The Power of the Subconscious

Copyright © Karl Dahlke, 2024

In this chapter, I rise in defense of Freud, a scientist who is often maligned, and sometimes satirized. Did some of his claims go to far? Of course. But the idea of a subconscious was revolutionary, and he was right.

Most of the time, I feel like I am my brain, and my brain is me. I feel as if I have a soul, even though that concept is not well defined. The rest of my body, the other 83 kilograms of flesh, exists to service me, to make my life possible. However, as a student of evolution, I realize that this perspective is flawed. My brain is a useful organ in the ongoing struggle for survival, and nothing more. It is no different from a bird's wing or a turtle's shell. That the human brain delights in music, and mathematics, and art, and is striving to understand itself, is a happy accident. This evolutionary perspective is, frankly, unsettling - and so, as I go through my day, I typically view myself as a conscious, sentient being, with an adjunct body that serves my needs.

Over the past few decades, scientists and philosophers have tried to unravel the mystery of consciousness. Even its definition poses quite a challenge. I to am intrigued - but the question of the subconscious is just as interesting, and just as important, since our subconscious can lead us astray.

The subconscious can be even more elusive, since we are unaware of its existence, by definition. However, it has revealed itself to me on more than one occasion, in terms so plain and firm as to convince even a skeptical and dispassionate observer such as myself. It has constructed elaborate systems that I could not explain, and reshaped my memories into events that are practically works of fiction. It's power is awesome, and a bit frightening.

The subconscious spends most of its time boosting self-esteem, often at the expense of others. It is easy to see how this might be adaptive in a small tribal society. “Our tribe is better than that tribe over there, and I am an integral part of our tribe, worthy of the best mate, or multiple mates.” To this end, we naturally and internally reject ideas that might diminish us. We don't realize we're doing it, it's deeper than that. We make up other reasons for rejecting that idea, reasons that appear rational, but are actually irrational, created by our subconscious to keep the more comfortable beliefs at the helm. As Richard Feynman famously said, “You must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Here are 3 examples of diminishing ideas that were, or are, difficult to accept. There are many more of course.

  1. The earth goes round the sun.

    For thousands of years we believe the earth was the center of the universe. Sure looks like it; everything revolves around the earth. Even the Greeks, who were the most insightful scientists prior to the renaissance, were comfortable with our central position in the universe. And it fit with every religion on earth. God made us in his image, God made us the center of everything. Talk about an exalted position! Any other idea would diminish us. Having the earth go round the sun would diminish us.

    In 1509, Copernicus published a paper suggesting the planets go around the sun. Scholars took note, but most people were not aware of his theories, and didn't pay much attention. Then, in 1609, a hundred years later, Galileo invented the telescope. Put two lenses at either end of a tube, it's almost that simple, but nobody thought of it before. When he explained it, anybody could make one, and anybody could see the planets in detail, the phases of Venus as it traveled round the sun, and four moons circling around Jupiter, not around us! With his observations, we knew the earth was not the center of everything. Still, almost everyone rejected it, including the Catholic church, which was the strongest political force in Italy at the time.

    If I can push a 21st century concept back 400 years, Galileo was woke, and so were a few of his colleagues, but most people were not. The general public, and the political leaders, seemed stupid to him. “Just look through the telescope, just look and you'll see. Just open your eyes, you damn fools!” But they would not, because their subconscious would not allow the human race to be diminished in that way.

  2. Races are intellectually and morally equivalent.

    Before our country was established, a few people realized that slavery was fundamentally wrong. With courageous leadership from Ben Franklin, Pennsylvania was a free colony, even before it became a free state. However, slave owners in other colonies could not accept this idea for two reasons: it made them equal to the negro, thus lowering their status, and it indicated they were morally culpable, year after year, in treating these people as property. What a terrible, diminishing idea! Like all diminishing ideas, it must be rejected. They had a subconscious, as do we all, and that subconscious developed reasons which the conscious mind could accept.

    “The negro is an inferior race, and can't aspire to anything more than slavery. If we treat our slaves well, then we are actually doing them a favor.”

    With that thought, they could sleep at night. So it was from 1600 to 1900.

