Gerald N. M. Tyrrell

G. N. M. Tyrrell

Educated at Haileybury and London University. In 1923 he decided to devote himself entirely to Psychical Research. Wrote several highly acclaimed works. Joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1908 and became President in 1945.

The Subliminal Self and the Unconscious

The "More" within Us. What is the Subliminal Self? What is the Unconscious? The Rubbish Heap and the Gold Mine

 - G. N. M. Tyrrell -

          FEW AS yet realise the full implications of the discovery that the conscious mind does not exhaust the human personality. We may not see much at first in the knowledge that there is more in us than we are conscious of; but reflection shows it to be more and more significant, until the perspective of the entire human being begins to change.

Watch a dancer, and consider the incredible complexity of her movements. Each muscle is contracted at exactly the right moment and released after exactly the right interval; all are operated in perfect correlation. Yet the dancer is unconscious of co-ordinating these movements in detail. She merely wills the general result and, by constant practice, attains it. She does not consciously issue to each muscle a separate order. Yet something must do so. Something must control the nervous mechanism in detail. Purely mechanical reflexes are not the answer, for pure mechanism consists only of pushes and pulls exerted on pieces of matter. Something directive must be responsible for this perfect co-ordination of muscular movement; and it is not the conscious mind. There must be mental factors within us which are neither conscious nor yet merely mechanical.

Again, consider dreams. They reveal a quasi-mental element in us which is not identical with the conscious self. No theory of mechanical reflexes will explain them. Who, or what, constructs the dream which seems so strange and surprising to the dreamer?

The view that human personality contains elements of a mental or quasi-mental kind, over and above normal consciousness, has been hotly contested. During the nineteenth century, a theory of "unconscious cerebration" was evolved. It was a mechanistic explanation, and sought to account for these phenomena by postulating "well-worn nervous paths" in the brain. Any hypothesis of a teleological or hormic kind - any suggestion of a, directing agency existing in its own right - was then considered, as one writer put it, "to be mythical and fantastic to the point of absurdity."

No one now talks about "unconscious cerebration"; but it was the starting-point in the discovery of reaches of personality stretching beyond the conscious threshold.

During the nineteenth century, human personality began to be studied, for the first time, in a scientific way. F. W. H. Myers developed his theory of the Subliminal Self, or self beneath (sub) the threshold (limen) of consciousness. He also called it the Ultra-Marginal Consciousness, which was perhaps the better term, though it did not come into use. Myers was a pioneer in psychology. He recognised the existence of obsessive thoughts, delusions, voices, visions and impulses, and that they could be psychologically treated. He showed that one stratum of the personality signals to another by means of symbolism; and he defined hysteria as a "disease of the hypnotic stratum." His conception of the Subliminal Self differed, however, in certain respects from the view of the "Unconscious" afterwards developed by Freud. It was nearer to that of the French psychologists, Richet, Janet and Binet; but had a wider basis than I'Inconscient.

Myers regarded the threshold of consciousness as being variable; but, what was more important, he opened the way to the enlightening view that the ordinary, conscious self is but a limited and specialised phase of the total self. He regarded the subliminal self as embracing higher as well as lower levels of being. It contains, as he put it, a "gold mine as well as a rubbish heap." "I do not, indeed," he says, "by using this term assume that there are two correlated and parallel selves existing always within each of us. Rather I mean by the Subliminal Self that part of the self which is commonly subliminal; and I conceive that there may be - not only co-operations between these quasi-independent trains of thought - but also upheavals and alternations of personality of many kinds, so that what was once below the surface may for a time, or permanently, rise above it. And I conceive also that no self of which we can here have cognisance is in reality more than a fragment of a larger Self - revealed in a fashion at once shifting and limited through an organism not so trained as to afford is full manifestation."(1)

(1) Human Personality, Vol. 1. p. 15.

No doubt the conception of a subliminal self raised difficulties for thought. How can two parts of the same self, one above the threshold of consciousness, and the other below it, be at once separate and a unity? If the conscious self does not know anything about the subliminal self, does not that, ipso facto, make them finally two? It is as well to realise at the outset that directly we try to form a mental picture of the self, our ordinary categories break down. To understand the, self, we should have to grasp ideas which are basically new and strange. That selfhood and otherness from self can in some way co-exist in the same individual is evidently a fact, although we cannot understand it. Possibly if we ponder the facts about personality with an open mind we may make some progress towards forming new ideas. But, by attempting to draw the facts into our logical mill and rejecting as meaningless all that will not go into its machinery, we shall make little progress.

