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The Unconscious Factor


By this term I designate principally, not exclusively, what ordinary
speech calls "inspiration." In spite of its mysterious and
semi-mythological appearance, the term indicates a positive fact, one
that is ill-understood in a deep sense, like all that is near the roots
of creation. This concept has its history, and if it is permissible to
apply a very general formula to a particular case we may say that it has
developed according to the law of the three states assumed by the

In the beginning, inspiration is literally ascribed to the
gods--among the Greeks to Apollo and the Muses, and in like manner
under various polytheistic religions. Later, the gods become
supernatural spirits, angels, saints, etc. In one way or another it
is always regarded as external and superior to man. In the
beginnings of all inventions--agriculture, navigation, medicine,
commerce, legislation, fine arts--there is a belief in revelation;
the human mind considers itself incapable of having discovered all
that. Creation has arisen, we do not know how, in a total ignorance
of the processes.

Later on these higher beings become empty formulas, mere survivals;
there remain only the poets to invoke their aid, through the force of
tradition, without believing in them. But side by side with these formal
survivals there remains a mysterious ground which is translated by vague
expressions and metaphors, such as "enthusiasm," "poetic frenzy,"
"possession by a spirit," "being overcome," "having the devil inside
one," "the spirit whispers as it lists," etc. Here we have come out of
the supernatural without, however, attempting a positive (i.e., a
scientific) explanation.

Lastly, in the third stage, we try to sound this unknown. Psychology
sees in it a special manifestation of the mind, a particular,
semi-conscious, semi-unconscious state which we must now study.

At first sight, and considered in its negative aspect, inspiration
presents a very definite character. It does not depend on the individual
will. As in the case of sleep or digestion, we may try to call it forth,
encourage it, maintain it; but not always with success. Inventors, great
and small, never cease to complain over the periods of unproductiveness
which they undergo in spite of themselves. The wiser among them watch
for the moment; the others attempt to fight against their evil fate and
to create despite nature.

Considered in its positive aspect, inspiration has two essential
marks--suddenness and impersonality.

(a) It makes a sudden eruption into consciousness, but one presupposing
a latent, frequently long, labor. It has its analogues among other
well-known psychic states; for example, a passion that is forgotten,
which, after a long period of incubation, reveals itself through an act;
or, better, a sudden resolve after endless deliberation which did not
seem able to come to a head. Again, there may be absence of effort and
of appearance of preparation. Beethoven would strike haphazard the keys
of a piano or would listen to the songs of birds. "With Chopin," says
George Sand, "creation was spontaneous, miraculous; he wrought without
foreseeing. It would come complete, sudden, sublime." One might pile up
like facts in abundance. Sometimes, indeed, inspiration bursts forth in
deep sleep and awakens the sleeper, and lest we may suppose this
suddenness to be especially characteristic of artists we see it in all
forms of invention. "You feel a little electric shock striking you in
the head, seizing your heart at the same time--that is the moment of
genius" (Buffon). "In the course of my life I have had some happy
thoughts," says Du Bois Reymond, "and I have often noted that they would
come to me involuntarily, and when I was not thinking of the subject."
Claude Bernard has voiced the same thought more than once.

(b) Impersonality is a deeper character than the preceding. It reveals a
power superior to the conscious individual, strange to him although
acting through him: a state which many inventors have expressed in the
words, "I counted for nothing in that." The best means of recognizing it
would be to write down some observations taken from the inspired
individuals themselves. We do not lack them, and some have the virtue of
good observation. But that would lead us too far afield. Let us only
remark that this unconscious impulse acts variously according to the
individual. Some submit to it painfully, striving against it just like
the ancient pythoness at the time of giving her oracle. Others,
especially in religious inspiration, submit themselves entirely with
pleasure or else sustain it passively. Still others of a more analytic
turn have noted the concentration of all their faculties and capacities
on a single point. But whatever characteristics it takes on, remaining
impersonal at bottom and unable to appear in a fully conscious
individual, we must admit, unless we wish to give it a supernatural
origin, that inspiration is derived from the unconscious activity of the
mind. In order to make sure of its nature it would then be necessary to
make sure first of the nature of the unconscious, which is one of the
enigmas of psychology.

