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This paper (here complete with choreographic instructions) was first presented at the tri-annual Congress of the International Society of Hypnosis in Munich in October 2000. The present version was presented to the 12th of European Skeptics Congress in Brussels on October 13, 2005.


Ladies and gentlemen. Let's wave goodbye to the unconscious mind.

Please. (Lecturer waves hand)

(Lecturer stops waving hand). No. before we do this, let us consider the problems and misunderstandings that arise when we nominalise and reify certain activities.

That is we use nouns rather than verbs to talk about things that we do.

What is this? (Lecturer waves hand again)

This is a wave.

I'm having a wave.

It's a silly wave.

This wave is annoying me.

I wish this wave would go away.

(Lecturer stops waving hand) It's gone, thank goodness. Now let's get on with the talk.

This presentation concerns the problems of using nouns rather than verbs when referring to certain activities.

When we do so, we are sometimes inclined to ask the wrong questions.

Incidentally, I wonder where that wave went.

Where is it now?

Is it in my arm?

Is it stored somewhere?

This presentation concerns the problems and misunderstandings that arise when we nominalise and reify activities. We thereby create entities.....

(Lecturer waves hand again) Oh dear!

The wave has come back.

Where has it come back from?

Where was it before?

Where was it stored?

Is this the same wave as the previous wave?

Is it?

I am going to try to repress this wave. (Lecturer forces arm down)

There! It's gone!

I'm suffering from a repressed wave.

This presentation is about the problems of using nouns rather than verbs when referring to things that we do.

(Lecturer looks thoughtful) Oh dear!

What is this?

This is a memory.

I'm having a memory.

It's a silly memory.

This memory is annoying me.

I wish this memory would go away.

It's gone! Thank goodness. Now let's get on with the talk.

By using nouns rather than verbs when referring to certain activities we are sometimes misled into to ask the wrong sorts of questions.....

Incidentally, I wonder where that memory went.

Where is it now?

Is it in my head?

Is it stored somewhere?

Anyway, as I was saying this process of nominalization may lead us into asking the wrong sorts of questions....

(Lecturer looks thoughtful again) Oh dear! The memory has come back.

Where has it come back from?

Where was it before?

Was it stored somewhere?

Is it the same memory as the previous memory?

Is it?

I am going to try to repress this memory.

(Lecturer closes eyes for a moment) There! It's gone!

I'm suffering from a repressed memory.

What have we learned from all of this?

There are no such things as waves.

There are no such things as memories.

They do not exist as entities.

They are activities.

We do not have a wave - we wave.

We do not have a memory - we remember.

We do not have a thought - we think.

We do not have an image - we imagine.

We do not have a dream - we dream.

And when we stop waving, no wave exists somewhere.

When we stop remembering, no memory exists somewhere.

When we stop thinking, no thought exists somewhere.

And when we stop doing? We cease being.

Our being is in our doing.

I do, therefore I am.

But you might suppose that later today you may start to think about some of the ideas that I have been discussing. Surely you can only do this if there is some thing, some representation of this material - a memory - that exists in your mind and which you retrieve, when you decide to, as you would draw a file from a filing cabinet?

We can say that this is so 'only in a manner of speaking', but a more accurate and less misleading description, is to say that, as you are listening to me now biochemical changes are occurring in your brain that enable you, in the future, to engage in the activity of recalling this material.

But do not these observable neuronal properties constitute your memory of this information? Recall again the example of waving. An anatomist may perform a careful examination of a person's arm and hand. From its macro-and micro-anatomical properties he will conclude that indeed the arm is designed to wave. Put energy into it and it cannot fail to wave. But nowhere in the arm will the anatomist locate a wave.

Likewise, perhaps it will eventually be possible for neuroanatomists to examine a neuronal network and conclude from its structure, properties and location that, put energy into it and it cannot help but engage in recalling recent activities. But what the neuroanatomists will not find is a thought, a memory or an image.

Now, as I have said, there are no such things as memories. It follows that we cannot do anything to memories.

For example, we do not repress our memories and we do not have repressed memories.

Nor is there any such a thing as repression.

Now, you may say, 'Oh yes there is such a thing as repression. I saw it yesterday.'