    In the 20th century, the considerable accomplishments of blacks could not be denied, especially during times of war, when they defended our country with courage and skill. so the subconscious created another theory: the negro is lazy. He's always on welfare, always consuming social resources, doesn't have the drive of the white man. This is the theory I remember growing up in the 60's. We conveniently set aside the fact that they were given no education and no opportunities for meaningful employment. Whenever a pocket of prosperity appeared, e.g. Black Walstreet, we bombed it out of existence. Once again, there was no need to diminish ourselves.

    After 1970, a new myth arose: the negro is intrinsically a criminal. As trevor Noah calls it, Born a Crime. The news showed us every black criminal, while the evolving legal system manufactured black criminals with its drug laws and selective enforcement of petty crimes. This is where we are today. This is the reasoning from our subconscious, so we don't have to diminish ourselves with racial equality.

    It's not just about race, but about any group over another, for example, men over women. When I attended graduate school at Berkeley, I saw hardly a female student, and not a single female professor in my math department. It would be comfortable, and pseudo-evidence based, for me to say boys are innately better at math than girls. It gives me that feeling of quiet superiority that we all crave. Intending no harm, I might even release a Barbie doll who declares, “Math is hard.” But I'd be wrong. As far as we can tell, boys and Girls are born with the same mathematical capabilities, thence environment sends us down different paths. Watch the movie Hidden Figures to see a brilliant mind at work.

  3. We have a subconscious mind.

    In the late 1800's, Freud and others suggested we have a subconscious that drives us, our feelings, our emotions, even our opinions, which we mistakenly believe are based in logic. This, by itself, is an idea that diminishes us.

    “Of course I know my own mind. I understand myself completely. I am perfectly rational, and not driven by forces that I cannot comprehend or control.”

    This pushback still exists today. Ironically, it is a pushback from the subconscious itself. The subconscious denies its own existence. Once again, here come a bunch of reasons that seem rational.

    “Freud was a nutcase. Look at all the things he got wrong. He was hypersexual, and all his theories are about sex.”

    Indeed, Freud was wrong, or exaggerated, or oversimplistic in some of his details, but the central tenet was true. We do have a subconscious that drives us. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    “Ok, maybe people who have undergone trauma have to deal with their subconscious, but it isn't a factor in my life. I understand my brain completely, and I'm ok.”

    No - every person, of every race, and in every station in life, has a subconscious, and sometimes that part of our brain tricks us into believing things that make us feel better about ourselves, and it even supplies reasons for those comfortable feelings. Those reasons seem rational, and over the years we collect information and experiences that support this point of view. (confirmation bias) The subconscious can even reshape our memories over time, until they follow our preferred narrative.

We become ever more certain of our beliefs, unless something dramatic forces us to wake up.

  1. Perhaps someone puts a telescope in our hands and we see the moons of Jupiter for the first time.
  2. Perhaps we watch videos, one after another, of black people being murdered by police, even though they committed no crime, and complied in every way.
  3. Perhaps we recognize the subconscious in ourselves, in a possibly disturbing way. This is what happened to me, as I will describe below.

Why a Subconscious is Inescapable

Viewing the subject of consciousness through the lens of mathematics, induction demonstrates a limit to conscious thought. Here is an argument, in the style of Cantor, that suggests no person, no sentient being, and no intelligent machine, can completely understand itself. I call it the tower of knowing.

I know that 2 + 2 = 4. This is a mathematical fact that I learned at age 4, and I am still aware of it today.

I also know that I know that 2 + 2 = 4. I have my math degree and I know that I know some math.

I also know that I know that I know that 2 + 2 = 4. I am aware that I think about my understanding of math and science and software, and that is interesting to me. In fact I am aware of that as I write this article. But by the next level, or the next, it gets fuzzy. I can't claim that I know that I know that I know that I know that 2 + 2 = 4. Sometimes I can grasp it, but sometimes it is beyond my ken.

Every brain, organic or artificial, is finite. At some point, it knows something that it is not aware of. It is inevitable. This is the edge of our subconscious.

A toaster cannot understand how a toaster works, a computer cannot debug its own software, and the human mind cannot understand all the motivations behind its thoughts and actions.

