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Play Of The Subconscious

( Originally Published 1916 )

IN many of its aspects, truly, the problem of personality eludes us, so that he who goes furthest in the search knows best how much more there is to know. Each new finding of ourselves is like the discovery of a key to another, and as yet unopened, door. Whether we set out upon the quest with a desire for self-knowledge, or as teachers who desire to know in part at least how to answer the child's half-conscious questioning : " Who am I ? What am I to be ? ", or from an interest in a deeper knowledge of human nature as social reformers, we find ere long that we have entered upon a path which leads on and on and is lost to our view in the great mystery that enshrouds all being. a The inmost secret of each man's heart is the secret of the whole world."

However we may be able at times to analyse mental movements or to unpiece the images which the mind holds before it, there is always present the deeper fact of a some-thing unfolding which has not yet appeared. There is always a something that we can be, as well as the something that we have been ; and what we are is interpretable only in the light of this double reference. Not only is the will to be, and what we will to be, part of our being, but an unexhausted capacity to will and to be. The words of the young American graduate at one of the meetings of the American Graduates' Union are really symptomatic of the nature of human personality. " I have never seen any-body else that I wanted to be. Not that I'm self-satisfied ! I want to be myself, only higher." "As reason gains in grasp," writes Professor MacCunn, "and as the horizon which it sweeps is for ever enlarging, the soul voyages on to unpathed waters and to undreamed shores. New ends rise before it, and of none can it be said, ' This is the last.' .. . And it is just the progressiveness of Desire that is the opportunity, the hope, and, if it do not find right nurture, the judgment, of the maker of character." Psychological analysis does not lay bare all that we mean when we speak of the self. We have normally a vague, and sometimes an acute, consciousness of something more than the historical self of experience—that is, the sum and the integration of all our states of consciousness from the first conscious stirring of life within the organism to the present time.

Here, evidently, is something of which account must be taken in considering the unfolding of personality. This resourcefulness of the self may have a twofold origin. It may be partly due, to forces or tendencies born within us which have not yet attained to their complete development. It may be partly traceable to our contact with higher reality. The two sources are not easily separable. If we accept the view which alone seems to account for the facts of our mental activity—indeed, for personality in any of its aspects, namely, that the touch of Higher Reality is upon us from the first, that our inmost selfhood is a "portion of the Unknowable Energy," or a "differentiation of the Absolute" (as others would phrase it)—then the very forces and tendencies born with us bear the impress of the Higher Reality upon them ; and we are genetically as well as teleologically partakers of the divine nature. The old Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, might well say : "Though you trod every path, you could not find the limits of the soul, so deep is its essence."

In the present chapter we are to see ways in which man's capacity for the wider outreach may be due to inner tendencies that belong to him at birth ; or, as some would say, due to the vastness, and yet the solidarity, of the human life and the human experience that have preceded and that still environ him. These tendencies and capacity belong to that portion of our mental life which—though the term has been used in a variety of senses—we shall here call the "sub-conscious."

Since quotations from writers of very different schools of thought may serve to show how much attention this idea of the vast reach and deeper mystery of human personality is receiving, the facts will be presented chiefly in this form. Gustave le Bon provides one way of approach to this wider view in his work, " The Crowd : a Study of the Popular Mind." "Visible social phenomena," he says, "appear to he the result of an immense, unconscious working, that as a rule is beyond the reach of our analysis. So far as the majority of their acts are considered, crowds display a singularly inferior mentality, yet there are other acts in which they appear to be guided by those mysterious forces which the ancients denominated destiny, nature, or providence.... It would seem at times as if there were latent forces in the inner being of nations which serve to guide them. . . . Crowds, doubtless, are always unconscious,' but this very unconsciousness is perhaps one of the secrets of their strength. . . . Reason is an attribute of humanity of too recent date, and still too imperfect, to reveal to us the laws of the unconscious, and still more to take its place. The part played by the unconscious in all our acts is immense.

The unconscious acts like a force still unknown."

