The Conscious Use of the Subconscious Mind
By Robert R. Updegraff
NEARLY ALL of us have had the experience of riding on a train with no one to talk to, or of sitting through a concert or lecture to which we were not really listening, and having ideas tumble over themselves in our minds. This is the subconscious mind at work, taking advantage of the relaxed state of the conscious mind. It is capable of doing much of our best thinking and of helping us solve our most perplexing problems. It can bring to bear on all our affairs far more wisdom and experience than our conscious minds command.
There is, of course, a time for concentrated application to our problems. But there is also a time to stop and whittle and let the subconscious mind do its part of the work. For it is accomplishment that we are all after, not activity. Fehr, the French scientist, who made a study of the working habits of his contemporaries, said that 75 percent of the scientists stated that their important discoveries came to them when they were not actively engaged in research.
Most of us use our conscious minds entirely too hard and, as a result, our thinking and our decisions are not as good as they should be. The trouble is, we are working with only half our minds, and with less than half of our accumulated experience and judgment. As a consequence, we cheat ourselves of many hours of recreation which in themselves add to the effectiveness of our thinking. For relaxation is the key to the door of the subconscious mind, which work’s best when we are doing what we like best to do. A happy mind is a healthy mind and it puts drive back of a man’s activities. As Henry David Thoreau said, “A really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work.”
How then may we consciously plan to use the subconscious mind, to take advantage of its power to improve our judgments and decision, or to furnish us with bold new ideas or creative conceptions?
The process of thinking is asking to the process of cooking. Although direct heat is ordinarily used, many dishes are better brought to completion after long. Slow cooking by retained heat. The subconscious mind is a fireless cooker into which we can put our problems to finish the cooking on “retained thought.” To do all of our mental cooking with our conscious minds is to burn mental energy wastefully, and at high cost to our nervous systems.
One rule always holds good: you must give your problems to your subconscious mind in the form of definite assignments, after assembling all the essential facts, figures and arguments. The cooking process must first be started by focusing your mind on this material long and intently enough to get it thoroughly heated with your best conscious thinking.
To start this focusing process one method is to write on a sheet of paper the problem facing you, jotting down all important aspects. If there are pro and con sides, enumerate all the factors you can think of in two columns. Then tear up the sheet and forget all about it. Do something you want to do, something that will rest your mind.
Another way is to talk over the problem or situation with your associates exploring every angle in detail. Get right down to cases-but don’t attempt to come to a decision. End your discussion abruptly a and set the whole matter aside to “cook.” Still a third method is to work consciously on the problem until you are just plumb fagged out mentally. At that point put it entirely out of your mind. Go fishing, golfing or motoring, or to bed.
One night in October 1920. Frederick Grant Banting, a young Canadian surgeon with so little practice that he had to teach to eke out a living, was working over his next day’s lecture. His subject was diabetes. Hour after hour he pored over the literature of this dread disease, his head a whirling maze of conflicting theories, case histories, accounts of experiments with dogs. Finally he went wearily to bed. At two in the morning he got up, turned on a light and wrote three sentences in his notebook: “Tie off pancreatic duct of dogs. Wait 6 to 8 weeks for degeneration. Remove residue and extract.” Then he went back to bed and slept.
Those three magic sentences led to the discovery of insultin. Banting’s conscious mind had come to grips with one of the most baffling problems in medical science, is subconscious mind finished the ob. The fireless-cooking process may require only hours, as in Banting’s case, or it may require days or weeks. And it may be necessary consciously to turn the heat on again once in a while to keep the cooking process going. But nearly always the subconscious mind can be depended upon to finish the cooking, and frequently with greater speed than if we rely on conscious thought alone.
Furthermore, it usually turns out a better product because it brings to bear all of one’s accumulated life experience, including much that the conscious mind has long since forgotten. In an interview on his 75th birthday. Henry Ford referred to “instinct.” “What is instinct?” asked his interviewer. “Probably the essence of past experience and knowledge stored up for later use,” replied Ford. A man of my acquaintance has the habit of dropping into an easy chair in his office for 20 or 30 minutes each day, picking up a book and forgetting his business concerns.
“I have never sat in that chair” he told me “with any thought of developing an idea, but the minute my mind relaxes ideas begin to develop of themselves.”The renowned German physicist Von Helmholtz, said that after thoroughly investigating a problem “in all directions,” he found that “happy ideas come unexpectedly without effort, like an inspiration. But they have never come to me when my mind was fatigued or when I was at my working table.”
Thornton Wilder, author of the Pulitzer Prize play Our town, once confessed that his best story ideas come to him “on hikes and in the shower and places.” Anywhere it seems, other than at his desk!
Descartes, the famous French mathematician and philosopher is said to have made his great discoveries while lying in bed in the mornings. If you have not been consciously using your subconscious mind it may be a bit rusty, and you may have to make several tries before it will begin to function. Subconscious cerebration requires time, relaxation, a sense of leisure. Perhaps that is what the late Andrew Mellon had in mind when he said, “In leisure there is luck.”