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Chapter 1


It will be our business in the following chapters to consider whether the unconsciousness, or quasi-unconsciousness, with which we perform certain acquired actions, would seem to throw any light upon Embryology and inherited instincts, and otherwise to follow the train of thought which the class of actions above-mentioned would suggest; more especially in so far as they appear to bear upon the origin of species and the continuation of life by successive generations, whether in the animal or vegetable kingdoms.

In the outset, however, I would wish most distinctly to disclaim for these pages the smallest pretension to scientific value, originality, or even to accuracy of more than a very rough and ready kind--for unless a matter be true enough to stand a good deal of misrepresentation, its truth is not of a very robust order, and the blame will rather lie with its own delicacy if it be crushed, than with the carelessness of the crusher. I have no wish to instruct, and not much to be instructed; my aim is simply to entertain and interest the numerous class of people who, like myself, know nothing of science, but who enjoy speculating and reflecting (not too deeply) upon the phenomena around them. I have therefore allowed myself a loose rein, to run on with whatever came uppermost, without regard to whether it was new or old; feeling sure that if true, it must be very old or it never could have occurred to one so little versed in science as myself; and knowing that it is sometimes pleasanter to meet the old under slightly changed conditions, than to go through the formalities and uncertainties of making new acquaintance. At the same time, I should say that whatever I have knowingly taken from any one else, I have always acknowledged.

It is plain, therefore, that my book cannot be intended for the perusal of scientific people; it is intended for the general public only, with whom I believe myself to be in harmony, as knowing neither much more nor much less than they do.

Taking then, the art of playing the piano as an example of the kind of action we are in search of, we observe that a practised player will perform very difficult pieces apparently without effort, often, indeed, while thinking and talking of something quite other than his music; yet he will play accurately and, possibly, with much expression. If he has been playing a fugue, say in four parts, he will have kept each part well distinct, in such a manner as to prove that his mind was not prevented, by its other occupations, from consciously or unconsciously following four distinct trains of musical thought at the same time, nor from making his fingers act in exactly the required manner as regards each note of each part.

It commonly happens that in the course of four or five minutes a player may have struck four or five thousand notes. If we take into consideration the rests, dotted notes, accidentals, variations of time, &c., we shall find his attention must have been exercised on many more occasions than when he was actually striking notes: so that it may not be too much to say that the attention of a first-rate player may have been exercised--to an infinitesimally small extent-- but still truly exercised--on as many as ten thousand occasions within the space of five minutes, for no note can be struck nor point attended to without a certain amount of attention, no matter how rapidly or unconsciously given.

Moreover, each act of attention has been followed by an act of volition, and each act of volition by a muscular action, which is composed of many minor actions; some so small that we can no more follow them than the player himself can perceive them; nevertheless, it may have been perfectly plain that the player was not attending to what he was doing, but was listening to conversation on some other subject, not to say joining in it himself. If he has been playing the violin, he may have done all the above, and may also have been walking about. Herr Joachim would unquestionably be able to do all that has here been described.

So complete would the player's unconsciousness of the attention he is giving, and the brain power he is exerting appear to be, that we shall find it difficult to awaken his attention to any particular part of his performance without putting him out. Indeed we cannot do so. We shall observe that he finds it hardly less difficult to compass a voluntary consciousness of what he has once learnt so thoroughly that it has passed, so to speak, into the domain of unconsciousness, than he found it to learn the note or passage in the first instance. The effort after a second consciousness of detail baffles him--compels him to turn to his music or play slowly. In fact it seems as though he knew the piece too well to be able to know that he knows it, and is only conscious of knowing those passages which he does not know so thoroughly.

At the end of his performance, his memory would appear to be no less annihilated than was his consciousness of attention and volition. For of the thousands of acts requiring the exercise of both the one and the other, which he has done during the five minutes, we will say, of his performance, he will remember hardly one when it is over. If he calls to mind anything beyond the main fact that he has played such and such a piece, it will probably be some passage which he has found more difficult than the others, and with the like of which he has not been so long familiar. All the rest he will forget as completely as the breath which he has drawn while playing.

He finds it difficult to remember even the difficulties he experienced in learning to play. A few may have so impressed him that they remain with him, but the greater part will have escaped him as completely as the remembrance of what he ate, or how he put on his clothes, this day ten years ago; nevertheless, it is plain he remembers more than he remembers remembering, for he avoids mistakes which he made at one time, and his performance proves that all the notes are in his memory, though if called upon to play such and such a bar at random from the middle of the piece, and neither more nor less, he will probably say that he cannot remember it unless he begins from the beginning of the phrase which leads to it. Very commonly he will be obliged to begin from the beginning of the movement itself, and be unable to start at any other point unless he have the music before him; and if disturbed, as we have seen above, he will have to start de novo from an accustomed starting-point.

