The extraordinary powers attributed to the unconscious




Unconscious activities and psychic faculties

As we have seen in the previous page, various meanings have been attributed to the concept of the unconscious, some based on observations and experimental data, others quite speculative. The pages dedicated to hypnosis included in the section on psychical research include the results of experimental investigations, which show how some subjects in a hypnotic state may have access to non-ordinary faculties and resources, which they do not have in the normal waking state. For example, both in the experiments of Pierre Janet and in those conducted by the Committee of the SPR (Society for Psychical Research), some subjects were able to receive at a distance, and outside of any possibility of sensory communication, mental commands imparted by the operator, or thoughts and feelings experienced by the latter. Already since the time of mesmerism, literature had reported examples of subjects, called sleepwalkers, able to read the thought or to predict future events: the lack of adequate documentation meant that these cases were considered with understandable suspicion, or regarded as humbugs. However, what was ascertained in the reliable experimental cases required an explanation, so the unconscious came to the rescue: mental activity determined in the human being different faculties, some of which were available in the ordinary state of consciousness, while others were active out of consciousness.

At the end of the nineteenth century the psychologists began to consider the psyche as an autonomous phenomenon, leaving to other specialists (physiologists, neurologists, anatomists) the task of investigating the way in which the functioning of the brain and the consequent mental activity determined the psychic events. But we have already observed that the only psychic events that we can remember, describe and communicate are those of which we are or have been conscious. Only on the basis of the discoveries of neurology and, nowadays, of neuroscience, it has been found that certain pathologies of the brain and nervous system result in anomalies, oddities and deficits that alter, in a sometimes disconcerting way, the psychic processes. The human psyche can be studied as an autonomous phenomenon as a whole, but under a more philosophical than a medical profile, for the reasons already exposed in the previous page.

Speculative theories on the psyche

The human being show a constant need to find an explanation for things that he does not understand, so in every time and in every place thinkers have flourished who have developed, with considerable energy and determination, more or less coherent speculative systems, finding students and proselytes and not infrequently obtaining a remarkable cultural success. This has also happened in the medical field, within those diseases whose cause has not been identified with certainty and for which there are no therapies of sure efficacy. It is humanly understandable that people affected by these diseases cling to any information that gives them even the slightest hope of being able to heal: there is therefore a strong demand for therapeutic theories and methods of treatment. As the human psyche can cause discomfort and suffering, and can result in dangerous behavior from a social point of view, the request for psychic relief and psychotherapy has always been widespread. 

Today we can see every day the power that derives from every valid form of knowledge: we verify it in technology, in telecommunications, in informatics, in transport, and in many sectors of the medicine. We expect that everything that has been created on the basis of scientifically founded knowledge will work well, if not in 100% of cases (a margin of error is always possible), at least in 95%, and anyway we feel deceived when things do not work as we normally expect. But as far as speculative theories are concerned, things are never in these terms: there will always be enthusiastic followers, ready to make new proselytes by presenting (and exaggerating) the positive results obtained, but we should also take into account the considerable percentage of failures, and it is naive to hope that they will be divulged by the inventor or by the followers of this or that theory. In rather recent times phenomena of this kind have also occurred within the various schools linked to some interpretations of unconscious mental dynamics, such as psychoanalysis.

The fact is that when the conscious Ego tries to interpret (and understand) the functioning of the mind, the psyche produces materials that are always very interesting, that can be observed and analyzed and that are a fascinating object of study: they are however elaborations which can not be considered as a form of scientific knowledge. The only organic structure that can be scientifically studied is the brain, through research on its functioning at a neural and molecular level. Of course psychologists can argue that the way they study the psyche is based on observation and intelligent interpretation (according to socially and culturally accredited criteria) of other less evolved psychic manifestations (in need of therapeutic help). But just go and see the historical conflicts between the various schools, the disagreements between the exponents of the same school, and the expressions of rancor and contempt with which the partisans of one or the other theoretical interpretation (of the same observed facts) attacked those who did not agree with them, to realize that dynamic psychology has always had much more affinity with other aspects of social life, such as politics, than with scientific research.

On the other hand, the most honest researchers, such as Pierre Janet, have always maintained a certain caution towards theoretical elaborations, considered as relatively useful, never as certainly true, and for this reason they were less successful than those who made precise and firm statements, more in line with the spirit of the time. When we then go to examine the influence that the philosophical theories (therefore of a frankly psychic and speculative origin) created by thinkers of the caliber of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Carus or Hartmann, have had on the elaboration of psychological systems, we can not help recognizing the presence of a kind of illusory glamor, of psychic origin, which has conditioned the psychology of the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century (and that has not completely vanished even today).

