Abréactions Associations : 8, rue de Florence - 75008 Paris | Tél. : 01 45 08 41 10
Home > > Psychotherapy > The Subconscious

Hugo Münsterberg

The Subconscious

Psychotherapy (PartI: The Psychological Basis of Psychotherapy)

Published on: Saturday 17 November 2007

Hugo Münsterberg, Psychotherapy, Moffat, Yard and Company, New York, 1909.


The story of the subconscious mind can be told in three words: there is none. But it may need many more words to make clear what that means, and to show where the misunderstanding of those who give to the subconscious almost the chief rôle in the mental performance sets in. The psychology of suggestion, for instance, which we have now fully discussed without even mentioning the word subconscious, figures in most popular books in the treatises of both physicians and ministers as a wonderful dominance of the subconscious mind. The subconscious mind alone receives the suggestions and makes them effective, the subconscious mind controls the suggestive processes in consciousness, and the subconscious mind comes into the foreground and takes entire hold of the situation when the hypnotic state sets in.

But we are always assured that there is no need of turning to the mystery of suggestion and hypnotism to find that uncanny subpersonality in us. We try to remember a name, or we think of the solution of a problem; what we are seeking does not come to consciousness and now we turn to other things; and suddenly the name flashes up in our mind or the solution of the problem becomes clear to us. Who can doubt that the subconscious mind has performed the act? While our attention was given over to other questions, the subconscious mind took up the search and troubled itself with the problem and neatly performed what our conscious mind was unable to produce. Moreover in every situation we are performing a thousand useful and well-adapted acts with our body without thinking of the end and aim. What else but the subconscious mind directs our steps, controls our movements, and adjusts our life to its surroundings? And is not every memory picture, every reminiscence of earlier experiences a sufficient proof that the subconscious mind holds its own? The poem which we learned years ago did not remain somewhere lingering in our consciousness, and if we can repeat it today, it must be because our subconscious mind has kept it carefully in its store and is ready to supply us when consciousness has need for it.

Surely if we think how this, our subconscious mind, is able to hold all our memories and all our learning, and how it transacts all the work of controlling our useful actions and of bringing up the right ideas, we may well acknowledge that compared with it our conscious life is rather a small part. It is as with the iceberg in the ocean; we know that only a small part is visible above the surface of the water and a ten times larger mountain swims below the sea. It seems, therefore, only logical to attach this whole subconscious mental life to a special subconscious personality. Then we come to the popular theory of the two minds in us, the upper and the lower, of which we can hardly doubt that the lower one has on the whole the larger part of the business to perform. And we certainly have no right to give to the word lower mind the side-meaning that the activity is of a lower order. The most brilliant thoughts of the genius are not manufactured in his upper consciousness, they spring suddenly into his mind, their whole creation belongs thus to the assiduous work of the subconscious neighbor. There the inventor and discoverer gets his guidance, there the poet gets his inspiration, there the religious mind gets its beliefs. In short, the constitution of the mental state allows on the whole to the upper consciousness a rather decorative part while the real work is left for the lower house.

Yet it must be acknowledged that the scholars somewhat disagree as to the dignity of the lower mind. Considering the usually accepted fact that in hypnotism the lower mind comes entirely over the surface, just these hypnotic events can indeed suggest two different views of the subconscious and this doubleness is reënforced if we still add the entertaining material which comes to light by the automatic writing of mediums in their trance. The hypnotized person is ready to perform any foolishness, is not influenced by any considerations of tact and taste and wisdom and respect, and thus some of the chief believers in the subconscious personality stick to the diagnosis that the lower mind in us which shows up in hypnotism is a rather brutal, stupid, lazy, cowardly, immoral creature which ordinarily rather deserves to be subdued by our noble and wise upper personality. And the automatic writings of the mediums indorse this disrespectful view, for it is difficult to gather more idiotic slang than the emanations of these letters of the planchette. On the other hand, the hypnotized person shows an increase of sensitiveness and hyperæsthesia in which perhaps optical impressions or smells may be noticed which the ordinary man cannot perceive. Moreover the memory of the hypnotized is, as we saw, abnormally sharpened. Entirely forgotten experiences may awake again. The same holds true for the hysteric in whom also, of course, the subconscious takes hold of the inner life. Thus it seems entirely safe to say that the powers of the subconscious personality far surpass those of the upper conscious fellow, and that agrees with all those facts as to the subconscious origin of the work of the genius. Further, has it not been found again and again that the hypnotized and the hysteric cannot only remember long-forgotten parts of the past but have telepathic knowledge for distant events and even mysterious premonitions of the field of occurrences of the future?

