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CHAPTER II

THE SUBCONSCIOUS MIND

Consciousness is that mental state in which we are aware of our existence and sensations, and the condition at the moment of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Consciousness means awareness; we are not aware of things of which we are not conscious. When there is only one response possible to a sensation, we get automatic (reflex) action, and consciousness, if aroused at all, is slight. The greater the complexity of the nervous system, the more numerous the possible responses to a sensation, the greater will be the hesitation and choice, and the more intense the consciousness. Consciousness develops gradually, and self-consciousness, i.e. the process of directing the attention inwards to the mental self, is its highest degree. Thus the new-born babe, whose existence alternates between drinking and sleeping, is unconscious of anything but a few sensations. Its consciousness is very vague and develops gradually, until it reaches self-consciousness, the recognition of itself as distinct from the outer world, and the appreciation of the nature and quality of its acts. Self-consciousness has the character of continuity, being connected with the past through the memory, and is the feeling which we have that the mental processes belong to our personality.

Consciousness runs in personal streams, so long as the brain is stable. As the brain grows, decays, or is influenced by various agents, so will consciousness vary; but the main character, the main self, always remains behind these variations, even in cases of dual personality. Such dissociation of consciousness may occur in hysteria, epilepsy, and may be produced artificially in hypnotism, but all these conditions are only superficial and temporary, the real personality is not destroyed so long as the brain does not suffer permanent injury.

Our inherited dispositions—our primary innate capacities, rudimentary emotions, and instinctive tendencies—are all unconscious. Only after their manifestation, by reflection on our impulses and conduct, do we become aware of them, and can determine to control them in future. For example, I cannot say, "I am going to 'fear' now." The youth attracted by the maiden does not know why he follows her; he is unconscious of the racial instinct which urges him.

In addition to our unconscious motive powers— the instincts and emotions which we share with the lower animals and which depend on peculiarities of brain structure—we all have a store of experiences, accumulated from birth and registered in our brain cells, so that they are never lost, though we may experience difficulties in recalling them. This available material constitutes our stock of knowledge and our history. It is also unconscious; but being possible of recall, we say, for distinction sake, it is subconscious.

We can attend only to one thing at a time; all the rest is removed from consciousness, though it can be used whenever required.

Consciousness is only a phase of our psychical life; but not the psychical life itself. So far as there is consciousness there is certainly mental activity; but it is not true that in the same measure as there is mental activity there is consciousness. There is a thousand times more below the surface of consciousness than there is above. We flatter ourselves that it is we who are thinking; whereas the thinking is within us and goes on all the time. We do the thinking only when absolutely conscious.

Every impression we receive, every thought we think, every action we do, causes some change in the brain structure, and this change is permanent. It forms an imperishable record of all that we have experienced, thought, or done in the past, and exercises an influence over us, building up our present knowledge, and guiding our everyday actions. Many minds are moody, morose, melancholy, excitable, immoral, unbalanced, solely because of the overpowering influence of some picture of past experience, which remains subconsciously in operation after conscious thought on the occurrence has ceased and the person has apparently forgotten the incident. What we call "common sense" is nothing but a reservoir of experiences out of which our judgments flow, while the experiences themselves are hidden away in the subconscious depths of our intellectual nature.

The mystery of subconscious mental action is exemplified in every act of mental association, when one idea brings up another, of which we are wholly unconscious.

All our latent memories, possible ideas, and materials of imagination are stored in our subconscious mind. Not a millionth part of the mental possessions of an educated man exists in his consciousness at any one time. We may forget objects and events—that is to say, we may dismiss them from our consciousness— but they are stored up in our subconsciousness (impressed upon our brain cells) to the end of our days, and supply the mind with its resources. We may be able to call them into consciousness by some association when we wish to do so, or they may flash into consciousness for some reason without any effort of ours, but at other times the mind is unconscious of their existence.

There are thoughts which never emerge into consciousness, which yet make their influence felt among the perceptible mental currents. Our social predilections, religious and other beliefs and prejudices instilled in childhood, colour our whole being. Indeed, the more we examine the mechanism of thought the more we shall see that the subconscious contents of the mind enters largely into all its processes. Hypnosis is one of the means of getting at the subconscious contents and teaching the subject how to use this store voluntarily to great effect, to accomplish what the conscious mind failed to achieve.

Some psychologists argue that there is no subconsciousness; but we have no other expression for those experiences, thoughts, and emotions which are not in consciousness at any given moment, and use the term—subconscious—only as a working hypothesis, not as an entity. Whether we admit an absolute unconsciousness or a relative unconsciousness or subconsciousness, a subliminal consciousness or a secondary consciousness, or a fringe of consciousness, does not matter much at the present stage, so long as we are agreed that conscious experiences are relegated to another region, or, at least, do not remain in consciousness, but are capable of being revived in consciousness. We know that the man of genius derives his brilliant thoughts from that mysterious source; the inventor and discoverer, his guidance; the poet, his inspiration; the religious man, his beliefs.

