A Consciously Unconscious Mind


In my previous essay, Terra Incognita: My Unconscious Mind, I developed the thesis that my unconscious mind made decisions.  I did not include a quantifier, either all or some, for ‘decisions.’  I do not know that the unconscious makes all the decisions and I cannot say that it makes some of them.  That would be tantamount to saying that the conscious mind also makes some decisions, which I do not know.  So I leave the concluding statement bare, pending more observation:

My unconscious mind decides.

This statement is the first in a brief catalog of some of the functions of my unconscious mind, how it works, what it does, how it functions.  I use the expressive phrase “the temper of my mind” to encapsulate these attributes.The body of this essay has been excerpted and edited from a longer work that was written about 2 years ago when I began writing seriously.  In it I used the phrase “the temper of my mind” without explaining or defining it.  “I” knew what I meant, but that was not the end of the story.  My unconscious mind was doing its thing and suddenly…, well read on to find out the rest of the story.


Gather ‘round me, my friends and I will tell you a story.  A story with little significance but a good illustration.  It starts with a commonplace event, a road trip.  Its ending is much less common – words written on paper.

I was driving along thinking about what the other drivers are going to do, changing lanes as necessary, etc.  In one sense there was a lot to think about and in another sense there was not much to think about.  But then words completely unrelated to driving in heavy fast traffic passed through my mind “I should explain ‘the temper of my mind.’”

Where did those words in my conscious mind come from?  I had been driving for more than an hour with no thought of the essay and had neither intent to nor expectation of thinking about it.  I was en route to an unusual job, one that had absorbed a lot of thought and could use some more.  If I were to be thinking about something other than driving, this project should have been the subject.  But suddenly I was thinking that I had used an expressive phrase in the introduction to the essay without explaining it.  Quite unbeknownst to me my unconscious mind was still working on the essay and at some point it reported its current state of thought to my conscious mind, my reportorial I.

My unconscious mind thinks.

Returning home, I was driving along minding my own business, traffic was smooth, and I remember nothing of that part of the trip.  I don’t remember my lane changes, the cars that were near me, or the thoughts passing through my head.  Most of the trip was insignificant and all memory of the experiences has been lost.

Then I saw red brake lights ahead.  Traffic slowed and remained slow for some time; I was trapped in the slow lane on a two-lane section of road.  Finally, I was finally able to make a lane change and eventually passed the road boulder, a slow car.  Then I was once again driving along minding my own business and words crowded through my mind.

I thought that I had just driven through a venturi – a constriction in the fluid flow of traffic.  I created an analogy, perceived a pattern match, between a venturi and the traffic constriction.  At first I was excited about this insight and began building it up in my mind with additional words.  These thoughts, words in my mind, present as truth, or at least as a very good idea.

My unconscious mind creates and matches patterns.

Then I realized that the analogy with a venturi is not perfect because the velocity through the traffic constriction decreases and fluid flow velocity increases in a venturi.  Was this a good insight or the vaporings of an over-excited mind?  What arrived in my mind wreathed in glorious clouds of truth now lies on the floor ignominiously trampled by dirty boots.

My unconscious mind creates and matches patterns, but makes mistakes.


There is a lot to learn from my road trip.  In both cases I was driving along with the usual flow of words that accompany my traffic attentiveness passing through my mind.  Then suddenly a completely different set of words irrupt into my consciousness.  One set of these new words was a self-admonishment “I should explain the phrase ‘the temper of my mind’” and the second was the interesting idea that traffic flow through a constriction could be similar to fluid flow through an orifice.

There are words in my mind, but am I thinking in those conscious words or are they the conscious emanations of unconscious processes?  Are the words the thought or the conscious result of thinking?  Does the unconscious mind do all thinking?  Some of the thinking?  How can I tell the difference?

What is of interest here is the discontinuity of conscious thought processes – the instantaneous transition from driving to insight.  In both cases the current flow of words about traffic etc. was interrupted with a new set of words.  In the first case it was at least 24 hours since I had last worked on the essay.  So, the unconscious was working on its own time, logic, and pace.  Is the unconscious mind, in the current parlance, multi-tasking?

Even more interesting is where and when its conclusion was reported to my conscious mind.  I was going slightly downhill in the right turn of a chicane with the left turn up ahead.  Traffic was moving at 70 mph and the vehicle separation was less than the defensive driving rule of 2 seconds.  I could not see more than 2 or 3 vehicles ahead and I needed to focus on driving.  Boom, wham, I was thinking about that essay!  The conscious evaluation of the driving conditions with its projection of what was likely to happen in the immediate future was relegated to the unconscious and replaced by thoughts, words, about a relatively unimportant essay.  The logic of the unconscious is inscrutable.

In the second case I made a connection between minor commonplace experience, a slow car and its effect on traffic and fluid flow on the other.  How did I make these connections, find the patterns?  What are these patterns, parallelisms, connections, similarities, correlations, congruencies, or causations that appear in my mind?  How do they come to be expressed in words[1] in my consciousness?   What happens when they arrive?

All thinking, filtering of experience and perception, all pattern generation and matching, and word matching to those perceived patterns is path dependent, that is, contingent upon my personal history overlain upon the substrate of my genetics, and epigenetics.[2]   Together they constitute what I call “the temper of my mind:” the concept set with which I engage the world and the values expressed in words and actions.

Asserting path dependency of thought leaves a residual question: how are new thoughts, new words, new stories created?  New concepts, their creation in one mind, transmission to and reception within another, underlie our social evolution, our ability to create both those condominiums and the favelas.  That is where I am going but to get there, I must traverse a long road.

I am going to do the unconscious/conscious mind all over again several times to see what happens.  I liken this process to pointillist painting – the large picture is comprised of small colored dots.  Or better, a collage – the large picture is comprised of smaller pictures each conveying a detail.

Or in another metaphor: I am creating a ziggurat of insight, circling around a central problem in a spiral, looking at it from different locations, increasing my understanding.

Four different patterns in my mind in three consecutive sentences on a single subject.

[1] The unconscious mind expresses patterns in other modes but those are beyond my ken and therefore beyond this essay.  My problem is to understand how the verbal pattern forming system operates and how much of that process is forever beyond our consciousness.

[2] I have a simple way of thinking about epigenetics: the lives of my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents affect to some small degree the expression of the genes that build my body and regulate my behavior.  This is not a Lamarckian ‘inheritance of acquired characteristics’ but something rather different.


Peter Ward wrote Lamarck’s Revenge: How Epigenetics Is Revolutionizing Our Evolution’s Past and Present (2018) ISBN 9781632866172 which presents a new and different view of evolution.  It is at least worthy of a read for information on epigenetics and how it modifies the expression of genes.