Terra Incognita: My Unconscious Mind


Terra Incognita

I discovered my unconscious mind in 1972.  It happened like this:

I was working swing shift maintaining traffic signal systems for a large municipality.  On the weekends I could lollygag in bed in the morning.  There was no particular need to get up but I would occasionally chide myself with “get up, you lazy bum” before turning over and closing my eyes again.  Finally, I’d say to myself “OK, ok, I’m getting up” and the morning routine would be set into motion.  Now and then I noticed that the order of events was reversed.  I would be half way out of bed before the words “I’m getting up” would pass through my conscious mind.  My body was in motion before I knew what I was doing.  I estimated the delay between the beginning of motion and the first words in my mind at about ¼ -1/2 second.

The output of the decision process occurs in two forms: coordinated commands to muscles to move in a specific pattern and the flow of words representing the effect of those movements through my conscious mind.  The time delay between these outputs suggests the possibility that the decision was made in the unconscious mind and not reported directly to the conscious mind, but was derived from muscle movement.  “I” cannot know that I am getting up until my body has moved through a distance sufficient for the kinesthetic detection system (proprioception) to match the pattern of motion to the pattern of words ‘I am getting up.’  This knowledge is transferred to my conscious mind in the phrase “I’m getting up.”  This process takes time.

From this delay I made a set of conclusions.  First, the decision to get up was made in an inaccessible area of my mind, the unconscious.  Second, my conscious mind did not initiate or participate in the decision.  It is reporting the results of decisions made in the unconscious.  I developed the phrase “the reportorial mind” or reportorial ‘I’ to express this concept.   Third, the ego, the ‘I’, appears to reside in those words passing through my mind.  Fourth, only parts of the unconscious processes are reported to the conscious mind.  Most neuro/mental activities are inaccessible.

The simple observation of a time lag between an action and knowledge of the action probably upsets millennia of speculation about the “I”.[1]  The precious vaunted ego is not always in control and may not know what is going on, and such knowledge as it has is fragmentary and derivative.  “I” cannot fully understand myself.  The conscious mind, the reportorial “I” is supervenient upon a much older system, the real, the true “I” which stubbornly remains beyond consciousness and beyond words. 

I began this essay with “I discovered my unconscious mind” and ended with “the real, the true “I” which stubbornly remains beyond consciousness”.  An interesting, even astonishing mental narrative arc, I began with a conscious “I” finding the unconscious, that reservoir of emotions, drives and instincts, as if the “I” was the active agent and ended by inverting the centrality of the “two minds.” The “I” is now merely an observer and the unconscious is the real “I.”


I walk, a lot.  During the years I was working on my mechanical engineering projects on Sundays and Wednesdays I would go by the local used book store to peruse their newly shelved books.  When these projects were complete and I began working on this series of essays I no longer visited the book store regularly and it became necessary to make a decision: shall I go to the bookstore today?

Yes and no were about equally weighted so as I walked my conscious mind was fully occupied with debating the decision.  Several times I observed that while my mind was busy my feet made the turn to the bookstore.  The conscious ‘I’ was unaware of the decision until I was on that path and I had told myself “I am going to the bookstore today.”  My unconscious mind had made the decision, issued the appropriate muscular commands and didn’t even bother to tell the conscious mind.  The “I” learned of the decision almost by accident after I had made the turn.  The ego, the “I”, the self is not in control, does not always know what is going on, does not make the decisions.

Many decisions are made and actions taken without the participation of the conscious mind.  Other decisions are made while the conscious mind is debating the decision.  Some decisions are “discovered” by or reported by the conscious mind after the decision is made.  Some decisions are made, unmade, and remade with or without the participation or knowledge of the conscious mind.  This is a very complex process and my thoughts on it are incomplete.

I have explicitly abandoned the idea that the conscious mind and “I” made decisions and replaced it with the idea that the ‘I’ may have consciousness of the decision process but it is not that process and does not have control – it only observes.  It is an observer of some areas, functions or systems of the mind: this is the reportorial “I”.


Central to the old concept of the conscious mind is the ego, the ‘I’, the self.  Even to the point of thinking of the conscious mind as a homunculus[2] residing at the center of the brain thinking, understanding, explaining, controlling, or watching.  I, I, I – the center of my mental life.

Yet I somehow arrived at the conclusion that the “I”, the ego, is little more than a useful mental construct.  I observed that decisions were made without participation of the “I”, and were not directly reported to the “I” but obtained by observing the motion of the body.  Only some decisions and actions are reported in words to or in the conscious mind. This is the unconscious mind.  Are there then two separate minds?  There is only one mind: the “I” is an observer of some processes that takes place within that mind.

I have turned the old model of the human mind upside down.  My goal is to decouple the conscious mind from the ego, and words from motivating, thinking and deciding.  I will in this set of essays explore this new model of the structure of my mind insofar as I can observe it at work.

[1] I’ve probably upset millennia of speculation on ‘free will’ also and the world will be a better place upon the abandonment of that specious concept.  But that statement does not imply that I have replaced free will with physical determinism.  I am intrigued by the concept of emergence, or emergent behavior.  The properties and behaviors of complex biological systems are not determined by the properties and behavior of their constituent elements.  New and unpredicted properties and behaviors emerge during the functioning of the systems.

[2] Or a soul, a separable incorporeal component surviving the body and carrying with it the ‘I’ thereby cheating death of its final victory.

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