The essential principle of thinking is that the right ideas occur at the right time. On sitting down to write an essay or letter we often do not know what we are going to say; but from the moment of taking the pen in hand our subconscious store of ideas supplies us with the material. We have a name for such moments—we call them inspired; and thus erroneously go outside ourselves for an explanation, instead of finding it in our subconscious mind. It is in the subconscious mind that the germs of such ideas were sown, perchance, far back in our childhood, developed by our surroundings, added to by conditions beyond our control, and not chosen by those who were preparing the material for our mental development.

Most of our thinking is done subconsciously. As a rule we are conscious only of the result of a mental exercise; the actual origin and working remain obscure. For instance, we may try to solve a problem and fail, but when we have given up the task an idea may suddenly dawn upon us that leads to its solution, showing that subconscious processes continued the work. Even in the conscious act of perception through our senses there is a subconscious process of reproduction and influence; hence the liability of all of us at one time or another to be the subjects of hallucination. Indeed, even in the cleverest of us, in the ordinary mental operations of our daily life, there is not so much consciousness as is commonly assumed. Unconsciously and subconsciously we constantly believe in things which do not exist, or exist only in part. That we distrust consciousness, at all events in important matters, is shown by the wish to "sleep over" a matter, not only that our conscious processes may be clearer, but that we may have the help of that unformulated knowledge which, at most, can be said to be only in the background of consciousness. In important matters we often feel confident that a certain course is the right one—as we know a road or face without being able to describe it—but cannot formulate the ground for decision in words.

There are many events which are so completely forgotten that no efforts of the will can revive them, and the statement of them calls up no reminiscences, which may nevertheless be reproduced with intense vividness under certain physical conditions. Thus persons in the delirium of fever have been known to speak in a language which they had learned in their childhood, but which for many years had passed from their memory; or to repeat with apparent accuracy discourses to which they had listened a long time previously, but of which before the fever they had no recollection. They have even been known to repeat accurately long passages from books in foreign languages of which they never had any understanding and no recollection in normal health, but which they had casually heard recited many years before.

A case is related by S. T. Coleridge of a young woman of five-and-twenty who could neither read nor write, and who was seized with "brain fever" during which she continued incessantly talking Latin, Greek, and Hebrew in very pompous tones, and with a most distinct enunciation. Notes of her ravings were taken down from her own mouth, and later it was found that she had been for some years servant to a Protestant pastor, who was in the habit of walking up and down a passage of his house adjoining the kitchen reading aloud to himself portions of his favourite authors. In the books that had belonged to him were found many passages identical with those taken down from the girl's unconscious utterances.

In the course of my practice of hypnotism I have several times revived the memory of a long-forgotten event in a hypnotized subject, and sometimes of a piece of poetry of which the subject had no recollection in the normal state and which I had not heard or read before, thus excluding the possibility of transference of thought. The most remarkable cases, however, are those of persons resuscitated from drowning and who have reported that they had a sudden revelation of all the events of their past life presented to them with the utmost minuteness and distinctness just before consciousness left them.

An act of attention, that is an act of concentration —by which we mean the fixing of the mind intently upon one particular object to the exclusion for the time of all other objects that solicit its notice—is necessary to every exertion of consciousness. Without some degree of attention no impression of any duration can be made on the mind or laid up in the memory. The remembrance of anything depends upon the clearness and vividness of the impression originally made by it upon the mind, and this in turn on the degree of attention with which it was regarded. Consciousness has at first an important place in the training of our faculties and the building up of our knowledge. The more consciousness is concentrated upon any new subject, the more readily is it mastered; and the greater the concentration upon any idea brought before the mind, the better its impression upon the memory. But as we acquire facility and skill in the operation, and as the memory acquires strength, we become less conscious.

Acts which are at first executed slowly, and with full consciousness and attention, become gradually less and less perceptible as they gain in ease and rapidity by repetition, till they fall below the minimum necessary for consciousness, and become unconscious, or rather subconscious. It is because impressions we have frequently received, thoughts we have often entertained, actions we have many times performed, pass through the mind so rapidly that we cease to be conscious of them. In our attempts to walk, to write, to play on an instrument, or to carry on any other operation, we are intensely conscious of every movement that we make. By degrees, as we acquire more ease and dexterity in their performance, we become less and less conscious of them, till we may come to perform them quite unconsciously. The great object of mental training, therefore, should be to transfer as much as possible of our actions from the conscious to the subconscious region of the mind.

Did our actions not become more and more easy of execution, and gain in rapidity by repetition, were we still as conscious of them as at first, comparatively little could be accomplished in the course of a lifetime. If, in order to walk, we had for ever carefully to consider each step we took, or, in order to write, had always to attend to the formation of each letter —were all our other operations performed as painfully and as consciously as at first—life could scarcely fail to be a burden.

