Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Von Domarus Principle and the Nature of the Subconscious Mind

As I state in Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism (p. 86), Freud was first to identify that we possess a dynamic, integrating subconscious mind, “dynamic” meaning continuously active and making connections whether we are awake or asleep. Thus, when we are asleep, our subconscious mind is constantly operating, connecting our many experiences of the previous day, week, or years, oftentimes manifesting the connections in dreams. But dreams are notoriously illogical and sometimes bizarre. What is the actual nature of the subconscious mind and what is its mode of operation?

We have a sense of how the conscious mind works. We direct attention to specific facts or events, identify and evaluate those facts or events, and as a result of the evaluation experience a favorable or unfavorable emotion. The knowledge, evaluations, and emotions then are stored in our memories, that is, in our subconscious minds for later retrieval and use. Thus, the subconscious is a valuable storehouse of all of our previous experiences. How well the storehouse is organized determines how easily or difficultly we can retrieve and use what is there. It is the conscious mind that directs this organization.

But how does the subconscious operate when it is not being controlled by the conscious mind, such as in our sleep or when we are focused elsewhere? Psychiatrist Eilhard von Domarus, in describing the thought processes of schizophrenics, posed a fascinating hypothesis about how the subconscious might operate. Because schizophrenics seem to have lost conscious control of their minds, they apparently exhibit raw, subconscious reasoning. And that reasoning is exemplified by the fallacy of undistributed middle, the error in thinking and form of overgeneralization that holds that if two subjects possess the same predicate, they are then the same. For example, dogs and cows both are four-legged animals, therefore all cows are dogs. The thinking is illogical and requires the attention and control of the conscious mind. The less educated, of course, commit the same error, but a major objective of education is to increase the child’s and adult’s conscious control over thought processes. When left uncontrolled, the implication is that the illogical processes of the subconscious take over, making less than rational connections. The illogic of this “von Domarus principle” would explain our more bizarre dreams.*

The von Domarus principle has been criticized as the result of subsequent studies (1, 2), but most of those experiments conclude only that schizophrenics do not exclusively use undistributed middle and/or that healthy people also commit the same fallacy. The more general conclusion to be drawn from the von Domarus principle is that if schizophrenics are left defenseless with no control over their behavior by the conscious mind, then their mental functioning may well represent the raw expression and operation of the subconscious. Obviously, more thought and study is needed to fully describe the subconscious mind. That the psychological profession today does not even acknowledge the existence of a subconscious mind indicates how far the science of inner reality must go to explain its subject.

Knowledge of the subconscious mind would enable us to harness its dynamic, connection-making powers by understanding not just its operation in sleep or mental illness, but also its role in aiding and influencing our everyday mental functioning. The more intelligent person, for example, is generally acknowledged to be the one who sees and understands connections among ideas before others who are slower. How does this happen? Is it a better organized subconscious mind than that of the slower thinker? Is it greater interest in the topic that drives the subconscious to look for specific connections? The more intelligent do not always possess greater knowledge about a subject than the less intelligent when hitting upon new connections. What is the role of the amount of knowledge one possesses in leading to quick links? And, of course, is there a genetic component in intelligence and how does this contribute to the efficient and effective operation of the subconscious? These are the questions that a science of the subconscious, if such existed, should be studying.

The dynamic subconscious is a powerful mental tool that can and should enable us to enjoy life by means of a well-ordered mental structure, a conscious mind interacting without obstacles or inhibitions with the subconscious to guide us smoothly to the achievement of our goals. Lack of knowledge of how this interaction takes place makes it more difficult for many of us to move forward without unnecessary extra effort to correct the organization of our minds. It is psychology that needs to give us this knowledge.


*Eilhard von Domarus, “The Specific Laws of Logic in Schizophrenia,” in J. S. Kassanin, ed., Language and Thought in Schizophrenia (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1944), 104-14.

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