Visualizing the World

In 1979, I witnessed a demonstration of my subconscious that could not be denied. Some part of my brain constructed an elaborate system of viewing the world, that was not under my control. Furthermore, when pressed to explain it, I could not.

I was born with congenital glaucoma, and could never see farther than a couple of meters. Bright colors were easier to see, and I still retain, 50 years later, memories of brightly colored toys and objects, and certain cartoons, such as the Flintstones.

On March 6, 1970, at age 9, I underwent an operation that was suppose to relieve pressure in the eye. Instead, it took the last of my sight. I'm told that lasers would have rendered this operation a success today, but that technology did not exist at the time. From that moment on, I continued to visualize the world around me, often with exaggerated colors. In particular, I dressed people in brightly colored shirts and dresses. I wasn't going to picture them naked after all.

Nine years later, Jay, my roommate at Michigan State, was curious. “How do you assign the colors?” He asked.

I thought about it for a moment and replied, “I have no idea.”

Bored with his homework, he put his books on the shelf and declared, “Let's figure it out.”

He pulled out a pencil and a fresh sheet of paper. “Are the colors continuous, or do they come from a discrete set?”

I ran through all the people I knew, old friends, new acquaintances, even my professors. “It's a discrete set.” I replied. “Maybe 15 colors, maybe 20.”

We wrote down a list of examples, people and their colors. My math professor, Dr. Tomber, wore a dark green shirt. My friend Judy from high school wore an orange blouse. Bill, down the hall, wore a yellow shirt, while his roommate, Eric, was dressed in black.

It took a while to find the pattern, but it was there. The color was determined by the first letter of the first name, or the last name if the person was introduced formally, such as a professor. There were several exceptions to the rule, which is why we needed a lot of data points to see the pattern. Some people I had actually seen in real life, before the age of ten. They were wearing what they usually wore. Some people didn't fit the pattern for various reasons that are beyond the scope of this article. Most of the time, the initial letter was the key. Dr. Tomber wore a green shirt because T was a dark green letter, perhaps forest green. Theresa wore the same shade of green, as did Mrs. Talbit in the cafeteria.

“How did these letters get these colors?” Jay naturally asked.

Once again, I had no idea. I put the alphabet up in my mind, each letter displaying its prescribed color. Suddenly I could see it; it jumped into my mind with perfect clarity. When I was three years old, I had an educational toy, a white board with a metal backing, and plastic letters and numbers with embedded magnets in them. The letters could be placed on the board, where they would remain in position. The child would learn how to spell, and read, and perform basic arithmetic. The letters had bright colors: T was forest green, J was bright orange, B was yellow, and so on.

I was stunned. My brain created a complex system of colors, so I could picture the people around me, and I had no idea how it was done. An educational toy established the correspondence, a toy that was virtually lost to conscious thought, until Jay dredged it up from the depths of my memory. At that point I could no longer gainsay my subconscious mind. It exists, and it is capable of performing complex tasks without my understanding or control.

This example is harmless - a convenient system that helps me visualize the world around me - but what if the human brain can make us believe things that aren't true, to make us feel better about ourselves? What if the subconscious can rewrite memories to affirm our favorite, self-indulgent narratives? It can, as I discovered in myself and in others.

I'm a Good Person

Before his passing, my Uncle Don relayed several stories from his childhood. One of them troubled him deeply; he couldn't make sense of it.

“I remember it clear as day, but it isn't possible.” he began.

“Oh?” I replied.

“I was six or seven.” he continued. “We had a firepot in the back yard, and the logs were blazing. It was late, and my Dad went inside. I knew he wanted me to put the lid on and come in as well. Starved of oxygen, the flames would die in a few minutes, and the logs would cool over night, though some hot coals would remain, and with a stir and some fresh twigs, the fire would restart easily in the morning. Our house was next to a small stream, and a tiny frog wandered away from the safety of the water and into my yard. I picked him up, and on a whim, tossed him into the fire; then I closed the lid so he couldn't escape. I don't know why I did that. Curious I guess.”