The bewildering facts object of psychical research

The speculative theories on the unconscious and its features have had a considerable impact in the field of psychical research, as will be seen in more detail in the sections dedicated to this topic. Also in this case the starting point is constituted by the observation of some facts and by the assessment of their reality: these facts, however, are of such a nature as to cause anomalous psychic reactions, since in many cases they seem to pose a threat to the very stability of the system of knowledge prevalent in our culture. In the context of psychology and dynamic psychiatry of the late nineteenth century, the observed facts concerned the behavior of patients or their verbal communications concerning the psychic contents they experienced. Only in rare and doubtful cases did events occur that could imply the activation of paranormal faculties. When, in the second half of the nineteenth century, information about mediumistic faculties began to spread, the attention of psychiatrists and psychologists focused mainly on cases of automatic writing and verbal communication on the part of the mediums, because these cases were better suited to the observations already made on subjects placed in hypnosis or treated by suggestion. At least at an early stage all the mediumistic phenomena that could not be included in this scheme were completely ignored, because considered doubtful and not worthy of further study. Given the unconscious character of automatic writing and of a part of the behavior and verbal communications of hypnotized subjects, the researchers believed – coherently with what had been observed until then – that the material thus obtained could be attributed to the unconscious of the mediums, excluding any intervention of extrahumans intelligences. So originated that current of thought that, in the context of psychical research, believed to be able to attribute to some feature (more or less mythical) of the unconscious all the mediumistic and paranormal phenomena.  

Some of the criticisms directed against the spiritualist hypothesis by psychiatrists who decided to deal with mediumistic phenomena were certainly founded: classical spiritualism took for granted the survival of the human personality to the death of the body, and the intelligent researchers had no difficulty in highlighting the discrepancies, contradictions, and also the inconsistency, banality and stupidity of most mediumistic communications. However, several facts and a certain number of communications resisted these criticisms and escaped any attempt to find an explanation that did not involve the use of some metaphysical hypothesis. In this context, the most honest scientists, like Charles Richet, gave up any attempt at explanation, merely presenting and classifying the facts studied, describing the circumstances in which they occurred and the measures taken to validate their authenticity. But other scholars – even well-known, as for example the Italian Enrico Morselli – felt the need to exclude any cause that seemed irrational to them: therefore various hypotheses were advanced about the supposed extraordinary faculties of the human body or psyche, which of course – given that they operated while the medium was in a trance – had to be needs attributed to the unconscious.

Theories on the powers of the unconscious psyche

Today we can also smile at the various and naive attempts to identify the forms of physical or biophysical energy through which the ability to exercise effective actions on matter was attributed to the psyche of the mediums, but we must bear in mind that at that time new and extraordinary discoveries went every year to enrich the domain of human knowledge, creating an enthusiasm that made understandable the ease with which parallelisms were proposed between already discovered physical energies (such as electromagnetism or X-ray emission) and the biopsychic energies still to be discovered. It should also be remembered that still in the early twentieth century there was a tendency to consider scientifically legitimate any theory, advanced by specialists, based on empirical observations and on the logic of valid argumentations, even if mainly speculative, but lacking experimental confirmation. Besides, as we have seen for example in the pages on the evolution of life, even today there are sectors of scientific research for which knowledge is based on logical-deductive theories, based on the interpretation of observed facts, but for which it is not possible to have experimental validation because the current environmental conditions are very different from those of the past, and the latter can not be known and reproduced with sufficient precision.

The reason why a great part of this site is dedicated to mediumistic phenomena and the unresolved questions of psychical research is not to be sought in the umpteenth attempt to demonstrate the continuity of the existence of individual consciousness after the death of the body, but it is in the fact that those phenomena and those issues represent a still open challenge for human intelligence: the reassuring (or inadequate, depending on the point of view) framework that is culturally offered by the acquired knowledge on the functioning of the human brain, can go into crisis when it fails to clarify certain events that actually occur or have occurred. On the other hand also the acceptance of fideistic and uncritical forms of explanation of such phenomena, which refer to an unverifiable informational context, can be included in the possible psychic interpretations, but these explanations are felt and evaluated as inadequate and unsatisfactory by our most advanced intellectual faculties (which also have their limits). The suspicion remains (or something more) that the human condition is always and in any case functional and operative, at the service of powers that transcend it and of which we can not know anything, neither regarding the purpose of our existence nor regarding the possible form of creative intelligence that determines the order of things. From this point of view the fideistic trust towards one or the other form of explanation of a mythical or religious character, not supported by verifiable information on the part of our intellect (however limited it may be), could be nothing but an elaborate programmatic expedient used by the psyche, aimed at making us function properly and without too many problems.