If everything that exists in the mind existed there consciously, or if every time that an idea occurred to the mind all the other ideas that had at any time

been associated with it came along with it, and a selection had to be consciously made of the right one, inconvenience and loss of time would unfailingly result. In some persons, from habit or lack of proper training, an idea presented to the mind immediately recalls a number of other ideas, having more or less, sometimes very little, connection with it—thus distracting the mind with a multitude of thoughts, making the selection of the best a conscious act, producing hesitation and indecision and causing loss of time. The selection of the right thoughts should be an act of the subconscious mind, and take place, as we say, unconsciously.

The more we concentrate our attention on a particular subject, the less we notice our concurrent impressions. For example, in listening to a conversation, we receive impressions, not only of the words uttered, but also of the sounds in the air, and of its temperature, of odours, the forms, colours, lights and shades—all associating themselves with the thoughts conveyed—but we exclude all these impressions from our consciousness, although they may be noticed by our subconsciousness.

The more we concentrate on a subject, the less we notice also our internal sensations. Hence, in times of real danger, the body may feel no pain, no matter how severe the injury. The universal testimony of soldiers who have been in battle is to the effect that the time when fear is experienced is just before the action commences. When the first gun is fired all fear vanishes, and the soldier often performs feats of the most desperate valour, and evinces the most reckless courage. If wounded, he feels nothing until the battle is over and all excitement is gone.

Ordinarily, when we concentrate our attention, we nevertheless take note of the room we are in, its furniture, the decoration of the walls, and perhaps also of our internal sensations. Concentration is, therefore, rarely complete. We shall show how absolute concentration can be produced with freedom from all other impressions, and that in this absorbed state the power of whatever sense is employed is greatly increased and perceptions are possible, which escape us in the ordinary state of concentration. Moreover, whatever innate ability is employed will produce results to the utmost capacity of the particular brain structure, which is its instrument.

In dealing with mind and consciousness we must remember that they are in some mysterious manner related to the outer surface, the grey matter of the brain, which consists of millions of cells, so-called neurons, the functions of which physiologists all over the world are trying to determine. The most important point on which they are all agreed is that the brain is the structure through which all mental operations take place. We think and feel, rejoice and weep, love and hate, hope and fear, trust and suspect, plan and execute, all through the agency of the brain-cortex. Its cells record all the events, of whatever nature, which transpire within the sphere of existence of the individual, not merely as concerns the intellectual knowledge acquired, but likewise the emotions felt and the passions indulged in, whether he recollects them or not.

But the brain, besides being an organ of mind, is also the regulator of all the functions of the body, the controller of every organ. For this purpose it has two sets of nerves: firstly, the cerebrospinal nerves, which in the normal state are more or less under our voluntary control, enabling us to move our muscles and limbs; and secondly, the so-called sympathetic nerves, which are not under our conscious volition. The sympathetic nerves go to our internal organs as well as our arteries, controlling the local blood supply and consequently nutrition, and go also to the spinal nerves, thus exerting a brain control over intentional movements. In the manner roughly outlined every organ and every function is represented in the brain, and in such a manner that all may be brought into the right relationship and harmony with each other and constitute a vital unity. Thus mind, motion, sensibility, nutrition, drainage, and repair have their governing centres in the brain.

When the response to an external stimulus is effected through the voluntary or cerebro-spinal system, there results a motion, a movement. When the response is effected through the involuntary or sympathetic nervous system, there results a feeling or emotion. The cerebro-spinal system of nerves is thus commonly associated with voluntary, purposive acts, with consciousness, thought, will, and the agreeable and expanding emotions, such as joy; while the sympathetic nervous system is associated with unconscious acts which, when we become aware of them, we recognize as contracting and painful emotions, such as fear or anger. Important discoveries have been made within recent years proving that the sympathetic nervous system stimulates the secretion of certain glands, the ductless glands; and that this secretion in turn increases the sympathetic response and affects our emotions. Thoughts come and go; emotions last some time. When, for example, the emotion of fear is aroused, it may continue even when danger is passed.

Every form of psychotherapy depends on the fact that bodily functions can be affected by a mental act. Not only can certain abnormal mental states derange the functions of the body, but when a healthy state of mind is induced the functional derangements tend to disappear. On the other hand, our mental dispositions can be influenced by the bodily functions. That is one of the reasons why no person is constantly the same self. Not only is he a different self at different periods of his life and in altered circumstances, but also on separate days, according to his varying bodily states; sanguine and optimistic, gloomy and pessimistic, frank and genial, reserved and suspicious, apathetic or energetic. Although his intellectual powers remain the same, his judgment of the objective world and his relations to it are changed, because of the change in his moods and the bodily states which they imply.

Often it happens that a person cannot remember the event which caused the emotional disturbance and deranged the bodily and—may be—the mental functions. If he does remember he may be unable to dismiss the memory of it. By the procedure which we call hypnosis lost memories which have been relegated to the subconscious can be restored, experiences which were almost or entirely subconscious can be recalled, and a normal mental state substituted for the disturbing one.



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