Individual experience presents analogous examples of the play of the sub-conscious. That there is a class of phenomena of the kind is beyond question. Indefinitely large the class may prove to be ; it is very far as yet from being defined. Many more experiences will have to be recorded and experiments made before anything like definition can be arrived at. We may, however, without for the moment in any way particularising the process, start from the great evolutionary postulate that the present is somehow an outcome of the past. From this starting-point, there are two principal ways of accounting for the influence of sub-conscious tendencies. One of these suggestions is, that memories of ancestral or earlier racial experiences are in some way capable of re-awakening in the minds of those living to-day. According to this view, the individual mind not only normally shares in the effects of the experiences of earlier generations, but, under certain favouring conditions, directly draws upon these experiences. The memory of them, it is supposed, has not passed out of our reach by the passing away of those who had the experiences, but is held in the 'possession of some sort of " cosmic mind " or "cosmic memory " in such a way that it can be shared in by us. Though this theory may seem, on the face of it, less probable and more difficult of proof than the second of the suggestions referred to, namely, that there is in some way an inheriting in the active tendencies of the organism of pre-dispositions towards certain experiences, it must be admitted that it helps to account for certain cases to which heredity hardly seems to apply. Here we shall merely point to some of the phenomena.

Mr. W. B. Yeats, in his volume of essays, "Ideas of Good and Evil," puts forward a number of examples from his own experience in support of the view of a cosmic mind or cosmic memory. He gives it as his belief (1) "that the borders of our minds are ever shifting and that many minds can flow into one another, as it were, and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy; and (2) that the borders of our memories are as shifting, and that our memories are a part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself." The second of these points may not appear as clearly as the first to follow from the facts Mr. Yeats has before him. Be .this as it may, this notion of a merging of mind with mind, and of a cosmic or extra-personal memory, he illustrates in various ways. He tells how, when out one day he wove an imaginative story as to how things might have gone with him had a certain accident which had been imminent actually happened, amongst other things picturing his arm in a sling. On returning to the hotel he was welcomed with evident relief, as the servant had informed them that he was hurt, and that she had "seen him with his arm in a sling." This is cited as an example of the way in which minds can flow into one another ; or one mind come under the spell of the imagination of another. A well-authenticated example, showing how a wife woke up suddenly after dreaming that she had received an injury which it was afterwards proved that her husband was at that moment receiving, was contributed by Ruskin to " Phantasms of the Living." As illustrating the linking together of ideas across a long interval of time, Mr. Yeats tells of having seen a young Irish woman fresh from a convent school cast into a profound trance, though not by a method known by any hypnotist. " In her waking state she thought the apple of Eve was the kind of apple you can buy at the green-grocer's, but in her trance she saw the Tree of Life with ever sighing souls moving in its branches instead of sap, and among its leaves all the fowl of the air, and on its highest bough one white fowl bearing a crown. When I went home I took from the shelf a translation of 'The Book of Concealed Mystery,' an old Jewish book, and cutting the pages came upon this passage, which I cannot think I had ever read : 'The Tree, .- . . is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil . . . in its branches the birds lodge and build their nests, the souls and the angels have their place.' Another incident may be given also in Mr. Yeats's own words. "I once saw a young Church of Ireland man, a bank clerk in the West of Ireland, thrown into a like trance. Presently he came to the edge of Eden, and there he found himself not by the wilderness he had learnt of at the Sunday School, but upon the summit of a great mountain. The whole summit, in contradiction to all that would have seemed probable to his waking mind, was a great walled garden. Some years afterwards I found a mediæval diagram, which pictured Eden as a walled garden upon a high mountain. Where did these intricate symbols come from ? Neither I nor the one or two people present or the seers had ever seen, I am convinced, the description in ' The Book of Concealed Mystery,' or the mediæval diagram. Remember that the images appeared in a moment perfect in all their complexity.' If any one can imagine that the seers or that I myself or another had indeed read of these images and forgotten it, that the supernatural artist's knowledge of what was in our buried memories accounted for these visions, there are numberless other visions to account for. One cannot go on believing in improbable knowledge for ever. For instance,, I find in my diary that on December 27, 1897, a seer, to whom I had given a certain old Irish symbol, saw Brigit, the goddess,. holding out ' a glittering and wriggling serpent,' and yet I feel certain that neither I nor he knew anything of her association with the serpent until 'Carmina Gadelica' was published a few months ago." " Why, too," the same writer asks, "among all the countless stories of visions that I have gathered in Ireland, or that a friend has gathered for me, are there none that mix the dress of different periods ? The seers when they are but speaking from tradition will mix everything together. . . . Almost every one who has busied himself with such matters has come, in trance or dream, upon some new or strange symbol or event, which he has afterwards found in some work he has never read or heard of. Examples like this are as yet too little classified, too little analysed, to convince the stranger, but some of them are proof enough for those they have happened to, proof that there is a memory of nature that reveals events and symbols of distant centuries. Mystics of many countries and many centuries have spoken of this memory."

