Response to Keith Foster’s Influence of the Subconscious

I woke up this morning (says Captain Obvious) and found a great read by musician, writer, and friend of The 45 Brains: Keith Foster. In his article he hits upon some interesting ideas that I wanted to comment on. But my comment quickly grew too long and I decided to make it a full-fledged article of my own.

Definitely check out Keith’s “Influence of the Subconscious” article.

(1) The contribution of the subconscious to creativity:

Really, this is what feels like the subconscious because it’s not formally intended. I might be playing semantics here but, for this response, it’s important to know what Keith means by the subconscious.

Keith uses “dreams” as an entry point into subconscious thinking. His clear example is of artist Rick Veitch who created a dream journal in comic book format. The entries become more vivid over time as Veitch becomes better at capturing his dreams, and therefore his subconscious thoughts. I think Keith is suggesting that subconscious thoughts are unintended connections made without conscious effort. And yet, Keith and I both think that this form of thinking is a trainable skill. How can you become better at thinking subconsciously? And more importantly, how are creative people inspired? For me, the answer can be summed up by artist Chuck Close:

“Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work”. 

That is, inspiration does not come out of thin air. Creative people are immersed in their craft. A connection that comes naturally to them seems inspired to the rest of us. What are creative people other than those who can connect nodes in ways that others have not? For example, that is the basic premise behind sampling 2 seconds of a jazz record to create something entirely new.

(2) The subconscious can be wrong, or misleading!

But that’s ok, it is part of the creative process to err. Sometimes connections are made that are just lifted from sources we were exposed to long ago and forgotten. I think that too, is ok; it is not stealing, because it is unintended (lawyers, help me out here). The problem is this: what counts as original? The Bible argues that there is “nothing original under the sun” and (I think) an old sufi tradition says that the only original action we execute is death — that no one can teach us how to die. This sounds extreme! But what examples out there suggest otherwise?

In Keith’s article, he relates a story in which he was possessed by a catchy riff, that he thought was completely his own, only to be corrected by his girlfriend’s children. His personal example is one of a creative person coming to terms with these old ideas, that there is nothing original under the sun. But just so, he takes it in stride. He subconsciously created a “funky cover version of a pop song”, a creative act in itself. The pains of his realization date back to olden times as well, as Shakespeare put it:

If there be nothing new, but that which is 
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of a former child. 

The problem is catching the “former child” before it hits press, or at least being lucky enough to have your girlfriend’s children around to help you out.

(3) Does dream-sleep count as subconscious thinking?

I’m not entirely convinced that it should. I feel perfectly aware in my dreams and would count myself as conscious, although the creation of the dream-world itself seems to happen without my control. Is it conscious processing that is easily forgotten when we awake? Is it consolidation of the previous day’s efforts? Is it completely out of our “conscious” control?  I don’t think we know enough about the brain, or dreams, or sleep, to really say what’s going on here, but we can philosophize, and tell stories.

Anecdotally: two years ago I was working on a science proposal. It’s a big process where I have to spend months scouring the literature and designing key experiments to address a question in neuroscience. It culminates in three professors grilling me about my proposal. Well, I was near the end of the process, right before the defense. The package was polished and I had numerous people revise it so there were no major holes in it and that it read well. Or so I thought.

Because I was constantly thinking about this proposal, I began having what I, at the time, called “science dreams”. Experiments would come up in dream conversations I had with myself or people in my lab. And one time, in one of these conversations, I discovered a major hole in my proposal! In the dream I started panicking because the deadline for defending was soon, but then something crazy happened. In that very same dream, I came up with the perfect experiment to address the issue. When I woke up, I ran to my computer and started typing away. The entire proposal didn’t change much, but there was that key paragraph stuffed in at the last minute.

Sometimes your clearest thinking happens while your dreaming. But does that make it subconscious?

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