Yet nothing can be more obvious than that there must have been a time when what is now so easy as to be done without conscious effort of the brain was only done by means of brain work which was very keenly perceived, even to fatigue and positive distress. Even now, if the player is playing something the like of which he has not met before, we observe he pauses and becomes immediately conscious of attention.

We draw the inference, therefore, as regards pianoforte or violin playing, that the more the familiarity or knowledge of the art, the less is there consciousness of such knowledge; even so far as that there should seem to be almost as much difficulty in awakening consciousness which has become, so to speak, latent,--a consciousness of that which is known too well to admit of recognised self-analysis while the knowledge is being exercised--as in creating a consciousness of that which is not yet well enough known to be properly designated as known at all. On the other hand, we observe that the less the familiarly or knowledge, the greater the consciousness of whatever knowledge there is.

Considering other like instances of the habitual exercise of intelligence and volition, which, from long familiarity with the method of procedure, escape the notice of the person exercising them, we naturally think of writing. The formation of each letter requires attention and volition, yet in a few minutes a practised writer will form several hundred letters, and be able to think and talk of something else all the time he is doing so. It will not probably remember the formation of a single character in any page that he has written; nor will he be able to give more than the substance of his writing if asked to do so. He knows how to form each letter so well, and he knows so well each word that he is about to write, that he has ceased to be conscious of his knowledge or to notice his acts of volition, each one of which is, nevertheless, followed by a corresponding muscular action. Yet the uniformity of our handwriting, and the manner in which we almost invariably adhere to one method of forming the same character, would seem to suggest that during the momentary formation of each letter our memories must revert (with an intensity too rapid for our perception) to many if not to all the occasions on which we have ever written the same letter previously--the memory of these occasions dwelling in our minds as what has been called a residuum--an unconsciously struck balance or average of them all--a fused mass of individual reminiscences of which no trace can be found in our consciousness, and of which the only effect would seem to lie in the gradual changes of handwriting which are perceptible in most people till they have reached middle-age, and sometimes even later. So far are we from consciously remembering any one of the occasions on which we have written such and such a letter, that we are not even conscious of exercising our memory at all, any more than we are in health conscious of the action of our heart. But, if we are writing in some unfamiliar way, as when printing our letters instead of writing them in our usual running hand, our memory is so far awakened that we become conscious of every character we form; sometimes it is even perceptible as memory to ourselves, as when we try to remember how to print some letter, for example a g, and cannot call to mind on which side of the upper half of the letter we ought to put the link which connects it with the lower, and are successful in remembering; but if we become very conscious of remembering, it shows that we are on the brink of only trying to remember,--that is to say, of not remembering at all.

As a general rule, we remember for a time the substance of what we have written, for the subject is generally new to us; but if we are writing what we have often written before, we lose consciousness of this too, as fully as we do of the characters necessary to convey the substance to another person, and we shall find ourselves writing on as it were mechanically while thinking and talking of something else. So a paid copyist, to whom the subject of what he is writing is of no importance, does not even notice it. He deals only with familiar words and familiar characters without caring to go behind them, and thereupon writes on in a quasi-unconscious manner; but if he comes to a word or to characters with which he is but little acquainted, he becomes immediately awakened to the consciousness of either remembering or trying to remember. His consciousness of his own knowledge or memory would seem to belong to a period, so to speak, of twilight between the thick darkness of ignorance and the brilliancy of perfect knowledge; as colour which vanishes with extremes of light or of shade. Perfect ignorance and perfect knowledge are alike unselfconscious.

