There Is No Such Thing as Unconscious Thought

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A behavioral scientist unravels one of our most cherished conceptions.

By Nick Chater | NAUTILUS

The great French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincaré (1854–1912) took a particular interest in the origins of his own astonishing creativity. His achievements were impressive: His work profoundly reshaped mathematics and physics—including laying crucial foundations for Einstein’s theory of relativity and the modern mathematical analysis of chaos. But he also had some influential speculations about where many of his brilliant ideas came from: unconscious thought.

Poincaré found that he would often struggle unsuccessfully with some mathematical problem, perhaps over days or weeks (to be fair, the problems he got stuck on were difficult, to say the least). Then, while not actually working on the problem at all, a possible solution would pop into his mind. And when he later checked carefully, the solution would almost always turn out to be correct.

How was this possible? Poincaré’s own suspicion was that his unconscious mind was churning through possible approaches to the problem “in the background”—and when an approach seemed aesthetically “right,” it might burst through into consciousness. Poincaré believed that this “unconscious thought” process was carried out by what might almost be a second self, prepared and energized by periods of conscious work, yet able to work away on the problem in hand entirely below the level of conscious awareness.

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