I put aside all the discussions on the subject as tiresome and useless
for our present aim. Indeed, they reduce themselves to these two
principal propositions: for some the unconscious is a purely
physiological activity, a "cerebration"; for others it is a gradual
diminution of consciousness which exists without being bound to me--i.e.,
to the principal consciousness. Both these are full of difficulties
and present almost insurmountable objections.

Let us take the "unconscious" as a fact and let us limit ourselves to
clearing it up, relating inspiration to mental states that have been
judged worthy of explaining it.

1. Hypermnesia, or exaltation of memory, in spite of what has been said
about it, teaches us nothing in regard to the nature of inspiration or
of invention in general. It is produced in hypnotism, mania, the excited
period of "circular insanity," at the beginning of general paralysis,
and especially under the form known as "the gift of tongues" in
religious epidemics. We find, it is true, some observations (among
others one by Regis of an illiterate newspaper vender composing pieces
of poetry of his own), indicating that a heightened memory sometimes
accompanies a certain tendency toward invention. But hypermnesia, pure
and simple, consists of an extraordinary flood of memories totally
lacking that essential mark of creation--new combinations. It even
appears that in the two instances there is rather an antagonism since
heightened memory comes near to the ideal law of total redintegration,
which is, as we know, a hindrance to invention. They are alike only with
respect to the great mass of separable materials, but where the
principle of unity is wanting there can be no creation.

2. Inspiration has often been likened to the state of excitement
preceding intoxication. It is a well-known fact that many inventors have
sought it in wine, alcoholic liquors, toxic substances like hashish,
opium, ether, etc. It is unnecessary to mention names. The abundance of
ideas, the rapidity of their flow, the eccentric spurts and caprices,
novel ideas, strengthening of the vital and emotional tone, that brief
state of bounding fancy of which novelists have given such good
descriptions, make evident to the least observing that under the
influence of intoxication the imagination works to a much greater extent
than ordinarily. Yet how pale that is compared to the action of the
intellectual poisons above mentioned, especially hashish. The
"artificial paradise" of DeQuincy, Moreau de Tours, Theophile Gautier,
Baudelaire and others have made known to all an enormous expansion of
the imagination launched into a giddy course without limits of time and

Strictly, these are facts representing only a stimulated, artificial,
temporary inspiration. They do not take us into its true nature; at the
most they may teach us concerning some of their physiological
conditions. It is not even an inspiration in the strict sense, but
rather a beginning, an embryo, an outline, analogous to the creations
produced in dreams which are found very incoherent when we awake. One of
the essential conditions of creation, a principal element--the directing
principle that organizes and unifies--is lacking. Under the influence
of alcoholic drinks and of poisonous intoxicants attention and will
always fall into exhaustion.

3. With greater reason it has been sought to explain inspiration by
comparison with certain forms of somnambulism, and it has been said that
"it is only the lowest degree of the latter state, somnambulism in a
waking state. In inspiration it is as though a strange personality were
speaking to the author; in somnambulism it is the stranger himself who
talks or holds the pen, who speaks or writes--in a word, does the
work." It would thus be the modified form of a state that is the
culmination of subconscious activity and a state of double personality.
As this last explanatory expression is wonderfully abused, and is called
upon to serve in all conditions, preciseness is indispensable.

The inspired individual is like an awakened dreamer--he lives in his
dream. (Of this we might cite seemingly authentic examples: Shelly,
Alfieri, etc.) Psychologically, this means that there is in him a double
inversion of the normal state.

To begin with, consciousness monopolized by the number and intensity of
its images is closed to the influences of the outside world, or else
receives them only to make them enter the web of its dream. The internal
life annihilates the external, which is just the opposite of ordinary

Further, the unconscious or subconscious activity passes to the first
plane, plays the first part, while preserving its impersonal character.

