivious of their newer responsibilities; of retired business men finding themselves in the train to the city quite without intent or definite purpose; and I have other incidents that require more detailed description. A young man had been employed as a conductor upon an interurban trolley line. He gave up this employment in March and in August found himself in the car on his old-time route. He entered the car tired and sleepy. Suddenly looking out of the window, he recognized, in no very wide awake condition, the point of the route at which it was customary to collect the fares; and a moment later he had begun to collect them and was 'ringing them up on the register,' when he realized the situation. Again, a young lady returns as a visitor to the boarding school of her youth, sits down at the seat which she had formerly occupied, and writes a letter. During the occupation she quite loses sense of time and condition, and having finished her writing, raises the desk to be confronted with the unfamiliar contents thereof. I have also from another source a tale—possibly mythical, but in regard to the individual concerned most plausible—of a mathematician who, bent upon the solution of an intricate problem while walking in the street, becomes aware of a black surface before him that suggests to his absorbed mind the familiar and convenient blackboard; he begins to chalk some formula upon it, when it moves off, for it is the back of a carriage that has been waiting for its occupant. In such wise do slumbering habits reassert themselves and take control of our actions when the attention is momentarily diverted; while the lapse is favored by the presence of a familiar external situation—one that arouses an easy, 'at home' kind of mood, one that may be responded to by the half-attention adequate to well-established bits of conduct.

A further indication of the readiness with which motor habits assert themselves in the absence of intentional initiative appears in instances in which such action persists and fails to recognize the new situation, or persists automatically by the mere inertia of a group of centers 'set' to a particular line of conduct. I have before me an anecdote that is quite as instructive, whether literally exact or not, relating that a tourist, reading the papers in a Berlin café, was repeatedly disturbed by men entering and tumbling violently over the door-sill. Seven times within an hour did the accident occur. His curiosity aroused, he made inquiries and found that these seven men were habitués of the place, gathering almost daily for a game of 'skat'; and further, that the worn-out door-sill had just been replaced by a new one, in the unexpected height of which lay the cause of the series of mishaps. Haec fabula docet that we cross an unaccustomed threshold with sufficient and yet not apparent attention to our going to guide ourselves with tentative steps safely over any slight irregularity that may be encountered; but that for the several entrances and exits, literal as well as figurative, that enter into our daily walks, we have ready a decidedly more subconscious, inattentive response that may in the event of meeting new conditions set pitfalls in our path. Ordinarily such motor habits are exercised to meet situations the factors whereof are or may be—in the early stages of the acquisition doubtless were—realized in terms of visual and other sensory recognitions. To illustrate: the seven companions each originally learned to enter the cafe with a step appropriate to the worn-out door-sill, and did this by noticing visually the position of the sill, quite as I have learned with very slight attention to strike the several keys of my typewriter, to release the carriage, reverse the ribbon, engage the paper and advance it, by originally noting consciously and attentively how these mechanisms are set in operation. And if I use an unfamiliar typewriter, I must assume a more attentive attitude to my manipulations, working out some of them deliberately anew; and I am quite likely to find myself intermittently attempting to perform on the new machine a manipulation that is proper only to the more familiar one. The relations are distinctly intensified when the coordination involved is more deep-seated, less consciously realized, more distinctively a function of the automatic centers. Activities guided primarily by the feelings accompanying muscular contractions, in contrast to those guided primarily by vision, furnish the most favorable instances of what is here involved. A very striking one is found in the attempt to ride a tricycle by one accustomed to the bicycle. The equilibration of the bicycle requires that one lean with the machine, to the right in turning to the right, to the left in turning to the left. This in itself is contrary to the normal walking habit of saving ourselves from falling by shifting to the opposite side, and had itself to be learned with some difficulty, because opposed to another ingrained tendency. Seated on a tricycle, the bicyclist unwittingly and in spite of himself maintains the bicycle-balancing habit, and is surprised to find the simple tricycle, which one without any experience with either can guide easily, quite beyond his control. The old habit persists and will not make way at once—though doubtless it would in time—for the new adjustment. What is distinctive of this experience is the strenuous persistence of the motor habit in spite of a considerable and conscious effort to check it—a relation that in turn is significant for the comprehension of unusual and pronounced lapses. Another example of such conflict of motor impulses may be arranged by attempting to write not by direct visual guidance of the pencil, but by following the tracing of the point (with the hand and pencil screened from direct sight) in a mirror or system of mirrors. The new and unusual visual guidance tells one to move the pencil in a given visible direction; but this direction of seen movement has always meant a certain kind of 'felt' movement; and when that type of 'felt' movement is set into action it proves to be, by the visual standard, completely and variously wrong. The struggle between trying to push the pencil in the direction one sees one ought to go, and also in the direction one feels one ought to move, may become so intense as to be quite agonizing; and the attempt must be abandoned as hopeless. Remove the mirrors and use the normal visual guidance, or close the eyes and use the normal muscular guidance, and the writing proceeds fluently, with but normal effort and attention. Oppose the two factors of the normal combined and harmonious synthesis, and confusion irresistible—a confusion, not of conscious intent, but of execution, of deep-seated automatic motor mechanisms—takes place. Likewise should it be noted that of all these modes of guidance are we normally but vaguely aware; so much is this the case, that if called upon to describe how we guide our writing, many would be as much at a loss to reply as if questioned how we know which is the right hand; and while realizing that eye and hand both contribute to the writing reaction, would we be unable to apportion the manner of dependence that exists towards each of these sensation-groups.