The subconscious personality

The hypothesis of the existence of a subconscious personality (which Frederic H. Myers called Subliminal Self), which lives a life parallel to that of our conscious Ego, was proposed to explain, among other things, some phenomena linked to mediumistic communications between the living, such as those obtained through automatic writing, at the end of the nineteenth century, by the famous English journalist and writer William T. Stead (1849-1912), who was later among the victims of the shipwreck of the Titanic. Stead himself reported his experiences in some of his articles: I report below some examples, included by Ernesto Bozzano in his book Animismo o Spiritismo? (Animism or Spiritism?), published in 1938.

Here is what Stead wrote (Light, 1893, page 135): «...It may be my defect as a medium but I find a very great difference in people – I do not find that I can communicate with all my friends, by any manner of means. I find that there are some who will communicate with extraordinary accuracy, so much so that out of a hundred statements there would not be more than one which would be erroneeous. I find some who, although they will sign their names right, apparently in their own character, make statements which are entirely false. There are other friends who write with very great accuracy, and the curious thing about this is that although when I ask one of them to write – say he is at Glasgow – and I ask, «How is your face?" he would probably write and say either that a great boil had burst, or that it was worse, or that he had a poultice on, or something of that kind, and would sign his name, yet he would not know that he had communicated that intelligence to me. I asked Julia about that – I always ask her about my difficulties... I said, "How is it that when I have asked my friend how his face was, and he answers me, he knows nothing about it afterwards? If the real self does not communicate any intelligence except at his volition, how is it that I can get an answer from my friend when he does not know anything about it at all?"  She said, "When you speak to your friend through your hand he only answers with his mind, not with his physical senses. The real self does not always take the trouble when he has communicated a thing by the mind trough the hand to inform the physical brain that he has done so. It is not necessary to do so. If it thought fit it might, but it might not; it does not necessarily require it"»

Julia was the spirit of the intimate friend, who had died a few months earlier, of a lady whom Stead occasionally met: this lady had asked him if he knew a medium, because she wanted to get in touch with Julia, who had already appeared twice to her but with which she could not communicate. Julia then sent some messages to her friend through Stead's writing hand, and later began answering the questions the journalist asked her mentally, so that Stead began to consider Julia as his guiding spirit, to whom he addressed when he wanted get answers to his questions and explanations about the communications obtained through automatic writing. Part of these communications were collected and published by Stead in 1905 in a didactic booklet, Letters from Julia, which was a great success. Note the distinction, made by Julia, between the conscious mental faculties, defined as cerebral, and those unconscious, attributed to a not better identified spiritual personality (the real self). The contrast between this distinction and the current scientific cognitive context, which attributes both conscious and unconscious processes exclusively to brain activity, must be kept in mind when evaluating the various attempts to explain the paranormal phenomena.

Other phenomena of subconscious origin

And here is another interesting example of mediumistic communication between living persons, among the many mentioned by Stead (Proceedings of the SPR, vol. IX, page 59): «Some months ago I was at Redcar, in the North of England. A foreign lady who does some work for the Review of Reviews (a magazine edited by Stead) had to meet me at Redcar railway station about three o'clock. I was staying with my brother, who lives about ten minutes' walk from the station. At twenty minutes to three it occurred to me that "about three," the phrase used in her letter, might mean some time before three, and as I could not lay my hand upon a time-table, I simply asked her to use my hand and tell me what time the train was due. This, I may say, was done without any previous communication with her upon the subject. She immediatly wrote her name, and said the train was due at Redcar station at ten minutes to three. I saw that I should have to leave at once, but before starting I asked her where she was at that moment. My hand wrote, "I am in the train at Middlesborough railway station, on my way from Hartlepool to Redcar."».

