Let me count the ways. After 43 years I know your voice—whispering to me across the table, working the crowd with a mike, singing, crying, laughing, mumbling in your sleep. I know your body through the years—from young to aging with mine, every way of dressing and undressing it, all stages of childbearing, weary and thriving, dancing, dozing, rejecting, and receiving. Let me count your tastes in food by the hundreds and music and clothes and friends by the thousands and…and—but I know there’s no way to count the ways I know you.
Why do words fail me when I try to tell how I know you, how I know anyone? Words fail us all. Love songs and Shakespeare come up short. And don’t we have just as hard a time telling what we know about a familiar pathway, a favorite song, and a well-told joke? We’re inarticulate about these essentials of our lives not for lack of words but for lack of awareness of how we know.
We lack awareness, of course, of our unconscious minds. In Chapter 15 of The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (2011) David Brooks reminds us that most of what we know, we know unconsciously, just like the animals. Evolution has dictated it so, and each of our babies began with unconscious knowing, growing oh-so-slowly, remember, to more conscious thought.
I used to think of myself as a reasonable guy, but Brooks convinced me reason plays a small part in my life, especially my love life. He told me my conscious mind is feeble, operating at “a processing capacity 200,000 times weaker” than my unconscious mind. He reminded me that reason and logic and the scientific method are recent newcomers to the human condition, and they’re useful for solving the simple questions, like, Is the world flat? Or, How far is it to Nairobi? Or, How do cells replicate? For the complex stuff, we need more RAM and more juice.
Think for a minute, my Valentine, with your conscious mind about what your unconscious mind does for you while you’re preoccupied with the “more important” things.
Your unconscious mind keeps track of your body parts, so you don’t poke yourself in the eye when scratching your nose, and so you can glide with me across the dancefloor while winking at the dude over my shoulder.
Your unconscious mind, my dear, keeps track of your innards, so your heart and lungs and guts work in harmony, or when they don’t work so harmoniously, they signal you to sit down before embarrassing things happen.
While I’m talking with you in the car, your unconscious mind in the driver’s seat is scanning and mapping our surroundings while you intently focus on my every word so you can both converse with me and jump with a shout as soon as you drift across a lane line or take a wrong turn. Two minds hard at work in the same head.
Once you’ve learned them, your unconscious mind automates complex tasks, so it can take over driving your car while you fiddle with the sound system. It can speak for you, so once you became fluent in Swahili, it conjugated your verbs for you effortlessly.
Your unconscious mind identifies your complex patterns of physical sensations and stores them as memories in your library of emotions, which your conscious mind recognizes as the many shades of love, hate, glee, sorrow, trust, suspicion—the whole rainbow of emotions that guide your pursuit of people, tasks, behaviors, ideas, and me.
Try asking your conscious mind to do any of that stuff, much less all at once, and you quickly see that Brooks is right. Your conscious mind and mine are feeble newcomers next to the prodigious powers of our more ancient brains. Our rippling cortex wraps a thin skin of modern reasoning powers over the elaborate orchestration of unconscious processes deep beneath, not just deep in the brain but deep into our bodies, our hearts and bowels and marrow and blood and muscles and out to the farthest reaches. No wonder we talk about “knowing in my heart,” ”that gut feeling,” “muscle memory,” and “smelling danger.” It takes my whole body to make my whole mind know you in all your wondrous ways.
What is practice to the artist, linguist, machinist, dancer, athlete? Practice is the process of moving learning from the conscious to the unconscious mind. On your pillow in fourth grade you practiced saying the alphabet backwards so often that you could sing it out like a song, even now—Z, Y, X, W, V, U…. Later it was Spanish and Swahili on the pillow. When it comes to performing complex tasks, the conscious mind, so slow and deliberate, so guided by intention and effort and reason, is no match for the unconscious mind, which effortlessly achieves the speed and harmony and accuracy and consistency necessary to allow us to sometimes play “out of our minds.” At our best we operate with both minds in full swing, both intentional and intuitive, reasoning and feeling, science and art, modern and ancient, deliberate and automated, careful and effortless.
So, my longtime Valentine, I know you in uncountable ways. No library could archive your every voice, your moves, your moods, every gift, every time we’ve shared. But my archive comes easy, with plenty of room for more of you.