THE GHOST IN THE ATTIC
DR. YOSEF BRODY holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Long Island University-Brooklyn. A native New Yorker, he is now based in Paris where he teaches and works in private practice. He also curates a blog in which he posts underreported news & analysis related to socioeconomic injustice, human rights, and more. To check it out, click: here.
Rhyme & Reason, his monthly column for Seymour Magazine is an exploration of the creative process from a clinical psychologist’s point of view.
The Ghost in the Attic
“The ‘unconscious,’ that unknown presence, [came to be] seen in a variety of ways — all to some degree dependent on how the viewer feels about a ghost in the attic. If one likes a clean house with one master, the unconscious is a threat and a nuisance…one may feel that occasional trips upstairs are necessary, but by no means is he invited to dine at our table and sleep in our bed. If one is lucky in the fulfillment of one’s conscious desires, the ghost is heard rumbling upstairs only occasionally. We light a candle and go with a put-on smile as if we loved him, and yet when we turn away again, we lock the door more surely than before, and hurry away with a look of worry but a hope of success…we acknowledge that the ghost creeps out from his quarantined quarters when we are sleeping and shows us his art and experience in our dreams. No less surely though does he do his work during the day—not just when we are listening to ‘the imagination.’ In the loom of our moods, beliefs, movements, arguments, loves, loneliness, in the midst of our most mundane tasks, he tosses his own threads. And though we [choose] to see the tapestries of our experience as our own creation, his colors and shapes make his presence known — if only we would stop to acknowledge it.”
—Mary Watkins, Waking Dreams
How often do you deliberately employ your unconscious mind in your work? How comfortable are you really with the depths of your creative self? Does an ideal method exist for extracting material from that vast ocean of unexplored dreams, fantasies, and anxieties? And how wise is it to scrutinize, for the sake of creativity, that part of you that is most deeply ambivalent, dread-filled, pleasure-driven, sub-linguistic, and irrational?
The great majority of human creativity happens automatically and beneath the surface of conscious awareness. People who don’t feel creative don’t understand themselves well yet. Every single one of us is constantly formulating new sentences and thoughts, constructions of meaning, acts of physical movement, and complex webs of images, memories, expectations, wishes, and fears.
While we sometimes prefer to deny its enormous influence during waking hours, unconscious fantasy unquestionably reigns during sleep. Yet today’s popular conception of dreams as fascinating, disturbing, exciting, or enchanting, but also essentially inconsequential (if they are worthy of conscious thought or discussion at all) probably does a disservice to a full creative life.
The contemporary perspective that places minimal value on dreams as part of everyday life contrasts starkly with that of ancient and indigenous societies. Thousands of years of dreamers have believed that nightly visions offer wisdom of one kind or another — a bridge, a portal, a well. Historically, dreams have been considered as something apart from us, the land of gods, or demons, or muses, or the unhinged wanderings of the soul. For the Oglala Sioux, for instance, nighttime dream images were not something to be subsequently understood or interpreted while awake, they actually transformed waking life itself — one’s dreams created a new reality whether the dreamer liked it or not.
Our modern, Western understanding of dreams puts them directly inside of us, as a part of who we are biologically. Yet scientists still understand very little about the brain, much less about dreams and the unconscious mind.
Freud believed that artistic creativity was a function of neurosis and irrational thought. In The Interpretation of Dreams, he wrote about the opposition between what he called primary process thinking, the sort based on unconscious wish-impulses that produces dream content, and secondary process thinking, the sort that you’re using right now as you try to make sense of these words. The primary process and its associated dream imagery are rooted in the id, Freud theorized, and are therefore fundamentally symbolic and irrational. Creativity is what happens when the primary process is let loose into consciousness, unhindered by the constraints of social realities, guilt, and shame. The ego of the artist can, potentially, engage with these newly-conscious fantasies, organize them and clean things up. Even so, from Freud’s rather dark perspective, human creativity cannot ultimately be disentangled from a pathological inability to resolve psychosexual conflicts stemming from early childhood.
A more optimistic conception of the unconscious role in creativity comes from Jung, who integrated Freud’s ideas with ancient cultural understandings. Jung believed that works of art should never be confused with the artist as an individual person, and strongly criticized Freud for conflating the two. He theorized that dream content, in addition to being a manifestation of submerged wishes mixed with fresh memories, also includes timeless and universal human imagery. Certain dream images are shared experiences more than they are personal experiences. All members of our species know them: symbols, archetypes, and myths have been passed down through the millennia to express themselves in our dream life. This material, part of our collective unconscious, provides the raw content for what Jung believed to be a “visionary mode” of artistic creation, a mode which he believed led to transcendent works of art that all humans could instinctually appreciate. In contrast to this “visionary mode” is the “psychological mode,” a more common and everyday form of creativity that works not with unconscious content, but with personal material originating from individual conscious awareness.
Building on Freud and Jung, unconscious fantasy can be understood not just as biological reactions to experience in the world but as an important way to inform creative intelligence. In this context, dismissive thoughts like “it was just a dream” are counterproductive. With consistent effort, one can engage in a sort of open dialogue with the unconscious mind—though it may not be coherent or rational or even in the form of words. A willing and mindful suspension of rationality and logic can, if one is able to use it constructively and effectively, provide unlimited access to this precious inner resource.
Whether during sleep or while awake, countless generations have benefitted from deliberate, regular attempts to synthesize conscious and unconscious experience. There are unlimited ways to do this. “To dream while awake,” “the half-dream state,” “controlled abandon,” “observed dreaming,” “dancing with the unconscious,” “lucid dreaming,” and “disciplined dreaming” are just some of the terms that explorers of creativity have used to describe their preferred methods.
Such practice is always worthy of a reminder for its rich creative potential. Prominent scientists during the twentieth century including Albert Einstein gave explicit credit to the unconscious and the role it played in their work. The early surrealists and dadaists made themselves celebrities out of seemingly absurd investigations into their unconscious minds. D.H. Lawrence understood the artist as an instrument, a “well-head” from which unconscious creativity springs forth. In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway explained that he would tell himself to write “one true sentence…the truest sentence that you know”; then, after getting up from the writing table to stroll the sidewalks of Paris, he would purposefully avoid thinking about his writing so that his unconscious mind could work on it whilst he was busy “noticing everything.”
A handful of scientific experiments over the last two decades appears to support Hemingway’s insight. Research suggests that a brief period of “incubation” and distraction following the launching of a cognitive task produces more original ideas (as opposed to more obvious and popular ideas) than when immediate conscious attention is given to the task. There is also evidence suggesting that such a period of unconscious thought helps people become sharper judges of their most and their least creative ideas, improving their ability to select the best ones.
There is no single or correct way to benefit from what you don’t realize you already know. Find your own method. But as much as you might habitually shut away Mary Watkins’ proverbial ghost, why not experiment with a more open, less defensive approach? Actively befriend it, make it your closest creative collaborator. The ghost may help you discover what’s already there, waiting.
Published: October 31st, 2012