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Boris Sidis, Ph.D., M.D.


(See also Unconscious Intelligence, and Chapter 26)




        Plato put on the portals of his academy the inscription, "No one can enter here without a knowledge of geometry." Similarly no one can gain access to the facts of abnormal psychology without a thorough understanding of the subconscious. The subconscious may be briefly defined as mental processes of which the individual is not directly conscious. Such knowledge is all the more requisite as psychopathic disturbances with which psychopathology proper deals are essentially affections of subconscious life activity. The general drift of my Psychology of Suggestion is the description of the subconscious as a diffused consciousness below the margin of personal consciousness. I sometimes use the term "subconscious self." I designate by "self" not personal consciousness, but mere consciousness. In Multiple Personality, in which I develop the theory of thresholds in regard to the phenomena of normal and abnormal mental life, I define the subconscious as consciousness below the threshold of attentive personal consciousness. I find that my clinical and psychological investigations more and more confirm me in the view of the subconscious advanced by me in The Psychology of Suggestion. I am pleased to find that Prof. James, in a recent article, accepts the same view, and advances the same theory of threshold in regard to the subconscious. "Nobody knows," he writes, "how far we are 'marginally' conscious of these memories, concepts and conational states at ordinary times, or how far beyond the 'margin' of our present thought trans-marginal consciousness of them may exist."

        In my Psychology of Suggestion I pointed out the difficulties of the purely physiological interpretation of the subconscious. Since this view still lingers among some psychologists, I cannot do better than reproduce the passage: "The facts of hypnotic memory alone strongly indicate the intelligent nature of the subconscious. Can the theory of unconscious cerebration explain, for instance, the fact of suggested amnesia during hypnosis? I hypnotize Mr. V. F. and make him pass through many lively scenes and actions. I give him hypnotic and post-hypnotic suggestions. The subject is wakened and hypnotized time and again. At last he is put into a hypnotic state, and it is suggested that on awakening he shall not remember anything of what had happened in the state of hypnosis. The subject, on emerging from his trance, remembers nothing of what he has passed through. I then put my hand on his forehead and tell him in a commanding voice, 'You remember now everything.' As if touched by the wand of a magician, the suppressed memories become endowed with life and movement, and invade the consciousness of the subject. Everything is now clearly remembered, and the subject is able to relate the tale of his adventures without the omission of the least incident. So detailed is the account that one cannot help wondering at the extraordinary memory displayed by the subject.

        How is the theory of unconscious cerebration to account for this strange fact? Prof. Ziehen, in his Physiological Psychology tells us that "it is still a matter of doubt whether, despite their complication, all the acts of the hypnotized individual are not motions accomplished without any concomitant psychical processes," and that "even the recollection of the hypnotic psychical processes do not necessarily argue in favor of their existence during the hypnotic trance." This extreme view is certainly wrong, for the subject during hypnosis not only acts, moves, but he also speaks, answers questions intelligently, reasons, discusses; and if such an individual may be regarded as a mere machine, on the same grounds we may consider any rational man as a mere unconscious automaton.

         The advocates of unconscious cerebration must admit at least this much, that hypnosis is a conscious state. Now, on the theory of unconscious cerebration, it is truly inconceivable how psychical states can be suppressed, the accompanying physiological processes alone being left, and all that done by a mere word of the experimenter. The restoration of memory is still more incomprehensible than the suggested amnesia. A command by the experimenter, "Now you can remember," brings into consciousness a flood of ideas and images. It is not that the experimenter gives the subject a clue which starts the train of particular images and ideas; but the mere general, abstract suggestion, "You can remember," is sufficient to restore memories which to all appearances have completely vanished from the mind of the subject. Are the unconscious physiological nervous modifications so intelligent as to understand suggestions and follow them? Does unconscious cerebration understand the command of the experimenter, and does it oblige him to become conscious?

        On closer examination, we find the term unconscious cerebration to be of so loose a nature that under its head are often recorded facts that clearly indicate the working of an intelligence. Thus, Mr. Charles M. Child brings the following fact as a specimen of unconscious cerebration: "I had earnestly been trying," a gentleman writes to Mr. Child: "to make a trial balance, and at last left off working, the summary of the Dr. and Cr. sides of the account showing a difference of 2 10s., the Dr. side being so much smaller. The error I had not found on Saturday night when I left the counting-house. On this same Saturday night I retired feeling nervous and angry with myself. Some time in the night I dreamed thus: I was seated at my desk in the counting-house and in a good light everything was orderly and natural, the ledger lying before me. I was looking over the balance of the accounts and comparing them with the sums in the trial-balance sheet. Soon I came to a debit balance of 2 10s. I looked at it, called myself sundry names, spoke to myself in a deprecating manner of my own eyes, and at last put the 2 10s. to its proper side of the trial-balance sheet and went home. I arose at the usual Sunday time, dressed carefully, breakfasted, went to call on some  .  .  .  friends to go to church. Suddenly the dream flashed on my memory. I went for the keys, opened the office, also the safe, got the ledger, and turned to the folio my dream had indicated. There was the account whose balance was the sum wanted which I had omitted to put in the balance-sheet, where it was put now, and my year's posting proved correct."

