PRECONSCIOUS PROCESS, ESP, AND CREATIVITY
PSI FACTORS IN CREATIVITY
PROCEEDINGS OF AN INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE HELD AT LE PIOL, ST. PAUL DE VENCE, FRANCE JUNE 16-18, 1969
PARAPSYCHOLOGY FOUNDATION, INC. New York, N. Y.
It is a conviction of many people, and it has been held for a long time, that not a few creative or inventive acts are the products of a mental activity which for the most part is not under the control of the deliberate will, and which takes place particularly in states of diminished or altered consciousness, such as hypnosis, somnambulism, trance, or, more simply, sleep. It is usual to quote, in connection with this, some famous examples of presumed dreams, in which the creative product, the invention or the discovery, presented itself to the sleepers’ respective consciousnesses in precise and convincing ways, with results which went to enrich the heritages of art, science or knowledge of humanity. The degree of “truthworthiness” of the cases in question varies considerably, but to reject them “en masse” would be unjustified, the more so because, as we shall see shortly, the possibility of “creativity” at a deep and non-conscious psychic level has been by now widely demonstrated in modern dynamic psychology; and also because the experimental studies on dreams, carried out in recent years, have indicated that even a normal dream is a far less passive and a far more “elaborative” experience than was once thought.
I shall mention briefly a few of the famous cases. Perhaps the best known, but also the most legendary, is that of the composer Tartini, who, according to the story, dreamt that the Devil himself executed before him the extraordinary composition which the musician later transcribed, when awake, and which in fact goes under the name of ‘The Devil’s Trill.” Undoubtedly the case of the famous naturalist Agassiz is more reliable. The latter had tried in vain for two weeks to detect the outline and the structure of a fossil fish enclosed in its matrix of stone. On two occasions, in dreams, he had the impression of having seen with great clarity what he was looking for, but he was not able to “recover,” once awake, what he had dreamed. After a third dream of the same sort, the naturalist got up during the night and, still sleepy, drew on a piece of paper what he had seemed to see. When he was fully awake the drawing which he had made did not seem to him to be true to life. However he decided to pass on in any case to the execution along the lines of the drawing, and to his great surprise he found that the reality corresponded perfectly to his sketch. It is widely known that Kekulé resolved the chemical problem of the benzene molecule when, in a sort of drowsiness brought on by tiredness, or perhaps by alcohol, he saw a snake which was eating its own tail, and “invented” the benzene ring. The chemist Otto Loewi, who won the Nobel prize in his field, related that he had perceived suddenly during the night the design of an experiment to control the heartbeat of a frog. He jotted down some notes, but when he woke he was not able to read what he had written. The following night, at about three, the method appeared to him once more in all its details. He lost no time but went immediately to his laboratory, and began the experiment, which turned out to be conclusive.
Other examples could be cited: from that of the Assyriologist Hilprecht who dreamed of an ancient priest who revealed to him the true nature of two fragments of an agate jewel and the way in which they were originally joined together, to the very famous one of Coleridge,1 to whom, as is well known and on his own testimony, was “given” in dream, what has come down to us of his poem Kubla Khan. In any case these cases seem sufficiently indicative.
The phenomena which we have examined up to now, and the relative processes, differentiate themselves in a sufficiently obvious way from those proper in general to the more usual creative activity. However, as we shall see better shortly, the differences are less noticeable and important than they might seem. Let us limit ourselves for the moment to examining a little more closely the cases of the type of Tartini, Agassiz, or Coleridge. Many terms have been employed in specialized literature to define them. “Subliminal” activity has been spoken of, “automatism,” phenomena analogous to those of the ancient “incubation,” such as the ancients could have experienced in the temples of Delphi or of Epidaurus. From the psychoanalytical point of view we should say without any doubt that in the phenomena in question there is revealed a conspicuous unconscious psychic activity. However, it has been justly observed that, both in a descriptive sense and from a systematic point of view, the unconscious, as it is defined in psychoanalysis, is rather more comparable to a great reservoir of energies, in which the psychic charges fluctuate freely, not linking themselves to any precise representation, and far less to verbal expressions, so that it appears difficult to call into court this unconscious to explain for us the discovery of the benzene ring, or the marvelous verses of Kubla Khan. We are faced with an activity which is in a great part unconscious, but evidently this is an unconscious activity capable of organizing, elaborating, and, as we have seen, creating. It is therefore very probable that the cases considered up to now, although exceptional, belong to the psychology of what in psychoanalytical terms is called the “preconscious.” Let us try to see immediately whether this definition is justified.