I didn't know what to say to this. Seven-year-olds burn insects with a magnifying glass, and engage in other pranks that aren't really funny or appropriate. I know I did. Assuming the behavior stops, we don't grow up to be sociopaths.

“What happened next?” I asked, sensing there was more to the story.

“I thought about the frog during the night. The next morning I went out and lifted the lid, and the frog jumped out and hopped away, completely unharmed. That isn't possible, is it?”

I thought for a minute, trying to explain the unexplainable. The flames, which must have persisted for several minutes, the searing heat, the corrosive smoke, the carbon monoxide … “No,” I affirmed, “it isn't possible. Shadrach the frog could not have survived.”

“But I remember it like it was yesterday, in every detail.”

“I think you manufactured that memory, the frog hopping away unharmed, to assuage your guilt.” I surmised. “You didn't hurt him, so there's no trouble. You were a good person, even as a mischieveous child.”

“Perhaps.” Don mused. “I'm no psychologist. But if I did manufacture that memory, I'm glad I did. It has helped me all these years, and it tells me what kind of person I am, and what kind of person I want to be.”

I'm sure that memory wasn't created the next morning. It formed over many years, but once formed, it was rock solid, like all the other memories he had from his childhood. All the details were there: the color of the frog, and his movements as he hopped toward the sanctuary of the stream. The human mind is an amazing organ.

I would have done Better

My malleable memory involves a total solar eclipse. Rewind to March 6, 1970, the last day that I saw the world. The next day, March 7, a total solar eclipse passed overhead. My father stood next to my bedside in the hospital and looked out the window. It's been 50 years, but I can still hear his voice.

“It's pitch dark out, like midnight. The cars in the parking lot have their headlights on as they move about. There's a beautiful red band along the horizon, fading to blue as you move up the sky. It's black above. Of course I can't see the eclipse itself, since we are indoors.”

He described it as best he could, especially since he was unable to witness the beautiful white corona around the inky darkness above. Even if he had an unobstructed view, everyone who has seen it says that words are not sufficient. It is beyond description, almost a religious experience. The spectacle is so moving, that those who can afford it travel to the ends of the eart to see these eclipses, whenever and wherever they occur. Neil deGrasse Tyson states, unapologetically, “Show me your bucket list. If a total solar eclipse is not on it, I'll erase something else and write it in.” I heard these declarations from scientists and lay people alike, and I could hardly imagine what I missed.

Over the years, I grew somewhat annoyed. Not angry, it's a pretty small thing compared to the problems that beset me now, but somewhat peeved. My parents knew I loved science. Mom read me the How and Why books, and Dad performed science experiments around the house with me as his assistant. They knew; why couldn't they wait two more days? I could have had the operation after the eclipse, not before. Why didn't the doctor suggest a postponement? Why didn't somebody do something? I had one chance to see the eclipse, it was directly over my house, and I missed it.

This quietly simmered in the back of my mind for decades. It certainly didn't interfere with my life; I launched a career as a software developer, got married, had children, and developed several open source projects for the visually impaired. However, I thought about it from time to time, especially when an eclipse was in the news.

Finally, at age 57, and with my science background, I wondered, for the first time, “What are the odds?” Totality traces a thin path along the earth, just a couple dozen miles wide, once every 3 or 4 years. What are the odds that the umbra would pass directly over my hospital, the day after my operation? “Practically nil.” I concluded. So I looked it up on the internet; it didn't happen! Once again I was stunned. How could this be?

There was indeed an eclipse on March 7, but the path of totality passed a thousand kilometers to the east. My city was treated to a partial eclipse, but that does not draw a curtain of darkness across the sky, nor does it inspire awe among the witnesses below. They can't even look at it safely without proper eyeware or a shoebox camera. For the most part, it's just another day.

So what happened?

I heard the story of the eclipse on the news, and made up the rest. I'm sure I didn't create the memory on March 7, or March 9, or any time that year. If you had asked me about the eclipse in 1970, or 1971, I could have relayed an accurate account. But something happened over the decades. I wanted a different story, and some time between the ages of 15 and 30, I created a new narrative, including the false memory that would support it. The memory is vivid and detailed, as though it had happened. I have played it in my mind over and over again, refreshing it like DRAM. That is why it holds fast. I'm telling you, I can hear my father's voice describing the eclipse!