Automatic Conduct: The Motor Dream.

I have introduced these considerations at this juncture in order that the rationale of the motor aspects of these lapses and confusions may be succinctly appreciated. We return to the more characteristically intellectual activities with prominent motor factors, to note the persistence of such occupations when the directive influences are removed. An important type of such removal occurs nightly in the condition of sleep. If regulated and complex groups of movements, organized pieces of conduct, may be performed without arousing consciousness or leaving a trace in the waking memory, then the thoroughness with which the motor habit may be aroused without arousing the awareness which its original acquisition required, becomes the more completely established; and though this is not in the strict sense a lapse, it does illustrate the nature of the tree and of the soil on and in which lapses grow. Though such occurrences demand a predisposed temperament or temporary condition of excitement, they occur quite frequently, and particularly in youth.[6] They appear as active dreams, of which sleep-walking (somnambulism) is but one type. The simplest type is that in which a lively dream passes over into action. A little girl who had spent several hours of a day in jumping into a sand pile, makes a similar leap in her sleep from the landing to the hall below, awaking with sobs and bruises and the explanation, 'I thought it was the sand pile.' A sleeping boy is aroused by the firm clutch of a hand upon his feet, and hears his younger brother call out, 'I've got you now.' These words proved to be the reaction to a dream of the younger lad that some one had stolen his stockings, that he had left his own bed to pursue the offender, and that in seizing his brother's feet he had just reached the dénouement, the arrest of the culprit. A high-school athlete, on the eve of a contest in which he had entered for the broad jump, awakes to find himself upright in bed, his knees under him, ready to jump; and is able to recall his dreaming of the contest, the trials of his competitors and the calling of his own number, to which he was responding when the waking consciousness took control. A young man is observed by his room-mate to leave his bed, grope about the room, step on a chair, and take down two pictures, disposing them under the bed, then returning to sleep ignorant of the whole procedure. Inquiry on the following morning revealed that he had dreamed of these pictures, toward which he felt a strong dislike, and had acted out the antagonism in his dream. Another boy, dreaming of swimming, dives out of bed, with unpleasant consequences. A fourteen-year old maiden, the star of the swimming class, was found at night by her mother, standing on the window in position for a dive to the ground below. A father, excited by an account of the kidnapping of a child, arises at night, goes to the cot of his little boy, places the child on the floor, tumbles the bedclothes over him, expresses satisfaction at having safely hidden the child from the pursuing kidnappers, and is with difficulty awakened and made to realize that he is responsible for the disordered room. The daughter of the house, placed in charge of the household in her mother's absence, prepares her father's late supper, and, though tired, persists in her labors, washing the dishes and laying the breakfast table. In the middle of the night her father is awakened by noise in the kitchen and finds his daughter rewashing the same dishes in her sleep. A young man, upon retiring, wanted some hot water, but was unable to find a match to light the gas-heater, and so went to sleep. He found himself at midnight, standing in the room with a lighted match in his hand. The details of the dream were gone; but it resulted in his finding a match in his sleep and in his proceeding to carry out the unfulfilled purpose.

These instances of dreams that reach the motor stage relate, in the main, to activities which were prominent in the waking consciousness at the moment of going to sleep, and the reverberation of which, as of the dominant theme in the mind's occupation, enacts itself in the hypnotic drama. Simple, habitual actions, and occasionally complex ones, are performed automatically without awakening consciousness, but apparently must, in a measure, be charged upon the sleeping self. A young man sleeping in a caboose lay down to rest with his clothes on, but awoke later, surprised and chilled, with much of his clothing removed, the normal undressing for the night's rest having been performed in a moment of lighter sleep, but without awakening. Again, a sleeper, partially disturbed by the entrance of his room-mate, falls asleep, but presently rises and pulls down the shade, a habitual action before retiring. Doors are locked and unlocked, alarm clocks are placed in their customary positions, lights extinguished, or other habits of the retiring hour are carried through in sleep. Cases of true somnambulism occur, including one in which dressing, walking to a pond, adjusting skates, and then skating were all properly guided in sleep; including another that involved going to the kitchen, mixing the ingredients for a pie, and placing it in the lighted gas-range, the charred remains astonishing the nocturnal cook the next morning; or of still others recounting the prowling about at night in response to the sensations of hunger, or seeking coats and wraps because of sensations of cold. Subconscious doing in sleep as in waking reflects the motor versatility of our habits adjusted by training to the complex life in which we live and move.[7]

The Sensory Lapse.[8]

The sensory side of the process demands equal recognition. It is well to repeat that all of these several types of subconscious action, the motor aspects of which have been singled out for analysis, do also involve a recognition of the situation, a sensitiveness to the suggestions of the environment, that both realizes—though it may be imperfectly or mistakenly—and responds thereto with submerged awareness. The first group of instances, in which actions are entered upon in oblivion of their accomplished performance, shows how readily sensations, that would ordinarily be registered, fail to make an impression; but this 'absent-minded' insensibility is still more neatly illustrated when an article is deliberately sought, and yet the sensations by which its presence would normally be recognized remain persistently ignored. This is indeed an accepted trait of the distrait. My collection is replete with such lapses: looking for a handkerchief that is held in the hand, for a pipe that hangs in the mouth, for spectacles reposing on the forehead, for the umbrella grasped under the arm, for the pencil stuck behind the ear, for the package suspended from the hand—these are commonplace, usually of brief duration, but instructive, because of the attitude they present, the important query which they raise, in regard to how and why these sensations, usually sufficiently awarable, fail to qualify for consciousness. The moment of reentry into the conscious field is easier to detect than the manner thereof. The missing article that all along lay within the easy field of vision, seems suddenly to assume a familiarity that identifies it as the object of search; the vacant stare or bewildered reconnoitering is transformed into the intelligent look of recognition. The instances report little more than the fact that the handkerchief held in the hand, or the pipe in the mouth, or the umbrella under the arm, does suddenly yield the sensation of its presence. I have, however, one incident in which this realization was logically arrived at: the narrator was seeking his glasses which he had begun to use only a few months before; and, observing that he could clearly see the print before him, concluded that he must be wearing his glasses, which proved to be the fact. What is common to these cases is the peculiar and often unaccountable fluctuation in permeability of consciousness to definite types of stimuli. The failure or omission of perception—both when the mind is not particularly bent upon receiving the impression, and when such is the attitude—expands readily into an erroneous perception, a substitution; and naturally, similarity of observable characteristics favors such mistakes: and this, because of the general principle that minor fluctuations of attention occur more frequently than more pronounced ones, and of the further principle, that slight confusions, in which the confused objects present many common characteristics, require only a moderate relaxation of attentive oversight, while more serious lapses demand a more pronounced absentmindedness. Hats and umbrellas and gloves and overshoes and overcoats are the more readily interchanged because of their generic uniformity. The more variable and distinctive feminine bonnet does not lend itself to such subconscious borrowing. The whisk-broom that is hastily seized for a fan presents some slight tangible resemblance, though we pass quite beyond such resemblance when the chair is handled as a bicycle. Quite pertinent to this relation is the confusion

of a young lady upon whose table stand two similar boxes, one containing stamps and the other keys, and who 'absently' tries to affix a key to the letter which she has just sealed. Such disparate substitutions begin to require a different formula, one that recognizes two undercurrents of thought and explains the confusion as the crossing-point of the two slightly or markedly divergent streams.