In apparent harmony with this view of a funded experience, of a psychical or spiritual solidarity yielding a sort of "cosmic mind" or "cosmic memory," is the fact of the deep-seated massive emotions that are stirred when appeal is made to a wide range of human experience in connection with which kindred emotions have long been felt. Great art and great literature owe much of their appeal to their presenting what has some such universal reference and meaning, and so has this rich emotional setting. Poetry and art are often the expression of a people's life. Granting the solidarity which this implies, we have here one of the conditions of a national art or a national literature. The very sentiment of nationality bespeaks a many-stranded solidarity. No one can have met with it in a people still unmixed, i.e., still a people, without being deeply impressed with it. The same nature—sky, earth, sun—whose beauty and whose ministries have gladdened generation after generation ; early united wrestlings with the elements ; early battles with common foes; all the continuous life from then till now :—these blend in an almost impersonal passion, the enthusiasm of race.= " A race has all the characteristics of an organic being. It has its patriotisms, religions, and warlike and other enthusiasms, belonging to it only as a whole, and called forth somehow by the sentiment of the whole."

From the point of view of the individual, all this implies that his life is, consciously or sub-consciously, continuous in these respects with the life of the past. Certainly if there are these elements within the self, however we may account for their presence, the educator, for one, cannot afford to neglect them. Especially is this the case if they are in any degree specialised, that is, have in part a specifically national aspect. In so far as this is so, the more the educator imbues himself (without narrowness or exclusiveness) with the spirit and genius of the national life, the more profound his influence will be. Foreign teachers seldom succeed with their scholars so well as teachers of the same nationality, not because of lack of personal sympathy or individual strength, but because of the absence of those overtones which give to speech, especially the speech of a leader or teacher, its true timbre. It is a subtle point. But it has its place in the study of the forces that make for great teaching.

Though much of what has been so far referred to may be equally well explained on the second main theory of the source of such sub-conscious elements in human life, yet, in view of the large number of phenomena upon which the hypo-thesis of the spiritual solidarity of the universe throws light, it is not to be wondered at that many have traced in facts like these something of the nature of a real psychical or spiritual solidarity, whereby men's minds move together in the mass and have within them almost conscious echoes of the voices of the past.

The other broadly distinguishable view as to the way in which the past lives on in our life today is that of hereditary transmission. There are two chief interpretations of such transmission ; the one is that it is by social tradition, the other that it is through the blood. In the former case, the chief and determining factor is the modifying of environ-ment ; in the latter, there is an accompanying transmitted modification of the self. So far as the inheritances of which we are speaking are vested in the self, this theory as contrasted with the "cosmic mind " theory traces them to the transmission of tendencies towards behaviour rather than to any possession of or even special susceptibility to ideas. What is transmitted, that is, is rather of the nature of instinctive tendency. The instruments of experience are inherited, not the experiences themselves. In this way, experiences which have figured prominently in the life of bygone generations may tend to repeat themselves ; but their appearance will be due to the arising of occasions to act.

With an apparent leaning towards the hypothesis of shared memories as explaining many of the sub-conscious aspects of human personality, " the presence, in fact, within that soul, of the myriad life and emotion of those who have gone before," Mr. Edward Carpenter in his book, "The Art of Creation," has brought forward a number of instances which really seem to be more readily explained on the theory of the inheriting of quasi-instinctive tendencies. Myths and legends seem to him to contain so deep a sentiment and meaning, because they are the "selection and affectionate preservation " from the life of the race of events and stories which illustrate and symbolise some of the deep instincts and enthusiasms of the race. "The ideas and enthusiasms which produce myths and legends lie deep down in the very structure and physical organisation of humanity.... They are things of age-long life and importance." But it is clearly open to the reader to say that if the instincts are there, that is, if the tendencies to react responsively to the appeal of myth and story are transmitted, this is all that we need. We do not need to postulate an organic transmission of ideas and enthusiasms.

In the present state of our knowledge, it is scarcely possible to do more than speak in alternatives. Whilst, on the one hand, the conception of solidarity may be found to have a very wide application, especially in the influence of contemporary minds upon each other, as in telepathy on the other hand, the difficulty with respect to a "cosmic memory" lies in seeing how experiences, as distinguished from the instruments of experience, can be passed on or transmitted.

