The Scientific Imagination as an Unconscious Metaphoric Process

Since the nineteenth century it has been known from the following often quoted account given by the chemist Friederich August von Kekule that the creative imagination of scientists can be both involuntary and unconscious. Kekule described how his discovery of the closed-carbon-ring structure of organic compounds occurred unconsciously in a dream. He related that one afternoon in 1865 he fell asleep:

I turned my chair to the fire and dozed, he relates: Again the atoms were gambolling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by repeated visions of this kind, could now distinguish larger structures, of manifold confirmation; long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together; all twining and twisting in snakelike motion. But look! What is that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke. . . . Let us learn to dream, gentlemen. (Koestler 1964)

That an analogous unconscious process occurs while one is awake is illustrated by an equally famous account of the creativity of the unconscious. Below is an account of the French mathematician Henri Poincare's discovery or invention of what is called Fuchsian functions. Poincare was convinced that his mathematical creativity was a product of the unconscious mind. He wrote, "Most striking at first is this appearance of sudden illumination, a manifest sign of long, unconscious prior work. The role of this unconscious work in mathematical invention appears to me incontestable." Poincare provided the following reminiscence:

Just at this time, I left Caen, where I was living, to go on a geological excursion under the auspices of the School of Mines. The incidents of the travel made me forget my mathematical work. Having reached Coutances, we entered an omnibus to go someplace or other. At the moment when I put my foot on the step, the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to the find the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidian geometry. I did not verify the idea; I should not have had time, as, taking my seat in the omnibus, I went on with the conversation already commenced, but I felt a perfect certainty. On the return to Caen, for conscience's sake, I verified the result at my leisure. (From Hadamard 1945; my emphasis)

Poincare's unconscious process was primed by his inten-tionality, his intense desire to discover a solution, but it was then necessary for him divert his attention from this task; as he notes, "The incidents of the travel made me forget my mathematical work."

That the metaphoric process functions apart from language is beautifully illustrated in the following account provided by Einstein in response to an inquiry from the French mathematician Jacques Hadamard, who was investigating the role of the unconscious in mathematical thought.

The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be "voluntarily" reproduced and combined.

There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above-mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought—before there is any connection with logical construction and words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others.

The above-mentioned elements are, in any case, some of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.

According to what has been said, the play with the mentioned elements is aimed to be analogous to certain logical connections one is searching for. In a stage when words intervene at all, they are, in any case, purely auditive but they interfere only in the secondary stage as already mentioned. It seems to me that what you call full consciousness is a limit case which can never be fully accomplished. This seems to me connected with the fact called the narrowness of consciousness. (Hadamard 1945; my emphasis)

This excerpt from Einstein's letter to Hadamard does not refer directly to an unconscious process; rather, he refers to the "narrowness" of consciousness. He described the "play" of visual images and, more remarkably, the play of muscular (kinesthetic) sensations, which we can infer are the products of an unconscious metaphoric process. Only later and secondarily does Einstein revert to language in consideration of the need for communication to others.

The metaphoric process, when operating apart from language, can process fragmentary visual, auditory, and other bodily sensations. The metaphoric transfer of meaning can also occur between different sensory modalities, no matter how fragmented the elements are, such as isolated sounds of speech. I am reminded of a game described by the art historian Ernst Gombrich (1960). He invited the reader to play a game in which language consisted only of two words: ping and pong. If we had to name an elephant and a cat, the answer is evident, for pong is "heavier" and therefore means elephant. So that when Einstein reports that he plays with visual, auditory, and muscular elements, I have no doubt that he is describing a metaphoric process.

The French mathematician Alain Connes described an unconscious process that generates mathematical thought.2 Connes affirms the unconscious nature of mathematical thought in a published dialogue with the neurobiologist Jean-Pierre Changeux (Changeux and Connes 1995). Connes also observed, as did others, the need to suspend conscious intention for an unconscious process to take place. Connes summarizes his observations:

• There must be a conscious intention of what one wishes to achieve.

• Then this intention must be placed aside.

• One must allow for a period of germination or incubation.

• The unexpected solution appears at times accompanied by great ecstatic joy.

• This is followed by a period of critical evaluation.

Connes reports: "I've often observed too that once the first hurdle of preparation has been gotten over, one runs up against a wall. The main error to be avoided is trying to attack the problem head-on. During the incubation phase, you have to proceed indirectly, obliquely. If you think too directly about a problem, you fairly quickly exhaust the usefulness of the tools accumulated in the course of the first phase, and are apt to become discouraged. Thought needs to be liberated in such a way that subconscious work can take place." Changeux responds: "Is it a matter simply of giving working memory enough to do and giving greater rein to an unconscious process that relies more on long-term memory? Or is it, to the contrary, a kind of associational procedure that takes time because the elements that need to be put together belong to rather different contexts?"

I would reply to Changeux's question by suggesting that the unconscious creative imagination utilizes both (unconscious) long-term memory and an associative process linked by means of metaphor. This is what consumes time during the incubation period. Working memory merely initiates the process of conscious (and unconscious) intention as the day residue incubates a dream.

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