This raises an interesting question. Why would my subconscious create a narrative that would engender negative emotions: regret, frustration, and anger? That isn't advantageous - or is it?

Let's look at it through another lens. Anger can sometimes entrain a sense of superiority. Perhaps I might view the situation this way.

“If I were in charge in 1970, I would have done things differently. I would have recognized the situation and postponed the operation til Monday. I'm smarter than my parents, the doctors, and everyone involved.”

There - I can feel smug and superior now. And there is an additional benefit; I can complain about what I missed. If you believe your life is worse, or harder, than those around you, that can also be elevating. “It was awful but I got through it.” Rather like Monty Python's skit, Luxury! Several times, when discussing eclipses with my friends, I told them what I missed, and they were amazed, and sympathetic to my plight.

In aggregate, the story of the missed eclipse does not diminish me, it elevates me. My subconscious performed a background calculation, and determined that the feeling of superiority afforded by the fictional account, would outweigh the frustration associated with missing the eclipse by one day - and it was correct. Even now, it is difficult to shake off the memory, to tell my brain that it didn't happen. My parents, and the doctors, did everything right, and I was just a 9 year old boy.

Our memories are not laid down in perfect fidelity for playback later, like a movie camera. Instead, they are fluid. They naturally degrade with time, as one would expect, and when emotions are involved, they can be directionally reshaped into a form that makes us feel better about ourselves, and sometimes, superior to others.

But Most of the Memory is Accurate

It's important that we don't take this idea to an extreme. For centuries, abusers have held power over their victims by saying, “It's all in your head. You're just imagining it. It didn't happen.” No - something happened, something traumatic, and we need to listen to these brave souls as they speak about their past. But we must also remember, it might have happened differently, not exactly as they remember it. In the case of Don's frog, and my solar eclipse, the source was an actual event, a traumatic event. He did indeed put the frog in the firepot, whence the frog died a gruesome death, and I did indeed lose my sight in an operation gone wrong. Memories are not manufactured out of thin air, they come from real events that have affected us in many ways. 95% of that memory will be accurate. Only a thin slice, perhaps 5%, has been reshaped by the subconscious. When a victim recounts a traumatic event in her past, we must not dismiss it out of hand, just because we have discovered a tiny inconsistency in her story. Something terrible happened, and she needs our help, and our gentle understanding. She does not need our condescension, or worst of all, victim blaming.

Antiscience

In the past few years, we have seen a marked increase in antiscience, and a ready acceptance of fringe ideas, some of them patently absurd. Why does the subconscious pull so many people, some of them well educated, into conspiracy theories, despite reams of evidence to the contrary?

The word conspiracy is from the Latin, to breathe together. A few people breathe together, and plot together, in secret, while the masses remain unaware. If you are involved in this secret plot, then you are part of an elite group. This is another idea that elevates us.

“Wow! I'm smarter than almost everyone around me. Those sheeple! Those idiots who can't think for themselves - who simply believe the mainstream media. Nope, I'm smarter than they are. I do my research. I find out the truth.”

I've heard people say this, almost word for word. The elevation happens at a deep subconscious level. It calls to us, like the song of the Siren. From here the playbook is familiar. Find one or two outlyers with credentials who support the theory, then discredit or discount the mountain of evidence that indicates the theory is impossible, or at least improbable. The subconscious has led the conscious mind down a dangerous path, like a dog on a leash. Our friend is certain that he is right, certain that he knows more than the experts, as he travels down the primrose path.

Politics

All this should be food for thought as we consider the difficult issues that confront our country, and the candidates who vie for our votes. If you are certain of your position on a political or social issue, ask if it elevates you in some way, above the masses, or above some group that you are not a part of. Conversely, if you instantly dismiss the opposing point of view as ridiculous, ask if that idea might diminish you in some way. If so, pause, and take a step back. Assess your own subconscious motives, and revisit all the evidence as objectively as you can. At the end of the day, you might be fooling yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

I will close with a recommendation: Forbidden Planet, one of the best movies ever made. I don't want to say any more about it, because I don't want to spoil the ending.