This much allowed, if we would go further, we are thrown into increasing
difficulties. The existence of an unconscious working is beyond doubt;
facts in profusion could be given in support of this obscure elaboration
which enters consciousness only when all is done. But what is the nature
of this work? Is it purely physiological? Is it psychological? We come
to two opposing theses. Theoretically, we may say that everything goes
on in the realm of the unconscious just as in consciousness, only
without a message to me; that in clear consciousness the work may be
followed up step by step, while in unconsciousness it proceeds likewise,
but unknown to us. It is evident that all this is purely hypothetical.

Inspiration resembles a cipher dispatch which the unconscious activity
transmits to the conscious process, which translates it. Must we admit
that in the deep levels of the unconscious there are formed only
fragmentary combinations and that they reach complete systematization
only in clear consciousness, or, rather, is the creative labor identical
in both cases? It is difficult to decide. It seems to be accepted that
genius, or at least richness, in invention depends on the subliminal
imagination, not on the other, which is superficial in nature and
soon exhausted. The one is spontaneous, true; the other, artificial,
feigned. "Inspiration" signifies unconscious imagination, and is only a
special case of it. Conscious imagination is a kind of perfected state.

To sum up, inspiration is the result of an underhand process existing in
men, in some to a very great degree. The nature of this work being
unknown, we can conclude nothing as to the ultimate nature of
inspiration. On the other hand, we may in a positive manner fix the
value of the phenomenon in invention, all the more as we are inclined to
over-value it. We should, indeed, note that inspiration is not a cause
but an effect--more exactly, a moment, a crisis, a critical stage; it is
an index. It marks either the end of an unconscious elaboration which
may have been very short or very long, or else the beginning of a
conscious elaboration which will be very short or very long (this is
seen especially in cases of creation suggested by chance). On the one
hand, it never has an absolute beginning; on the other hand, it never
delivers a finished work; the history of inventions sufficiently proves
this. Furthermore, one may pass beyond it; many creations long in
preparation seem without a crisis, strictly so called; such as Newton's
law of attraction, Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper," and the "Mona
Lisa." Finally, many have felt themselves really inspired without
producing anything of value.


What has been said up to this point does not exhaust the study of the
unconscious factor as a source of new combinations. Its role can be
studied under a simpler and more limited form. For this purpose we need
to return for the last time to association of ideas. The final reason
for association (outside of contiguity, in part at least) must be sought
in the temperament, character, individuality of the subject, often even
in the moment; that is, in a passing influence, hardly perceptible
because it is unconscious or subconscious. These momentary dispositions
in latent form can excite novel relations in two ways--through mediate
association and through a special mode of grouping which has recently
received the name "constellation."

1. Mediate association has been well known since the time of Hamilton,
who was the first to determine its nature and to give a personal example
that has become classic. Loch Lomond recalled to him the Prussian system
of education because, when visiting the lake, he had met a Prussian
officer who conversed with him on the subject. His general formula is
this: A recalls C, although there is between them neither contiguity
nor resemblance, but because a middle term, B, which does not enter
consciousness, serves as a transition between A and C. This mode of
association seemed universally accepted when, latterly, it has been
attacked by Muensterberg and others. People have had recourse to
experimentation, which has given results only in slight agreement.
For my own part, I count myself among those contemporaries who admit
mediate association, and they are the greater number. Scripture, who has
made a special study of the subject, and who has been able to note all
the intermediate conditions between almost clear consciousness and the
unconscious, considers the existence of mediate association as proven.
In order to pronounce as an illusion a fact that is met with so often in
daily experience, and one that has been studied by so many excellent
observers, there is required more than experimental investigations (the
conditions of which are often artificial and unnatural), some of which,
moreover, conclude for the affirmative.