Hypnotism is essentially the same as the old mesmerism, and mesmerism was widely acknowledged as clairvoyance, and all that harmonizes again with the experiences of the mediums whose subconscious mind in trance enters into contact with the spirits of the dead. The subconscious personality is thus really a metaphysical power which transcends the limitations of the earthly person altogether and has steady connection with the endless world of spirit and the inner soul of the universe. Most popular books, it is true, do not demand from their readers the choice between the one or the other type of the lower personality, between that brutal, vicious, ignorant creature and that far-seeing, inspired, powerful soul. They simply mix the two and adapt the special faculties of this underground man to the special requirements of the particular chapter, the subconscious being unusually wise or unusually stupid in accordance with the special facts which are just then to be explained. Even that does not always settle all difficulties. They may discover, for instance, that the subconscious mind with which we deal in the hypnotized person has again itself a subconsciousness. If we tell the hypnotized person not to see a certain picture on the wall, this subconscious personality perceives the whole room with the exception of the picture. Yet after all someone sees this picture, because if we hypnotize him the next time and ask him what the picture contained, he now knows its contents. Thus they must have been recognized in a sub-subconsciousness, and we therefore come to a personality which lives on a floor still below the basement. But experiment can demonstrate that even this most hidden personality has still its secrets which are handed downwards. In short, we finally have not merely two but a number of personalities in us.

But now let us leave these fantasies of psychological fiction. Let us turn to the concrete facts, let us see them in the spirit of modern scientific psychology, let us try to explain them in harmony with the principles of psychological explanation, and let us discriminate the various groups of facts which have led to that easy-going hypothesis of the subconscious. Discrimination indeed is needed, as it would be impossible to bring the whole manifold of facts under one formula, but there is certainly no unification reached by simply putting the same label on all the varieties and behaving as if they are all at once explained when they are called the functions of the subconscious. Two large groups may be separated. Facts are referred to the subconscious mind which do not belong to the mind at all, neither to a conscious nor to a subconscious one, but which are simply processes in the physical organism; and secondly, facts are referred to the subconscious mind which go on in the conscious mind but which are abnormally connected. Thus the subconscious mental facts are either not mental but physiological, or mental but not subconscious.

What does the scientific psychologist really mean by consciousness? We must now think back to our discussion of the principles which control the fundamental conceptions of modern psychology. We saw clearly that the psychology which is a descriptive and explanatory science of mental phenomena can by no means have the ambition to be a full interpretation of the inner reality. Our inner life, we saw, is not a series of phenomena, is not a chain of objects which we are aware of and which we therefore can describe, and which finally we can explain. But in its living reality, we saw that it is purposive, has a meaning and aim, is will and intention, and can thus be understood in its true character, not by describing and explaining it but by interpreting it and appreciating it. This is the life attitude towards personalities when we deal man to man. We do not at first consider ourselves or our fellows as mental objects to be explained but always as subjects to be understood in their meaning. If we pass from this primary attitude to the attitude of the scientific psychologist we gain, as we saw, an artificial perspective. We must consider then our inner experience of ourselves with all our states as a series of objects made up of elements connected by law. Instead of the real things which in our real life are objects of will and purpose, tools and means for us, the psychologist knows only objects of awareness, objects which have no meaning, but which simply exist and which are no longer related to a will but are connected with other objects as causes and effects. Now we deal no longer with the chairs and tables before us but from a psychological point of view they become perceptive ideas of chairs and tables, ideas which are not in the room but in our own minds. While these objects of our will and of our personality become mere ideas, our will and personality themselves become, too, a series of phenomena. Our self is now no longer the purposive will but is that group of sensations and ideas which clusters about the perception of our organism and its actions; in short, our self itself becomes an object of awareness.

Our whole inner experience thus becomes a manifold of objects. Our self and the actions of our self are thus alike for the psychologist mere phenomena, mere objects which are perceived. Will and emotion, memory idea and thought—they all are now passing appearances like the sunshine and rain, the flowers and waves. By this transformation the immediate will character of real life is given up, but instead of it a system of objects is gained, that allows description and explanation. If we are to deal at all with inner life not from a purposive but from a causal point of view, we are obliged to admit this reconstruction. Without it we cannot have any science of the mind, without it we can understand the intentions of our neighbor and appreciate the truth and morality of his meanings but we cannot causally explain his experiences or determine which effects are to be expected. It is thus not an arbitrary substitution but a procedure just as necessary and logically obligatory as the work of the chemist who substitutes trillions of invisible atoms for the glass of water which he drinks. The possibility of causal explanation of the successive facts demands this remolding of the outer and of the inner world. We have discussed that before and now only have to draw the consequences.