And I might say, 'Oh no you didn't. You were mistaken. That wasn't repression you saw. That was something else'.

And we are guaranteed never to agree.

Consider therefore these quotations.

There is no controlled laboratory evidence supporting the concept of repression. (Holmes 1990, p 96)

Laboratory studies....have failed to demonstrate that individuals can 'repress' memories. Clinical studies....must start with the null hypothesis: namely, repression does not occur. (Pope & Hudson 1995, p 125)

After years of research into this issue I have yet to find even one convincing case of massive repression or massive dissociation. (Prendergast 1999, p 54)

Do you see what I mean?

Here is what happens when we reify an activity or process. Some thing called repression is hypothesised and for evermore no one will be able to agree if it exists or not.

And just like paranormal phenomena such as ghosts and flying saucers reported sightings of repression are destined never to go away.

What is the solution? Instead of posing an unanswerable question, 'Is there any such thing as repression?' or 'Does repression exist?' let's frame the question in its active form:

'In what ways can people exercise control over their conscious mental activities, for example, remembering?'

Clearly, there is still great scope for disagreement, but perhaps it is easier for us to work together when we express the question in this active way.

Indeed there is a research literature that addresses this question if people would take the trouble to look.

Now, we are supposed to have some thing called an unconscious mind.

So what is this thing we call the unconscious mind?

The classical notion of the unconscious is a kind of repository for repressed drives, impulses, fantasies and memories that are too threatening to be allowed conscious expression; that is they are associated with anxiety, guilt, shame, etc.

But, there is also a tradition of thinking of the unconscious as a resourceful, wise, knowledgeable part of the mind, capable of great feats of creativity, intuition and understanding (cf. Jung).

From the following quotations and other writings emerges what Freud himself called a kind of topographical model of unconscious phenomena.

Hartland (1971)

The conscious mind is the part of the mind which thinks, feels and acts in the present......The unconscious mind is a much greater part of the mind, and normally we are quite unaware of its existence. It is the seat of all our memories, all our past experiences, and indeed of all that we have ever learned. In this respect it resembles a large filing cabinet to which we can refer in order to refresh our memory whenever we need to do so. (p 13)

The power of suggestion is tremendously enhanced when it acts upon the unconscious rather than the conscious mind. (p 12)

So, the unconscious mind is the larger part of the human mind, the other, much smaller part being the conscious mind.

It receives communications from the person's conscious mind and from other individuals.

Yapko (1990)

Because of the dual nature of the human mind (i.e. conscious and unconscious) memories and details that may have been repressed or else simply escaped detection by the conscious mind may not have escaped the unconscious mind. (p 74)

Memories in the form of powerful learnings from the client's unconscious mind can be used skilfully to make available to the person the resources she requires to handle her life in the desired way. (p 84)

It communicates purposefully with the person's conscious mind and to other individuals.

It is a great storehouse of memories, learning and remarkable abilities.

Yapko (1990)

The unconscious mind is that part of the person that is a reservoir of all the experiences acquired throughout his lifetime........The unconscious mind is, in contrast to the conscious mind, not as a rigid, analytical, and, most importantly, limited. (p 107)

It processes information in a way different to the conscious mind.

Erickson, Rossi & Rossi (1979)

Erickson: 'Your unconscious knows how to protect you....Your unconscious mind knows what is right and what is good.' When you need protection, it will protect you. (p 296)

It protects the conscious mind: that is it acts intentionally to promote the well being and survival of the individual.

It is the agent of purposeful, adaptive behaviour

Kershaw (1990)

The healing trance is a state of focused attention in which unconscious minds meet and a more positive identity is storied by the therapist so that the patient experiences a change in belief, perspective and self-narrative. (p 148)

It ....Er....kind know.....

Are there any problems with all of this? Well, there is just one.

The unconscious mind does not exist, nor for that matter, does the conscious mind.

As William James said of the unconscious mind, 100 years ago:

The sovereign means for believing what one likes in psychology and of turning what might become a science into a tumbling ground for whimsies.

There is no such thing as the unconscious mind. There is a physical structure that performs a certain activity.

Here is a structure. My arm. Put energy into it and it waves. But nowhere is there some thing called a wave.

Here is a structure. My brain. Put energy into it and it perceives, it thinks, it imagines, it remembers. But nowhere are there some things called perceptions, thoughts, images or memories.