The psychoanalytical consideration of preconscious phenomena has been deeply influenced by the fact that Freud only exceptionally paid attention in his writings to the properly re-elaborative and creative possibilities of the preconscious. In the classical Freudian formulations the preconscious processes, from the descriptive point of view, are simply unconscious, while in a systematic sense they differentiate themselves clearly from the processes of the unconscious system, both because they can, under certain conditions and with relative ease, emerge into consciousness and because in them the representations of things are already linked with the corresponding verbal representations, which means that in the preconscious system the “psychic charge” or cathexis (that which Freud calls the Besetzung) has become fixed and is no longer fluctuating as it was in the unconscious system.
We have said that Freud only occasionally seems to have conceived the preconscious as the source or forge of creative processes. However the expressions used by him when he wrote the Introduction to the 1921 edition of the work of the Belgian psychologist Varendonck, entitled The Psychology of Waking Dreams 2 are not equivocal. In contrast to Varendonck, who did not distinguish between preconscious and conscious mental processes, Freud proposes that fantastic thought which wanders freely should be distinguished, in day-dreams and in the sequences of thought studied by Varendonck, from directed and intentional reflection, and he writes that it is known “that rigorously directed reflection too can be achieved without the cooperation of consciousness,” which seems to allude precisely to the elaborative and creative possibilities of a descriptively unconscious, but in a systematic sense preconscious, area of the psyche.
In the last formulation of Freud on the subject, the emphasis moves even more in the sense indicated, when he writes in the Summary of Psycho-analysis (1939): “That part of the Ego which involves in the first place the intellectual processes has the quality of being preconscious.”
And it is indubitably to the above-mentioned characteristics of preconscious processes that various non-psychoanalytical authors wish to refer when they bring into evidence actions and functions of the cre ative process which are not conscious. However, in these authors there is generally lacking the “metapsychological” distinction indicated by Freud, so that in certain passages in their writings there appears no little confusion between impulses and movements of what is really the unconscious, correctly speaking, or of that which Freud calls the id and the truly operative work of the preconscious. So for example Ghiselin in his long introductory study to the anthology entitled The Creative Process, does not seem to have made clear the distinction between preverbal experiences (typical of the unconscious system) and verbalizations, also automatic or semi-automatic ones which are instead typical of those mental processes which occur already at a preconscious level. The same author, however, speaks abundantly of creative experiences which “begin typically with a vague, even confused excitement, some sort of yearning, hunch, or other preverbal intimation of approaching or potential resolution.” Stephen Spender expresses himself very effectively when he speaks of “a dim cloud of an idea which I feel must be condensed into a shower of words.” Not a few authors speak of “oceanic consciousness” or of creative experiences which assume an almost religious tinge. The complexity of preconscious re-elaboration, and the prompt emergence of its results into the conscious, are well indicated by the mathematician Jacques Hadamard who writes: “On being very abruptly awakened by an external noise, a solution long searched for appeared to me at once without the slightest instant of reflection on my part.” Many authors have, as is known, also underlined the fact that a large part of what they had produced was due to an entirely spontaneous and involuntary, that is to say, automatic, mental activity. Among these it is sufficient to name Blake, Shelley, Henry James, and Spencer. Very rightly Ghiselin brings into evidence the fact that this automatic functioning of invention and creation, “is, rather than an inferior or suspect substitute (or an exalted one), an extension of activity beyond the limited scope of that which is shaped by insight, the conscious activity.” And again: “The state of so-called trance so often mentioned as characteristic of the creative process or of stages in it differs markedly from ordinary trance or hypnosis, in its collectedness, its autonomy, its extreme watchfulness. And it seems never to be directly induced. It appears rather to be generated indirectly, to subsist as the characteristic of a consciousness partly unfocused, attention diverted from the too assertive contours of any particular scheme and dispersed upon an object without complete schematic representation.” It would be difficult to describe better the particular creative aspect proper to the preconscious processes.
