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March 12, 2018 8:45 PM   Subscribe

What are some scientific, non-woo explanations of the role of the subconscious mind in creativity and memory, as well as exercises for getting more "in touch" with the subconscious?

I've had personal experiences where I've invented or remembered ideas on the spot—on stage, or in conversation—that I don't remember consciously thinking about. They just came out of my mouth, and I later judged them to be quite creative or funny ideas. The quality of the thought felt different too: like something was emerging or whispering or trying to say itself from deep in my head. Very strange! I'd like to tap into this ability more consciously and train it.

I've heard from pop cognitive science explainers that working memory is "conscious, verbal, and error-prone" but long-term memory is "unconscious, non-verbal, highly parallel, and processes rapidly." I'd like to see a more rigorous source on how working memory becomes long-term memory and how long-term memory is accessed.

I tried googling a couple of keywords but mostly came up with New-Age-type "The Secret" results. Would love to see more scientific studies, experiments, or personal accounts.

Related questions: what percent of "you" is conscious vs. subconscious vs. unconscious, and are there other categories of thought? Can the subconscious be said to have a personality? When you make a decision "rationally," how much of it is immovably based on "gut" feeling?

I'm particularly interested in any sources on the role of the subconscious in scientific and mathematical intuition, comedy, or artistic creation. (BTW, "sleeping on it" to figure out a proof has never worked for me.)
posted by icosahedron to Science & Nature (13 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
as it was put to me many years ago, the best way to get to your subconscious mind is to voice (one way or another) what's on your conscious mind. Think of it as making room, I guess. Can't say I have a study on hand I can immediately point to that verifies this ... but anecdotally, yeah, it works.
posted by philip-random at 9:35 PM on March 12

I have this odd 'gift' of coming out with extremely concise, pithy rebuttals when someone has pushed me over the edge. I feel like there's another part of me working on my behalf and it will serve me up something useful and apposite and I'll just say it confidentially.

I wish I could hack my mind and do it at will but haven't found the key yet.

I'll watch this post eagerly
posted by unearthed at 10:10 PM on March 12

I'd like to tap into this ability more consciously and train it.

If you're actually serious about that, and it's not just a passing fancy, then time invested in regular Vipassana meditation practice would be well worth your while.

Regular Vipassana practice is like a workout for a specific skill: the ability to quiet down the usual interior chatter that so many people habitually misidentify as their "conscious" selves, thereby enabling the kind of non-verbal brain activity that you're currently labelling "the subconscious" to get more of a run, and take a greater role in awareness, before being stomped on by one or other kind of hey! Squirrel!

It's difficult and exacting work, and the almost universal misidentification of internal near-verbalisation as the entire conscious self can make it feel quite threatening early on, but if exploring your own brain's capabilities is of genuine interest to you it's very much worth the trouble.
posted by flabdablet at 11:08 PM on March 12 [2 favorites]

I tried googling a couple of keywords but mostly came up with New-Age-type "The Secret" results. Would love to see more scientific studies, experiments, or personal accounts.

Hippocampus will probably be a useful search keyword for you.
posted by flabdablet at 11:22 PM on March 12

Related questions: what percent of "you" is conscious vs. subconscious vs. unconscious

42 :-)

and are there other categories of thought? Can the subconscious be said to have a personality? When you make a decision "rationally," how much of it is immovably based on "gut" feeling?

Some books you will probably enjoy as you explore these ideas: Gödel, Escher, Bach, An Eternal Golden Braid and I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter; Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett; The Mind's I by Hofstadter and Dennett; The Society Of Mind by Marvin Minsky.
posted by flabdablet at 11:31 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast And Slow. Kahneman is a Nobel-prize winner with a gift for explaining scientific concepts in a clear and entertaining way. This book focuses more on decision-making than creativity, but it will directly answer your question about how much of "rational" thinking is based on gut, subconscious-bias.

In terms of memory, you might look at Your Memory: How It Works And How To Improve It by Kenneth Higbee. Higbee was a professor of psychology with a focus on memory, and the book is sometimes a little dry, but he's careful to ground everything in peer-reviewed science. This is probably less closely tied to your interests the Kahneman book, because Higbee doesn't really get into the subconscious mind at all. Plus Higbee focuses more on the "How to improve it" part than "How it works." But he does spend some time on how memory works, and it might answer at least some of your questions.
posted by yankeefog at 4:06 AM on March 13

Filmmaker David Lynch wrote a book called Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity that provides his insight into how transcendental meditation affects his ability to tap into his subconscious and create his films.

The title refers to Lynch's idea that "ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you've got to go deeper". To Lynch, going deeper means experiencing a deeper, more expanded state of consciousness, a transcendental or fourth state of consciousness, an experience he has during meditation but believes is rare in ordinary daily life. According to Lynch, this experience expands artistic capacity.