Subconscious Perception and Association.

The specific lapsing of the sensory factor in conformity to the psychologist's analysis would be revealed in the attitude of obeying, or tending to obey, an impulse with complete inability to account for its provenance, or with a vague haziness surrounding it, which eventually dissolves under a gradually rising attention. Awareness of impulse or action without awareness of the incentive thereto, sufficiently formulates the attitude, which is objectified in finding oneself handling something or other with the mental query, 'What was I wanting to do?' or, 'Why was I doing this?' The principle is important and finds application in pronounced and abnormal manifestations of consciousness, as well as in ordinary deviations. Illustrations thereof are somewhat elusive; the lapses are evanescent, momentary, but significant. A young man, busy with his studies, while his room-mate is away paying court to the one of his choice, is suddenly seized with the idea that it would be a good joke to disturb the courtship by telephoning to his chum that a telegram was awaiting him at his room. As he proceeds to the telephone, he is met by the landlady, who informs him that such a telegram had actually arrived. He is utterly astounded at the coincidence, but is forced to conclude that he had actually, but not consciously, received, two hours before, some vague, yet subconsciously effective indication of the arrival of a telegram for his chum. Two young ladies are lolling in a hammock on a hot summer's day. All energies, mental and otherwise, are relaxed. The mother of one of them asks the daughter to step into the library and get a certain book. The request seemingly goes unheeded; and the languid inactivity continues. Presently the daughter goes into the house, is heard fumbling among the papers and magazines on the study-table and reappears with the book, saying, 'Mother, I saw your book in the library and thought you might want it.' The surprise caused by the laughter that greeted her remark proved her ignorance of the request upon which she had acted.

Under fortunate circumstances a considerable variety of such subconscious perceptions may be detected; as a rule they escape observation, or are beset with vagueness and uncertainty. If we proceed beyond the outward recognition, to the elaboration that interprets the situation, to the associations which it arouses, we shall have another point of view by which to gauge the intercourse between the conscious and subconscious movements of thought. A student has mislaid her notebook, and after a thorough search fails to find it. The next day as the telephone bell rings, she instantly remembers where the missing book lies; for on the previous day just as she was preparing to go to the university, notebook in hand, the telephone bell had rung, and in answering the call she inadvertently had left her book upon the telephone-stand. While riding a bicycle, I turned a street corner rather abruptly and in doing so I caught a glimpse of two ladies, and mentally recognized one of them as Mrs. S. Upon overtaking them, I discovered that the other one was Mrs. S. The first, less conscious recognition had been referred to the wrong sensory stimulus. Quite similarly, a young man engaged in some absorbing occupation is asked to go to the cellar and bring up some coal; presently he returns with an armful of wood. He had been sufficiently attentive to appreciate that fuel was wanted, but a precise recognition was lacking. A young lady was busy reading, taking notes with pencil in hand, and presently emerged from a spell of abstraction to recognize that she was holding, not a pencil, but a pair of tweezers. Retracing her occupation, she was able to recall that in reading she had been passing her fingers over her face—a common habit—had come in contact with a superfluous hair, had reached for the tweezers, and in resuming a more attentive attitude towards her reading, became aware of her lapse.

Absent-Mindedness: The Temperamental Factor.