The work of Freud and the psycho-analytical schools clearly demonstrated the extension of a region of personality outside normal consciousness. But it must be borne in mind that these schools approached the problems of personality from an angle different from that of Myers. They approached them more from the utilitarian and pragmatic than from the strictly scientific standpoint. Psychopathologists were essentially medical therapists, seeking for methods of cure rather than for abstract knowledge about the human being. Any theory of personality which seeks to understand rather than to utilise facts can scarcely avoid being a philosophical theory. Philosophical questions arise at every turn. Freud found that certain thoughts drop out of normal consciousness and go on working underground. They are repressed, yet continue to exist and to influence conduct. To repressed thoughts of this kind, active, yet beyond the reach of voluntary recall, he gave the name of the "unconscious"; to those thoughts which, although outside consciousness, can be recalled by voluntary effort, was given the name of the "preconscious." But if one asks in what way these repressed ideas are supposed to exist apart from consciousness - whether each is supposed to be a self-existent entity or whether all are supposed to be adjectival rather than substantial, one gets no clear answer. Freud wrote: "It would put an end to all misunderstanding if from now on, in describing various kinds of mental acts, we were to pay no attention to whether they were conscious or unconscious, but, when classifying and correlating them, inquired only to which instincts and aims they belonged."(2) This shows very clearly the practical interests of Freud and his colleagues.

(2) Collected Papers, Vol. iv., p. 105.

A prominent Freudian, Dr. Ernest Jones, has the following to say about the meaning of the term "Unconscious." "According to psycho-analysis, the unconscious is a region of the mind, the content of which is characterised by the attribute of being repressed, conative, instinctive, infantile, unreasoning, and predominantly sexual."(3) And again: "The existence of the unconscious is the result of repression."(4)

(3) Psycho-analysis, p. 126.
(4) Ibid, p. 123.

So far we get a fairly clear idea of what is meant. But, in addition, Dr., Jones gives three more, definitions of the unconscious. One - It may be used as a synonym for "non-mental." That is the common use, as when, we say that an anaesthetised person is unconscious. But as psycho-pathologists recognise the existence of mental phenomena of which a person is unconscious, they cannot use the word in this sense. They therefore regard consciousness as "one attribute of mentality and not an indispensable one."(5) Two - There is a use of the term "unconscious" which might be called a "limbo" conception, "for in it the unconscious is regarded as being an obscure region of the mind, the content of which is largely characterised by neglect and oblivion."(6) Three - There is the psycho-analytical definition developed by Freud, which regards the "unconscious" as consisting of thoughts which have been repressed from consciousness. The third of these appears to be a return to the definitions in the last paragraph. The second definition is puzzling.

(5) Ibid, p. 121
(6) Ibid. p. 122.

Do psychologists regard the "unconscious" as being unconscious? Much activity goes on in it which might suggest that it is not. As far as one can gather, they do not intend to deny that the "unconscious" may be conscious. All they intend the term to convey is the self-evident proposition that the content of the "unconscious" is not identical with the content of normal consciousness. Some psychologists, notably Dr. Morton Prince, appear to have held the view that the "unconscious" is co-conscious with normal consciousness; just as the normal consciousness of one person, A, is co-conscious with the normal consciousness of another person, B. The term, the "unconscious," is therefore confusing. Nor does there appear to be complete unanimity in its use. Here is a definition of the "unconscious" given by a prominent psychoanalyst, Dr. Godwin Baynes. "The unconscious," he says, "is merely a term which comprises everything which exists, that has existed or that could exist beyond the range of this individual consciousness."(7) Whether Freud would have endorsed this excursion into the infinite may be doubted!

(7) Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. xxx, p. 68.

At any rate, we may relax from the difficulties of these definitions. In the present volume we shall use the term "subliminal self" to indicate that portion of the human being which is neither material body nor conscious mind and we shall avoid the use of the term "unconscious," which is more properly adapted to psycho-pathology.

As Myers said, the subliminal self contains a gold mine as well as a rubbish heap. Let us examine some of the evidence for this statement.

Source: "The Personality of Man. New Facts and their Significance" by G. N. M. Tyrrell (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1946).


Other articles by G. N. M. Tyrrell

• Alternatives to Discarnate Theory
• Attitude to Psychical Research. Part 1
• Attitude to Psychical Research. Part 2
• What is Psychical Research?
• What is Science?
• The Significance of the Whole
• Psychical Research and Religion
• Is there Anything Besides Fraud in the Physical Sιance Room?
• The Case of Patience Worth: An Outstanding Product of Automatic Writing
• Mrs Willet: Communications Ostensibly Proceeding from the Dead
• What is Science? The Opposition Between Science and Rationalism
• Discarnate Agency: More Evidence on the Discarnate Problem
• Trance Personalities
• Sense-Imagery
• Modus Operandi of the Mediumistic Trance
• The Boundary of the World of Sense
• The Movement of Modern Spiritualism

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