Writing and the Unconscious Mind

Do you ever walk away from your car in a parking lot, then stop and go back to check because you can’t remember locking it—only to find that you evidently had? Do you ever do something and wonder why you did it? Have you ever agonized over some problem for hours and finally given up, only to have the answer come to you some time later out of the blue while you’re doing something else entirely? Or, if you’re a writer, would you swear that your mind works on your story behind your back or while you’re asleep? All of these are examples of your unconscious mind in action.

Some recent events have motivated me to look into what is known about the subconscious mind. Among other things, this involved using PubMed, the search engine of the National Library of Medicine, to look for relevant published papers on the subject. The first thing I learned there is that the term “unconscious” seems to be what is used in academic discussions, not “subconscious,” so that’s what I’m going to use here.

It seems the unconscious mind is credited with a large measure of our creativity, especially when it comes to certain kinds of problem-solving. And it definitely works behind your conscious back, and while you’re asleep. I’ve actually seen it recommended that people put their work aside, after first examining all the relevant data, and go do something completely unrelated—even something frivolous—to give their unconscious mind time to work on the problem.

Of course you never know what your unconscious mind is up to—by definition—because it is unconscious. And I’m sure this explains why writers sometime feel they are “channeling” their characters, or that the world they’ve invented must actually exist somewhere. It probably also explains the Greeks’ invention of the Muses. It was their way of dealing with the sense that creative inspiration came to them from somewhere outside of their conscious selves.

And there’s more—and this is where it really gets freaky. Your unconscious mind is fully capable of initiating and carrying out actions using your body without any conscious input. In fact, this is apparently one of its principle functions—and not one it shares with your conscious mind. Yes, that’s right: Your conscious mind is not actually in charge of moment-to-moment decisions and actions, it only thinks it is. Research shows that the preparation in your brain to take action precedes your conscious awareness of having decided to act—by about 300-400 milliseconds. The decision, therefore, must have been made unconsciously.

But how can that be? (you protest)  That’s not how it feels!
Ah, yes, I know. But what about those things you find yourself doing “automatically,” or without thinking about it. Mostly they’re pretty basic, routine things—the unconscious excels at those. But every once in a while, don’t you do something really inexplicable and find yourself asking, “Now why on earth did I do that?” I know I do.

Here’s the deal: Your conscious mind may not be in charge, but it does have influence. For one thing, it has veto power over unconscious decisions, which it can exercise in the split-second window (150-200 milliseconds) between becoming aware of the decision and the action actually being carried out. In other words, “will power” is actually “won’t power.” (No, I won’t say that word, pull that trigger, take that second chocolate chip cookie…) And your conscious mind also indirectly influences the choices your unconscious makes by imagining simulations of possible outcomes—good or bad—to hypothetical actions. That, in fact, is apparently one of its main functions. Unlike the unconscious mind, which “lives” in the moment, the conscious mind can remember the past in order to learn its lessons, or imagine the future to suggest things that might come to pass. Which means that your conscious self has the opportunity to persuade your unconscious. Most of the time, if the advantages and disadvantages are pretty obvious, your unconscious is probably going to be pretty much of a pushover.

Suppose you look in the refrigerator, see the empty shelf, and think, “Gee, if I don’t go to the store there won’t be any milk for my cereal in the morning.” If, shortly thereafter, you grab the car keys and drive to the grocery store to buy milk, you may be forgiven for assuming that you consciously made the decision to make that shopping trip.

To get back to the matter of writing, it seems to me that this function of exploring possibilities by spinning hypothetical scenarios makes your conscious mind a natural born story-teller. Your unconscious mind? Not so much, despite its vaunted creativity. Which, in turn, means that writing is of necessity a collaborative venture between your two minds. There’s another reason for this as well: Your unconscious can only process one word at a time (according to my sources). Handling language at the level of sentences is another primary function of the conscious mind—possibly why it evolved in the first place.

So if you’re stuck on some aspect of your story, it may mean that your conscious mind needs to take a break to let your unconscious work on the problem. And if you’re having trouble getting yourself to put your butt in the chair, it may mean your conscious mind needs to be a little more persuasive…

That’s more than enough.

Thoughts anyone? Got any good stories about things your unconscious mind has done to you? Or is this just another load of manure?