Any further analysis of subconscious lapses, of their varieties and predisposing causes, requires a more intimate consideration of a factor to which repeated, and yet but casual, reference has been made—namely, the degree of abstraction that prevails, the remoteness of the action performed in the indirect field of attention from the focus thereof, or, it may be, the deviation in alertness of the faculties from their normal functioning. A certain intensity of concentration brings about a loss of orientation, a forgetfulness of self and surroundings; the regaining of which after such a moment of 'rapture,' 'brown study' sleep or anaesthesia is variously interesting. Naturally the more bizarre and inconsequential lapses demand such decided fluctuations of self-adjustment as occur commonly only in those by temperament predisposed thereto. It is quite prominent how frequently those who contribute such instances admit that they are frequently detected in absent-minded loss of self. The slight or incipient form of the defective adjustment to which the state leads, every one can appreciate from the common experience of consulting one's watch merely for one's own information, and yet being wholly unable a moment later to tell what is the time. Students look up foreign words in the dictionary in some similar mental preoccupation, and as they close the book, become aware that they do not know the equivalent which they had actually found and read. Just how extensive the loss of orientation becomes can not be determined by the nature of the error which it induces, but must be inferred more intimately from the temperament and introspective account of the subject thereof. The man who, suddenly fearful that he had forgotten his watch, hastily explores the outside of his pockets, fails to feel the object of his search, and a moment later consults his timepiece to see whether he has time to go back and get the forgotten watch, may be regarded as suffering from a decided lapse of orientation sufficient to becloud his rational habits. Yet the degree of objective confusion involved in the following narrative is no greater than in many others, though the context suggests a decided mental wandering. A young lady, after the wear and tear of an amateur play, was returning a helmet which she had borrowed as 'property' and passing by a laundry, entered, wrote her name on the package, asked when it would be delivered, and was only 'brought to' by the astonishment on the clerk's face when a partial unwrapping revealed the nature of the article. The same comment may be made upon this instance as well: a young lady calling upon her friend to borrow a bicycle, found only her brother at home. The latter was pleased to be of service, brought out his sister's bicycle, inflated the tires, then took the trouser-guards from his own bicycle, offered them, along with the machine—and realized that explanation was hopeless. One also hardly needs the confession of the subject of the following lapses that she is constantly losing herself, particularly under mental excitement, or apprehension, such as examinations bring in their train. Knocking at her own door and waiting for an answer, rubbing one foot against the other and saying, 'excuse me'; sitting in her room absorbed in work, and realizing the passing of muffled steps outside the door (such as made by rubber heels which she herself wears), she mentally comments, 'There goes ————,' meaning herself—such are the tales laid at her door, which in substance are acknowledged.[9] Here the condition approaches that of the transitional stages from sleep to wakefulness, in which partial adjustment to the real environment, partial domination of the dreamy unadjusted or inwardly absorbed consciousness is in control. In such a condition a night operator at a small railway station, who was rarely called between midnight and four o'clock and frequently slept during parts of these hours, though always awakening to the combination of clicks that formed his personal summons, dozed off at midnight, and was awakened an hour later by the appearance of a conductor of a special train that had arrived without awakening him. The latter at once asked him for his train orders. The signal was displayed preventing any train from passing the station without stopping for orders; on the desk at the operating key was an order in his own handwriting, which was verified and found to be correct. With only the feeblest recollection thereof, the drowsy or sleeping operator had interpreted and recorded accurately his telegraphic duties. It is doubtless more likely that in such a half-awake condition the wrong response would be made, such as that of an operator under similar conditions who, suddenly aroused, went to an automatic vending-machine and tried to call up the despatcher by manipulating it. The half-awake, half-oriented consciousness is typically not critical, is satisfied with partial resemblances, and is suggestible; it occupies the middle ground between the lapses arising from a temporarily sleeping orientation and the more serious disturbances sequent to more fundamental lesions of consciousness.

Revery and Dreaming as Lapsed Procedure.

