Cormac McCarthy explains the brutal, beautiful neuroscience of the unconscious

“The facts of the world do not for the most part come in narrative form. We have to do that.”
“The facts of the world do not for the most part come in narrative form. We have to do that.”
Image: EPA/The Pulitzer Prizes
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When Cormac McCarthy writes an essay on the origin of language and the history of the unconscious mind, you can expect to find yourself wiser after reading it. The author, who has a cult fanbase for his novels The Road, All the Pretty Horses, and No Country For Old Men, doesn’t disappoint in his new piece for the science magazine Nautilus.

It turns out McCarthy has been thinking about the unconscious and how it relates to human language for a couple of decades. He has indulged this exploration as a member of the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit organization whose researchers study the “underlying, shared patterns in complex physical, biological, social, cultural, technological, and even possible astrobiological worlds,” according to its website.

And now McCarthy has somehow distilled the lofty ideas, unanswered questions, and epiphanies collected during this long inquiry into a beautifully written narrative.

But of course he did. That’s his calling, as he writes in the essay: “The facts of the world do not for the most part come in narrative form. We have to do that.”

“The Kekulé Problem” begins with McCarthy’s take on one of history’s most famous dreams: the German chemist August Kekulé’s vision of the ouroboros, a snake eating itself, which provided a visual answer to his question about the shape of the benzene molecule. He shared that solution with the world in an 1865 paper.

This story raises a logical problem, points out McCarthy (who favors minimal punctuation and doesn’t use apostrophes in negative contractions):

The problem of course—not Kekulé’s but ours—is that since the unconscious understands language perfectly well or it would not understand the problem in the first place, why doesnt it simply answer Kekulé’s question with something like: ‘Kekulé, it’s a bloody ring,’” To which our scientist might respond: “Okay. Got it. Thanks.”

Why the snake? That is, why is the unconscious so loathe to speak to us? Why the images, metaphors, pictures? Why the dreams, for that matter.

A logical place to begin would be to define what the unconscious is in the first place. To do this we have to set aside the jargon of modern psychology and get back to biology. The unconscious is a biological system before it is anything else. To put it as pithily as possibly—and as accurately—the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal.

The rest of the essay gently sinks into that question, examining what the unconscious doesn’t do (like tell us to keep breathing), and where it excels (in solving mathematical equations, for instance).

It’s actually so common for mathematicians to solve problems in their dreams that George Zweig, the Russian-American physicist and friend to McCarthy, calls sleeping the Night Shift. The unconscious teaches us—our conscious, decision-making brain—lessons through recurring dreams, McCarthy explains, writing this hilarious dialogue for that mysterious part of our primeval minds:

Here the unconscious may well be imagined to have more than one voice: He’s not getting it, is he? No. He’s pretty thick. What do you want to do? I dont know. Do you want to try using his mother? His mother is dead. What difference does that make?

While language is useful for describing problems, thinking is an unconscious act, McCarthy demonstrates, pointing out that because of language, we can remember novels and books—but we do that using concepts and visual representations in our mind, not by remembering the words we read.

He describes language as a force that at some point took possession of our brains, like “a parasitic invasion”:

The sort of isolation that gave us tall and short and light and dark and other variations in our species was no protection against the advance of language. It crossed mountains and oceans as if they werent there. Did it meet some need? No. The other five thousand plus mammals among us do fine without it. But useful? Oh yes. We might further point out that when it arrived it had no place to go. The brain was not expecting it and had made no plans for its arrival. It simply invaded those areas of the brain that were the least dedicated.

Eventually McCarthy does offer an answer to that question of why Kekulé’s unconscious conjured up the snake. I won’t share it, but I’ll tell you it’s related to the unconscious mind’s long history, dating back to the earliest humans of two million years ago, predating language by about 900,000 years.

Read the whole essay at Nautilus to find out, but keep in mind it’s just a hypothesis. After all, as McCarthy writes, “How the unconscious goes about its work is not so much poorly understood as not understood at all.”