Thus for the psychologist the mental world is a system of mental objects. To be an object means of course to be object of some subject which is aware of it. What else could it mean to exist at all as object if not that it is given to some possible subject? But the world of objects is twofold; we have not only the mental objects of the psychologist but also the physical objects of the naturalist. Science must characterize the difference between those two and we pointed once before to the only fundamental difference. Physical objects are those which are possible objects of awareness for every subject; psychical objects are those which are possible objects of awareness for one subject only. The tree which I see is as physical tree object for every man, it is the same tree which you and I see; my psychical perception of the tree is object for one subject only. My perception can never be your perception. Our perceptions may agree but each has his own. As to the physical objects, we can entirely abstract from such reference to the subjects. We say simply: the tree exists or is part of nature; and only the philosopher is aware that we silently mean by it that it exists for every subject and that it is therefore not necessary to refer to any particular subject. But the perception of the tree which is either your idea or my idea evidently gets its existence only if it is referred and attached to a particular subject which is aware of it. Such subject of awareness is that which the psychologist calls consciousness and all the ideas and volitions and emotions and sensations and images which make up the mental life are then contents of the consciousness or objects of the consciousness. To have psychical existence at all means thus to be object of awareness for a consciousness.

Something psychical which simply exists but is not object of consciousness is therefore an inner contradiction. Consciousness is the presupposition for the existence of the psychical objects. Psychical objects which enjoy their existence below consciousness are thus as impossible as a wooden piece of iron.

If consciousness is nothing but the subject of awareness for the individual objects, we see at once certain consequences which are too often forgotten in the popular, haphazard psychology. In the scientific system of psychology, consciousness has for instance nothing whatever to perform, that is, consciousness itself is in no way active. The active personality of real life has been left behind and has itself been transformed into that self which is merely content of consciousness. The person who acts and performs the deeds of our life is then only a central content of our consciousness which is crystallized about the idea of our organism. It has thus become one of the contents of which consciousness itself is passively aware. Consciousness is an inactive spectator for the procession of the contents. Thus consciousness itself cannot change anything in the content nor can it connect the contents. No other function is left to consciousness but merely that of awareness. Every change and every fusion and every process must be explained through the relations of the various contents to one another. Consciousness has, therefore, not the power to prefer the one idea or to reject the other, to reënforce the one sensation and to inhibit the other. From a psychological point of view, we have seen before that even attention does not mean an activity of consciousness but a change in the content of consciousness. Certain sensations become more impressive, more clear, and more vivid, and others fade away, become indistinct and disappear, but all that goes on in the content of consciousness and the spectator, consciousness itself, simply becomes aware of those changes. Consciousness has also in itself no special span, ideas appear or disappear not because consciousness expands or narrows itself but because the causal conditions awaken or suppress the various contents.

Consciousness has in itself no limit; all organization belongs to the content. Whatever psychical states are attributed to one organism belong thus to its consciousness but all the connections are entirely connections of the content. We, therefore, have not even the right to say that consciousness, as such, has unity. Unity too belongs to the organization of the content. One part of the content hangs together with the other parts but consciousness is only the constant condition for their existence. Where there is no unity, there it cannot have any meaning to speak of the double or triple existence. There may be a disconnection in the various parts of the content and a dissociation by which the normal ties between the various contents may be broken but consciousness itself cannot fall asunder. Thus consciousness cannot have any different degrees. The same consciousness experiences the distinct clear content and the vague fading confused content. Thus also consciousness can never be aware of itself and the word self-consciousness is easily misleading. In psychology, it can never mean that the consciousness which is a subject of all experience is at the same time object of any experience. Its whole meaning lies in its being the passive spectator. That of which consciousness becomes aware in self-consciousness is the idea of the personality, which is certainly a content. The personality, the actor of our actions, is thus never anything but an object in psychology, and consciousness never anything but a subject. Consciousness itself is thus in no way altered when the idea of the personality is changing. Only if all this is carelessly confused, if consciousness is sometimes treated as meaning subject of consciousness, and at another time as meaning the content of consciousness, and again at another time the unified organization of the content, and at still another time the connection of the content with the personality, and if finally all that is confused with the purposive reality of the immediate personal life—only then, do we find the way open to those tempting theories of the subconscious personality.