Mr. Carpenter, still referring to the explanation just quoted, says : " The strange psychology of passion is difficult to understand in any other way—the inordinate enchantment which surrounds the pleasures of the Senses, so disproportionate to the actual enjoyment experienced ; the mania to which it may give rise—of Drink, of Greed, or whatever it may be ; the sense (so frequent) of a diabolic power impelling one ; the abhorrence, even while they are being perpetrated, of the actions which we call our own. All this seems only explicable by the fact that we bear in our bodies the experience and memory of countless beings." Mr. Carpenter refers similarly to the emotions of fear, wonder, love, and the miserly instinct. But in all these cases, as in those above referred to, the theory of the inheriting of tendencies seems more naturally to apply.

So far we have spoken more especially of those sub-conscious reserves or resources of personality which force their way into our ordinary experience.- Just as overtones are almost invariably present together with the fundamental note produced by a string, and upon the number and relative strength of the overtones depends the quality of the tone produced so a rich mentality or strong personality may be largely due to the richness of the sub-conscious life.

But there is a still larger store of potentiality which never directly appears ; but which may yet have its sub-conscious effect in the making of our personality. This wide range of, so to say, possibilities of personality may belong either to our physical or to our mental and spiritual being. Certainly, the vast capacity and complexity of our nervous organism, great portions of which even in those who live the fullest life are partially undeveloped, leave room for modifications and tendencies of which .our normal experience makes no use.

In a recent paper,' Professor Sherrington, of Liverpool, illustrated by the study of two muscles the enormous complexity of nerve and muscle co-ordination involved in a simple reflex movement. The co-ordination in even a simple reflex may be "likened to that exhibited by a vast assemblage of instruments in very perfect orchestration directed by a supremely able conductor." Of how many other movements are the possibilities here implied, in which the orchestration is less perfect or which are directed by a " conductor " whose interpretation is somewhat different ! The possibilities of other than the normal responses are here in profusion. Inexhaustible permutations and combinations, all yielding data to consciousness, are conceivable. And what is more to our purpose, an almost infinite number of such combinations must at one time or other have actually occurred. Countless past activities and past uses in the life of the developing organism are represented in the human body as at present organised. The body is thus capable of being the instrument of a vast range of experiences, which, from the point of view of the finite self with its brief span of life, are abnormal or sub-normal. This is the view of Ribot. "The sum of the states of consciousness in a man is," he says, "very inferior to the sum of the nervous actions... . During a period of, say, five minutes a succession of sensations, feelings, images, acts, is produced in us. It is possible to count them, and to state their number with tolerable precision. During the same period, in ,the same man, there is produced a much larger number of nervous actions. Conscious personality, therefore, cannot be the representation of all that takes place in the nervous centres."'

Or, approaching the matter from the mental side, a noteworthy contribution to the study of the subliminal elements in human personality is that of the late F. W. H. Myers. To him, man is spirit operating for the time being through a bodily organism. Owing to his physical limitations he is straitened in expression, the spirit greatly transcending our bodily capacity to manifest its many-sided life. " The conscious self of each of us, as we call it, the ' empirical self' —the supra-liminal self, as I should prefer to say—does not comprise the whole of the consciousness or of the faculty within us. There exists a more comprehensive consciousness, a profounder faculty, which for the most part remains potential only as far as regards the life of earth, but from which the consciousness and the faculty of earth-life are mere selections, and which reasserts itself in its plenitude after the liberating change of death."

It is interesting to set these views side by side. We have Ribot, on the one hand, saying that " conscious personality is never more than a feeble portion of physical personality"; Myers, on the other hand, regards the higher personality as greatly transcending the powers of expression vested in the physical organism. Each may be true. Ribot's view, as we have seen, points to the fact that, when we consider the vast complexity of our physical organism and its adaptability to the calls of the environment, the self of experience is but a selection from a great number of possible selves of experience. Myers's view also emphasises the possibilities of the self ; but from an almost opposite standpoint. The actual self of experience, the " empirical self," is the same in either case. Only, the one sees how rich is the provision of alternatives which the body furnishes ; the other, realising that in spite of this rich provision, the very nature of experience necessitates selection, and that the body by acquiring habits helps to fix personality, sees how wide the range of mental and spiritual possibilities would be, could they be conceived of as existing apart from such physical fixation. What we are, from this latter point of view, is but a faint showing of what we might be, and yet may come to be.

All this goes to show how much possible experience our normal experience inhibits. Had we gone to a different school ; lived in different social, industrial, political surroundings ; selected a different calling ; followed up a different hobby ; read a different set of books; travelled more or less, and here instead of there ; and so on indefinitely ; each slight deviation would in some way have altered us. So far as latent possibilities of behaviour go, we could have been any one of a thousand different men varying more or less from the men we are.