Lynch writes about the continuing effects of meditation on his creative process. He explains that his imagination is let loose by meditation and creative concepts surface while he is meditating. He believes that from meditation, he is uniquely open to creative ideas.

My take on this process is that meditation removes the clutter and one can then access the subconscious more freely, like being awake and dreaming without cognitive intention polluting it. I read somewhere that at times Lynch wouldn't know the script too far in advance but would write it during filming so that the ideas would evolve and come to surface after meditation, just before shooting the scene.
posted by waving at 5:57 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]

there are really striking phenomena in studies of split-brain patients (who have had the corpus callosum severed); the Wikipedia page is surprisingly comprehensive and there's tons of articles. one side of the brain will obviously be influenced by what the other side is sensing, but without any conscious awareness.

personally, as much as it sounds like New Age bullshit, i've found expressing gratitude to my unconscious mind if it seems to solve a problem for me is very helpful.

also, meditation is actually good for this, as many people have said.
posted by vogon_poet at 6:07 AM on March 13

My take is you have to create space for the unconscious good stuff to come up, meditation is one way to do that. It's a simplification but neuroscience has distinguished between "default" and "focused attention" systems of the brain and when one is active the other isn't, you need to have a good balance of both to have a well-functioning, creative mind. Meditation trains focused attention but I think the effects go beyond that to the rest of the brain and help it to work better, a big part of that imo is that it reduces stress and (too much) stress isn't good for creativity.

You might like the work of Dr. Dan Siegel, he is a neuroscientist who is also a mindfulness expert and he's developed a tool called the Wheel of Awareness that might be helpful for you. He is one of the more interesting researchers of consciousness.

There is science on the power of aerobic exercise and specifically walking to help people generate creative solutions and ideas.

I don't solve problems by sleeping on them but I am a huge fan of sleeping to let ideas and information get organized so I can communicate or problem-solve about them more effectively, the hippocampus as mentioned upthread helps to do that. I've learned to trust that if I focus on a problem, take in information about it, and then do something else, things get sorted out versus if I keep pushing.

You might enjoy the work of Damasio, he's written about how emotions/intuition help us make decisions:

Other authors to look at: Shelley Carson, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and there's a great talk by John Cleese on "creativity in management" that is a classic and covers a lot.
posted by lafemma at 6:24 AM on March 13 [3 favorites]

If you're interrsted in helping your subconscious generate more good ideas, I find I have those sorts of ideas much more frequently when I'm stoned than when I'm not. I have some silly ones too, but they're not all silly; I get a lot of genuine inspiration and self-realization that way. Even moreso if I'm also doing a thoughtful, meditative activity like reading a book or taking a walk in the woods. I don't meditate (although maybe I should) but I bet that would combine really well too.

I will say though that I'm likely to forget my ideas soon after. This is not something I personally care about particularly, but if you're interested in maximizing this aspect of that particular state of consciousness then you might want to have a notebook and pencil on hand so that you can jot things down before they fly away.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:20 AM on March 13

I've spent the last 20+ years actively 'training' my subconscious to supply me with ideas, answers, plans, and so on. It's gotten to be such a part of my daily experience that I don't even really process that its happening in the moment. I just clear my mind and the right thing will pop into my head. Facts are the easiest. Recall is a little harder. Plans and big choices can be a bit tough.

When I first started this process, I learned how to engage my subconscious by creating specific triggers to let my subconscious mind 'know' I was asking for it to do something. PM me if you want the steps, it's kind of long to post here. Once I felt like I had a clear path to engage with my subconscious from my active mind, I started practicing letting its deeper memories, creativity, and / or intuition come to the forefront.

Sometimes I do have to focus on something else for a while to let an answer come, especially if it's complex. I trained myself to trust that my subconscious would come up with a solution and not nag at the problem until an answer came. That was a struggle but I eventually got better at it.
posted by ananci at 12:07 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

Also, there's a possibly true story that Einstein used to purposefully doze at this kitchen table with a marble held over a pan. He would enter a sort of half-doze where he felt super creative and solutions would present themselves. If he fell to deeply asleep the marble would drop into the pan and wake him up. YMMV but I do feel that the liminal state before sleep is a very creative headspace to be in, at least for me.
posted by ananci at 12:09 PM on March 13

Also, there's a possibly true story that Einstein used to purposefully doze at this kitchen table with a marble held over a pan.

when I heard this, it was Benjamin Franklin, but it wasn't a marble and a pan ... it was something else he was holding, but to the same effect. He'd get a few seconds of actual sleep and then, zap himself awake again. Don't know about unleashing the power of one's subconscious but nano naps do seem to be a thing.
posted by philip-random at 4:45 PM on March 13

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