Superstitions, fairy tales, and talismans are more than silly remnants of our early human history — they are bridges to the unconscious mind. Psychiatrist Daniel Z. Lieberman, MD, talks about just how complicated the unconscious is, and how rituals and fairy tales actually make us more sophisticated managers of our conscious mind.
Phil Stieg: Hello. I’d like to welcome to Professor Daniel Lieberman. He specializes in clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences and has recently and has recently written a book, “Spellbound Modern Science, Ancient Magic, and the Hidden Potential of the Unconscious Mind”. Let’s learn how our conscious mind communicates with our unconscious mind to become self-actualized individuals. Dan, thank you for being with us today.
Daniel Lieberman: Thanks for having me, Phil.
Phil Stieg: I have to admit it almost took me half the book to kind of figure out where you were taking me. In the first part, you state that the unconscious is something that is difficult to put into words. But then you spend a lot of time talking about the historical perspective of the unconscious through fairy tales, numbers, alchemy. Is that really what you’re trying to do then is historically tell us how people in the past treated the unconscious mind and where we’re going with it now in the future.
Daniel Lieberman: The unconscious is hard to understand, and what I tried to do in the book was to make it more understandable by approaching it from two different directions; the modern scientific approach, and the more ancient supernatural tradition approach.
The reason why I did that is because people today really rely a great deal on science, and understandably so. It’s given us an enormous amount of power, enormous benefits, enormous prosperity, and of course, from our point of view, Phil, enormous health.
The problem is that these sciences are young sciences. They’re at an early stage of their development. And the brain is so enormously complex, putting it under a microscope is really not enabling us to understand it at the level we need to in order to really get a handle on what’s going on inside our own heads.
But there’s another source of information about the unconscious, and that is these ancient traditions of the supernatural. The unconscious is so powerful, and it works in ways that are so alien to our conscious way of thinking that traditionally its effects have been attributed or personified to supernatural creatures, gods and goddesses, spirits and demons. And this study of the unconscious has been going on for millennia. And as a result, in some ways, in many ways, it has a more sophisticated understanding of what’s going on than the scientific approach.
Now, I think that modern people really look down on these. They say, oh, myths. Myth is another word for something that’s not true. And, yeah, it’s not true in a physical, materialist sense, but it is true in a psychological sense. And I would say that’s more important.
Phil Stieg: You intimate that we don’t spend enough time discussing and thinking about our unconscious state. Why is that so important?
Daniel Lieberman: I think that most people really have no idea just how important their unconscious mind is in their life. And if I could just give two examples: emotion and desire.
So, emotion, we don’t control our emotions, and yet our emotional experiences are the most important experiences in our life. There’s a big difference between being happy, satisfied and fulfilled and being miserable, frustrated and angry. Now, we can do things that perhaps might make positive emotions more likely to occur, but there’s no guarantee. And so we’ve all had the experience of planning activities that we think are going to be fun and enjoyable and turning out to have a horrible time. So, emotions are very powerful and they’re outside of our control. It’s our unconscious that determines what our emotions will be.
Now, one more example, and that’s the example of desire. We spend the entirety of our lives pursuing our desires. Whether they’re short-term desires for a particular food or experience or long-term desires for a career or a particular accomplishment. That’s how we spend our time and energy. Who decides what those desires will be? It’s your unconscious mind. And they’re not always what our conscious minds would like them to be. A classic example is when you fall in love with somebody who is absolutely wrong for you, and you destroy your life pursuing. And so sometimes our unconscious will give us good, healthy desires, sometimes not so much. But really, it’s our unconscious mind that’s responsible for what we call fate and destiny.
Phil Stieg: I was impressed by how little information the conscious mind can process can you put it in relative terms for me? I’m having a hard time fathoming what that means.
Daniel Lieberman: The conscious mind is powerful because it’s able to use rational thought. And that’s enabled us to transcend instinct and to use tools like mathematics and reason. But the bandwidth of the conscious mind is very, very limited. The conscious mind does about 20 bits per second. And to put that in perspective, that’s about the bandwidth it takes to read sentences. When you get really engrossed in a book, when you’re really focusing on what you’re reading, everything else fades into the background because the conscious mind only runs things serially, one thing at a time. Now I’m reading, now I’m planning what I’m going to do after lunch, those kinds of things.
