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Learn While You Sleep

The Subconscious

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Since sleep-learning is based largely on the capacity of the subconscious to absorb and retain information, let us investigate the knowledge and theories existing about this less familiar area of the brain.

It should be noted that the term subconscious is used in sleep-learning and in literature about hypnosis, but the term is not recognized in psychoanalysis. The term used in the latter is the unconscious. When referred to in sleep-learning, however, it is the subconscious. Remember, there is no area of difference between the terms.

In Freud's imagery, the unconscious was a kind of anteroom to the conscious mind, from which excitations are frequently barred by a censorious doorman. This censor is referred to as repression. But, sometimes, these excitations from the unconscious pass the censor without becoming conscious.

That is, they are held back by further resistance. This, Freud referred to as the pre-conscious system. These unconscious processes can be quite powerful and can produce effects and ideas without the conscious mind being aware of the processes involved.

"Unconsciousness/' wrote Freud, "is a regular and inevitable phase in the process constituting our mental activity; every mental act begins as an unconscious one, and it may remain so or go on developing into consciousness, according to whether it meets resistance or not."

We are all familiar with the overnight solving of a problem unresolved before sleeping. This is consistent with Freud's comments on nocturnal mental activity in his study of dream processes.

He tells us that "unsolved problems, harassing cares, and overwhelming impressions continue the activity of our thoughts even during sleep, maintaining psychic processes in the system which we have termed the preconscious.

"The thought-impulses continued into sleep may be divided into the following groups:

  1. Those which have been left uncompleted because our mental powers have failed us, i.e., unsolved problems.

  2. Those which have been suppressed and turned back during the day.

  3. Those which have been excited in our Ucs. (unconscious) during the day by the working of the Pcs. (preconscious).

  4. Those which have not been completed during the day owing to some accidental cause.

  5. The indifferent impressions of the day, which have therefore been left unsettled."

Freud goes on to point out that preconscious activity will not become conscious mental processes during sleep. If this were to happen, then we would simply not be asleep.

While discussing unconscious activity in terms of the dream-process, Freud makes an interesting observation which may explain some aspects of the capacity to learn during sleep.

He points out that dreams substitute for many daytime thoughts and once investigated and understood, fit together with logic—indicating that the thoughts originate in normal mental life and that the complicated processes of conscious thinking are repeated in dream thoughts.

He saw a continuous process from the first stimulus (often not consciously noted, but occurring during waking hours) to its completion at the onset of sleep.

Freud considered this proof that extremely complex mental operations were possible without the cooperation of consciousness.

Freud later made clear that the unconscious, preconscious, and conscious thought development was not a matter of psychic topography.

Eventually he concluded that the essential character of a preconscious idea was its connection with the residue of verbal ideas. He asserted that consciousness was overestimated by the psychologists of his day, describing the unconscious as the larger circle which included the smaller circle of the conscious.

Further he wrote that everything conscious has a preliminary unconscious stage, although the reverse is not true. The unconscious, he said, is the "true psychic reality; in its inner nature it is just as much unknown to us as the reality of the external world, and it is just as imperfectly communicated to us by the data of consciousness as is the external world by the reports of our sense organs."

Intellectual achievement during sleep (completion of daytime mental work) is part of the same psychic forces operating intellectually during waking hours. Unconscious activity is related to the "inspiration" experienced by creative thinkers. There is in these moments a concerted effort of the unconscious becoming aware and joining with conscious activity.

Freud developed his concept of the unconscious, preconscious and conscious into the theory of a personality organization of the id, the ego and the super-ego. He did not consider the ego synonymous with consciousness, nor could he separate the preconscious and the unconscious completely, for they revealed certain characteristics in common.

The general qualities of the original distinctions were retained, with the id representing the entirely unconscious aspect of mental activity, without organization or will or awareness of the passage of time; the ego is part of the id and is its agent, more affected by the external world, and the seat of intelligence and reason; and separating itself from the ego, in a self-observing and self-critical function, representing the demands of the external world, is the super-ego.

Jung believed that a knowledge greater than man's own lies in the depths of the unconscious. He felt that this knowledge is a collective psyche of the ages as well as the forgotten or unrecognized aspects of individual experience.

He taught that the greater the harmony and coordination of the conscious and unconscious, the healthier the individual will be. He spoke of joint activity between the two. He also described the unconscious as continually active. The individual's direction is indicated by the combination of materials in the unconscious—infinitely superior to those in the conscious mind—and thus an "unparalleled guide" for mankind.

Jung based his ideas of the collective unconscious on the fact that motifs of myths and legends are repeated in identical forms all over the world.

He recognized two layers in the unconscious, one personal and one trans-personal, the latter common to humanity. The personal memory-images are filled out, because they have been experienced by the individual, but the collective layer, being pre-infantile—residues of ancestral life—and not personally experienced are therefore not filled out.

Jung felt that the unconscious was continually occupied in grouping and regrouping its contents, and normally, this activity is coordinated with the conscious mind in a compensatory relationship.