Neither is there any thing in there called the unconscious mind.

So whatever you do, don't trust your unconscious mind.

You haven't got one.

There is cognitive activity that is in a form that may never be consciously expressed. Much cognitive activity is in this form. For example, when we see words written down, such as:

Tony Blair

....we immediately identify them. Indeed, we cannot help doing this even if, for some reason, we do not want to know what the words are. The mental processes underlying reading occur (once we have learnt how to read) at an unconscious level.

This is true of many cognitive skills. Hence some psychologists speak figuratively of 'the cognitive unconscious'.

Also, much cognitive activity, such as recalling some event, is said to be 'preconscious': it can be consciously expressed but not until the situation is appropriate.

Sometimes the conscious activity is inhibited in some way and can be facilitated - e.g. by talking - free association. Consider a session of psychotherapy (or even the everyday experience of providing a willing ear to someone who is troubled). The person may start out by saying:

I love my wife - she's perfect.

After the person has been allowed to talk freely and openly, without censure or criticism he may finally say:

I feel angry about some of the things my wife does.

What is happening? It is not that we have a repressed feeling or thought that exists in some place called the unconscious mind. Thinking and remembering are activities; we do them. If activities cause us fear, anxiety, guilt, anger and so on we often avoid doing them; this avoidance can be habitual and we may not be fully aware that we are doing this.

So, as happens in much of psychotherapy - talking therapy and behaviour therapy - the therapist helps the person to confront the things that he or she is avoiding through anxiety and so on, and to be able to deal appropriately with them

Now, what is happening when we become stuck in problem solving?

This may be illustrated by the tip-of-the-tongue experience. Although we repeatedly try, we cannot recall a word, a person's name or a piece of music that is potentially in a form that can be clearly expressed at a conscious level.

Similar processes may underlie some instances of our failure to solve a problem with repeated conscious effort.

For example, consider this crossword clue


__ A __ G __ __

If we do not immediately see the answer, then an endless struggle may ensue, as we mentally go through all the names of flowers or fit likely letters in the missing slots to see if any floral connections are elicited.

What often happens in all of the above examples of problem solving is that we stop thinking of the problem and do something else. Later when we think of the problem again, amazingly, the answer might immediately come to mind.

Or perhaps a new way of looking at the problem that previously eluded us.

Some people may consider that the reason for this is that the unconscious mind continues to work on the problem once the conscious mind has 'given up'.

This can be a useful working model. Our advice to someone who is obsessively and needlessly churning over a problem may be, 'Put it out of your conscious mind and let your unconscious mind find the answer!'

Perhaps putting the communication in this terse, concrete form can be more effective than a lengthier, more abstract piece of advice.

Despite this, a more plausible explanation may be as follows.

Each time we attempt to find the answer, the cognitive routes that we are pursuing tend to become over-learned (as though the neural pathways are invested with excess energy).

This inhibits the activation of other possible routes to the answer.

The effect of stopping consciously thinking about the problem then allows the habit strength of the previous routes to weaken.

This gives more chance for competing routes to be consciously expressed. The word we are trying to recall immediately comes to us, alternative ways of looking at the problem immediately present themselves, and the answer to the problem may even appear to us.

So, for example, when we re-consider the above crossword clue after having set it aside for a while, another possible route to follow may become activated.


__ A __ G __ __

The second word of the clue, 'flower', may not refer to a plant at all; perhaps it is actually flow-er, something that flows.

And the answer is of course: GANGES


The twentieth century was the century of the unconscious mind. Humankind astonished itself with what it could achieve not only in terms of great accomplishments of science and creativity, but also in terms of great evil and wickedness.

To explain this by reference to an entity such as the unconscious mind is to perpetuate the mystery, to create a kind of religion, and to render our questions unanswerable.

The unconscious mind is like one of those old and trusted colleagues, who has always been around as long as anybody can remember, ready to do whatever we want him to do.

But now his time has come to enter the retirement home.

And we say to each other, 'How will we manage without him?'

The answer is we will manage very well.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, let us give a loud cheer, throw our hats in the air and wave goodbye to the unconscious mind.

But if you don't believe what I tell you, then I think you must be....