Creativity and the Unconscious, Part II

While the Surrealists were not the first artists to draw on the unconscious for inspiration, they were the first artists in Western history to explicitly draw on psychoanalytic ideas in their art-making processes, turning directly to the unconscious for inspiration. In order to do so, they developed a wide array of techniques, including the cut-up, the “exquisite corpse”, and various forms of automatic drawing and writing.

Salvador Dali used to sit in a chair and allow his mind to wander while dangling a key from one hand. In this way he would enter the hypnogogic borderland between waking and dreaming. When he dozed off, the key would slip from his hand and clatter to the floor, waking him in time to capture the impressions he had gathered in this state and turn them into art.
Remarkably, Thomas Edison is supposed to have used the exact same technique, only with a ball bearing instead of a key.

Edison is not the only scientist who relied on intuition as well as logic in his work. In an anecdote that will be familiar to Jungians, chemist Friedrich August Kekulé also claimed to have hit upon the ring structure of benzene as the result of a dream of the ouroboros—the serpent eating its own tail.

Last week, I wrote about the relationship between creativity and the unconscious mind, exploring our creativity’s origins in our evolutionary heritage and its expression in our neurology and mental processes. In this post, I want to focus on practical ways we can engage with the unconscious in order to enhance our abilities to learn, to solve problems, and to create.

One key to drawing on the creative resources of the unconscious is to activate the diffuse mode of thinking, which works during resting states and utilizes the brain’s default mode network. But before you let your mind drift and your default mode network go to work, you have to prime the pump by focusing on the problem, question, or task at hand for a short period of time. Then, after a set period of work, or when you get stuck or frustrated, it’s time to take a break and let the unconscious take over. It is in this alternation between focused work and diffuse daydreaming that the magic of creativity flourishes.

Without further ado, here are five tried and tested ways to tap into the creative power of the unconscious:

  1. Doodle or free write. Don’t edit or censor yourself, just allow your pen to move without stopping and let whatever appears, appear.
  2. Go for a walk. Walking appears to be one of the most reliable ways to activate the default mode network, and some of the greatest writers in history have relied on long walks for inspiration. So far, it’s unclear whether walking in nature enhances creativity any more than pacing around your office, but it does have many other benefits, including lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol and strengthening the immune system.
  3. Play in the mud—or sand, or soil, or clay. When Jung found himself stuck in his research and writing after his break with Freud, he turned to an old childhood occupation: playing with sticks, stones, and mud by the lake. It was during these seemingly unproductive hours that some of the foundational ideas of analytical psychology came into being. Gardening is another excellent way of slipping into a more diffuse state of consciousness.
  4. Sleep on it—hey, it worked for Dali and Edison. James Hillman, the father of archetypal psychology, claimed that his frequent naps were one of the secrets to his creativity and prolific writing output. Studies also suggest that focusing on a problem or project before bed increases our likelihood of dreaming about it, and dreaming about it seems to facilitate memory, problem-solving, and creativity.
  5. Try Jung’s technique of active imagination. This is a way of intentionally engaging with fantasy: the simplest method is to clear your mind and see what images arise. Then you can engage with the images in your imagination, dialoguing with them or even journeying into their world. A caution: engaging with the unconscious in this way can be overwhelming, and I don’t recommend it unless you are working with a therapist who is experienced with the technique. For a practical guide to Active Imagination, check out Inner Work by Robert A. Johnson.


Some of the research in this blog post is drawn from A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley (2014), a valuable resource for anyone interested in learning and creativity.

Creativity and the Unconscious, Part I

The relationship between creativity and the unconscious is older than our theories about it. It predates not only such doctors of the unconscious as Freud and Jung, but also such philosophers of the imagination as Plato and Coleridge. It is older, in fact, than the oldest stone carvings and cave paintings, reaching far back into the depths of our animal heritage. After all, creatures as diverse as chimps and ravens fashion makeshift tools to solve the problems of survival in novel ways, and tiny insects like ants and bees build remarkably complex structures. From the perspective of depth psychology, all creativity has its origins in a vast, unfathomable current of unconscious biological and psychic processes that is as old as life itself, if not older.

Depth psychology sees human creativity as an extension of this age-old unfolding, and it can help us not only to understand the relationship between creativity and the unconscious, but also to harness it in ways that facilitate problem-solving, creativity, and personal growth.

Jung, who was a great artist as well as a great theorist (his paintings are in the Louvre), made a broad distinction between two kinds of art. One is based primarily on its author’s personal, conscious, autobiographical experiences, and its appeal consists in shaping those impressions into a form that appeals to others. The second kind of art, according to Jung, is visionary art, which draws primarily from the artist’s unconscious, and in some cases, from the collective unconscious common to all human beings. This kind of art is often uncanny and mysterious, and seems to defy both the expectations and the explanations of the conscious mind.

While this distinction is useful in understanding art and literature, it should not obscure the fact that the unconscious influences the creation of everything we make, from the most mundane commodities to the loftiest works of high art. Contemporary neuroscience confirms the crucial role of unconscious processes in creativity of all kinds.

