He recalled a months-old event. He visited his sister and, while waiting in the living room, saw a letter on the center table. It caught his attention, for the letter was for a Dora, but the last name was not his sister’s. current or premarital name. He asked his sister who gave a curious explanation. She and her husband had engaged a new maid six months earlier who had the same name as her, Dora. Since the same name for the maid and mistress would cause confusion, she agreed in that household to go by a different name. Freud saw the connection readily: in writing the case history of a person whose real name could not be used for reasons of privacy, his mind was automatically coming up with the name of a person, the maid, whose real name had to be suppressed in favor of a pseudonym.
You don’t have to be a psychologist to notice the strange ways that our mind can work. I remember something curious that happened to me. I was preparing for a speech for the Rotary Club and wanted to use an example from Somerset Maugham’s novel Theater, in which a famous middle-aged actress is besotted with a young accountant. I could not recall the name of the actress, however hard I tried, and was flabbergasted that a weird word kept surfacing in my mind, “Beaconsfield.” It took me a little while to figure out that I had earlier been reading Andre Maurois’s fascinating biography of British premier Disraeli. The French novelist dwelled heavily on the romance of socialite Mary Ann Evans, Viscountess Beaconsfield, who was fifteen years older than Disraeli but loved and married him.
I suspect that psychologists will, in fact, have difficulty explaining the mysterious ways the human mind moves – as William Cowper said of God – to perform its wonders. I recall an interview in which philosopher Bertrand Russell was asked how he solved problems. Russell replied that he never tried to solve any problems. Heavens, how did he then solve the great problems of mathematics and philosophy? The old man laughed and said that, when he encountered a problem, he went and took a long shower. An answer somehow popped in his mind. His method was to cogitate on an issue and then simply leave it to his mind to come up with an answer.
I have since discovered another option. I find that, if I start a column at night and go to sleep, the next morning I wake with several new ideas that help my progress. I have to do no more than just let my mind dwell on the chosen theme for a few minutes, perhaps as I brush my teeth or pop vitamin pills, and I wake the next morning with unexpected, sparkling-new ideas. Sometimes the ideas are so new that I have to abandon my original idea of the essay and take a new track.
Why does this work? Neurologist Barry Gordon says that our mind is a reservoir of many ideas and we are not aware of most of them. They float around, subconscious, seldom recognized. When an idea gains force on its own or is churned by an event, the ‘full beam of consciousness’ centers on it and we become attentive. When I relax, either in a shower stall or on a comfortable bed, I am taking advantage of the rich bank of subterranean ideas that are already circulating in my mind. They have been built up over the years by what I have read or heard, learned or experienced, deduced or inferred.
Not everybody is writing a column and has to find a way to beat the deadline. But everyone can make use of new or novel ideas. Ideas are precious. The seeds of such ideas often lie dormant within us, hidden and unknown. Just waiting to be mobilized by the magic touch of a curious but relaxed mind – just like a sleeping beauty waiting to be roused from unending sleep by a princely kiss.