We have now to observe that the apperceptive recognition takes place on the basis of the preparedness, the qualification to interpret, that is the expression of previous experience, dominant habits, customary modes of absorption; and that much of this preliminary setting or tuning of the mental instrument goes on subconsciously. We have found a rather effective formula for certain groups of lapses in positing that two trains of ideas cross, or intermingle, or get their respective components interchanged. Now, if one of these is the more attentive reaction to what is objectively presented, and the other what is less reflectively supplied from the subconscious preparatory mechanism, our formula could be extended to a further range of elaborative processes. A graduate of the University of Michigan, upon coming to Wisconsin, found himself for some time reading the posters announcing football and other events as referring to Michigan, the initial W being inattentively interpreted as an M, and the rest following from the inner expectation. Expectant attention, itself largely subconscious, enters to modify perception and to prepare the way for more and more startling illusions and misinterpretations. Similarly in regard to associations: A., hearing the blowing of a whistle, suddenly thinks of the high school which he had attended and is able to trace the connection in that the school stood next to the engine-house that announced all fires by a similar whistle. B., while listening to a certain aria, finds himself visualizing a face that becomes definite and recognizable, and proves to be that of the friend who frequently played this air. C. awakens from a nap and, in the brief languor before rising from his couch, is able to arrest the association of the moment's waking reverie: his eyes rested upon the outlines of the window panes which presented a series of oblongs with the long side horizontal; he appreciated that the panes were really higher than broad, and that the effect was due to the crossing of the bars of the one sash with those of the other; reflected that the effect was pleasing, that he had seen it in old houses and in new ones built on old models; then visualized a window containing these broad panes; then thought how easily in ordering window panes of such shape, a carpenter might make a mistake and set them with the long side vertical instead of horizontal; speculated whether such an error would require the job to be done over again; then visualized a fireplace showing the color and design and setting, in a house which he had built fourteen years before, in which the faulty drawing of the architect had resulted in a badly proportioned opening, an irreparable mistake; then visualized the face of the culprit architect; and at this stage entered a wide-awake condition wondering why this face should be present, and was just able to resurrect by a reverse memory the aforesaid series of uncontrolled subconscious associations. D. emerges from a brown study, vaguely aware of a misty medley of flitting faces, is able to revitalize but one of them which, much to his surprise, proves to be his own reflection as he sees it in his glass while shaving; and is able to trace the appearance (a probable but not demonstrable source for others of the faces as well) to the series of illustrations scattered among the advertisements in a popular magazine which he had been perusing, one of them, on the open page before him, setting forth the excellence of a certain make of soap by picturing the foamy lather on the shaven cheek. And ail of us meet with such unexpected sequences in trains of uncontrolled thought, of which we recall only the more striking and accountable. Towards the great majority of these we do not, and could not if we would, assume a successful introspective attitude; they are far too elusive to be caught in the resurrecting process that attempts to draw them from their submerged retreat. Depending, as such instances do, for their record upon favoring circumstances coupled with a somewhat skilled introspection, it is not surprising that my casual collection contains few of them. When, however, the elaborative processes are carried on, not in momentary lowering of attention, but in the vivid projection of a dream, we obtain a different though equally convincing record of their prevalence and of their mode of operation. Such are instances in which the data are derived directly from the dreamer's environment, but the elaboration is supplied by the submerged mentality; the material is furnished, but the weaver operates the loom. The following is apposite: during the afternoon there had been a sham battle of the university battalion, and the narrator—a college girl—had watched with interest the passing of the regiments. During the night—about one o'clock—a telephone message arrived at the sorority-house announcing a death in the family of one of the members, A. The household was at once aroused and excited. There were more telephone messages, much walking in the halls, a message sent to the railroad station to hold the train if need be; and A. went off. Now the narrator was only partially aroused by all this commotion, had no distinct knowledge of A.'s departure, but had the memory of a vivid dream: "I dreamed that I was at the northwestern station in a large city and that companies of soldiers hurried to the train. I was very much excited, and it seemed to me that some one whom I knew well was about to leave. The engine whistled and started to move when some one called, 'Hold the train for two minutes; I must get home.'" Here is another lucid instance in which the apperceptive processes take the guise that dream-fancy gives them. From her seat in church the narrator noticed in one of the forward pews a young lady seemingly familiar, took note of her hat and dress, had no opportunity to ask any one who it was, and was vaguely worried during the day by attempts to identify the person. In the dream of the night, there was an automobile race; motor-cars of all sorts whizzed by in rapid succession, each bearing the name of the owner. One with a buggy-top, had marked in red letters against the black body of the vehicle, 'Ethel E.' Miss E. was guiding it, and was wearing the hat and dress that she had worn in church; and so the recognition was complete. The association of the face with the automobile had been intruded subconsciously; and as there were few, if any other automobiles of this pattern in the town, the associative clue was naturally successful.

The Subconscious in Lapses and in Adjusted Conduct.