If one leaves aside the terminological differences, certain conceptions of the American psychologist Morton Prince are, as far as this problem is concerned, particularly efficacious. We refer above all to the distinction which he makes between “sub-conscious” and “coconscious” processes, in his main work The Unconscious. For example he examines several “creative” writings obtained automatically, and concludes that “all happened as if there was a deeper underlying process which did the composing and from this process certain thoughts without logical order emerged to form a subconscious stream and after the composing was done the words of the verse emerged as co-conscious images as they were to be written. This underlying process, then, ‘automatically’ did the writing and the composing.” At a certain moment of the process, continues Morton Prince, “this same process expresses the same ideas in verbal symbolism as a substitution for the hallucinatory symbolism.” The conclusions of Morton Prince are very precise: apropos of a poem conceived during an oneiric type of “vision” he writes: “Underlying the dream, vision, and script was a subconscious process in which the fundamental factors were the same.”
Some time ago I was struck by an idea expressed by Arthur Koestler in his work The Act of Creation.8 According to Koestler the flowing together of various “matrices,” or shall we say the fusion of a series of ideas originally independent, is essential to the creative idea. It is clear that Koestler emphasizes above all the synthesis in the creative process, while the discriminative function of the preconscious process seems to escape him; the latter must of necessity make distinctions, analyze, divide, eliminate the superfluous, to be able then to come to synthetic elaboration. Equally interesting is what Ulrich Neisser proposes in an article entitled The Multiplicity of Thought, which appeared some years ago in an English psychological periodical. Neisser suggests a distinction between two types of mental activity: a “successive elaboration” proper to conscious processes, and a “simultaneous elaboration” which accompanies the above-mentioned process with a richly orchestrated polyphonic development, which by its own nature is infinitely more multiform, but also much less precise, than the intense concentration of logic. In psychoanalytical terms one could say that the first type of elaboration corresponds to the conscious processes, while the latter corresponds in a large part to the uninterrupted flux of the unconscious. But it is clear that a filter operates at the level of the preconscious which normally is precisely what permits the mental images to unroll on the screen of consciousness in a “successive” fashion, while in certain cases it mixes them actively and re-elaborates them so that in the end a product arrives at the conscious which is often creative, and which sometimes appears there as a completed and ne varietur something, as a “final product.”
It seems evident that in the same way as the dream or the joke, the preconscious elaboration which presides over the properly creative processes can occur either “moving from above” or “moving from below.” We well know the formula that was used by Freud to describe the formation of a joke: a preconscious idea becomes exposed for a moment to the influence of the unconscious and in the end appears to consciousness. This happens also in dreams in which a mental image is associated with the primary psychic process (of the unconscious), is then subjected to the dream-work, then to some preconscious elaboration, and finally appears to consciousness from “manifest content.” The “stimulus” in either case may come “from above” or “from below.” In the case of the joke a chance word may be at the origin of the process, but this may also have its origin in a completely autogenous elaboration which begins in the unconscious. As far as dreams are concerned, everyone knows that Freud distinguishes between “dreams from above,” which clearly originate in some impression from waking life, and “dreams from below” which are often part of a rather deep experience of the dreamer that comes about even though he has not been through any particular experience or been subjected to specific perceptive stimuli on the conscious level during the day or days before.
It is interesting to note how the psychoanalyst Ernst Kris, who has dedicated particular attention and long studies to the functioning of the mental apparatus at the preconscious level, although without ever having occupied himself with parapsychology (as far as I know), has glimpsed some points of contact between the processes of which we speak (the proper activity of the systematic unconscious, the preconscious elaborations) and a certain traditional phenomenology which has undoubtedly something to do with the subject with which parapsychology is occupied. Inspirational states, he writes, “appear mainly in the religious sphere, which includes almost all productive mental activities. The inspired persons are mainly priests, medicine men, or prophets. At a later stage-if we can speak of evolution where such uncertainty still prevails-the poet and, in exceptional cases, men of action join them.” And further: “In states of inspiration speech becomes automatic. It is not the subject who speaks but a voice from out of him …. It is the voice of his unconscious, he communicates it to others, and he himself becomes part of the public.” And again, “They are always prophecy or poetry of some kind. The vision of the future is, of course, largely based upon the interaction of wish and fantasy (the main contents of the unconscious) with the preconscious understanding of the needs and desires of the community. The essence of vaticination has in fact always been the unconscious connection between the prophet and the client, the forecast of the future being based upon the experience of the past. The poets of old were hardly distinguished from priests and prophets …. We are perhaps thus justified in saying that the inspired leadership of primitive society consists of individuals who are distinguished by, among other qualities which do not enter into the framework of our present deliberation, a certain disposition to communicate with the repressed wishes and fantasies in themselves by the use of special mechanisms . . . . The ‘voice of the unconscious’ is externalized and becomes the voice of God, who speaks through the mouth of the chosen …. We may therefore say that the conception of inspiration is connected with two emotional experiences. Though they are intimately interwoven with each other and may, therefore, not always be distinguished by the individual himself, they may be separated here for the sake of our presentation: in the concept of inspiration impulses, wishes and fantasies derived from the unconscious are attributed to a supernatural being and the process of their becoming conscious is experienced as an action of this being on the subject ….