According to our current understanding, there are two basic modes of thinking: focused and diffuse. Diffuse thinking, which occurs in resting states and uses the brain’s default mode network, helps us come up with creative solutions to problems, especially those that are outside the range of our conscious experience and understanding. In this way, new ideas come to us while we are not actively thinking about a problem at all, such as when we are walking, driving, washing the dishes, or even sleeping. The unconscious mind works while the conscious mind rests. This process is indispensable for any kind of learning or creative activity, whether in everyday life or in the arts and sciences.

Fantasy, Empathy, and the Other

In writing about the character Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, I commented on the way our unconscious fantasies drive our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and how, in our unconsciousness, we take our illusions for reality, sometimes with tragic results. After all, wasn’t it, at the very roots of the Western tragic tradition, only Oedipus’ unconsciousness that led him to kill his father and wed his mother?  But fantasies are not only destructive. In fact, they are the very lifeblood of the soul. Even in the case of Alexei Karenin, one might argue that his problem was really that he did not have enough fantasies—about his wife, for example.

He began thinking about her, about what she thought and felt. For the first time he vividly pictured to himself her personal life, her thoughts, her wishes, and the thought that she could and should have her own particular life seemed so frightening to him that he hastened to drive it away. It was that bottomless deep into which it was frightening to look. To put himself in thought and feeling into another being was a mental act alien to Alexei Alexandrovich. He regarded this mental act as harmful and dangerous fantasizing. (Tolstoy, 1877/2000, pp. 143-144)

The mental act of putting oneself, in thought and feeling, into another being has a name. It is called empathy, and this capacity is at least one of the things that make us human. People with little or no empathy for others are sometimes diagnosed as narcissists or sociopaths. In Karenin’s case, he has until now seen his wife as an accessory to his lifestyle, that is, as an object, and not as a subject with thoughts, feelings, desires, and needs. To recognize her as such is, for him, terrifying, because it means he can no longer maintain the fantasy that he is in control of this fundamental part of his life. The bridge is gone.

And yet, our fantasies of others are our only way of knowing them. In psychotherapy, the therapist’s empathic feeling-into the patient’s world has been called vicarious introspection (Kohut, 1959). The same vicarious introspection is operative in all authentic relationships. Indeed, it is the beginning of the spiritual virtues of compassion and love. A mother needs this capacity in order to understand the feelings and needs of her infant, and as we grow from infancy into adulthood, our capacity to relate to others in this way only deepens—if all goes well. This process can be interrupted in many ways: by trauma, neglect, or an unsympathetic culture. And so many of us ultimately find our way into psychotherapy in search of just that experience of being seen into, listened into, felt into, and understood. It is this experience, we sense, that Anna Karenina was missing in her relationship with her husband, and that lack ultimately led, in Tolstoy’s story, not only to her affair and separation, but ultimately to her tragic death.

Face to Face with Life

There is a moment in Tolstoy’s great novel, Anna Karenina, when the government minister Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin begins to confront the possibility that his wife, Anna, is in love with another man.

Alexei Alexandrovich stood face to face with life, confronting the possibility of his wife loving someone else besides him, and it was this that seemed so senseless and incomprehensible to him, because it was life itself. All his life Alexei Alexandrovich had lived and worked in spheres of service that dealt with reflections of life. And each time he had encountered life itself, he had drawn back from it. Now he experienced a feeling similar to what a man would feel who was calmly walking across a bridge over an abyss and suddenly saw that the bridge had been taken down and below him was the bottomless deep. This bottomless deep was life itself, the bridge the artificial life that Alexei Alexandrovich had lived. (Tolstoy, 1877/2000), pp. 142-143)

Who has not experienced that sinking feeling, that sudden vertigo? For some, like Karenin, it is the discovery of an affair. For others, it might be a divorce, a cancer diagnosis, the death of a loved one, or even a natural disaster. Inevitably, in such a moment, we discover that the things we took for granted and relied on were not so permanent or so stable after all.

Tolstoy describes Karenin as having drawn back from life itself each time he was confronted with it, preferring instead to deal with reflections of life. These reflections of life might take many forms. There are, for example, our concepts and opinions, derived from our family, our education, the government, and the media. We quote statistics from the newspapers and parrot the reasonable-sounding and politically correct opinions of television talk show hosts. On a more subtle level, even our ideas about ourselves and the people closest to us are abstractions at best, always one step removed from our direct experience of life. Most of the time, this works relatively well for us, and life proceeds smoothly, as we believe it should—until, as happened to Karenin, the bottom drops out, exposing our most unquestioned assumptions and cherished beliefs as fantasies.

Most of the time, we fail to recognize our fantasies as such. Karenin, for example, had up until this moment lived with the fantasy that it would be impossible for Anna to love anyone but him. Where did this fantasy come from? Perhaps he had imbibed it unconsciously from the culture in which he lived, the circles in which he moved, the books he read. This fantasy became one of the many beams making up the bridge that Tolstoy calls his artificial life.

One of the great benefits of psychotherapy, and of psychodynamic therapy in particular, is the gift of having one’s fantasies recognized as fantasies, and pointed out as such. One of the key insights of psychoanalysis is that our unconscious fantasies drive our behavior. But when we see our fantasies for what they are, we are freed from their invisible influence. We have a choice as to how to act, where before we had none. Of course it is frightening, and often painful, to recognize our assumptions about life as “such stuff as dreams are made on.” Self-knowledge requires courage, but without it, we might someday wake up to find we had spent our lives walking across bridges that were never really there.

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