The unconscious mind, by contrast, processes in parallel. So you have dozens and dozens of circuits processing at the same time. It thinks in more primitive, more impressionistic ways. It doesn’t use logic and reason in order to do it, but its bandwidth is absolutely enormous. It has half a million times more processing power than the conscious mind.
So, while the conscious mind is focusing on only one thing at a time. The unconscious mind is pulling in all of these other things we’re completely unaware of. And it’s able to do very sophisticated processing with this information, and it gives it to us in the form of gut feelings and inspiration.
Phil Stieg: So tell me, where does the gut feeling or intuition then, fit into this?
Daniel Lieberman: The unconscious is busy doing all kinds of processing and it’s got to get it to the conscious mind in some way in order for a partnership to exist, which I think is one of the most important goals in life, forging that effective partnership between the two parts of the mind. So how does it do it? Well, it does it through the body, it does it through emotions, but it also does it through these things gut feeling, intuition and inspiration.
Different people will trust their intuition at different levels. I just ran across an article that looked at what lucky people have in common, people who describe themselves as being very, very lucky. One of them is that they trust their intuition. And I think that there is a very direct, direct link. I mentioned that the workings of the unconscious mind, because they have such a profound influence on our life, but occur outside of our awareness, we often attribute it to fate or destiny. And I think that’s a very good way to describe it. And when people have this kind of relationship where they trust it, they get these intuitive ideas and they act on it. It makes them feel lucky. It makes them feel like the universe is acting in their favor. But in fact, what’s happening is their unconscious mind is acting in their favor, and they call it luck.
Phil Stieg: In the book, you quote Einstein, I guess somebody asked him, how do I raise my child to be a scientist like you? And Einstein’s response was, what? Read fairy tales? And they said, okay, well, what else should they read? And they said he said, More fairy tales. What’s the link there between the unconscious and fairy tales?
Daniel Lieberman: Einstein seemed to have had a very good relationship with his unconscious mind. A lot of his ideas just came to him out of the blue, a flash of inspiration. I think the classic example is when he realized that people accelerating in an elevator experience something identical to gravity, and that led him to the theory of general relativity, which absolutely revolutionized our understanding of reality. That hit him in a flash that came from his unconscious mind. And so he realized the value of it.
And this is more speculative, but I think that he also realized that fairy tales were ancient stories that had evolved over thousands of years that were designed to help us better understand the unconscious mind and develop a better relationship in which the insights that the unconscious mind had developed would be more accessible to the conscious mind. And so, I think that that was he was saying, if you want to be a pioneer, if you want to make new discoveries, you need to open up these channels to the places from which intuition and inspiration come from.
Phil Stieg: Is that why in the second portion of your book, the whole section on magic, where you talk about fairy tales, alchemy, mystical numbers, and tarot cards, was your purpose to help us understand the magic in the unconscious?
Daniel Lieberman: Well, let me put it this way. If you sent a child to school and she never learned about the basic laws of physical nature, we would say, oh, my goodness, you’ve neglected her education. I believe the same is true about these ancient traditions of magic.
As important as it is to understand the rational aspects of a scientific understanding of the world, it is just as important for us to understand how our unconscious works.
Because if we are all one-sided if we only use the rational parts of our brain, we’re going to be unhappy, unfulfilled and unsuccessful. And so what I wanted to do is I wanted to give the reader a little mini education, an introduction into the other side of knowledge, and to try to give them a sense of the fact that this is just as important as the rational, scientific side.
We should all be reading myths, fairy tales, and literature about magic.
Phil Stieg: We both find the superstition of athletes to be remarkable. From your perspective, what is the relationship between superstition and the unconscious?
Daniel Lieberman: Anybody who depends on physical dexterity, physical performance for a living, like athletes, know that some days are better than others. Athletes in particular will sometimes give absolutely inspired performances and that highlight reel will be watched over and over for the rest of their career. Obviously, that level of performance is not in their control, or they would perform at that level in every game.