The above holds good even more noticeably in respect of reading. How many thousands of individual letters do our eyes run over every morning in the "Times" newspaper, how few of them do we notice, or remember having noticed? Yet there was a time when we had such difficulty in reading even the simplest words, that we had to take great pains to impress them upon our memory so as to know them when we came to then again. Now, not even a single word of all we have seen will remain with us, unless it is a new one, or an old one used in an unfamiliar sense, in which case we notice, and may very likely remember it. Our memory retains the substance only, the substance only being unfamiliar. Nevertheless, although we do not perceive more than the general result of our perception, there can be no doubt of our having perceived every letter in every word that we have read at all, for if we come upon a word misspelt our attention is at once aroused; unless, indeed, we have actually corrected the misspelling, as well as noticed it, unconsciously, through exceeding familiarity with the way in which it ought to be spelt. Not only do we perceive the letters we have seen without noticing that we have perceived them, but we find it almost impossible to notice that we notice them when we have once learnt to read fluently. To try to do so puts us out, and prevents our being able to read. We may even go so far as to say that if a man can attend to the individual characters, it is a sign that he cannot yet read fluently. If we know how to read well, we are as unconscious of the means and processes whereby we attain the desired result as we are about the growth of our hair or the circulation of our blood. So that here again it would seem that we only know what we know still to some extent imperfectly, and that what we know thoroughly escapes our conscious perception though none the less actually perceived. Our perception in fact passes into a latent stage, as also our memory and volition.

Walking is another example of the rapid exercise of volition with but little perception of each individual act of exercise. We notice any obstacle in our path, but it is plain we do not notice that we perceive much that we have nevertheless been perceiving; for if a man goes down a lane by night he will stumble over many things which he would have avoided by day, although he would not have noticed them. Yet time was when walking was to each one of us a new and arduous task--as arduous as we should now find it to wheel a wheelbarrow on a tight-rope; whereas, at present, though we can think of our steps to a certain extent without checking our power to walk, we certainly cannot consider our muscular action in detail without having to come to a dead stop.

Talking--especially in one's mother tongue--may serve as a last example. We find it impossible to follow the muscular action of the mouth and tongue in framing every letter or syllable we utter. We have probably spoken for years and years before we became aware that the letter h is a labial sound, and until we have to utter a word which is difficult from its unfamiliarity we speak "trippingly on the tongue" with no attention except to the substance of what we wish to say. Yet talking was not always the easy matter to us which it is at present--as we perceive more readily when we are learning a new language which it may take us months to master. Nevertheless, when we have once mastered it we speak it without further consciousness of knowledge or memory, as regards the more common words, and without even noticing our consciousness. Here, as in the other instances already given, as long as we did not know perfectly, we were conscious of our acts of perception, volition, and reflection, but when our knowledge has become perfect we no longer notice our consciousness, nor our volition; nor can we awaken a second artificial consciousness without some effort, and disturbance of the process of which we are endeavouring to become conscious. We are no longer, so to speak, under the law, but under grace.

An ascending scale may be perceived in the above instances.

In playing, we have an action acquired long after birth, difficult of acquisition, and never thoroughly familiarised to the power of absolutely unconscious performance, except in the case of those who have either an exceptional genius for music, or who have devoted the greater part of their time to practising. Except in the case of these persons it is generally found easy to become more or less conscious of any passage without disturbing the performance, and our action remains so completely within our control that we can stop playing at any moment we please.

In writing, we have an action generally acquired earlier, done for the most part with great unconsciousness of detail, fairly well within our control to stop at any moment; though not so completely as would be imagined by those who have not made the experiment of trying to stop in the middle of a given character when writing at fit speed. Also, we can notice our formation of any individual character without our writing being materially hindered.

Reading is usually acquired earlier still. We read with more unconsciousness of attention than we write. We find it more difficult to become conscious of any character without discomfiture, and we cannot arrest ourselves in the middle of a word, for example, and hardly before the end of a sentence; nevertheless it is on the whole well within our control.

Walking is so early an acquisition that we cannot remember having acquired it. In running fast over average ground we find it very difficult to become conscious of each individual step, and should possibly find it more difficult still, if the inequalities and roughness of uncultured land had not perhaps caused the development of a power to create a second consciousness of our steps without hindrance to our running or walking. Pursuit and flight, whether in the chase or in war, must for many generations have played a much more prominent part in the lives of our ancestors than they do in our own. If the ground over which they had to travel had been generally as free from obstruction as our modern cultivated lands, it is possible that we might not find it as easy to notice our several steps as we do at present. Even as it is, if while we are running we would consider the action of our muscles, we come to a dead stop, and should probably fall if we tried to observe too suddenly; for we must stop to do this, and running, when we have once committed ourselves to it beyond a certain point, is not controllable to a step or two without loss of equilibrium.