If, instead, we stick to the scientific view, we find the following facts. First, we have everywhere with us the fact that the earlier experiences may again enter into consciousness as memory images or as imaginative ideas, that is, in the order in which they are experienced a long time before or in a new order, either with a feeling of acquaintance or without it. Certainly at no time is the millionth part of what we may be able to reproduce present in our consciousness. Where are those words of the language, those faces of our friends, those landscapes, and those thoughts; where have they lingered in the time of their seclusion? Scientific psychology has no right to propose any other theory as explanation but that no mental states at all remain and that all which remained was the disposition of physiological centers. When I coupled the impression of a man with the sound of his name, a certain excitement of my visual centers occurred together with the excitement of my acoustical centers; the connecting paths became paths of least resistance, and any subsequent excitement of the one cell group now flows over into the other. It is the duty of physiology to elaborate such a clumsy scheme and to make us understand in detail how those processes in the neurons can occur and it is not the duty of psychology to develop detailed physiological hypotheses. Psychology has to be satisfied with the fact that all the requirements of the case can be furnished by principle through physiological explanation. Least of all ought we to be discouraged by the mere complexity of the process. If a simple sound and a simple color sensation, or a simple taste and simple smell sensation, can associate themselves through mere nervous conditions of the brain, then there is nothing changed by going over to more and more complex contents of consciousness. We may substitute a whole landscape for a color patch or the memory of a book for a word, but we do not reach by that a point where the physiological principle of explanation, once admitted, begins to lose its value. Complexity is certainly in good harmony with the bewildering manifoldness of those thousands of millions of possible connections between the brain cells.

Every experience leaves the brain altered. The nerve fibers and the cells have gone into new stages of disposition for certain excitements. This disposition may be slowly lost. In that case the earlier experience cannot be reproduced; we have forgotten it. But as long as the disposition lasts—it is quite indifferent whether we conceive it more in terms of chemical changes or physical variations, as processes in the nerve cells or between the nerve cells—the physiological change alone is responsible for the awakening of the memory idea under favoring associative conditions. Of course, someone might reply: can we not fancy that there remains on the psychical side also a disposition? Each idea which we have experienced may have left a psychical trace which alone may make it possible that the idea may come back to us again. But what is really meant and what is gained by such a hypothesis?

First, do not let us forget that such a proposition could only have one possible end in view, namely, the explanation of the reappearance of memories. But when we discussed the basis of physiological psychology, we convinced ourselves that mental facts as such are not causally connected anyhow. Our real inner life has its internal connections, connections of will and purpose, but as soon as we have taken that great psychological step and look on inner life as merely psychological objects, then the material is connected only through the underlying physiological processes and we can never explain causally the appearance of an idea through the preceding existence of another idea. We may expect one after the other, but we have no insight into the mechanism which makes the second follow after the first. Such insight into necessary connection we find only on the physical side, and we saw that just here lies the starting point for the modern view of physiological psychology. If that holds true for the connections between idea and idea, of course it holds true in the same way for the connection between mental disposition and the corresponding memory. We can understand causally that a chemical disposition in the nerve fibers brings about a chemical excitement in those neurons, but how a mental disposition is to create mental experience we could not understand; and to explain it casually, we should need again a reference to the underlying physiological processes. The hypothesis of mental dispositions would thus be an entirely superfluous addition by which we transcend the real experience without gaining anything for the explanation.

Secondly, if we really needed a mental disposition for each memory picture, in addition to the physiological disposition of the brain cells, can we overlook that exactly the same thing would then be necessary for every perception also? The outer impression produces, perhaps through eye or ear or skin, an excitement of the brain cell and this excitement is accompanied by a sensation; and no one fancies that the appearance of this sensation is dependent upon a special disposition for it on the mental side. No one fancies it, because it is evident that such a hypothesis again would be entirely useless. If every new perception needed such a special mental disposition, we should have to presuppose dispositions for everything which possibly can come into our surroundings. Every smell, every word, every face which comes anew to us would need its special ready-made disposition. In other words, our mind would contain the disposition for every possible idea and that would mean that these dispositions would be in no way helps for explanation. If the disposition exists for everything, no one particular thing can be explained by the existence of that disposition. Again we should have to rely entirely upon the physiological brain excitement for explaining that this word or that word is perceived by our mind. But if the brain excitement alone is sufficient to explain the new perception in the mind, then no reason can be found why the renewed brain excitement would not be sufficient to renew the mental experience. Thus there is nowhere room for mental dispositions below the level of consciousness.

Thirdly, what could we really mean by such mental dispositions? A physiological disposition for a physiological action is certainly not the action itself. The finger movement in piano playing finds only a disposition in my brain centers, in case I am trained; the movement itself does not last. But the disposition is at least itself a change in the physical world. The molecules are somehow differently placed, the disposition has thus as much objective existence as the resulting movement. Nothing at all similar can be imagined in the sphere of psychical contents. Such mental dispositions would have to exist entirely outside the world of concrete mental experiences and, if we scrutinize carefully, we soon discover that such theories are only lingering reminiscences of the purposive view of life, and do not fit at all into the causal one. If we take the purposive attitude, then every idea and every will contains indeed all that its meaning involves and everything which we can logically develop out of it is by intention contained in it. All mathematical calculations are then contained in the thought of figures and forms, but they are contained there only by intention, they are logically inclosed; psychologically the consciousness of the figures and forms does not contain any disposition for the development of mathematical systems. We indeed have no right to throw into a psychological subconsciousness all that which is not present but involved by intention in the ideas and volitions of our purposive life.

If thus the memory idea is linked with the past experience entirely by the lasting physiological change in the brain, we have no reason to alter the principle, when we meet the memory processes of the hypnotized person or the hysteric. It is true their memory may bring to light earlier experiences which are entirely forgotten by the conscious personality, but that ought to mean, of course, only that nerve paths have become accessible in which the propagation of the excitement was blocked up before. That does not bring us nearer to the demand for a subconscious mental memory. The threshold of excitability changes under most various conditions. Cells which respond easily in certain states may need the strongest stimulation in others. The brain cells which are too easily excited perhaps in maniacal exultation would respond too slowly in a melancholic depression. Hypnotism, too, by closing the opposite channels and opening wide the channels for the suggested discharge, may stir up excitements for which the disposition may have lingered since the days of childhood and yet which would not have been excited by the normal play of the neurons. Quite secondary remains the question of how these reproduced images finally appear in consciousness, that is, whether they appear with reference to earlier happenings and are thus felt as remembrances, or whether they enter as independent imaginations, or whether they finally, under special conditions, take the character of real, new perceptions. The latter case is well-known in crystal-gazing, where long-forgotten memory ideas project themselves into the visual field like hallucinations. But for the theory of the subconscious, even these uncanny crystal visions do not mean more than the simplest awakening of the experience of a landscape image of yesterday.

We turn to a second group of facts and again we have no fault to find with the observation of the facts, even of the most surprising and exceptional ones. Our objection refers to the interpretation of them. This second group contains the active results of such physiological nervous dispositions. In the first group, the dispositions come in question only as conditions for a new excitement which was accompanied by mental experience. In this second group, the dispositions are causes for other physiological processes which either lead to actions or to influences on other mental processes. The dispositions are here working like the setting of switches which turn the nervous process into special tracks. In the simple cases, of course no one doubts that a purely physiological basis is involved. The decapitated frog rubs its skin where it is touched with a drop of muriatic acid in a way which is ordinarily referred to the trained apparatus of his spinal cord, as no brain is left, and the usefulness of the action and its adjustment is very well understood as the result of the connecting paths in the nervous system.

From such simple adjustment of reactions of the spinal cord, we come step by step to the more complex activities of the subcortical brain centers, and finally to those which are evidently only short-cuts of the higher brain processes. That we react at every change of position with the right movements to keep our bodily balance, that we walk without thinking of our steps, that we speak without giving conscious impulse for the various speech movements, that we write without being aware of the motor activity which we had to learn slowly, that we play the piano without thinking of the special impulses of the hands, that we select the words of a hasty speech, if we have its aim in mind, without consciously selecting the appropriate words—all that is by continuous transitions connected with those simplest automatic reactions. And from here again, we are led over gradually perhaps to the automatic writings of the hysteric who writes complex messages without having any idea of their content in consciousness. It is in such cases certainly a symptom of disease that the activity of these lower brain centers can go over into the motor impulse of writing without producing secondary effects in the highest conscious brain centers; it is hysterical. But that the message of the pencil can be brought about by such operation of lower brain centers, or at least with imperfect coöperation of the higher brain centers, is certainly entirely within the limits of the same physiological explanation.

On the other hand, nothing is changed in the theoretic principles of the case if the effect of these automatic processes in the nervous system is not an external muscle action at first, but an influence on other brain centers which may furnish the consciousness with new contents. We try to remember a name, that is, a large number of neuron processes are setting in which normally lead to the excitement of that particular process which furnishes us the memory image of the name. But those brain cells may not respond, the channels may be blocked somehow or the excitability of those cells may be lowered. Now new excitements engage our psychophysical system. We are thinking of other problems. In the meantime, by the new equilibrium in the brain the blockade in these first paths may slowly disappear or the threshold of excitability may be changed. The physiological excitement may now be carried effectively into those tracts. The cell response sets in and suddenly the name comes to our mind. This purely physiological operation in our brain paths must thus have exactly the same result which it would have had, if more parts of the process had been accompanied by conscious experience. And again from mere remembering a forgotten name, we come by slow steps to the solution of a problem, to the invention, and finally to the creation of the genius.