This form of association is produced, like the others, now by
contiguity, now by resemblance. The example given by Hamilton belongs to
the first type. In the experiments by Scripture are found some of the
second type--e.g., a red light recalled, through the vague memory of a
flash of strontium light, a scene of an opera.

It is clear that by its very nature mediate association can give rise to
novel combinations. Contiguity itself, which is usually only repetition,
becomes the source of unforeseen relations, thanks to the elimination of
the middle term. Nothing, moreover, proves that there may not sometimes
be several latent intermediate terms. It is possible that A should
call up D through the medium of b and c, which remain below the
threshold of consciousness. It seems even impossible not to admit this
in the hypothesis of the subconscious, where we see only the two end
links of the chain, without being able to allow a break of continuity
between them.

2. In his determination of the regulating causes of association of
ideas, Ziehen designates one of these under the name of "constellation,"
which has been adopted by some writers. This may be enunciated thus: The
recall of an image, or of a group of images, is in some cases the result
of a sum of predominant tendencies.

An idea may become the starting point of a host of associations. The
word "Rome" can call up a hundred. Why is one called up rather than
another, and at such a moment rather than at another? There are some
associations based on contiguity and on resemblance which one may
foresee, but how about the rest? Here is an idea A; it is the center
of a network; it can radiate in all directions--B, C, D, E, F, etc.
Why does it call up now B, later F?

It is because every image is comparable to a force, which may pass from
the latent to the active condition, and in this process may be
reinforced or checked by other images. There are simultaneous and
inhibitory tendencies. B is in a state of tension and C is not; or
it may be that D exerts an arresting influence on C. Consequently
C cannot prevail. But an hour later conditions have changed and
victory rests with C. This phenomenon rests on a physiological basis:
the existence of several currents diffusing themselves through the brain
and the possibility of receiving simultaneous excitations.

A few examples will make plainer this phenomenon of reinforcement, in
consequence of which an association prevails. Wahle reports that the
Gothic Hotel de Ville, near his house, had never suggested to him the
idea of the Doges' Palace at Venice, in spite of certain architectural
likenesses, until a certain day when this idea broke upon him with much
clearness. He then recalled that two hours before he had observed a lady
wearing a beautiful brooch in the form of a gondola. Sully rightly
remarks that it is much easier to recall the words of a foreign language
when we return from the country where it is spoken than when we have
lived a long time in our own, because the tendency toward recollection
is reinforced by the recent experience of the words heard, spoken,
read, and a whole array of latent dispositions that work in the same

In my opinion we would find the finest examples of "constellation,"
regarded as a creative element, in studying the formation and
development of myths. Everywhere and always man has had for material
scarcely anything save natural phenomena--the sky, land, water, stars,
storms, wind, seasons, life, death, etc. On each of these themes he
builds thousands of explanatory stories, which vary from the grandly
imposing to the laughably childish. Every myth is the work of a human
group which has worked according to the tendencies of its special genius
under the influence of various stages of intellectual culture. No
process is richer in resources, of freer turn, or more apt to give what
every inventor promises--the novel and unexpected.

To sum up: The initial element, external or internal, excites
associations that one cannot always foresee, because of the numerous
orientations possible; an analogous case to that which occurs in the
realm of the will when there are present reasons for and against, acting
and not acting, one direction or another, now or later--when the final
resolution cannot be predicted, and often depends on imperceptible

In conclusion, I anticipate a possible question: "Does the unconscious
factor differ in nature from the two others (intellectual and
emotional)?" The answer depends on the hypothesis that one holds as to
the nature of the unconscious itself. According to one view it would be
especially physiological, consequently different; according to another,
the difference can exist only in the processes: unconscious
elaboration is reducible to intellectual or emotional processes the
preparatory work of which is slighted, and which enters consciousness
ready made. Consequently, the unconscious factor would be a special form
of the other two rather than a distinct element in invention.

Next: The Organic Conditions Of The Imagination

Previous: The Emotional Factor

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