«I then went off to the station. On arriving there I went up to the time-table to see when the train was due. It was timed to arrive at 2.52. The rain, however, was late; three o'clock came, and it had not arrived. At five minutes past three, getting rather anxious, I took a slip of paper from my pocket , and taking a pencil in my hand, asked her where she was. At that moment she wrote her name (they always write their names at the beginning and end of each communication), and said, "I am in the train, rounding the curve before you come to the Redcar station; I will be with you in a minute." "Why the mischief have you been so late?" I mentally asked. My hand wrote, "We were detained at Middlesborough for so long; I do not know why." I put the paper in my pocket, walked to the end of the platform, and there was the train! The moment it stopped I went up to my friend and said to her, "How  late you are! Whay on earth has been the matter?" "I do not know," she said. "The train stopped so long at Middlesborough, it seemed as it never would start." I then showed her what my hand had written. The lady in question confirms as follows: (letter from West Hartlepool, April 4th, 1893) " My dear friend, I most certainly and very distinctly remember the occasion you have referred in the subjoined newspaper cutting. I was much surprised when you told me that you had made me telepath you the time I should arrive at Redcar, as I was quite unconscious of having telepathed any information to you with regard to my arrival. I don't see that I can add anything to your account of the incident. It is very clear, and I can make no corrections. Yours sincerely, Gerda Grass"».

There is no reason to doubt the veracity of these incidents and Stead's honesty in reporting them. The fact remains that the journalist could consciously put himself in touch with people known and distant to him, asking them for information that could have been given in person in response to his questions. Then he got the requested information through sentences automatically written by his hand: some of this information proved to be correct and precise (like those mentioned above), while in other cases they were inaccurate or incomplete, and occasionally incorrect. In no case, however, the real person mentally consulted by Stead claimed to have consciously received a mental question, and to have telepathically sent the requested information. The attempts to explain these strange facts opened a debate between the supporters, on the one hand, of the hypothesis of the existence of a subconscious personality (such as Myers or Bozzano), and on the other, of a particular and extraordinary unconscious faculty possessed by the mediums, which would allow them to find the information they want to know, looking for them in a sort of universal archive that includes everything that becomes part of human consciousness in the past, present and future. This last hypothesis differs from the first, and has a specific interest, only in so far as it attributes these extraordinary faculties to the mental (and therefore cerebral) functioning of the medium.

But it may be interesting to quote the information provided on the subject by Julia herself, reported by Stead during a conference he held at the London Spiritualist Alliance, the text of which is reported on pages 134 and following of the already mentioned spiritualist journal Light (year 1893, page 135). «When this corrispondence had been going on for some time, she (Julia) wrote with my hand, "Why are you surprised that I can write with your hand? Anyone can write with your hand." I said, "What do you mean by anyone?" I always talk to her exactly as I would to you, only that she writes her answers instead of speaking. She said, "Anyone. People on earth, alive, can write with your hand." I said, "Do you mean living people?" She said, "Any of your friends can write with your hand." I said, "Do you mean to say that if I put my hand at the disposal of any of my friends they could write to me in the same way that you do?" "Yes.Try it." I thought that seemed rather a large order, but I did try it with this result... I think the best plan will be for me not to give any explanation, but simply tell you what happened to me. I put my hand at the disposal of friends at various degrees of distance, and I found that, although the faculty varied, some friends could write extremely well, imitating at first the style of their own handwriting, sometimes for the first few words until they had more or less established their identity, and then goimg on to write exactly as they would write an ordinary letter. They would write what they were thinking about – whether they wanted to see me, or where they had been».

The hypothesis of the real (or subliminal) Self and its relation to the personal (conscious) Ego

«I must say nothing surprised me more, at first, that the frankness with which friends, who I knew were sensitive and shrinking, modest and retiring, who would never tell me anything about their personal circumstances or about money matters, would tell me in the frankest possible way their difficulties and troubles without any reserve whatever. Noticing this I said to Julia on one occasion, "This is rather a serious thing, because it seems to me as if there would be no more secrets in the world if things can go on like this!" "Oh no!" she said, "You don't understand."... I said, "Well, how is it that a person will tell me things with my hand that he would never tell me with his tongue?"  Then she gave this explanation: I do not give it to you as final, but only as her own explanation which was written with my hand. I did not invent it myself, for it never occurred to me. She said, "Your real self will never communicate any intelligence whatever, either through the hand of a writing medium, or through your tongue – that is, if it is yourself that is speaking – excepting what it wishes to communicate, but your real self is very different from your physical self"».        