As to the part played by these sub-conscious influences in the development of personality, it would almost seem as if. the mystical and the practical temperaments divided their effects between them. The man who, moved by inscrutable forces within him, acts upon his practical impulses taps sources of supply and awakens resonances which would otherwise be missed. The mystic, of receptive mood and temper, also touches upon or is touched by the vast territory which lies beyond the self of our ordinary experience. And each is affected in his own inner life and power by what he gains. The sub-conscious world, that is to say, is not only a storehouse. It functions, and functions continuously. At times it, doubtless, enters as an enriching element into conscious experience.

These resources scarcely seem to be at the educator's command ; so that he can call them into play in the life of his scholars. If they are, it is a domain of educational theory that is still unexplored.

As to practical suggestions :—(a) There will be times at which the parent, if not the teacher, will feel under constraint to allow the child to go his own way. Children, as one most practical and most able exponent of the principles of child-study has said, ought to be allowed time to be alone with themselves. An everlasting oversight by nurse or governess or anxious parent may be pernicious. There is more to happen in the complete unfolding of a single personality than the adult can make happen or even help to happen in the child, save by sometimes leaving him alone. (b) But an opposite suggestion springs up upon the very heels of this. The child's experience may be so ordered, the teacher's or the parent's touch upon his life may be so directed and modulated, as to assist the production of the overtones. For, as the physicist tells us, "the point at which a string is plucked or bowed exercises an important effect on the overtones produced." Here the educational aspect of the question again appears. The right touch upon the life—any life—is always helpful in bringing out the harmonies. All kinds of elements may be latent. It may well be that " the so-called bad boy needs some one to start the machinery of his life into operation." Were a complete education possible, which it obviously is not, all capacities, the latent and potential as well as the partially developed, would be unified and utilised. Elements which now normally remain latent in the individual would contribute their share to his total life. But a complete education, and with it a complete unfolding of our potentiality, is not possible—life being altogether too short for the purpose. As teachers we wish to take to heart the boy's unspoken inquiry : Who am I ? What am I to be ? But to answer each according to his own nature and his own need would require that we should be possessed of something of Nature's own versatility. The teacher stands in the name of the universe before the boy to interpret to him all he can of the world that is around him, and of that personal life, almost infinite in its outreach, that is within him. It is a great task in which we are co-workers with the vast evolutionary process

"Some call it evolution
And others call it God."

To quote once more the words of Caird, completing the sentence which contains them : " The inmost secret of each man's heart is the secret of the whole world, and if we only go deep enough we can evoke an echo in every breast."


1. There are, of course, many other phenomena of sub-consciousness than those touched upon. There are, for example, remarkable instances of unconscious memory. One such instance, which was made the subject of careful inquiry, is described in detail by Coleridge (" Biographia Literaria," p. 59). An illiterate young woman seized with a , nervous fever incessantly talked Latin, Greek, and Hebrew in pompous tones and with distinct enunciation. She was pronounced by the priests and monks of the neighbourhood to be possessed of a very learned devil. But, by the enter-prising industry of a young physician who attended her, her history was traced back to a time when she lived with an old Protestant pastor whose habit had been to pace up and down his house reading aloud from his favourite authors. The physician was even able to identify many of the passages which she quoted in books which had belonged to the pastor's library.

2. Dr. Sophie Bryant's words have been already quoted that there is in all mental activity an instinctive, as well as a conscious or ideal, source of energy. She continues: "The ideal source we can explain in the reasons we give for the act, but it may well be that the energy of the movement chiefly depends on some instinct that hides itself in the silence of unconsciousness. These silent instincts are only known in their effects : they predetermine the flow of feeling, the direction of attention"; and by them "the whole mental life is subjected to an inner shaping force of which consciousness gives no direct account. Such shaping instincts make up, in the first instance, the original character—be it of 'original sin' or of original righteousness."

Dr. Bryant goes on to show, however, that " these shaping instincts can themselves be shaped : the development of character in adaptation to circumstances, or to the ideal of character, is such a shaping." With the latter the moral educator is concerned.

3. In a recent address before the American Philosophical Society on "The Energies of Men," Professor James said : "The normal opener of deeper and deeper levels of energy is the will. The difficulty is to use it ; to make the effort which the word volition implies. But if we do make it (or if a god, though he were only the god Chance, makes it through us), it will act dynamo-genically on us for a month. It is notorious that a single successful effort of moral volition such as saying ' no' to some habitual temptation, or performing some courageous act, will launch a man on a higher level of energy for days and weeks, will give him a new range of power."

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