Superficiality of thought is easily inclined to object to such a physiological interpretation and perhaps to denounce it pathetically as a crude materialism which lowers the dignity of mental work. Nothing shows more clearly the confusion between a purposive and causal view of the mind. In the purposive view of our real life, only our will and our personality have a meaning and can be related to the ideas and higher aims. Nature is there nothing but the dead material which is the tool of our will and which has to be mastered by the personality. In that world alone lie our duty and our morality. But as soon as we have gone over to the causal aspect of our life and have taken the point of view of the psychologist, making our inner life a series of contents of consciousness, of psychical phenomena, we have transformed our inner experience in such a way that it has become itself nothing but nature.

It is mental nature, nature of psychical stuff, but each part of it is nothing but a mental element, a mental atom without any meaning and without any value; nothing but a link in the chain, nothing but a factor in the explanation of the whole, nothing to which any ethical or æsthetic or logical or religious significance can any longer be attached. The psychical sensations and the physical atoms are equally material for naturalistic explanation. To understand causally a certain effect, for instance the creation of a work of art, of a discovery or a thought or a deed as the product of psychical processes, is thus in no way more dignified or more valuable than to understand it as the product of physiological brain processes. The one is not more dignified than the other because both alike have nothing whatever to do with dignity. Both alike are the necessary results of the foregoing processes, and to attach a kind of sentimental preference to the explanation through conscious factors is nothing but a confused reminiscence again of the entirely different purposive view of life. And surely nothing is gained for the higher values of life if this confusion sets in, because if the popular mind becomes unable to discriminate between the secondary, causal, artificial aspect of science and the primary, purposive aspect of life, the opposite effect lies still nearer: the values of the real life suffer and are crowded out by the knowledge of the scientific facts. Man’s moral freedom is then wrongly brought in question, as soon as it is learned that every action is the product of brain processes. Life and science alike will gain the more, the more clearly the purposive and the causal point of view are separated and the more it is understood that this causal aspect itself is demanded by certain purposes of life. The oratory of those who denounce the physiological theories as lacking idealism in reality undermines true moral philosophy. There is no idealism which can really flourish merely by ignoring the progress of science and confusing the issues. The true values of the higher life cannot be safely protected by that thoughtless idealism which draws its life from vagueness and which therefore has to be afraid of every new discovery in scientific psychology. Our real ideals do not lie at all in the sphere in which the problem of causally explaining the psychological phenomena arises.

Our conscious experiences are thus indeed not only here and there, but usually the products of chains of processes which go on entirely on the physiological side. We have no reason at all to seek for those preceding actions any mental accompaniment outside of consciousness, that means, any subconscious mental states. Then, of course, this physiological explanation also covers entirely those after-effects of earlier experiences, especially emotional experiences, which the physician nowadays likes to call subconscious "complexes." We shall see what an important rôle belongs to these facts, especially in the treatment of hysteria and psychasthenia, but the interpretation again ought to avoid all playing with the conception of the subconscious. Emotional experiences may produce there some strong stable dispositions in the brain system which become mischievous in reënforcing or inhibiting certain thoughts and actions without awakening directly conscious experiences. The whole psychological switch system may have been brought into disorder by such abnormal setting of certain parts, but the connection of each resulting accident with the primary emotional disturbances does not contradict the fact that all the causes lie entirely in disturbances of the central paths. It is a change in the neurons and their connections. To discover it we may have to go back to early conscious experiences, but in the process itself there is no mental factor, and therefore no subconscious emotion is responsible for the mischief carried out.

Both groups of facts which we have studied so far, have dealt with processes which were indeed not conscious but which we had no right to call subconscious inasmuch as they contained no mental process at all but only physiological dispositions and actions. We turn finally to the other smaller and more abnormal group of so-called subconscious facts in which the facts are mental indeed and not only physiological, but not at all outside of consciousness and thus again not subconscious. A conscious fact may easily suggest the appeal to subconscious theories to those who have accepted such theories for other reasons. There are, for instance, plenty of mental experiences which we do not notice or which we do not recognize. Yet if we find later that they must have influenced our mind, we are easily inclined to refer them to subconscious activity. But it is evident that to be content of consciousness means not at all necessarily to be object of attention or object of recognition. Awareness does not involve interest. If I hear a musical sound, I may not recognize at all the overtones which are contained in it. As soon as I take resonators and by them reënforce the loudness of those overtones, they become vivid for me and I can now notice them well even when the resonators are removed. I surely was aware of them, that is, had them in consciousness all the time but there were no contrast feelings and no associations in consciousness which gave them sufficient clearness to attract attention.