What determines when they’re going to have this inspired artistic performance? Well, it’s the unconscious mind, and athletes are like everybody else. When the unconscious mind does something like that, they instinctually attribute it to a supernatural cause. Athletes are more superstitious than other people. Professional athletes are more superstitious than amateurs, and elite professionals are the most superstitious of all.
Superstition is an acknowledgment that there are invisible powers that have an influence over the lives of human beings. If you ask a lot of people are there these invisible powers that have control over people? And they would say, of course not. Absolutely not. But if you watch them carefully, you will catch them engaging in superstitious rituals.
The best example is Michael Jordan. You watch a basketball game, you see all the players wearing big baggy shorts. Michael Jordan was the first guy to do that. Before that, they wore much smaller shorts. But Michael Jordan wanted to wear his own college shorts from the North Carolina Tar Heels underneath because he thought that that would bring him good luck. And so he had to have a bigger pair of baggy pants over it. And that’s where that came from. But he was very superstitious. Tom Brady, who we see in the news a lot, he carries protection stones. When he goes out to play as a middle-aged guy, he needs a little extra protection from those defense men who are trying to kill him.
Phil Stieg: I have to admit, I am so thankful to Michael Jordan because when I look at the old videos of Bill Russell and Havlicek playing with those skimpy little shorts on, I’m going, My God, I can’t believe those guys did that.
Daniel Lieberman: It’s a little cringy isn’t it?
Phil Stieg: In the third part of the book, you bring up the concepts of meditation and mindfulness. What role do you think that plays or how does it facilitate our understanding of our unconscious?
Daniel Lieberman: Forging a working relationship with the unconscious, mind is something that’s very difficult. It’s difficult for a number of reasons. One reason is that it’s so alien to our conscious mind that we just don’t want to acknowledge that we have that inside of us.
Another reason is that there’s so much value to be gotten out of a conscious perspective. If we cultivate our conscious mind, our ability to use rational thought, logic and reason, that’s going to lead to a lot of success in the material world. We’re going to get good jobs, and we’re going to make a lot of money.
Cultivating the unconscious does not seem to have those same immediate benefits. Now, as a psychiatrist, I’d say, well, it has the benefit of making you happy, fulfilled and satisfied. It also has the benefit of making you a good, kind, generous person. But it’s probably not going to put more money in the bank. So, there’s not a lot of encouragement in our society to go after that. The other challenge is that the unconscious mind is so much more powerful than consciousness that it can overwhelm it.
Meditation and mindfulness are disciplines that have been developed that approach these problems. It opens us up to alternative ways of seeing the world. When we meditate more mindful, we quiet that internal dialogue of the conscious mind constantly narrating what’s going on around us, and we open ourselves up to hearing other voices. At the same time, we strengthen our willpower.
Anybody who’s tried to meditate or be mindful knows that it’s basically impossible. You can’t do it, but that’s okay. That’s okay, because in a way, it’s like lifting weights. Lifting weights is not about getting on the bench and pressing 200 pounds. Lifting weights is about pushing your muscles to the point of failure because that makes them stronger. And that’s what meditation is.
Meditation is about failure. It’s about developing an intention to focus on one thing and failing at it, but then trying again. And that acceptance of failure and trying again over and over and over strengthens the conscious mind, and over time, it makes it better able to tolerate the onslaught that can occur when you open up the passages into the unconscious.
Phil Stieg: You go on to say that getting in touch with your unconscious mind is the most important thing that you will ever do. With all that darkness – is it really?
Daniel Lieberman: Absolutely. You don’t want to be one-sided. In the book, I looked at a modern myth that is full of mythological motifs, and that is Star Wars. In mythology and folklore and fairy tales, oftentimes the shadow is personified as a separate character. And if we look at Luke Skywalker, we see his shadow personified as Darth Vader. But what that means is that Luke Skywalker is only half a person. He’s a little bit too good because his shadow is outside of him. And as a result, as a character, he’s not all that compelling. He’s really kind of flat.