We learn to talk, much about the same time that we learn to walk, but talking requires less muscular effort than walking, and makes generally less demand upon our powers. A man may talk a long while before he has done the equivalent of a five-mile walk; it is natural, therefore, that we should have had more practice in talking than in walking, and hence that we should find it harder to pay attention to our words than to our steps. Certainly it is very hard to become conscious of every syllable or indeed of every word we say; the attempt to do so will often bring us to a check at once; nevertheless we can generally stop talking if we wish to do so, unless the crying of infants be considered as a kind of quasi-speech: this comes earlier, and is often quite uncontrollable, or more truly perhaps is done with such complete control over the muscles by the will, and with such absolute certainty of his own purpose on the part of the wilier, that there is no longer any more doubt, uncertainty, or suspense, and hence no power of perceiving any of the processes whereby the result is attained--as a wheel which may look fast fixed because it is so fast revolving. {2}

We may observe therefore in this ascending scale, imperfect as it is, that the older the habit the longer the practice, the longer the practice, the more knowledge--or, the less uncertainty; the less uncertainty the less power of conscious self-analysis and control.

It will occur to the reader that in all the instances given above, different individuals attain the unconscious stage of perfect knowledge with very different degrees of facility. Some have to attain it with a great sum; others are free born. Some learn to play, to read, write, and talk, with hardly an effort--some show such an instinctive aptitude for arithmetic that, like Zerah Colburn, at eight years old, they achieve results without instruction, which in the case of most people would require a long education. The account of Zerah Colburn, as quoted from Mr. Baily in Dr. Carpenter's "Mental Physiology," may perhaps be given here.

"He raised any number consisting of ONE figure progressively to the tenth power, giving the results (by actual multiplication and not by memory) FASTER THAN THEY COULD BE SET DOWN IN FIGURES by the person appointed to record them. He raised the number 8 progressively to the SIXTEENTH power, and in naming the last result, which consisted of 15 figures, he was right in every one. Some numbers consisting of TWO figures he raised as high as the eighth power, though he found a difficulty in proceeding when the products became very large.

"On being asked the SQUARE ROOT of 106,929, he answered 327 before the original number could be written down. He was then required to find the cube root of 268,336,125, and with equal facility and promptness he replied 645.

"He was asked how many minutes there are in 48 years, and before the question could be taken down he replied 25,228,800, and immediately afterwards he gave the correct number of seconds.

"On being requested to give the factors which would produce the number 247,483, he immediately named 941 and 263, which are the only two numbers from the multiplication of which it would result. On 171,395 being proposed, he named 5 x 34,279, 7 x 24,485, 59 x 2905, 83 x 2065, 35 x 4897, 295 x 581, and 413 x 415.

"He was then asked to give the factors of 36,083, but he immediately replied that it had none, which was really the case, this being a prime number. Other numbers being proposed to him indiscriminately, he always succeeded in giving the correct factors except in the case of prime numbers, which he generally discovered almost as soon as they were proposed to him. The number 4,294,967,297, which is 2^32 + 1, having been given him, he discovered, as Euler had previously done, that it was not the prime number which Fermat had supposed it to be, but that it is the product of the factors 6,700,417 x 641. The solution of this problem was only given after the lapse of some weeks, but the method he took to obtain it clearly showed that he had not derived his information from any extraneous source.

"When he was asked to multiply together numbers both consisting of more than these figures, he seemed to decompose one or both of them into its factors, and to work with them separately. Thus, on being asked to give the square of 4395, he multiplied 293 by itself, and then twice multiplied the product by 15. And on being asked to tell the square of 999,999 he obtained the correct result, 999,998,000,001, by twice multiplying the square of 37,037 by 27. He then of his own accord multiplied that product by 49, and said that the result (viz., 48,999,902,000,049) was equal to the square of 6,999,993. He afterwards multiplied this product by 49, and observed that the result (viz., 2,400,995,198,002,401) was equal to the square of 48,999,951. He was again asked to multiply the product by 25, and in naming the result (viz., 60,024,879,950,060,025) he said it was equal to the square of 244,999,755.

"On being interrogated as to the manner in which he obtained these results, the boy constantly said he did not know HOW the answers came into his mind. In the act of multiplying two numbers together, and in the raising of powers, it was evident (alike from the facts just stated and from the motion of his lips) that SOME operation was going forward in his mind; yet that operation could not (from the readiness with which his answers were furnished) have been at all allied to the usual modes of procedure, of which, indeed, he was entirely ignorant, not being able to perform on paper a simple sum in multiplication or division. But in the extraction of roots, and in the discovery of the factors of large numbers, it did not appear that any operation COULD take place, since he gave answers IMMEDIATELY, or in a very few seconds, which, according to the ordinary methods, would have required very difficult and laborious calculations, and prime numbers cannot be recognised as such by any known rule."

