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Column: Your unconscious can yield unexpected powers


I’ve spent the past two decades teaching aspiring writers. One oddity I’ve noticed is that students write best when they are the least “conscious” of actually writing.

That is: When I ask students to write informally for a short time, they often produce work that is far more candid and compelling than a story they might have slaved over for months.

Illustration by Dave Cutler

The reason for this, in my view, is that our conscious minds tend to overthink decisions. We get caught up in self-doubt, or trying to impress, and we stop focusing on the story we want to tell. But it is our unconscious – the part of our minds we can’t control and that we therefore don’t judge – that makes the best decisions.

I know this to be true in the realm of creativity. But recently, I’ve been pondering the broader and more ambivalent role that the unconscious plays in our lives. 

I realize that term – the unconscious – can sound a bit daunting. Sigmund Freud is widely credited with introducing the concept of the unconscious, which people sometimes call the subconscious. All he meant is that there is a part of the mind that exists beneath our conscious recognition. This region serves as a repository for our forbidden desires, our taboo ideas, our painful memories and unbearable feelings.

Freud’s colleague Carl Jung expanded on this by observing that the conscious mind can accommodate only so much data and that the unconscious was designed, in part, as backup storage for our knowledge and experience.

Our minds might be viewed, therefore, as neurological icebergs, with our conscious thoughts representing only a small percentage of all that we think and feel.

And because most of us move through our lives like hopeful little Titanics, we don’t realize that much of what controls our habits of thought and behavior lurks below the surface. No matter how hard we try to steer clear of the icebergs we can see, we wind up crashing into them over and over.

In other words, what you don’t know can hurt you.

Our minds might be viewed as neurological icebergs, with our conscious thoughts representing only a small percentage of all that we think and feel.

Let me offer a rather painful personal example. I want to write a great novel. Actually, “great” is an overstatement. At this point, I’d settle for a “good” novel. Or even “a novel that does not put my wife to sleep.” 

So far, I’ve started six separate projects. In each case, I reach a point where I feel overwhelmed by the task. There are too many plotlines, too many characters, no unifying theme. I lose faith and give up – or I soldier on, slogging through a draft that feels lifeless and doomed. 

Consciously, I know I’m equipped to write a decent novel. But something is holding me back.

The same pattern obtains during my weekly squash games against my friend Zach. 

Zach and I used to be pretty evenly matched. But for the past year, whenever I’ve gotten within a few points of winning a game, I start to rush and mis-hit the ball. 

It’s at the point where the pattern feels so ingrained that I automatically lose concentration and fall apart. Zach says I  “fall out of the moment. ” But as sports psychologists have emphasized, “choking” often begins when a conscious anxiety about blowing it becomes an unconscious conviction.

The best response, the sports psychologists insist, is to turn down the pressure. 

I know they’re right. The only times I’ve beaten Zach this past year have been on those mornings when I’m exhausted, getting sick, or hobbling around with a sore back.

Why do I win these matches? Because I come into them convinced that there’s no chance I’ll win, which eliminates the pressure. 

This is why my wife – wise woman that she is – often tells me that I’ll write that great novel just as soon as I stop pushing myself to do so.

There are, of course, plenty of ways in which this principle applies. Consider the case of the lost keys. If you’re me, this is something you consider on an almost daily basis: I am an inveterate loser of my keys, as well as my phone and my wallet.

The harder I look for my keys, the more elusive they become. So I’ve taken to playing a little trick on myself: I stop looking.

And yes, it works. If you can redirect your conscious mind from the task of hunting, your unconscious tends to offer up the answer. (Pssst. Hey, dummy. Why don’t you check on the dryer downstairs where, for some reason, you left them last night?)

If my experience is any indication, we are losing our keys more and more. This is happening because we’re trying to store too much information in our conscious minds. It doesn’t help that most of us are carrying around powerful little distraction devices – smartphones, I mean – which further divide our attention. 

But this pattern of information overload doesn’t affect only our conscious minds. Our unconscious minds are also overrun by meaningless data: I have no problem recalling exactly how many points my favorite basketball player scored in his last six games. 

There is one population that loves to celebrate the “power of the unconscious” – self-help authors. They are continually arguing that people can train themselves to become successful through techniques such as affirmations and auto-suggestion, which implant positive messages in our unconscious minds and magically guide us toward success.

The late college basketball coach Jim Valvano used to ask his players to devote one entire practice each year to rehearsing precisely how they would celebrate when they won the NCAA championship. He believed that consciously sending the message that they were destined to win would seep into the subconscious and guide them.

And in 1983, his North Carolina State University team did go on an unprecedented run. But people tend to forget that the Wolfpack won that championship because players on opposing teams missed crucial free throws in the final seconds of several games.

I don’t mean to be a buzzkill. But researchers haven’t found much basis for these claims. Folks tend to point to examples such as Valvano’s championship run while overlooking all those teams that used similar techniques and still lost.

I am a believer in the power of the unconscious as a creative tool. But my experience suggests that we often perceive the power of the unconscious in the wrong way. 

A lot of the anguish we suffer in life arises from repressing feelings that we need to bring into the light. 

For many years, my wife has wanted to remove an especially ugly rug from our oldest daughter’s room. Josie has stubbornly resisted these efforts.

The other day, my wife took matters into her own hands and removed the rug. Josie, who is 11 years old and starting to feel the emotional upheaval of adolescence, had a total meltdown.

I was out of the house when all this went down, but I returned to find Josie red-eyed and despondent. She told me what happened, working herself into a crying jag all over again. She pointed out that if she was old enough to baby-sit her little sister, she was old enough to make her own decisions about the décor in her room.

So it seemed like a control issue. But then Josie admitted that my wife hadn’t banished her old rug for good. She had merely asked that Josie give another rug a trial run.

I asked Josie why her old rug was so important to her. She thought for a moment, then said it was because it was a reminder of her childhood. 

Something clicked for me in that moment. Her loyalty to that ugly rug wasn’t just sentimental. In her unconscious mind, holding on to that rug was a way of holding on to a childhood that she knew was fading away. I gently suggested this to Josie. 

“Yeah,” she said. “That’s how it feels, like I don’t get to be a kid anymore. Maybe I’m kind of putting some of that on the rug.”

Something about identifying an unconscious fear allowed her to stop crying and calm down. And she eventually wrote her mother an incredibly eloquent letter explaining why the rug was so important to her, which nearly brought my wife to tears.

Perhaps that’s the ultimate power of the unconscious: our willingness to recognize that it’s not simply a tool we can sharpen and wield, like a knife. It’s a reminder that we’re most effective when we have the courage, and trust, to look beneath the surface of our lives. 

• Steve Almond is a regular contributor to The Rotarian and the author of books including "Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto."