As you sit reading this book you perhaps cross your legs or move to an easier position. Did you think, ‘My leg is beginning to feel tired, I’ll shift it?’ Did you even know you were shifting it? Watch a friend next time he drives you in his car. If he is an expert driver he will talk to you whilst his car slips through the traffic, and handle the various gears and controls as occasion arises without apparently giving any thought to the action; moreover, if you direct his attention to what he is doing he may do it with less accuracy than before–like the billiard player who carefully studies a shot and then makes a miss-cue. It is not sufficient to call the driving automatic, though that word is often used to describe actions of this type, for it is dependent upon innumerable stimuli that reach the driver’s mind through all his senses and there produce sensations and impulses which have to be translated into actions. There is much real mind-work involved, and we must regard the driving as carried on by a part of his consciousness which is temporarily apart from his main stream, the latter being devoted to your intellectual entertainment.
So far as it concerns this example the splitting-off is normal. Most of us develop such capability in some way or other: the skilful pianist will talk while playing from sight a difficult passage, and the smoker carries out puffing actions by his little split-off stream whilst the main stream is solving the problem of the moment. All sorts of trivial actions are done unknown to the doer. For instance, a man whilst reading may have the habit of turning a pencil over and over and if any one gently removes the pencil he will reach out for it and continue to turn it, whilst his main stream knows nothing of the little by-play.
We see that consciousness is not fully and evenly aware of all our actions; some actions with their accompanying mental process can be carried on by an independent stream and, as in the case of the pianist, the streams are of such balanced complexity that we can regard them as co-equal. Others, like turning over the pencil, are associated with such a lack of awareness that they hardly seem conscious, and if they are regarded as due to a split-off stream the stream is a very minor one.
This loss of awareness can be carried further, and actions involving complicated processes can be performed without the main personality knowing of them. The easiest example by way of illustration is automatic writing, often carried out by Planchette, which is a small platform mounted on wheels and bearing a pencil whose point touches a sheet of paper. If two people, sitting opposite each other, place their finger-tips upon the platform it immediately begins to move, for unless the muscular push of one operator is absolutely balanced by that of the other the apparatus moves away from one of them; the other person straightway resists the movement and pushes in an opposite direction, and thus a see-saw motion is kept up which the operators cannot stop. The resulting scrawls on the paper may be deciphered according to fancy, but with practice a legible product is obtained; further, some people are able to concentrate the mind upon, or in other words fill the stream of consciousness with, another set of ideas by means of talking or reading, so that the automatic writing is carried on by a split-off stream of which the main stream is unaware. One person can use Planchette alone, though the experiment is oftener carried out as described above because unintended movements are more readily produced by two operators.
By this trick of splitting-off, or dissociation, the operator is able to allow ideas and memories from the unconscious to come to the surface unrestrained by the cramping control of the consciousness; hence the product of the automatism is usually fantastic and imaginative, though memories are available which may be beyond the reach of the consciousness.
An excellent example of this dissociation is given in _The Gate of Remembrance_, a book which I shall consider later.
The view might be held that the dissociated stream is really a part of the unconscious whose results make themselves manifest in the consciousness, as I described in the first chapter when writing about intuition; but in automatic writing the main personality is not aware of the results: the dissociated writer does not know what he has written until he reads it, and it may be as much news to him as to a bystander.
The two streams of thought flowing side by side exemplify one kind of dissociation of consciousness, and others of this kind will be described later; this type I shall call _continuous dissociation_, but there is another which at first sight seems quite different and of which I will give an example:–
An ex-soldier suffered from fears and depressions which made his life a misery, and an endeavour was made to find the cause in a repressed memory. His account of events was complete up to a certain time, but there his recollections ceased; then one day something touched up the hidden memory and in the presence of his doctor he went through a most dramatic scene, showing horror at falling down a dark dug-out upon the bodies of dead Germans and at subsequent experiences which had strongly affected him and whose revival produced again the same emotions as the original events. At the next interview the following dialogue took place:–
‘I want you to tell me about falling down the dug-out.’
‘What dug-out, sir?’
‘The one you told me about last time.’
‘I don’t remember telling you about it.’
‘Yes you do, the dug-out at….’
‘No, I don’t remember any dug-out at….’