In this way I may be again led by gradual stages to more and more complex experiences. I may overlook and yet include within my content of consciousness most various parts of my surroundings; and yet the neglected is not less in consciousness itself than the attended. Much that figures in literature as subconscious means indeed nothing else but the unattended. But it belongs to the elements of psychological analysis to recognize that the full content of consciousness is always larger than the narrow field of attention. This narrow field on the other hand has certainly no sharp demarcation line. There is a steady shading off from the most vivid to the least vivid. We cannot grasp those least vivid contents of consciousness, we cannot fixate them as such, because as soon as we try to hold them, they move from the periphery of the content into its center and become themselves vivid and clear. But as we are surely aware of different degrees of clearness and vividness in our central mass of contents, we have no difficulty in acknowledging the existence of still lower degrees of vividness in those elements which are blending and fusing into a general background of conscious experiences. Nothing stands out there, nothing can be discriminated in its detail. That background is not even made up of whole ideas and whole memories and whole emotions and feelings and judgments and volitions, but of loose fragments; half ideas and quarter ideas, atoms of feelings and incipient impulses and bits of memory images are always mixed in that half-dark background. And yet it is by principle not less in consciousness, and consciousness itself is not different for these contents. It is not half-clear consciousness, not a lower degree of awareness, only the objects of awareness are crumbled and fading.

Whether these background objects really exist can only be made out by studying carefully the changes which result under different conditions, the influences which those loose parts have on the structure of the whole, and the effect of their complete disappearance. I may never really notice a little thing in my room and yet may be aware that it has been taken away. The visual image of it was an element of my mental background, when I was sitting at my desk, but it never before moved to the center of my conscious content. But this center itself is also constantly changing. Sometimes the one, sometimes the other idea may enter into it, but in this alternation that which is not in the focus either remains in consciousness unattended or when it disappears from it it loses its mental character altogether. If I attend a tiresome lecture while my mind is engaged with a practical problem of my own life, there may be a steady rivalry between the words which come with the force of outer stimulus to my brain and make me listen and my inner difficulties which claim my attention. I listen for a while, and then suddenly, without noticing it, my own thoughts may have taken the center of the stage and again without sudden interruption a word may catch my attention. While I was thinking of my own problem the sounds of the lecturer were really outside of my field of attention, yet some remark now pushes itself again into the center. That does not mean that a subconscious mind is listening while my lucid mind was thinking, but it does mean that those words were unattended and remained in the periphery of the field of consciousness. But when some of the sentences stirred up in that peripheral field some important associations, they were strong enough to produce a new motor reaction by which the mental equilibrium became changed again and by which the lecturer overwhelmed my private thoughts. Yet even this state of mind, without any break, can go over into an absolutely physiological process. I may for a while really inhibit the lecturer’s voice completely and remain in the thoughts of my own imagination. After a minute or two, the resistance against the acoustical stimulus will certainly be broken and the sound will again enter into my consciousness, but in that interval there was no subconscious and not even any unattended mental function; there was no mental process at all. The sound reached my brain but as the motor setting was adverse, the sounds did not bring about that highest act of physiological transmission which is accompanied by mental contents. Thus it became entirely physiological. Yet of course every word reached my brain and left traces there. If I were hypnotized after the lecture and thus the threshold for the real awakening of brain excitements lowered, it might not be impossible that some of the thoughts of the lecturer which did not enter my consciousness at all, are now afterwards in the hypnotic state stirred up in me. Yet even that would not indicate that they had become mental and thus subconscious at the time of the lecture.

The so-called subconscious, which in reality is fully in consciousness but only unnoticed, easily shades over into that unconscious which is also in consciousness but dissociated from the idea of the own personality and thus somewhat split off from the interconnected mass of conscious contents. Wherever we meet such phenomena, we are in the field of the abnormal. The normal mental life is characterized by the connectedness of the contents. Yet even that holds true, of course, only if we think of those mental states which exist at one and the same instant in consciousness. As soon as we consider the succession of mental events, we cannot doubt that even normal experience shows breaks, lapses, and complete annihilation of that which a moment before was a real content in our consciousness. We may have looked at our watch and certainly had in glancing at the dial a conscious impression, but in the next moment we no longer know how late it is. The impression did not connect itself with our continuous personal experience, that is, with that chief group of our conscious contents which we associate with the perception of our personality. Under abnormal conditions of the brain, larger and larger parts of the completely conscious experience may thus be cut off from the continuity of conscious life. But to be in consciousness, and therefore to be not-subconscious, does not mean to be through memory ties connected with the idea of our own personality.

