Elizabeth Bernays.jpg

Your Brain Knows More Than You Do

By Elizabeth Bernays

Followed by Q&A

Dick Shelton, a Tucson poet, often covers the computer screen when he is writing. “It helps to stop that self-editing process,” he says. Like many other writers he also finds it useful to write quickly whatever comes into his head without too much thought, and without analysis, because he finds that among the lines written that way are his best ones, even though others are nonsense. According to Alfred Corn, no one seriously questions that the first source of artworks is the unconscious.

Some years ago, and before I met Dick, I engaged in “timed writing” with two other women. We met at Borders every couple of weeks. One of us would open a page of verse at random, take the top line and read it out. Then each of us wrote as fast as we could, anything that crossed our minds for just ten minutes. After that we each read our writings to the other two. The most obvious thing about the process was how different and yet individually consistent our products were. Julie always had beautiful images with such heartfelt emotions that she often began to cry before she could complete her reading, apparently surprising herself. Ann invariably invented some strange fiction, and I usually had some kind of mixture of nature and nostalgia. I recently revisited some of the pieces I wrote and found some of the most interesting sentences I had ever written, convincing me that indeed processes of a subliminal nature were at work—inner thoughts that had not come into my conscious brain. There was a me in there that I didn’t know a lot about.

Because the results of these timed writings engaged my interest I began to read more about the process, often called “free writing,” in which writers intentionally try to suppress their logical thoughts and just let the words come. Sometimes the products are surprising to their authors, and so perhaps it is to be expected that for some people there is something supernatural about it. Thus there are many who believe that “automatic writing” is a way of obtaining some kind of message from a spirit or dead person.

Freud said, “The most complex mental operations are possible without the cooperation of consciousness,” and psychologists have built heavily on this, perhaps sometimes to excess. At any rate, for me, the ideas and wording that emerge, apparently automatically, don’t conflict with who I am at all; they are just better ways of saying things than I come up with when I concentrate on trying consciously to express my thoughts and feelings. Some abstract artists also say that their pictures best “paint themselves” when they don’t try too hard to do anything in particular.

Where is the person inside that we don’t know? How can there be a sophisticated personality about which we are not quite conscious? As a scientist I used to think that processing of problems did occur unconsciously because it was so common for me to suddenly find that an answer sprang to mind with little thought, but when I discussed this with a theoretician in neurobiology he said it was more likely that it was to do with random neural activity. In other words, at different times the starting point in the cacophony of brain activity differs and sometimes, by chance, a suitable starting point leads quickly to the right solution. But that was just his idea. More definitive answers are starting to come. 

In some recent studies, neurobiologists have been trying to understand how we have sudden moments of insight, those “Eureka” moments when suddenly we see an answer to a problem or discover some principle. Invariably there is an element of surprise as well as excitement. Our brains contain such an amazing and infinite set of ideas and associations, yet it turns out that as soon as the particular solution appears, there is a rush of special waves in the right hemisphere’s frontal cortex, and only after that does the revelation become something we are conscious of. In other words, there is a part of the brain that recognized the insight before we become aware of it. 

The process has been studied with brain imaging during events of insight that develop during the solving of carefully invented problems. A discovery or insight, and the wide eyes or “aha” exclamation, is preceded by an intense spike of brain activity thought to come from the sudden development of a new network of neurons across the cortex, which is then able to enter consciousness. According to the neurobiologists at work on this problem, there has first to be some focus on the issue, allowing new associations to get to work. Then there has to be some relaxation in the cortex, letting the more remote ideas in the right cortex provide new insight, and allowing the brain to become more receptive to new and unusual ideas. In fact, such relaxation can be monitored by its own type of brain wave, and it is possible to predict which subjects will come up with a new insight by examining which of them is indulging in the appropriate relaxation of focused thoughts.

And so it’s not hard to imagine that a warm bath, a long walk, a game of tennis, might enable the relaxation necessary for problem solving or production of novel ideas. In fact, the bathtub was where Archimedes discovered that by displacement of water one could measure the volume of objects, and there are thousands of similar stories. The big ideas have, more often than not, come when the person’s mind wandered, or the person was doing something quite unrelated to the question at hand.

It has been known for decades that a mental effort followed by a walk away from the effort consistently leads to higher levels of mental performance. Darwin had his garden walk, Haldane meditated, Google has ping-pong tables. Some use music, or yoga, others go to topless bars or go surfing, tube-riding inside the hollow curve of a wave. For myself, I gaze at sunrises and clouds where my mind rides free and seems to think of nothing at all. It is there that I have had my best scientific insights.

So what about the humanities? Artists know about the need for relaxation, because it allows moments of intensity of imagination and feeling. They, too, alternate between focused effort to think things through or manage form and then wandering mentally to allow the creative process free rein. Perhaps new inspiration comes in the same way as the insights do as found in neurobiological studies. In those timed writing sessions of years ago I let my mind go free, and I found the best writings. 

Maya Angelou plays solitaire when she writes her poetry, claiming that by using her ‘little brain,’ she was unlocking her ‘big brain.’ Others say that writing in poetic forms can be effective and liberating because focusing on the puzzle of the restrictions like rhyme leaves one open to ideas and themes that wouldn't otherwise have been considered. No doubt there are thousands of ways to encourage the parts of the brain engaged in unconscious thought, and it may be that doing so is important not just for insights, discoveries, problem solving, and creativity of all kinds. It may be just what we need for all our decision-making. The psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis said that when an important decision comes up he gathers together the relevant facts and gives it all of his attention at first. Then, he says: “I sit on things and rely on my gut.”

My print of Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles,” the original of which I saw in the National Art Gallery in Canberra, represents the unconscious in painting. Supposedly, when he created his paintings he would slip into a trance in which no conscious act was to manifest itself. Action painters such as Pollock supposedly let the paint drip onto the canvas while dancing, or even standing in the canvas, letting the paint fall where the subconscious mind wills, thus letting the unconscious part of the psyche express itself. However, it is difficult to interpret such paintings because they are supposed to be unconscious manifestations of creativity, and the viewers are left to make up their own understandings, or simply to enjoy whatever color, shape and vigor comes to their eyes. And so with “Blue Poles” I look and imagine ships’ masts, utility poles, tall grasses, railroad ties—new things come to me frequently, all on a wonderfully dynamic mess of orange and red and black and white. For unexplained reasons the painting is exciting and I leave it to my unconscious. It probably knows something that I don’t know.



Elizabeth Bernays is an entomologist and writer. She grew up in Australia, became a scientist in UK where she worked for the British Government on pests in developing countries. She immigrated to the United States as a Professor at the University of California Berkeley, following which she became Regents’ Professor at the University of Arizona, where she also obtained a MFA. As well as many technical papers and books, she has published 25 essays and a dozen poems in literary journals and won several awards for her writing.



Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?

A: I was inspired to write this piece by reading the research of several neurobiologists, including Ap Dijksterhuis, Earl Miller, Joy Bhattacharya and Jonathon Schooler.  The interesting findings seemed to mesh exactly with my experiences.


Q: Who were you, or who do you wish you had been, in a past life?

A: I think I only had one life, but in the past I was a biologist and loved it very much, and now it is again wonderful, to write.


Q: Straight road? Or winding road?

A: My path was not straight as I was, as a teenager, deemed subnormal. I was lucky however to have found myself in more ways than one.


Q: What's your favorite part of the writing process?

A: I like it best when I manage to find the right words for an idea. I don't know until I have put it away and looked at it again later, but if it seems right then, I am very happy.


Q: What are you working on now?

A: My current project is a series of nature essays where I look for the intersection of wild places and human activity.