There are many other instances of identification processes and similar solutions of queries in dreams; indeed the successful completion of problems, linguistic, mathematical, mechanical, personal, constructive and imaginative, is far more common in my collection of subconscious activities than was anticipated. The intellectual labor thus accomplished is not frequently of a high order; but it adequately establishes the continuation in sleep, or at times the clarification of activities that were prominent, even absobing, in the day's occupation. They thus conform to the formula of persistence of activity of a brain stimulated in a certain direction, with, in addition, not merely a rehearsal of, but an advance upon, the foregoing stages. Those without much new progress or with only slight variations of the theme are clearly more frequent than those that browse in pastures new; and the simplest of these are hardly more than reverberations of neural excitement. After an ocean voyage many persons continue for days to react in their sleep to the sensation of the ship's motion, which enters variously into dream-composition. A young man, having been occupied during the day in hay-making, and another in rolling stones, each continues with the same operation in his dreams; a young lady having spent a weary day in making paper poppies sees rows of these in her dreams; and so on with familiar variations. The whereabouts of articles that have been mislaid and looked for strenuously, but in vain, is clearly revealed in a dream; anticipated examinations are rehearsed, and imaginary but pertinent questions set and answered; missing quotations are referred to their proper source; forgotten lines to complete a stanza are recalled; arguments to defend an actual position are passed in review; and in rarer cases such rational procedures find their way to utterance, the dreamer mumbling or speaking the words that express the onward movement of his thought; and in the rarest of cases the sleeper arises and records them. So various are these operations that it is safe to say that they include the entire range of psychological processes that enter into constructive thought; and likewise do they retain analogy to the intrinsic relations and modes of procedure that characterize them when performed with normal waking attention. Even these most rational achievements of the subconscious bear unmistakably the stamp of the normal habit of thought, and emphasize their conformity in spirit, along a variable divergence in form, to the characteristic traits of human psychology.

This collection of illustrations thus suggests upon what various occasions, with what different tempos, the mind freed of its normal guidance continues to trot with the accustomed gait, stopping, like the horse that draws the milk-cart, at the proper points of call without direction of the driver (who for the moment may be asleep); though, like the horse, content with the mere appearance of a service performed, unappreciative in part of its meaning, subject to lapses and inconsequential wanderings. But horse and driver are endowed with very different psychologies; and the relations that become established between them, however intimate and intelligent, reflect the limitations and divergence of needs and interests of the two. It is quite misleading to think of the subconscious as a veritable, independently organized 'psyche,' or as a subservient understudy, however partially apposite and wholly legitimate such comparisons may be as metaphorical aids. The conscious and the subconscious (if we may clothe these aspects of our mental life in substantive form) are two souls with but a single thought, for the sufficient reason that they are but one soul; and the unity of their heart-beat is inherent in the organism that gives them life. It is because the silent partner of our mental administration is only the sole head thereof under other guise, in other mood, with other, possibly more playful, occupation, that his dominant habits, interests, endowment, experiences pervade their common business. It is again because the one contributes to the joint undertaking, all unheard and unseen, that those who have intercourse with this concern, as indeed the director thereof himself, have little occasion to come into direct contact with influences and data that do not appear upon the books. It has been our present purpose to set forth, and mainly through the minor departures in thought and behavior, how constantly the subconscious participation permeates the entire network of the mental business. It is indeed the peculiar virtue of the abnormal method that it illuminates the rule through the exceptions; and here finds in lapses illustrations of significant principles that prevail in the normal, well-adjusted conduct of affairs.

  1. The substance of this article in a modified and abridged form serves as a chapter in a volume entitled 'The Subconscious,' now in the press of Houghton, Mifflin & Co., and shortly to be issued by them. The present article deals in the main with the presentation and classification of the evidence for the more common types of such subconscious action, and does not consider as carefully as the subject demands the synthetic interpretation of the data. This aspect of the problem is treated in another chapter of the volume. There is also included in the present article material presented in other chapters of the book.
  2. These responses (some two hundred in number selected as available from a group of about three hundred) were prepared by students of the University of Wisconsin, in the main in the form of a set theme, as part of the work in English composition, and others as specific contributions by students of psychology. There seems no reason to suppose that the instances differ essentially from those that could be collected in other circles; yet they naturally reflect something of the occupations of young men and young women devoted, though by no means exclusively, to scholastic pursuits. It would require a detailed and more systematically conducted inquiry to yield material capable of specific and minute discussion: but the general relations and types of frequency that alone are considered in the present aperçu are sufficiently 'documented' by this casual yet suggestive collection.