«I said, "How do you mean – my real self?" She said, "Your real self, what you would call your Ego, sits behind both your physical senses and your mind, using either as it pleases. Your physical senses are used for communications between your real self and your fellow men when they are within range of sight and hearing. But the physical senses are only a clumsy mechanical contrivance at the best; the mind is also an instrument, and a material instrument, but a much more subtle material instrument than the physical senses, and when the real self wishes to communicate with any person at a distance it uses the mind, but it will never use the mind to tell what is wanted to be kept secret any more than it woul use the tongue, because in all cases the real self is the master." I said, "How can you do it?" She said, "Why, cannot you understand? All minds are in contact with each other throughout the whole Universe, and you can always speak and address any person's mind, wherever that person may be, if you, more or less, know that person. If you can speak to that person if you meet him in the flesh you can also speak to him and ask him to use your hand in whatever part of the world you may be"».

So far, the explanation of Julia, which appears somewhat extravagant both from the logical and from the psychological point of view. In fact, it does not explain why the same person should be reserved and reticent when communicating verbally, and frank and open when communicating mentally, assuming that behind both these forms of communication there is the same real self. Furthermore, we can not understand why we can not connect with the mind of an unknown person, when we anyway can do it verbally. So Stead did right to report this attempt at explanation as he received it, without expressing any judgment about. During his conference Stead also opened a parenthesis expressing in these terms its own assessment of the subliminal personality: «Mr. Myers and others are very fond of attributing everything to your subliminal consciousness – I can only say that if Julia is my subliminal consciousness I have got two consciousnesses, which do not particularly agree with each other, because Julia would write sometimes saying she was very vexed with me and scold me, and tell me straight out with the utmost frankness that she was very much disappointed with me and ashamed of me, and thought I had more sense, and going on exactly as anyone of your intimate friends would do».     

These statements by Stead do not fully hit the mark, since even in the ordinary state of consciousness we can have conflicting thoughts and states of mind with regard to various situations and to ourselves. What should be kept in mind, however, is the fact that the subliminal self, according to Myers, is unlikely to manifest itself in consciousness: it seems to correspond to the real self to which Julia refers, whose explanation regarding mental communication between distant people does not take into account the the fact that one of the two communicators, the one who should guide the hand of the writing medium, then states that he was absolutely not aware of either the contact request received or the information sent.

The hypothesis of the unconscious spiritual personality

Regarding the subliminal self, it has been repeatedly suggested, in different forms, that alongside the conscious personality and the Ego of every human being there could be a second personality, unconscious for us, which in some circumstances could interfere with our mood, with our will and with our perception, and ultimately with our mind, determining behaviors and actions contrary to those wanted or desired by our Ego. The only really important aspect of this hypothesis lies in the fact that the unconscious personality is not identified with the unconscious activity of our brain, but is attributed to it a non-physical nature, or – as we use to say – spiritual. But there has never been a clear and convincing explanation either about the dimension in which this spiritual personality should exist, nor about the instruments through which it can exercise its power over our mind. In any case, if it really existed, it is precisely its unconscious character that would make it an alien entity, a kind of spirit that seeks to take advantage of our conscious human experience and which not seldom shows open hostility towards the conscious Ego. All these aspects related to the spirit are examined and deepened in the section on mediumistic phenomena.

There is no doubt, in any case, that there are conflicting psychic influences able to use our mind as a battlefield, but it is still within the mental activity that determines our consciousness, our will and our psychic experience that the game is played. In the course of life, our conscious Ego experiences a wide range of psychic tunings, recording their effects and also the possible elements of conflict: however, it should be kept in mind that only in the sphere of our consciousness and memory does the sense of existence associated with our Ego reside. Hypotheses like those that imply the existence of an unconscious personality of a spiritual nature can be suggestive, but just for this reason they risk to become influences that, perceived as such by the conscious Ego, then determine his/her orientation. In this respect they can also be taken into consideration, provided to keep in mind that their reality could be exclusively of a psychic nature: they could therefore fall within the ambit of those factors that act because, consciously, we believe in them. However, as we will see better, there are facts that indicate how the existence of a dimension in which the psychic experience becomes reality can not be discarded a priori.


Conscious. & science
Interview with Roth
Intelligence & deceit
Science & human life
The unconscious
Unconscious faculties
The creative function
The human psyche
Psyche & Nature
The recorded life
The ego & the psyche