The somnanbulist, for instance, may get up at night time and write a letter, then go to bed again and not know anything of the event when he awakes in the morning. We have no reason to claim that he had no knowledge of the letter in his consciousness when he wrote it. It is exactly the same consciousness from a psychological standpoint as the one with which he wakes up. Only that special content has in an abnormal way entirely disappeared, has not left a possibility of awakening a memory image, and the action of the personality in writing has thus become separated and cut off from the connected experiences of the man. But while the nocturnal episode may be entirely forgotten, it was not less in consciousness for the time being, than if a normal man should leave his bed hastily to write a letter. Moreover under abnormal conditions, as for instance in severe hysteric cases, those dissociated contents may form large clusters of mental experiences in the midst of which a new idea of the own personality may develop. Considering that through such disconnection many channels of discharge are blocked, while others are abnormally opened, it seems only natural that the idea of the own acting personality becomes greatly changed. Thus we have in such an episode a new second personality which may be strikingly different in its behavior and in its power, in its memories and in its desires, from the continuous normal one, and this secondary personality may now develop its own continuity and may arise under special conditions in attacks which are connected among one another by their own memory bonds.

The two personalities may even alternate from day to day and the normal one may itself become pathologically altered. In that case the two alternating personalities would both be different from the original one. But again we have even in such most complex and exceptional cases only an alternation in the contents, not an alternation in the consciousness itself. Different ideas of the own personality with different associations and impulses follow each other in consciousness and the abnormality of the situation lies in the lack of memory connections and of mutual influences, but consciousness remains the same throughout. It remains the same, just as we do not change consciousness if we feel ourselves in one hour as members of our family, in the next hour as professional workers in our office, again later as social personalities at a party or as citizens at a political meeting or as æsthetic subjects at the theater. Each time we are to a high degree a different personality, the idea of our self is each time determined by different groups of associations, memories, emotions, and impulses. The differentiation is to be considered as normal only because broad memory bridges lead over from one to the other. The connection of the various contents with the various ideas of the own personality constitutes thus in no way a break of consciousness itself and relegates no one content into a subconscious sphere.

Finally the same holds true, if the idea of the personality as content of consciousness in the patient is split into two simultaneous groups, of which each one is furnished with its own associations. Yet the interpretation here becomes extremely difficult and arbitrary. Take the case that a patient in severe hysteria at our request writes down the history of her life. We should not hesitate to say that she is doing it consciously but now we begin to talk with her and slowly the conversation takes her attention while her pencil is continuing to write down the connected story of her youth. Again the conversation by itself gives the impression of completely conscious behavior. As both functions go on at the same time, the person who converses does not know what the person who writes is writing, and the writer is uninfluenced by the conversation. Various interpretations are possible. Indeed we might think that by such double setting in the pathological brain two independent groups in the content of consciousness are formed, each one fully in consciousness and yet both without any mutual influence and thus without mutual knowledge. In the light of such interpretation, it has been correctly proposed to speak of coconscious processes, rather than subconscious. Or we may interpret it more in harmony with the ordinary automatic writing or with other merely physiological reactions. Then we should suppose that as soon as the conversation sets in, the brain centers which control the writing movement work through channels in which no mental factors are involved. One of the two characteristic reaction systems would then be merely physiological. We saw before that the complexity of the process is no argument against the strictly physiological character of the event. That various activities can coexist in such a way that one of them may at any time slide down from the conscious centers to the merely physical ones, we all know by daily experience. We may go home through the streets of the busy town engaged with our thoughts. For a while the idea of our way and of the sidewalk is in our consciousness, when suddenly we reach our house and notice that for a long while we have no longer had any thought at all of the way. We were absorbed by our problems, and the motor activity of walking towards our goal was going on entirely in the physiological sphere. But whether we prefer the physiological account or insist on the coconscious phenomena, in either case is there any chance for the subconscious to slip in? That a content of consciousness is to a high degree dissociated or that the idea of the personality is split off is certainly a symptom of pathological disturbance, but it has nothing to do with the constituting of two different kinds of consciousness or with breaking the continuous sameness of consciousness itself. The most exceptional and most uncanny occurrences of the hospital teach after all the same which our daily experience ought to teach us: there is no subconsciousness.

Partenaires référencement
Psychanalyste Paris | Psychanalyste Paris 10 | Psychanalyste Argenteuil 95
Annuaire Psychanalyste Paris | Psychanalystes Paris
Avocats en propriété intellectuelle | Avocats paris - Droits d'auteur, droit des marques, droit à l'image et vie privée
Avocats paris - Droit d'auteur, droit des marques et de la création d'entreprise