    It should also be noted that the data did not specifically call for lapses of conscious attention, but suggested these and other types of instances as appropriate. It thus does appear that lapses actually furnish the largest quota of ordinary observations of subconscious activity. I have considered these as central, but have found it profitable to consider with them related types of 'cases.'

  3. The more usual lapse of this temporary type occurs where the sensory clue is slight enough to pass readily in and out of notice; thus if one has slightly injured a finger, one is intermittently reminded by a sudden pain that it can not be used for the accustomed service; one steps upon a foot that is not yet sufficiently recovered to bear one's weight; after operations to one's teeth, one unintentionally disobeys the dentist's injunction not to eat on that side for a day or two. A more complex instance of a lapse of this type is that of a young man who has just had an injection of belladonna put into his eyes, and who on his way home stops to buy a paper, choses the one he wishes, and is quite unmindful of the fact that he will be unable to read it.
  4. The complementary memory failure occurs when one is quite certain that one of these habitual tasks has been done, and is confronted with conclusive evidence that it has not. It is the slight claim that the performance thereof has to our conscious attention that makes possible each kind of failure. It is not so much as lapses of memory, but as inattentive occupations that the instances are here apposite; and it is this aspect of them that makes proper their citation as motor lapses.
  5. Such consideration is given them in an appendix, entitled, 'The Lapses of Speech,' to form part of the volume announced.
  6. The number of instances of this character which my students record of themselves as children, or of their young sisters and brothers, suggests that early youth is the favorable period for active, somnambulistic, dramatic and somniloquent dreams. It is not that these habits are more automatic in youth, but that the intensity with which interest demands expression in action is then more pronounced.
  7. I have not regarded it as necessary to include in this survey the familiar association of habits in the routine of complicated actions, by which the one step leads to the next, even though the occasion is an unintentional, inappropriate one. This type of lapse is extremely common and is apt to occur under but slight release of tension of the directing consciousness. It is also directly involved in several of the groups of unintentional motor actions just described. Its most typical form, however, is in 'absently' winding one's watch when changing one's waistcoat, or in continuing the undressing reaction to an unnecessary degree, simply because that act is more particularly associated with the complete undressing of the retiring hour; while as the feminine counterpart I am given the unintentional release of the hairpins when negligee is assumed; and in my collection, a frequent occurrence corresponding to this formula is the turning of the electric button, when entering the room, resulting at times in turning on the lights at daytime, or in an inadvertent turning off the light in passing the door, thus leaving the other occupants of the room in the dark.
  8. I pass by with slight mention instances of simple 'anaesthesia,' that is, the failure of sensations, through inattention, to enter the perceptive field. I do this because the relation involved, clearly important, is not likely to be overlooked. The inevitable contraction of the sensory field is familiar; and we have only to recall occasions when a question must be repeated, and we confess that we did not hear, at least with the mind's ear, what was said. Such is merely the common and necessary, but here untimely, relaxation in the attention wave. Occasionally such insensibility does give rise to peculiar situations which may be called negative lapses in that, though it would have been natural and profitable for the subject to awaken to the situation, he fails to do so. The best instance in my collection is that of a young man resigning himself unconcernedly to the manipulations of the barber, with the instruction to have his hair trimmed and his moustache shaved, who becomes aware only at the close of the operation, that through the barber's error he has had his head shaved and his moustache trimmed.
  9. It may not be out of place to note again that the type of action here illustrated is just as apposite whether it leads to an inappropriate issue and thus figures as a lapse, or whether the subconscious mechanism correctly carries the action through to its normal result. The same degree of abstraction that is needed for these pronounced lapses is perfectly comparable with equally and even more pronounced activities correctly performed. I have the testimony of a lady of domestic habits and decided literary tendencies who frequently finds herself going through so prosaic an occupation as washing dishes in a vague sort of way, quite surprised to find that she is through, and about equally unable to retrace in memory the successive stages of her manual labor and of her far-away thoughts. Indeed there is abundant evidence that mental wandering occurs more frequently without leaving in its wake interesting or recordable trace of its influence upon the waves of thought, than it does thus aid the psychologist in the pursuit of his problems.