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Highly creative individuals throughout history have understood this, and pinpointed the unconscious as the source of creative breakthroughs which led to personal transformations, as well as great inventions in art, science, and business.
“It is a highly significant, though generally neglected, fact that those creations of the human mind which have borne preeminently the stamp of originality and greatness, have not come from within the region of consciousness. They have come from beyond consciousness, knocking at its door for admittance: they have flowed into it…often with a burst of overwhelming power.” (George Tyrrell)
The role of the unconscious in creative breakthroughs is minimized in our society. The majority of individuals are not only unaware that the unconscious is a fertile breeding ground for transformational breakthroughs, but also believe creative breakthroughs to be limited to a select subset of “geniuses” – born with higher talents and capacities than the rest of us.
But what if this belief is wrong? What if the capacity to achieve genuine transformational insights isn’t reserved for geniuses, but is a learned skill, available to all?
The Discovery of the Unconscious: Sigmund Freud vs. Frederick Myers
While the discovery of the unconscious has a long and winding history, it is generally accepted that Sigmund Freud is responsible for making the existence of the unconscious common knowledge.
Freud was interested in studying the unconscious to discover the roots of psychopathology. Through his investigations, he concluded the unconscious to be a warehouse of repressed memories and experiences, which wreck havoc in life and are responsible for the development of neuroses.
Freud, in short, emphasized the negative role of the unconscious – its role in inhibiting the individual from self-realization and the actualization of their potential.
Frederick Myers took an opposite position to Freud. He believed the unconscious to be a rich source of inspiration, meaning, and creativity, which if tapped into, can lead one in the direction of great realizations.
Because Freud’s ideas have been more influential in our society than the ideas of Myers, the idea of the unconscious as a dark and frightening realm still influences the perception many people have of their unconscious mind.
But this perception is wrong. As highly creative individuals in the past have realized, when it comes to great works of literature, art, and science, it is the unconscious mind which is the source of creativity.
The Unconscious and Creative Breakthroughs
The great fiction writer George Eliot said that in all of her best writings, something that was “not herself” took possession of her; that the words she wrote felt as if they came from this “other personality”.
The poet John Keats wrote that sections of his famous work, Hyperion, came to him “by chance or magic – to be, as it were, something given to me.” He added that he had not been “aware of the beauty of some thought or expression until after I’d composed and written it down.”
The German polymath Goethe wrote of his famous novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, “I wrote the book almost unconsciously, like a somnabulist, and was amazed when I realized what I had done.”
William Blake, the famous English poet and painter, said of his work Milton, “I have written this poem from immediate dictation, twelve or sometimes twenty or thirty lines at a time, without premeditation, and even against my will.”
Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, wrote about the existence of little helpers from his unconscious, “who do one half my work while I am fast asleep, and in all human likelihood, do the rest for me as well, when I am wide awake and fondly suppose I do it for myself.”
Dreams and Creative Breakthroughs
The idea that the unconscious is the source of creative insights explains who so many inspirations come in dreams. In the dream-state, when our consciousness is “off-line”, the unconscious is allowed to speak to us directly (in the form of imagery, intuition, and emotion), without the limiting constraints imposed by the conscious mind.
The physicist Niels Bohr had a dream of a planetary system which allowed him to conceive of the “Bohr model” of atomic structure, and led to the Noble prize.
Sir Frederick Grant Banting’s procedure to mass produce insulin came to him in a dream.
The physiologist Otto Loewi had a hunch early in his career that the nerve impulse, the basic component of all nervous systems, is both a chemical and electrical event. The experimental procedure which allowed him to prove this hunch came to him in a dream. As he wrote:
“The night before Easter Sunday of  I awoke, turned on the light and jotted down a few notes on a tiny slip of thin paper. Then I fell asleep again. It occurred to me at 6.00 o’clock in the morning that during the night I had written down something important, but I was unable to decipher the scrawl. The next night, at 3.00 o’clock, the idea returned. It was the design of an experiment to determine whether or not the hypothesis of chemical transmission that I had uttered 17 years ago was correct. I got up immediately, went to the laboratory, and performed a simple experiment on a frog heart according to the nocturnal design….Its results became the foundation of the theory of chemical transmission of the nervous impulse.”
Friedrich August Kekulé, an organic chemist, discovered the cyclic structure of benzene in a dream in
which he saw a snake eating its own tail. Describing his dream, he wrote:
“But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by the flash of lightning I awoke….Let us learn to dream, gentlemen.”
The Unconscious: Fertile with Potential and the Source for Higher Creativity
It is curious this information is not readily acknowledged in our society; and that we are never taught how to tap into this vast storehouse of creative potential.
Learning How to Stimulate Creative Breakthroughs
Graham Wallas, an English social psychologist and London School of Economics co-founder, wrote The Art of Thought, in which he outlined 4 stages necessary to activate the unconscious and prime it to release insights on problems in our life.
These 4 steps can be followed in any area of your life which require creative solutions: be it in your personal life, relationships, professional career, or in your creative work.
During the preparation stage investigate the problem you are dealing with from all sides. Consider every angle, and obtain as much information as you can about it.
During this time it is essential to cultivate a burning desire to solve the problem. This will signal to your unconscious that the problem is urgent, and must be dealt with right away.
After spending sufficient time in the preparation stage (when you’re close to exhaustion), take some time away from the problem. Spend some time resting, and try not to think about the work or problem you’re dealing with.
This period of rest will free up energy for your unconscious to go to work – sifting, sorting, and merging the ideas fed to it in the preparation stage.
At some point, as you alternate between periods of intense work and rest, an illumination will spontaneously emerge from your unconscious. Whether in a dream, in the shower, during a midday walk, or any other innocuous time, a solution to the problem you were working on will appear to you, clear as the light of day.
Often the solution will appear as so simple and obvious, you will be amazed you hadn’t thought of it before.
The final stage is to verify the solution provided by your unconscious. This step is not always necessary. Sometimes the solution can be so clear that there is no need to check its validity.
Creativity and Self-Actualization
Many people think that only those who partake in science or art can be creative. This is a mistake. You can be creative in any area of your life – in parenting, sports, relationships, your profession, or personal development.
“… if you have nothing at all to create, then perhaps you create yourself.” (Carl Jung)
Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, two prominent psychologists of the 20th century, believed creativity to be one of the higher capacities of human beings, and thought that to nourish one’s creativeness was simultaneously to move in the direction of one’s higher self.
According to this view, being creative isn’t a luxury, but a necessity for all who strive after individuation and self-actualization.
“My feeling is that the concept of creativeness and the concept of the healthy, self-actualizing, fully human person seem to be coming closer and closer together, and may perhaps turn out to be the same thing.” (Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature)
“the mainspring of creativity appears to be… man’s tendency to actualize himself, to become his potentialities.” (Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person)
I highly recommend the book Higher Creativity: Liberating the Unconscious for Breakthrough Insights. It will open your eyes to the potential lying dormant in your mind, and give you insight on how to tap into and use that potential for greater creativity and fulfillment in life.
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