Who’s the most compelling character? Well, that’s Han Solo. And we clearly see Han Solo’s shadow, right? He’s a scoundrel. He’s a smuggler. He’s a cold-blooded killer. The way he blew away that bounty hunter…
Phil Stieg: You’re obviously a Harrison Ford fan.
Daniel Lieberman: I am a Harrison Ford fan. So, we don’t want the darkness to be autonomous. We don’t want it to take over our actions. But we do want it to be part of who we are because it’s an authentic part of who we are, and we want to be able to tame it. The wild, brutal, animalistic aspects of ourselves that are in our shadow can be tamed and then they become sources of strength.
Phil Stieg: Do you recommend to people that they should go sit on a mountaintop, sit by a quiet lake, sit on a beach and use that as an environment to get in better touch with their unconscious, number one. And number two, if you do get there, am I going to know it?
Daniel Lieberman: Yeah, I think that works for a lot of people. I know it works for me. Not too long ago, I was out in California, and I visited a redwood forest for the first time, Muir Woods. And, boy, was that powerful. It works for some people. It doesn’t work for everybody. And it’s not necessary.
You can get in touch with your unconscious mind no matter where you are. Some environments will be easier than others. For some people, it’s going to be a museum. For others, it will be a concert hall. For some people, it will be a homeless shelter where they’re volunteering their time.
But the question is, how do you know what’s happening? And that’s a wonderful question. I love that question because it’s what I’m most interested in. You know what’s happening when you experience a non-ordinary state of consciousness. Now, what is that?
Phil Stieg: Ordinary is relative, right? Ordinary view is different than me.
Daniel Lieberman: Ordinary is kind of relative, but sometimes we feel that something is happening. And in common parlance, we call that a magic moment.
Magic moments often do occur in nature by the beach, on a mountaintop. Magic moments also happen with intimacy with other people. But whatever it is, we know when it’s happening and the world feels like a different place. It feels more magical. And we do experience that non-ordinary level of consciousness. It’s ineffable. It cannot be put into words, but I think we all know what it is.
Phil Stieg: And that unconscious component could be either bright or very dark, as you’ve indicated, correct?
Daniel Lieberman: Yes, that’s right.
Phil Stieg: Sadly, it’s dark sometimes.
Daniel Lieberman: Yeah, that’s the bright invasion of the unconscious. But we can also experience despair, terror, being overwhelmed with rage when we’re no longer in control of our behavior.
Phil Stieg: So that was the question. In terms of advice that you give to your patients for them when they are looking for their unconscious, what do you describe to them as going to be their AHA moment? Like “ooh, I just experienced it”.
Daniel Lieberman: Yeah. We think about theories of the unconscious as tools that we can use to help people with mental illness. I don’t think that’s accurate. I rarely talk about the unconscious with my patients, only with the highest functioning healthiest ones, because, as I said, the unconscious is dangerous. It’s too powerful, and people who are mentally ill are weakened in terms of their ability to tolerate things. So I think understanding the unconscious is something for healthy people who want to grow and find their authentic selves, not so much for sick people who are trying to get better.
Phil Stieg: Dan, as a result of reading this book, what is it that you want me to carry away from it?
Daniel Lieberman: What I’m hopeful is that the reader will gain a new appreciation for the importance of the unconscious mind.
In Western society. we’ve become too one-sided. We have looked at the power of rational consciousness the technology, the prosperity, the wealth that it’s brought us, and we’ve become absolutely enamored of it to the point where we’ve abandoned the other side, and that has not worked out well.
We have the capacity to destroy the world with our technology. Whether it’s a result of climate change or nuclear holocaust, our emotional sophistication has not kept up with our cognitive sophistication.
My hope is that people will read this book and they will realize that both sides are important. And just as I said, education does a good job of giving our children an understanding of the material world of science and technology.
I would love to see people paying a little bit more attention to art, philosophy, music, fairy tales, the kinds of things that make us more sophisticated managers of our unconscious.
Phil Stieg: Dr. Daniel Lieberman, thank you so much for spending time with us and helping us understand both our conscious and unconscious mind. We need to be in better touch with that to find our better natures. Thank you so much for being with us.
Daniel Lieberman: Thanks for having me, Phil. It’s been a pleasure.