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Connecting Through an Unconscious Reality

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Connecting Through an Unconscious Reality


I first started to question the validity of our general concept of reality when I had a dream that I thought was real and dreamed something that actually happened.  It happened one morning when I was sleeping, an incessant beeping killed the silence of early morning. My roommate’s alarm clock was going off and she was not turning it off. Groggily, I dragged myself out of bed and went to turn it off, but my roommate beat me to it. I returned to bed and fell asleep instantly. A few minutes later I heard my roommate shout that she was late for work. When I woke up an hour later I was convinced that she had been late for work but I wasn’t sure whether or not I got out of bed to turn off her alarm. I didn’t know which scenario I had imagined and which one had actually happened. It wasn’t until after I talked to my roommate that I found out the truth, I had gotten out of bed but she was not late for work that day and she did not say anything when she got ready. My dream seemed just as much a part of reality as my real life action and without someone else’s opinion I had no way to tell which was which. How then do we determine reality? With our conscious or our unconscious?  And is reality defined by shared experience?

One possibility is that both the conscious and the unconscious parts of the mind determine reality. The two create their own interpretations of reality. Our conscious mind only sees reality as what it detects and observes, so things not brought to consciousness are not part of that construct of reality. The unconscious has a broader view of reality that includes recognition of the existence of things not identified by the conscious. Though it may seem counterintuitive, I will venture to say that the unconscious has a better grasp on reality and presents a reality that is more consistent with other people’s experiences than the conscious.

In Oliver Sacks’ essay “The Last Hippie,” Greg, a patient who has a very destructive brain tumor, shows that the unconscious is more powerful in deciphering reality than the conscious. As a result of the tumor, Greg is for the most part unconscious all the time. He has no short-term memory, is unknowing blind and lives ignorantly stuck in the sixties from moment to moment. Therefore consciously he does not construct a reality that is consistent with other people’s reality. The combination of blindness and the loss of the ability to form memories stagnates Greg’s concept of reality, creating a discrepancy with what other people consider real. Most people would say that Greg’s reality is wrong and that what they experience is right. But Greg would make the same argument for his case, so who is correct? I could only determine the validity of my own unusual morning experience when I checked with someone else who witnessed the situation.

Here is where the two different realities come into play. I wasn’t wrong in believing the reality of my dream and neither was Greg in believing his stagnant reality. Instead, I think there are two separate sets of reality, a collective reality and an individual reality. No two people experience the same thing in the same exact way and no two people have the same exact view of reality. Instead, people experience their own personal reality but then create an idea of reality that is similar to other people’s experiences. Greg, for example, is living mostly in his own personal reality, the reality that he is not actually blind and that it is still the 1960’s. This reality differs greatly from the collective reality that everyone else experiences.

But how can we claim that one view of reality has more significance than another if everyone experiences a different reality? We cannot say for sure which reality is more valid, but common ground can be found amongst the different representations of reality. This common ground is what human connections and relationships are built on. Relating to one another is one of the great things about being human; it is the basis for development and tends to make us happier. Therefore the collective reality is an essential part of being a fully functioning, thriving, and happy human being. Greg is not functioning at the highest level because he does not share a strong collective reality with others. Without a memory he is unable to piece together a reality that relates. But even though he shares little in terms of reality with others he comes to unconsciously share one thing. To participate in the collective reality our unconscious works very hard to make sure our experiences relate to others.

Despite Greg’s inability to form new memories, he unconsciously becomes aware of his father’s death but he never consciously acknowledges it. After being told of the passing of his father he changes the way he acted. “He no longer wants to go home, on weekends, on Thanksgiving, as he so loved to - he must find something sad or repugnant in the fatherless house now, even though he cannot (consciously) remember or articulate this” (Sacks, 72). Greg can understand the reality to the situation unconsciously but can’t bring these feelings to his consciousness. When asked, he still believes his father is alive even though he unconsciously acts as if he knows his father has passed. In this case his conscious is blind to the collective reality while his unconscious has a better understanding of it. Although Greg cannot understand the majority of the collective reality he can unconsciously recognize a small part of it. This shows that the unconscious has a better grasp of shared reality.

In another essay Sacks writes about a surgeon, Dr. Carl Bennett, who has Tourette’s Syndrome. Bennett shows, yet again, a better grasp of the collective reality through his unconscious. Sacks explains how Bennett stopped himself from saying “hideous,” his usual tic, while he was examining his patients skin growths. Sacks explicates his reasoning for Bennett’s action, “This, I learned later, was not a conscious suppression – Bennett had no memory of this tic – and yet it seemed to me there must have been, if not a conscious, then a subconscious solicitude and tact at work” (Sacks, 94). Bennett was unconsciously aware of the situation he was going to create. Consciously the tic never happened, he didn’t remember it, and he didn’t do anything to stop it. But his unconscious was aware of the touchy situation and thus inhibited himself from embarrassing the man. The interesting thing about this is that the tics stem from the unconscious originally; Bennett does not control them nor is he consciously aware of them. But other people recognize them, Sacks noticed the tic, so it was part of the collective reality. The unconscious recognized the collective reality but his consciousness did not. Like Greg, he understood the reality that others experienced better through the unconscious.

      Although the examples Sacks presents are unique, the basic principles apply to everyone. Most people want to communicate their ideas in a way that others will understand. Because of this we unconsciously create a collective reality that we know will relate to other people. Without realizing it we use language that other people will understand and speak in a context that they will relate to and we do the same with constructing reality. Perhaps this is the reason we unconsciously create an idea of reality that others can share, so we can connect. It did not matter which dream or reality I believed that morning because for all intensive purposes I was the only one involved. I could make up anything and convince myself it was true and if no one else was involved, no harm would come of it and no one would know. But as humans, we want to share experiences, we want to find common ground, so we find similarities and base our concept of reality on a collection of people’s experiences. If we couldn’t do this we would not be able to understand Sacks’ stories or any stories about people with different mindsets and experiences because we would be living alone in our private realities. This unconscious ability breaks down this lonely barrier and connects us to each other.



Work Cited


Sacks, Oliver. An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. New York: Vintage Books.