It is clear from these words of Kris that for him the source of communication in words cannot be other than internal to the subject. But is it always so? We know that to this question parapsychological studies reply clearly, no. It will be useful however to look more closely now at what exactly happens when we consider the source of what will later be the subject’s elaborative processes as being, by hypothesis, outside him. To do this we will now try, as far as possible, to apply the criteria of psychoanalytical metapsychology used up to now, to the study and the interpretation of the most well-known phenomena of subjective parapsychology.
Psychoanalytical metapsychology of extrasensory processes is still not very advanced, despite the attention dedicated to it in the first place by Freud, then, following his example, by numerous investigators among whom I would like to name above all Hollós, Eisenbud, Ehrenwald, more recently Gaddini, and naturally the speaker. As early as 1925 Freud had stated that the phenomena of extrasensory perception “take place particularly in the moment in which an idea emerges from the unconscious, or, in theoretical terms, when it passes from the primary to the secondary process.” 12 Studying the phenomena of extrasensory perception (telepathic) which were verifiable in the course of the analytic situation, Hollós (1933) ‘ and the speaker (1934) 14 expressed the opinion that such phenomena in the analysis occurred above all when the contents of the analyst, similar or complementary to those of the analysand, found themselves subject to the beginning of a process of repression. But as Gaddini justly writes (1965), ,It is however difficult to understand how, based upon this opinion, the phenomena of extrasensory perception-which use, as following Freud we agree to admit, charges free from repression-can use them only when they find themselves in the midst of a new repression (in the direction from preconscious to unconscious), that is, when their dynamic force is, at least, reduced. What seems to count in a decisive fashion is not so much, in my opinion, what the analyst manages to repress again-an operation which tends in practice to circumscribe the mobilized contents and reduce the mobility of their charges-so much as what manages in some way to flee from such a process, and which probably represents a negligible minority compared to the material in which the operation works. It is however a question of a minority which is very active from the dynamic point of view, provided with a still mobile charge and with a strong impulse to emerge at conscious level.” 15
However, perhaps some authors have not sufficiently underlined the importance which is assumed by the investment and fixation of the verbal charge of the preconscious on those same psychic contents which are the object of extrasensory communication, in the metapsychology of psi phenomena. Without this unmistakable contribution, characteristic of preconscious processes, one could never ascribe to an extrasensory phenomenon, any disposition for communication, messages, or information. If in telepathic contact the original charges which mobilize the contents held in common remain, as do the latter, in the unconscious, it is however true that to be able to emerge into the conscious and assume an extrasensory meaning, those same contents must be expressible in images, if not indeed in words. That is to say that they must be previously “fixed” at preconscious levels and “invested” with the no longer fluctuating charges of the preconscious system.