In discussing susceptibility and mental contagion, Jung spoke of man as having a great capacity for imitation. He notes that this is a double-edged capacity— valuable for collective purposes but dangerous from the point of view of developing the individual.

Development of the individual involves the compensatory relationship between the conscious and the unconscious, which leads to a widened consciousness and a freer participation in the world.

Dollard and Miller believe that reinforcements of all kinds automatically strengthen responses that immediately precede them. They feel that the primary effect of a reinforcement is always unconscious—but that this unconscious reinforcement is mediated by verbal and other cue-producing responses.

Overlearning can render responses unconscious and, as a result, verbalization can be short circuited. Thus automatic (unconscious) habits are formed. But because there was verbalization originally, it is fairly easy to recover the habits from the unconscious after overlearning. A strong drive will intensify the habitual response.

Dr. Bernard Hollander, a lifelong student and practitioner of hypnosis, writes that some psychologists do not accept tie existence of the subconscious but, he points out, regardless of terminology or the degree of unconscious or subconscious activity, there obviously exists a large collection of experiences, thoughts and emotions not present in our consciousness at any given moment.

He uses the term subconscious as a working hypothesis to explain the source of the genius' ideas, inspiration and creativity.

We are conscious only of the result of subconscious thinking, which he says, constitutes much of our thinking. The activity itself remains hidden from us. Many learned acts, by virtue of repetition, become subconscious. Selection of one out of many ideas stimulated by association, is a decisive activity of the subconscious. Associative sensory impressions, as we concentrate on a particular subject, are noted by the subconscious, even though we are not consciously aware of them.

Of course, subconscious work is not tiring, as is conscious effort.

Writing of the conscious use of the subconscious mind, Robert D. Updegraff notes that we drive ourselves consciously but use only half our minds. By not relaxing, we keep the subconscious from working for us.

He points out, as does Dr. Hollander, that a majority of brilliant men reported that their best discoveries occurred to them when they were not working. Von Helmholtz never got his ideas when he was fatigued or at his work table. Thornton Wilder's inspirations came in the shower or on hikes or in other informal places. Descartes' discoveries came to him in bed in the morning.

Updegraff writes that we can consciously use the subconscious mind, first by organizing the material consciously, then by giving a definite assignment to the subconscious and forgetting it.

The material can be written out, or simply discussed with associates, or worked on consciously until exhaustion sets in—and then put aside completely in favor of a relaxing activity or sleep. The subconscious mind will probably finish the job.

Sometimes further conscious work is necessary, but usually the subconscious can be trusted and often does the work more quickly than the conscious mind. Further, says Updegraff, the results are probably better by virtue of the fact that a whole life's experience is brought to bear on the problem.

An interesting footnote to habit-breaking comes from Knight Dunlap. He recommends practicing the bad habit: making the unconscious habit conscious by doing it intentionally, but denouncing the habit while practicing and also intending sincerely to break it.

This 'negative practice,' was tested and found successful. Dunlap, himself, tried it out. He had a habit typing hte instead of the and practiced by typing hte hundreds of times, telling himself each time that he was wrong. The original error was unconscious; he broke the habit by making himself conscious of it.

Since the subconscious is the ‘store house of memory and habit’ we can fill it during sleep with suggestions of our choice, which we retain better than conscious ideas because then interferences are absent. We know our conscious will accept whatever our subconscious accepts.

Since there is still much to be learned about the subconscious-unconscious, it is impossible to evaluate with certainty all sleep-learning claims. Among authorities, however, there is a high degree of acceptancy.

All the authorities whom we have discussed rated unconscious activity as much greater than the conscious. They believe that the unconscious never sleeps. Freud saw dreams as logical processes developed from conscious thought.

Jung believed that the unconscious was constantly grouping and regrouping its material, and that harmony and coordination between the unconscious and conscious could be achieved to a greater degree, with infinitely more satisfactory results to the individual.

In sleep-learning, too, the assumption is made that the subconscious has a capacity for assorting, selecting and arranging material and that the danger of universal conformity can be allayed by conscious interpretation of the unconsciously learned material.

Dollard and Miller's discussion of overlearning can be directly related to sleep-learning. Reinforcement is an important part of sleep-learning and daytime recall can perhaps be explained in terms of cue-producing responses. Sleep-learning is verbal and should be considered as an important new aspect of the thought process.

Dr. Hollander's description of subconscious activity comes closest to explaining the process by which we learn in our sleep.

Ideas are suggested to the subconscious, which absorbs them and supplies them to the conscious when they are needed, by its own mysterious process of selection. Repetition renders many learned acts unconscious and these are always accessible to us —barring repressive disturbances.

Updegraff attests that the subconscious can be put to use consciously and deliberately. Sleep-learners simply go one step further.

Sleep-learners' experience in breaking habits indicates that Dunlap's time-effort-consuming approach to negative practice is unnecessary self-punishment.

The power of the subconscious can apparently be harnessed through sleep-learning.

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