Falling off the porch and other adventures of the subconscious

March 2019

Psychology teaches us that our subconscious mind is much more responsible for what we think and do than we believe. My metaphor for this is a rider on a bucking bronco. The rider represents our conscious mind (which is usually what we mean when we say “I”). “I” is spending every ounce of their energy just trying to stay on top of the bucking horse, which is our subconscious.

The bronco rider knows they are not in control. Our conscious minds are not so lucky. They have little idea of the power of our subconscious — most of the time. If we study psychology or do therapy, we learn how our subconscious affects our behavior in relationships. But until recently we had very little knowledge of the role of our subconscious in our everyday thoughts and actions.

A new discipline called “Behavioral Economics” is studying the subconscious, especially as it affects our economic decisions; and if you have any interest I recommend “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.

Occasionally our subconscious comes out of hiding and takes us over in a way that makes its power very clear. This has happened four times in my life (so far).

Falling off the porch.

The first time I was nine or ten. We were all playing half ball (it’s like stick ball with half of a rubber ball) in the back yard. The older kids had the field and I was on the second-floor porch returning balls that got stuck in the rain gutters. A ball rolled into the gutter after bouncing off the house and I quickly jumped over the railing and bent down to get it; holding on to one rung of the railing.

Next thing I knew I was calmly reviewing the morning’s events in my mind, trying to figure out if I was really falling from the second story porch, or if it was all a dream. In a process that took only a second or so, I carefully reviewed each event in my mind – waking up, getting dressed, eating breakfast, coming out to play – and decided, quite calmly, that I really must be falling. Then I hit the ground. The railing I was holding had popped out and I had toppled.

I landed on a concrete walk, but in the best way possible. I was totally relaxed, and I was turned in such a way that my head missed the concrete, landing on a loose wire fence. My butt landed on wooden stairs, and only my shoulder hit the concrete. The concrete might have killed me had my head hit it.

My Aunt had a car and my mother got her to drive me to Beth Israel Hospital, which involved some pressure as she was a Christian Scientist with strong beliefs about medicine. At BI they took an X-ray ($15), gave me a glass of ice water ($2.50) and told me that being relaxed when I hit had saved me from broken bones and more serious injury.

Losing it while armed.

The second time my subconscious took control was not for such a positive reason. I might have killed a guy.

I was in Basic Training in the Army at Fort Dix just before the big call-up for Vietnam (July ’65). We had been on a long march, and along with about a dozen other guys I had fallen behind because of blisters on my feet (23 as it turned out). Every step was painful. The guy who was left in charge of this group was unhappy with our progress and after yelling at us, he jammed his rifle butt into the small of my back and pushed.

My subconscious took over. The rest of me watched as, in one continuous motion, I whipped my rifle off my shoulder, turned, and swung the butt up under my antagonist’s chin, just as we had been trained to do. I could have broken his neck, and (sadly) I think I would have been glad to, but the look of fear on his face, which had drained of all blood, stopped the process. Everything turned off just as fast as it had been turned on. Thank God. I’d still be in an Army prison.

It’s strange to watch yourself as if someone else was doing something “you” would never do. It’s unsettling. But it happened again in Penn Station, New York.

Acting crazy in Penn Station.

It had been a very long day for three of us from Boston visiting our new employer in Manhattan (Doremus and Company, Advertising); and just before lunch, it started to snow heavily. We learned at 3 o’clock that our flight had been cancelled, so we decided to take the train home.

One of us, Yoshi, from Japan, had worked as a tour guide for Japanese visitors to Manhattan and claimed he knew the subway system. Since we couldn’t get a cab, we let Yoshi take us into the tunnels. We had to go from 59thStreet to 33rdStreet, Penn Station.

We ended up in Brooklyn.

Trying to get back, Yoshi got split off by accident. Asking directions to Penn Station, John and I got back to more or less where we had started. We decided to walk to Grand Central on 42ndStreet. Maybe we could take a commuter train to Stamford and switch to Amtrak to Boston. But when we got to Grand Central it was jammed. The information booth was completely swamped.

We left Grand Central and walked another 10 or 15 blocks to Penn Station, in the snow. When we got there, Yoshi was waiting for us. He had found the right train back from Brooklyn.

“Is the seven o’clock train for Boston still scheduled?” I asked.

“I don’t know, couldn’t find out,” Yoshi said.

So I got in line for the information booth and when my turn came, I asked the guy standing there whether or not we could still get the seven o’clock for Boston. It was probably 7:15.

“I don’t know,” he said.

My subconscious took over. I watched as some unknown power turned “me” into a crazy man.

“What the Fuck? You don’t know? This is the  &^%%$!!  Information Booth. It’s your  &^$#**  job to know!“

I watched myself yelling at him, wondering who the hell was doing that, until he said, fear in his eyes,…

“Take it easy, Mac…take it easy… I’ll find out.”

My subconscious backed off.

The train, it turns out, was on the track below us. Waiting. We went downstairs intending to add our bodies to the standing room only crowd already on board when a conductor came trotting down the platform yelling…“Fire in the tunnel, the train is cancelled.”

In the end we got a ten o’clock flight to Boston on Delta and landed at about 2 AM in the snow. Everyone cheered.

Is my subconscious smarter than I am?

My fourth experience with this level of subconscious control was far more positive and left me shaking my head in amazement. It sounds simple but it isn’t.

I went to the Registry to renew my driver’s license maybe 25 years ago and found that they had a new eye-testing machine. I put my head into the receiving hood and saw three columns. Two were filled with black eye chart symbols over yellow backgrounds in five rows: A U Z D H etc. The third just had yellow background rows.

The examiner said “Read column 3 line 2.”

I did.

“Read column 2 line four.”

I did.

“Read column 1 line 1.”

I was about to say there was nothing in column one when the yellow lines got filled in with black letters like the other two columns.

I was freaked, but I didn’t say anything. I wanted my license.

That night the answer came to me. Because the vision in my left eye is so weak (20-400 corrects only to 20-50 with a strong astigmatism), my brain cuts out the left eye picture except where it is the only “feed” my brain is getting, usually in the periphery.

The rows in the eye-testing machine were set up so that only the left eye could see the first column; only the right eye could see the third column and only the second column appeared to both eyes.

When the examiner asked me to read the first line in the first column my subconscious figured out what was going on and brought up the first column so it showed up in my brain. How smart is that? My conscious mind had no idea what was going on. My subconscious figured it out and fixed it.

This incident left me a little spooked. And convinced me (as if I needed any convincing at that point) that my subconscious was, in some ways smarter than “I” am.

(When I renew my license now, as soon as I see the blank first column, I tell myself “Show me the first column,” and up it comes.)

One day, my subconscious decided to play.

There is one more incident where my subconscious went off on its own, but without taking over.

I was playing goalie one Sunday in a pick up soccer game that met every week in Newton. I felt as if I was playing normally but people seemed to be shooting right at me instead of past me. I was stopping everything.

One of the guys from the other team whose open shot on goal I had just stopped shouted, “What’s going on with you today? I’ve never seen you play like that – move so fast.”

The other players stopped and waited for me to answer. I didn’t know what they were talking about. Everything felt the same to me. I didn’t feel as if I were unusually fast. I felt as if they were all just hitting the ball atme instead of pastme.

I don’t know why my subconscious chose to control my soccer game that day (it has never happened since), but I was well aware that “I” was not making those spectacular plays.

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