The dumbest part of your brain is the part you think you think with—the conscious brain, that elusive whatever-it-is that feels like the control room housing the “I.” Surprisingly, that “I” part can actually only process a tiny amount of information, only .0000045% of what the rest of your brain is doing every second!
“Psychologists agree that only one to four ‘items,’ either thoughts or sensations, can be held in the mind, immediately available to consciousness, at the same time.”
[This explains why multi-tasking can lead to disaster!]
“According to the work of Manfred Zimmerman of Germany’s Heidelberg University, only a woeful fifty bits of information per second make their way into the conscious brain, while an estimated eleven million bits of data flow [in] from the senses every second . . . .” –Stephen Baker, author of Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything
Noted philosopher Alan Watts compared the conscious brain to a flashlight in a dark room, only illuminating a small section of the contents at time.
All the sensory input your body is receiving at this moment is way too much for your conscious brain to handle, so the rest of your brain feeds it to you in screened or summarized chunks, sometimes calling on memories to fill in the gaps. As an example, at this moment, you are probably unaware of the pressure of your bottom in the chair (until I mentioned it), and the thousands of other inputs your mind is receiving via your eyes, ears, skin, taste, smell and other senses (and yes there are others) in order to focus on reading this article. Nor are you conscious of the millions of “decisions” you are making regarding your physical state—your heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, digestion, hormone and enzyme regulation, etc. In an odd way, those things don’t feel like you. Only the “I” feels real.
Your subconscious, however, is you, as much as your arms or eyes or heart. Its power is yours and available to you. But how do you access it?
While talking with a group of book club readers about my writing process, I realized that, research aside, I actually began both of my novels from a scary blank place. The concepts were there—a feminist, realistic take on the stories of two unnamed women who each only got one line in the biblical text—but I had no idea about the shape of the story or where it would go.
The flashlight in the room felt like a penlight!
Both of those ideas and women became fully fleshed out novels. How? In both cases I wrote a first sentence with absolutely no idea what words would come next. (Some writers are proponents of having an outline before starting a book, but I contend that the ideas for the outline have to come from somewhere too, and so those writers must go through a creative process, although the product, an outline, may be different from my organic building of plot and character.)
For example, in researching my first novel, Noah’s Wife, I read that the traditional Jewish name for Noah’s wife was Na’amah and that the name meant beautiful or pleasant. Clueless how that was to become a book, “I” wrote the first sentence—“My name, Na’amah, means beautiful or pleasant.” [Creative, huh?] But the very next sentence my fingers typed, seemingly on their own, was “I am not always pleasant, but I am beautiful.” From there the character came alive and felt as real as if she were whispering the words in my ear. It felt as though Na’amah “took over” most of the process. The “I” part was relegated to figuring out what happened to her next. She reacted to it “on her own.”
The same thing happened with Lot’s wife in her own subsequent book, Angels At The Gate. Again, having no idea about her or her life, other than the clue that she might have a little problem with obedience, I gave her a name and wrote, “I am Adira. . . .” On cue, she responded with two unexpected sentences that took me totally by surprise and framed the remainder of the book.
Where did those characters and their strong voices come from? For me, writing can feel like the ancients must have felt when they ascribed their creativity to the Muses, the Greek and Roman goddesses who presided over the arts and sciences. It seems to come from an “outside” source, that is somewhere separate and different from the “I.”
But I believe the words actually come from the dark room. My brain, the part I am unaware of, has a deep, deep intelligence, the product of millions of years of evolution and problem-solving. It is not an aspect unique to me, although I have spent thousands of hours feeding it and drawing on it for the purpose of telling stories.
You have the same deep intelligence. Your entire mind is there; you just can’t perceive it with the conscious “I” part. The secret to accessing it is an act of trust. You trust it to monitor your heartbeat, to digest your food, and to tell you when you’re in love, but it’s hard to consciously hand the reins over to what is essentially a dark zone. Maybe in prehistoric times we were more attuned to that aspect of ourselves. Maybe the price of self-consciousness is a kind of disconnection from the subconscious. Or perhaps as children we connected intuitively and effortlessly to that part of ourselves through the paths of play and imagination. Somehow—through evolutional processes or by growing up—we have lost how to listen to the deeper, hidden part of our minds.
“Sleep on it” is a common advice for a perplexing problem. But giving up a problem to the subconscious is as difficult to do as trying to relax. The harder you try, the more unrelaxed you are. Similarly, you can’t make yourself go to sleep. You have to give up on that and let it happen. It is not something the “I” controls. An exception may be found with a few Yogi masters who have, after long years of practice, found ways to access the autonomic systems of their bodies unavailable consciously to most of us, but they can do it because they tap into the dark room. Their particular technique (which might be accomplished with biofeedback as well) is meditation. Meditation, the act of being “thought-less,” is really a state where the “I” brain gets out of the way, but remains observant (to some degree) of the deep intelligence that arises.
3 Steps to the Dark Room:
The knowledge that your perceptions and thoughts are only a tiny bit of light in a dark room full of wonder and power is the first step to accessing that part of yourself more fully. The second step is to help yourself accept that emotionally and to feed the dark room with reading, music, meditation, workouts, long walks in silence, or whatever works for you. This is not wasted time; it is essential time. The third step is to step aside, to let go . . . to trust the hidden deep intelligence that is an integral part of you.
T.K. Thorne is an author whose award-winning novels are Noah’s Wife and Angels at the Gate. Her nonfiction book Last Chance for Justice: How Relentless Investigators Uncovered New Evidence in the Birmingham Church Bombing was listed on the New York Post’s “Books You Should Be Reading.”