How do you understand the relationship between the unconscious, memory, truth, and emotional experience?

The unconscious: I think of the unconscious as something like the Gulf Stream. It runs deep below the surface and affects everything about our experience in ways to which most of us are, most of the time, completely oblivious. Maybe with a dollop of gravity, an invisible force exerting a gentle pull in one direction, always. That’s an incomplete admixture there, metaphorically speaking. The unconscious, to my mind, resists discovery mightily. It disguises itself, denies its own existence, even as it exerts a hold over our agency that is profound and undeniable.

Memory: My understanding of memory is not unlike my understanding of art. It’s a thing we make to give voice to our wishes, our fears, our longings. Sometimes, memory can be like a photograph: a seemingly “accurate” rendition of something that “happened.” Other times, it can be more like an impressionist painting – something that, in its departure from “accuracy” conveys meaning far greater than any that could be captured by realism. Sometimes, it’s more like Rothko’s swaths of color, Agnes Martin’s lines, Picasso’s deconstructed portraits, or Dali’s trippy/melty/surreal landscapes. In any event, the relationship between “memory” and whatever it is in “reality” to which a “memory” refers is, to my mind, sort of beside the point. I have a section on this web site called “Memory or Fantasy,” so named because I’m not really convinced the line between those two is anywhere near as sharp as we often believe. Or that it’s even a line. Here’s an article about two signal ways that our memories fail us – both in terms of their “accuracy” and then, in our systematic, predictable, over-confidence in their accuracy, notwithstanding overwhelming evidence against that claim of accuracy. Our courts still admit bystander witness testimony in spite of our scientifically established certainty that it is unreliable. Why? Because we like the idea of truth, of certainty, of memory as a guide to history. And we fear the muddle that comes of grappling honestly with the limitations of memory.

Truth*: I just don’t really understand this one. “Truth” seems to be some sort of attempt to declare a victor in contested accounts of “reality.” What if “truth” were defined as “that which everyone agrees as true”? Or, “that which cannot be disproved by anything another might say.” The former is a sort of global definition; the latter, a highly personal one. It is, for example, “true” that the sun rises each morning (or at least, has done thus far). No one would disagree with that, or, those who might have all sorts of other challenges that are beyond the scope of this particular amateur. Similarly (or maybe differently), it is “true” that my understanding of my childhood is that I often lay in my crib, long before I had words, my tears going unheard (or un-responded-to). I don’t know if that latter “truth” would have been validated or contradicted by a nanny-cam in my nursery; I do know that it doesn’t matter.

* I know that philosophers have written about truth for centuries. I’m blissfully ignorant of nearly all they’ve written, and none of what I say here is even remotely related to any of what they might have to say. I’m not concerning myself with some sort of philosophical problem; I’m addressing myself to the ways I think of “truth” in my life.

Emotional experience: Here, for me, is the closest thing to “truth.” My emotional experience is known only (and only partially) by me. Almost by definition, what I know it to be is what it is. Sometimes, it’s more than that, as there are aspects of it of which I may be unaware. I often discover an emotional experience while meditating. First, I’ll feel my breaths running shallow and quick. Then, I’ll follow them and discover some anger, or fear. Then, I’ll follow that and discover some emotion my body had been experiencing, and it’ll morph/grow/develop into a feeling, an emotion of which I’m consciously aware in a symbolized way. Emotional experience is where the juice is for me, whether in the moment or long ago. See my “memory” of the crib above: the emotional experience is true for me in a way that trumps any “facts.”

The relationship(s) between all these: I’ve sort of touched on this throughout. I privilege the unconscious and emotional experience over memory and truth nearly always. I believe powerfully that my friend, M, who was deeply overprotective of her first-born, was, in her overprotectiveness, defending against her very very unconscious murderous rage at her infant. I believe my wrestling with smoking reflects a struggle between my conscious desire to live and my unconscious longing to be with my mother in death. Never mind, to remind myself of her, to join her, in the activity which killed her. And, perhaps, by being unable to quit as she was, to defend against the painful conclusion that she could have quit by living out a failure to do so. I believe our unconscious longings and fears shade everything we experience and do. I believe truth and memories are things we do; the unconscious and emotional experiences are things that happen to us.

This is unedited, a first pass….


  1. Everything is important. But memory is what makes us unique individuals. A person who has lost his memory as a child who has just been born into the world.

  2. Interesting thoughts. Suggestive. I wouldn’t edit that. Perhaps “First Pass” is the most honest one.

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