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.