I should hope that many of the above figures are wrong. I have verified them carefully with Dr. Carpenter's quotation, but further than this I cannot and will not go. Also I am happy to find that in the end the boy overcame the mathematics, and turned out a useful but by no means particularly calculating member of society.

The case, however, is typical of others in which persons have been found able to do without apparent effort what in the great majority of cases requires a long apprenticeship. It is needless to multiply instances; the point that concerns us is, that knowledge under such circumstances being very intense, and the ease with which the result is produced extreme, it eludes the conscious apprehension of the performer himself, who only becomes conscious when a difficulty arises which taxes even his abnormal power. Such a case, therefore, confirms rather than militates against our opinion that consciousness of knowledge vanishes on the knowledge becoming perfect--the only difference between those possessed of any such remarkable special power and the general run of people being, that the first are born with such an unusual aptitude for their particular specialty that they are able to dispense with all or nearly all the preliminary exercise of their faculty, while the latter must exercise it for a considerable time before they can get it to work smoothly and easily; but in either case when once the knowledge is intense it is unconscious.

Nor again would such an instance as that of Zerah Colburn warrant us in believing that this white heat, as it were, of unconscious knowledge can be attained by any one without his ever having been originally cold. Young Colburn, for example, could not extract roots when he was an embryo of three weeks' standing. It is true we can seldom follow the process, but we know there must have been a time in every case when even the desire for information or action had not been kindled; the forgetfulness of effort on the part of those with exceptional genius for a special subject is due to the smallness of the effort necessary, so that it makes no impression upon the individual himself, rather than to the absence of any effort at all. {3}

It would, therefore, appear as though perfect knowledge and perfect ignorance were extremes which meet and become indistinguishable from one another; so also perfect volition and perfect absence of volition, perfect memory and utter forgetfulness; for we are unconscious of knowing, willing, or remembering, either from not yet having known or willed, or from knowing and willing so well and so intensely as to be no longer conscious of either. Conscious knowledge and volition are of attention; attention is of suspense; suspense is of doubt; doubt is of uncertainty; uncertainty is of ignorance; so that the mere fact of conscious knowing or willing implies the presence of more or less novelty and doubt.

It would also appear as a general principle on a superficial view of the foregoing instances (and the reader may readily supply himself with others which are perhaps more to the purpose), that unconscious knowledge and unconscious volition are never acquired otherwise than as the result of experience, familiarity, or habit; so that whenever we observe a person able to do any complicated action unconsciously, we may assume both that he must have done it very often before he could acquire so great proficiency, and also that there must have been a time when he did not know how to do it at all.

We may assume that there was a time when he was yet so nearly on the point of neither knowing nor willing perfectly, that he was quite alive to whatever knowledge or volition he could exert; going further back, we shall find him still more keenly alive to a less perfect knowledge; earlier still, we find him well aware that he does not know nor will correctly, but trying hard to do both the one and the other; and so on, back and back, till both difficulty and consciousness become little more than a sound of going in the brain, a flitting to and fro of something barely recognisable as the desire to will or know at all--much less as the desire to know or will definitely this or that. Finally, they retreat beyond our ken into the repose--the inorganic kingdom--of as yet unawakened interest.

In either case,--the repose of perfect ignorance or of perfect knowledge--disturbance is troublesome. When first starting on an Atlantic steamer, our rest is hindered by the screw; after a short time, it is hindered if the screw stops. A uniform impression is practically no impression. One cannot either learn or unlearn without pains or pain.


But I may say in passing that though articulate speech and the power to maintain the upright position come much about the same time, yet the power of making gestures of more or less significance is prior to that of walking uprightly, and therefore to that of speech. Not only is gesticulation the earlier faculty in the individual, but it was so also in the history of our race. Our semi-simious ancestors could gesticulate long before they could talk articulately. It is significant of this that gesture is still found easier than speech even by adults, as may be observed on our river steamers, where the captain moves his hand but does not speak, a boy interpreting his gesture into language. To develop this here would complicate the argument; let us be content to note it and pass on.


Nevertheless, the smallness of the effort touches upon the deepest mystery of organic life--the power to originate, to err, to sport, the power which differentiates the living organism from the machine, however complicated. The action and working of this power is found to be like the action of any other mental and, therefore, physical power (for all physical action of living beings is but the expression of a mental action), but I can throw no light upon its origin any more than upon the origin of life. This, too, must be noted and passed over.

Samuel Butler

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