  • Carrie Rubin

    June 27, 2014 at 5:53 pm Reply

    Fascinating subject. I don’t know if I’ve come up with ideas for my novels while I sleep, but many times I come up with ideas while I’m preoccupied doing other things, especially exercising. That’s when things repeatedly pop into my mind. Maybe it’s the increased cerebral blood flow, I don’t know, but I finally had to put a notebook and pen in my exercise room. It’s a pain to pause my activity to write the thought down, but if I don’t, I’ve learned I’ll never remember it. (Maybe it pops back in my mind while I’m sleeping, just to mock me…)

    Great post! Hope you’re having a good summer. 🙂

    • Carol Wuenschell

      June 27, 2014 at 6:24 pm Reply

      Thanks, Carrie. There was actually a story in the LA Times a while back about some research that showed that walking is good for creativity. Specifically, it showed that people got more novel ideas while walking than while sitting down. It was the act of walking that was important, too, because it worked for walking on a treadmill (as I believe you do) but not for being wheeled around outside in a wheelchair. So that notepad of yours is a really good idea. I walk outside, usually, which may actually be a disadvantage since it’s harder to carry a notepad out there. I’ll have to think about this…

      • Carrie Rubin

        June 27, 2014 at 9:03 pm Reply

        I remember hearing about that study, and I believe it. My best writing productivity occurs while I’m on my treadmill. That little plastic shelf for my laptop was well worth its $40 price tag!

  • G M Barlean

    June 28, 2014 at 11:18 am Reply

    Very interesting. I love anything psychological. Thanks! Great article.

  • Audrey Kalman

    June 28, 2014 at 11:21 am Reply

    I (and my conscious and unconscious minds!) buy into this idea that “writing is of necessity a collaborative venture between your two minds” 100 percent. Walking, yoga, gardening, and cooking are four of my favorite “non-writing writing” activities.

    Whenever this topic comes up, I think fondly back to a research methods teacher in grad school who illustrated this principle in class one day. She encouraged us to carefully outline our topic on index cards (by which you can tell how long ago this was), then take the stack of cards, throw them up in the air, and pick them up randomly from the floor. She believed that the juxtaposition of unlikely ideas could loosen the hold of the conscious mind and let it connect with ideas we might not otherwise be able to access.

    • Carol Wuenschell

      June 28, 2014 at 12:24 pm Reply

      Ooh what a fun exercise, Audrey! I think I read that the conscious mind is very sequence oriented. That it’s adapted to laying events out in order – which makes sense for constructing simulations of actions and outcomes. So scrambling any organization the conscious has imposed might indeed “loosen the hold” it has and let the unconscious have free rein. Thanks for the insight.

  • Carol Balawyder

    June 30, 2014 at 7:44 pm Reply

    Fantastic post. I have often found that if i’m stuck on my writing and just let it sit I will eventually get unstuck. The thing is, that I firmly believe that by letting it sit I’ll get unstuck. Is it a question of putting these “believe” thoughts into my unconscious mind? I also find that contact with nature (especially trees) seems to spark my imagination and creativity. 🙂

    • Carol Wuenschell

      July 1, 2014 at 12:06 am Reply

      I don’t know what unlocks it. The things I read suggest that you need to think about the problem first (consciously) so that your unconscious has what it needs to work with. I don’t know if that’s like having the building blocks, or whether it’s more like knowing what the “problem” is. Maybe relaxing the conscious mind helps, too. That might be where contact with nature comes in for you. But whatever seems to work for you, I would say just keep doing it!

      • Carol Balawyder

        July 1, 2014 at 8:26 am Reply

        Thanks. Sometimes it’s not for us to wonder why something works but simply to use it. 🙂
        I like what you said about thinking about the problem first. It reminded me that when I have a problem that I am stuck with I ask my unconscious mind to solve it while I sleep. I’m just so lazy that way. 🙂

  • jmmcdowell

    July 2, 2014 at 3:48 pm Reply

    Very interesting ideas about the unconscious mind. I suspect even more goes on there than we realize. I’ve never been a fan of the idea that we only use “X percent” of our brain. I can’t believe evolution would work that way. What would be the selective advantage to that?

    Of course, as one of those writers who believes the characters are “out there,” I might subscribe to the idea that our unconscious brains are tapping into other dimensions/universes at the quantum level. 😉

    • Carol Wuenschell

      July 2, 2014 at 11:00 pm Reply

      Yeah, the idea of a lot of “unused” brain always bugged me, too. I don’t know whether conscious and unconscious minds are supposed to coexist in the same space (frontal cortex?) or whether there’s any notion that they are localized differently. That’s something I’d like to look at further. The thinking seems to be that the unconscious is “older,” evolutionarily speaking, and that the conscious mind evolved to serve language, culture, and social functions.

      I was thinking of you somewhat when I wrote that part about channeling characters. But you’re by no means the only one. After writing about the same main character for a dozen years now, the guy feels very real to me. I don’t have conversations with him, but I sometimes wonder if he can feel me looking over his shoulder. He’s somewhat like my offspring: Rationally I know he came from me, but I don’t feel he’s entirely within my control. Maybe it’s because he “lives” in my unconscious mind?

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