There is nobody who does not see, at this point, how much the metapsychology of extrasensory phenomena resembles that of creative processes. Naturally the metapsychology of extrasensory phenomena presupposes an “open” conception, according to Ehrenwald’s scheme, of the mental apparatus, as against the “closed” representation of the latter as it is presented to us by classical psychoanalysis and to which, as we have seen, Kris scrupulously adheres in his none the less very acute analysis of the creative processes. If this is admitted, it is possible to overcome without too much difficulty a by no means minor obstacle which constantly interferes in the investigations of strictly orthodox analysts, when they find themselves faced with creative phenomena of the sort that have been mentioned in the first part of this work. An analyst who refuses a priori the possibility of extrasensory perception, cannot but feel embarrassed both when confronted with the more clamorous specific cases of this sort (Tartini, Agassiz, Kekulé, etc.) and, to an even greater extent, when he is confronted with the appearance of many creative phenomena in a clothing analogous to that of prophetic inspiration, seers’ trances, and so on. I have noticed that many psychoanalysts prefer not to think too much about cases and phenomena of this sort, and that they keep defensively to a clear line of demarcation, so that creativity, poetry, prophecy are one thing, while phantasy, dream, jokes, or the neurotic symptom are quite another. Acting like this, however, one has to bow down somewhat too soon before not a few enigmas of the creative process, which perhaps would seem less enigmatic if one began to think that, after all, the idea of the poet or creator who is inspired also by forces and stimuli external to him is not as foolish and anti-scientific as has for some time been thought! Note that not a few prophecies were written in verse or poetic prose (for example, those of Nostradamus) and that in modern times some surrealist writers (particularly Breton) showed themselves convinced that precognitive, or in any case extrasensory, elements were contained in their poetic products. Gerrit Lansing writes in Jungian terms that “In the creation of poetry, when the ego is often subjected to a profound introversion, and a new psychic situation is constellated whereby normal consciousness is dimmed, the libido is fascinated by, and sometimes, to its peril, nearly identified with, archetypal contents arising from the deep layers of the unconscious.” ‘ In turn Jung writes: “as Rhine’s ESP (extrasensory perception) experiments show, any intense emotional interest or fascination is accompanied by phenomena which can only be explained by a psychic relativity of time, space and causality. Since the archetypes usually have a certain numinosity, they can arouse just that fascination which is accompanied by synchronistic phenomena.” 18 Emerson expresses himself equally, if not more effectively, in his essay The Poet when he writes: “It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself), by abandonment to the nature of things; that beside his privacy of power as an intellectual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw, by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors, and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him; then he is caught up into the life of the Universe, his speech is thunder, his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals. The poet knows that he speaks adequately then only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or ‘with the flower of the mind’; not with the intellect used as an organ, but with the intellect released from all service and suffered to take its direction from its celestial life… “.
Much could still be said about the points of connection between ESP processes and creativity and about the important “common ground” of the preconscious, under which sign they seem to come together and find each other again. We would like to mention the possibility of the existence of features common to the creative personality and to that in which the “psi dimension” appears particularly active. While most of the time these latter personalities (mediums, sensitives, etc.) give quite convincing proofs of their possibilities of elaborating and expressing data gathered in an extrasensory way, in the large majority of cases, however, it is not a question of people who can be really judged as poets, artists, or creators in some way. A Mrs. Piper, a Mrs. Osborne Leonard, can be quoted as typical examples in this respect. But of other subjects it can be said instead with certainty that, besides having demonstrated a capacity for extrasensory “receiving,” they have also manifested their re-elaborative capacities in a truly artistic sense. It is sufficient in parapsychological literature to quote the mediumistic novels of Patience Worth (Mrs. Curran), those of Geraldine Cummins, and not a few of the writings of Mrs. Garrett-not to speak of the by no means small number of artists in the field of design and painting in whose work evident traces of extrasensory perceptions have been found (perhaps the best known case in this field is that’ of the Frenchman Lesage). On the other hand, as has already been widely indicated, it has been supposed with some reason that also among the most famous poets and artists, some had in their work drawn not only on their “personal reserves” but, as Emerson hints, on a vaster reservoir of knowledge, or that they were in some way in extrasensory contact with persons or things. In this connection the names of Dante, William Blake, Rimbaud, Yeats, come at once to mind. It seems therefore that we are in the presence of a wide “spectrum” in which either the extrasensory or the creative portion appears prominent according to the case. It occurs to one that it is really possible to go from a minimum to a maximum of “presence” of either of the elements, but that perhaps in no case is one of the two elements of such a global “spectrum” entirely absent. We maintain that psychological, psychoanalytical, and parapsychological research would profit considerably from a systematic research on the two major types of personality indicated a moment ago, a research directed towards the end of certifying, as mentioned, up to what point it can be said-no longer merely conjecturally, but backed by scientifically based evidence-that the personalities in question can in some way be placed together.
For a long time both the matrices of the creative processes and the deep channels of extrasensory communication have appeared to us as nocturnal panoramas, similar or intersecting, whose existence we guessed without, however, being able to verify or describe them in any way. But this darkness which covers all the objects which fall within our scientific interests is gradually clearing away so that we would like to conclude, with André Breton, that: “their night, pierced originally by a single phosphorescent point that only an experienced eye could see, has given place to a day that we know will end by being total.”