A few years ago, I rented an apartment in Newport, Rhode Island, for a writing retreat on weekends. The tiny apartment had a huge provenance: It was the kitchen and servant’s quarters of two 19th-century celebrities: William and Henry James, who had lived in the main house with their family. Elder brother William James is considered to be the father of American psychology; younger Henry, the author of such novels as The Portrait of a Lady and Washington Square, is equally famous.
Although both men were teenagers when they lived there in the 1900s, I couldn’t help feeling intimidated by the thought of writing—about psychology, no less—in their former home. Intimidation purled the edges of my thoughts in the days leading up to my first weekend there, but I pushed through it by creating a detailed work schedule that surely would produce foolproof success on day one.
At the designated hour, I drove 110 miles, parked my car, entered the apartment, and began unloading my computer bag. A walk-in fireplace, unused for decades, dominated the main room. The current owners had painted its brickwork in the same dandelion-yellow hue as the walls. Despite the jarringly saturated result, the room still maintained a homey vibe.
When I settled before the wide firebox to write, I imagined it full of flames as the James brothers, and their siblings, sneaked over from the main house to negotiate forbidden treats from their cook. How charming, I thought. And how lucky for me to be writing in the same space that they had inhabited.
I looked from the empty fireplace to the blank computer screen and back. What was that quote my graduate professor had cited about the two men decades ago, in a course honoring the centennial publication of William’s Principles of Psychology? “Henry wrote novels like a psychologist, and William wrote psychology books like a novelist.” I would have settled for half of either equation.
The little room was silent as a tomb; my computer screen was equally wordless. In that quiet space, a Jamesian presence became all the more palpable. I imagined young Henry, hunched over the plain wooden table across from me, mumbling aloud the lines of an early travel sketch to test their cadence. I felt uneasy, as if I were attending a party that was out of my league.
And there was William to my right, musing about the fate of absent-minded persons going to their bedrooms to dress for dinner. It was all too much. Without warning, my body sprang from my chair, my hands clapped my laptop shut and zipped it back into its case. I gathered my belongings, locked the door, and got out of that torture cell without looking back. My legs carried me to my car, and before I knew it, I was driving the two-hour trip back home.
What I had experienced was an unconscious flare-up that had short-circuited conscious volition. The original Freudian explanation of such an action—that it might reflect forbidden thoughts of childhood repressed by the unconscious—has given way to more scientifically rigorous ideas about the nature of consciousness. Researchers have recently argued that the degree to which the unconscious system is integrated with consciousness in our everyday thoughts, emotions, and behaviors is more common than previously thought.1
In the preverbal, mostly sleeping world that infants inhabit, the unconscious system dominates. With very few neural circuits hard-wired at birth, the infant's brain allows adaptation to any type of environment, language, or culture. The unconscious system absorbs many important aspects of the surrounding environment; it tunes babies to specific speech sounds and behaviors, as well as salient characteristics of their caregivers, and whomever or whatever else the babies encounter in the environment. Evidence in support of this idea is found in studies showing that young babies learn even while they are sleeping.2
When children acquire language, they gradually switch to conscious modes of thinking; however, the unconscious doesn’t stop recording. It is as if there is a silent, observant part of us that tirelessly takes in co-variations of the environment, lasting throughout adulthood. On a cognitive level, this allows us to formulate categories of knowledge, such as the fact that the features “whiskers” and “claws” are more closely associated with cats than, say, birds. On an emotional level, the unconscious system allows us to associate characteristics in the environment that facilitate our well-being, such as “warm temperatures” and “bodily comfort.”
The unconscious system is also closely linked with the brain’s action system via the cerebellum, which is part of the evolutionarily-older hindbrain. The cerebellum plays a significant role in monitoring behavior and cognition and also extends to social behaviors.3 Perhaps as a way of putting ourselves and others at ease in new situations, we often unconsciously imitate the postures, facial expressions, and hand gestures of people we first meet. We even imitate people we haven’t met. Moviegoers will tend to mimic the facial expressions of emotions depicted by actors on screen, completely unaware that they are doing so.4
Negatively charged situations, such as my first writing attempt at the James residence, can sometimes lead to unconscious avoidance behaviors. Swiss physician Edouard Claparède—who had met William James—developed a famous demonstration of avoidance.5 Hiding a sharp pin in the palm of his hand one day, Claparède shook the hand of an amnesic patient, pricking the skin on her palm. Because she could not create new conscious long-term memories, the patient forgot the event in minutes.
Days later, Claparède attempted to shake the patient’s hand again, but this time she quickly withdrew her hand and refused. When questioned why, her conscious mind came up with several rationales—including “sometimes hands contain pins"—no doubt influenced by the unconscious memory. She had forgotten the episode of being stuck with a pin, but an implicit trace of the unpleasant experience remained.
In this way, unconscious actions are like stars. When we view a star in the evening sky, we see a glowing spot of light that appears to be connected to present time; in actuality, we are viewing light that was emitted millions of years ago. Unconsciously driven behaviors have a similar delay: They appear to be operating on present circumstances, but their genesis can be days, years, even decades older.
A person may be perfectly aware that their behavior is maladaptive, but because its origin is outside of conscious awareness, it is often difficult to control. In my own case, I remembered that as a child, I had sometimes left the room when an argument became intense. Armed with this awareness, I overcame my avoidance by starting a draft at home and then editing that piece when next at the Newport retreat. Not having to stare at a blank screen there kept the James brothers at bay.
1. Ginot, E. (2015). The neuropsychology of the unconscious. New York: Norton.
2. Friedrich, M., Wilhelm, I., Born, J., & Friederici, A.D. (2015). Generalization of word meanings during sleep. Nature Communications, 6, 6004.
3. Ito, M. (2011). The cerebellum: Brain for an implicit self. Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press.
4. Magnée M.J.M., Stekelenburg J.J., Kemner C., & de Gelder B. (2007). Similar facial electromyographic responses to faces, voices, and body expressions. Neuroreport, 18, 369–372.
5. Eustach, F., Desgranges, B., & Messerli, P. (1996). Edouard Claparède and human memory. Revue Neurologique, 152 (10), 602-610.