Fun Fact - Choosing Colors Subconsciously

In the previous article I referred to the subconscious mind as a scientific revolution, along with universal gravity, relativity, and evolution. This places Freud on the same stage as Newton, Einstein, and Darwin. Some might say Freud does not belong in this hall of fame, along side these luminaries. Fair enough, it's all a matter of opinion I suppose, since one cannot objectively compare these men or their accomplishments. Still, I believe Freud initiated a scientific revolution as surely as the others.

A revolution is the replacement of an erroneous paradigm with a correct one. For example, prior to 1900 everyone believed time was absolute. Einstein replaced this comfortable intuition with a world where two clocks can each run slower than the other. This does not mean Einstein was perfect, he made mistakes like everyone else. (Ok, not like everyone else, he made damn few mistakes, but he made one or two.) We're not looking for perfection here, we're looking for ideas that changed the world. In this sense, Freud's subconscious mind makes the grade. Freud challenged a cherished belief: the human mind understands itself and its actions. This universal point of view was motivated by hubris, (dare I say it), at a subconscious level.

"Of course I understand myself. Do you think I am not in control of my actions? Do you think I might behave in an irrational manner that I cannot explain? Don't be ridiculous. I know exactly why I do the things I do, and I have a complete understanding of my thoughts and my motivations."

This was wrong of course, but it seemed self-evident, and it was almost as difficult to dislodge as the earth-centered universe, or the creation of man in God's image. We like to think we are rational beings; it is unsettling to learn we are not.

This does not mean Freud was perfect - far from it. Some of his ideas bordered on the ridiculous, and even his key insights were sometimes taken to an extreme, so that it was hard to take them seriously. In the medical journal Psychiatry, Allen Wheelis encouraged us to exercise restraint, saying, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." He attributed this quotation to Freud, but that is probably apocryphal. Mis-steps and exaggerations notwithstanding, Freud forced a fundamental shift in our perspective, a change that he brought about by taking a hard look at who we are and how we behave.

The mathematician Georg Cantor would probably declare, after five minutes of thought, that Freud's results are obvious. We cannot understand ourselves, for then we would have to be greater than ourselves. A toaster cannot understand how a toaster works, a computer cannot debug its own software, and the human mind cannot understand all the motivations behind its thoughts and actions. Think of it this way. You know that the sky is blue, and you know that you know the sky is blue, but do you know that you know that you know the sky is blue? Yes, perhaps, if you think about it for a while, but your mind is not infinite, and at some point the process must stop. Perhaps you know7 that the sky is blue, but you do not know8 that the sky is blue. There is then at least one thought in your mind that you don't understand and can't explain. It is mathematically inevitable.

This is a rather contrived example, so let me describe a real world behavior in myself that I could not explain, until my friend helped me figure it out. We didn't delve into my dreams or engage in psychoanalysis; we simply sat down with pencil and paper and looked for the underlying pattern. It was there all the time, I just couldn't see it. This experience, along with the weight of scientific evidence, convinced me that Freud was right.

Due to an unusual birth defect, I was born legally blind. For many years I could see pretty well, well enough to read, and watch tv, and tool around my neighborhood on a bike. I made good use of my telescope and microscope as a kid, and I'm glad I did. I still remember what a rainbow looks like, and the brightly colored images of the Flintstones as they danced across my tv screen.

My sight began to fade as I entered my teen-age years, and today I have no vision at all, not even light and shadow. When I went to college I tried to picture people as I use to see them, including classmates and professors whom I had never seen before. I didn't want to imagine them naked, so I put clothes on them, clothes of a particular color. My roommate was dressed in orange, my calculus professor wore green, and the girl that I very much wanted to date wore yellow. I really didn't give it much thought, it was just a system to help me visualize people that I could not see. I explained this to my friend Jay and he was naturally curious.

"How do you select the color?" he asked.

"I really don't know, it just comes to me."

"Is it a continuum of colors, or are you selecting from a finite set?"

I thought for a moment. "It is definitely a finite set. There are three or four shades of green, two shades of yellow, blue, pink, white, three or four reds, etc."

Jay pulled out paper and pencil. "We're going to figure this out. Let's write down all the people you know and their colors."

I don't recall who spotted the pattern first, Jay or me. In any case, it quickly jumped out at us. The color was determined by the first letter of the first name, or the last name if the first name was not known. For example, my calculus professor Dr. Tomber wore green because I addressed him by his last name, (I didn't even know his first name), and T = dark green. There were exceptions of course, but these were usually people that I knew for a long time. Perhaps I had actually seen them in the clothes they usually wore. Aside from these anomalies the pattern was consistent.

As so often happens in science, the answer to one question leads to another. How did these letters get their colors?

Using the names as a guide, I was able to visualize most of the alphabet. A is apple red, B is light yellow, C is sky blue, D is leaf green, E is black, F is dark blue, and so on. Suddenly it snapped into my consciousness, a memory of a toy that I played with when I was 3 years old. It was a letter board, white with a black border. the white plastic covered a metal backing. Letters and numbers stuck to the board by magnets. Each letter was plastic, with a small magnet inside, and the letters were different colors. Sure enough, the letters had the colors that I now assigned to people. I don't think I played with this toy past the age of 5, so this was a very early memory. Somehow my mind put all this together at a subconscious level, without my understanding. Even when asked, I could not put it together - until we spent time and effort teasing out the pattern. Call it psychotherapy if you wish, or psychoanalysis, or simply data mining. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

I have since found other behaviors, some benign and some destructive, that are directed by the subconscious, and can only be explained after careful analysis. You have to start by setting your ego to the side. "No, I don't know why I do this, let's sit down and try to figure it out." You can talk it through with your therapist if you like, if you are lucky enough to have health insurance - or you might be able to make progress with a good friend whom you trust. Bear in mind, you will never know the reasons for everything you do, because the human mind cannot completely understand itself.

Further Reading

Sigmond Freud
Freud and the cigar