        The adherents of unconscious cerebration tacitly include under this term not only unconscious physiological processes, or nerve modifications, but also psychical states. Keeping clearly in mind the real meaning of unconscious cerebration as referring to physiological processes, or nerve modifications with no psychical accompaniment, the difficulties of unconscious cerebration to account for the phenomena of hypnotic memory become truly insurmountable. For if the physiological processes subsumed under the category of unconscious cerebration are completely lacking in all psychical elements whatever, how can a general abstract negative phrase, "You cannot remember," suppress particular psychical states, and how can a similar positive phrase, You can remember," bring the forgotten memories back to consciousness? It is simply incomprehensible.

        Furthermore, while the subject is in a hypnotic condition, we can suggest to him that on awakening he shall not remember anything, but when put to the automatic recorder he shall be able to write everything that has taken place in the state of hypnosis. The subject is then awakened: he remembers nothing at all of what he has passed through while in the state of hypnotic trance. As soon, however, as he is put to the automatic recorder the hand gives a full rational account of all the events. If now you ask the subject what it is he has written, he stares at you in confusion; he knows nothing at all of the writing. How shall we account for this fact on the theory of unconscious cerebration? Can unconscious physiological processes write rational discourses? It is simply miraculous, incomprehensible.

         These, however, are not the only difficulties which the theory of unconscious cerebration has to encounter. Take the following experiment: I gave Mr. V. F. of the same rose seen the day before yesterday. Now the image of the rose may be retained, may even be reproduced, but if it is not recognized as having happened in my past, there can be no recollection. In short, without personal recognition there is no memory. As James strongly puts it, "the gutter is worn deeper by each successive shower, but not for that reason brought into contact with previous showers." Does the theory of unconscious physiological processes, of material brain traces, of nerve modifications, does the theory take into account this element of personal recognition? Can the theory of unconscious cerebration offer the faintest suggestion as to how that element of recognition is brought about? What is that something added to the unconscious physiological trace or nerve modification that effects a conscious recognition?

        Furthermore, first impressions can be localized in the past, but so can also each subsequent revival. How shall we explain on the theory of unconscious physiological nerve registration that the original, the primitive sense experience, as well as each subsequent revival, can be referred to as distinct psychical facts. For if the structural nerve elements are slightly modified with each revival, how shall we account for this psychical distinction of the original sense experience as well as of the modified revivals? The remembered experience leaves its own individual trace, then a trace of its being a copy of a former original impression, and also a trace of its being a member in a series of similar traces, each trace being a copy of another and a copy of the original impression. How all that is done is a mystery.

        These objections advanced by me many years ago hold true of recent theories which fall back on the old views of Mill and Carpenter, namely, unconscious cerebration. The modem upholders of unconscious cerebration think that they have discovered new facts and arguments in favor of unconscious mental activity, and are thus justified in denying subconscious mental life. The arguments, as we have pointed out, are not new, nor are the facts advanced in support of these arguments true. The same objections hold true in the case of the theory of unconscious cerebration offered us in the garb of nerve currents and nerve paths, well worn nerve tracks, opening and closing of nerve currents and tracks, and formation of all shapes and forms of neurograms. Why be misled by figments and by sounds? The subconscious stands for a number of facts, reactions, and behavior which are accompanied by psychic life, by mental activities, by consciousness.

        The physiological unconscious registration theories of nerve currents, nerve-paths, and neurograms are not only figments, arbitrary fanciful weavings of the imagination, they cannot even hypothetically explain the simplest act of memory, and especially of recognitive memory.

        Since the theories of unconscious registration fail us in the most elementary mental processes, how can we possibly rely on cerebration-fancies in the case of such complex phenomena as hypnotic conditions and various mental states of trance and dissociation? The physiological theories, such as unconscious cerebration and its modifications, failing, we must use for all those phenomena the psychological interpretation. The subconscious must be taken as a necessary theory in psychopathology, as atoms, molecules, electrons and ether are in chemistry and physics. The subconscious is not an "unconscious," it is not a physiological automatism. The subconscious is a consciousness, a secondary consciousness, a sort of secondary self, the self being understood by me as a diffused consciousness.


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