For three weeks over a Christmas holiday, my children and I had been working on a computer game called Riven. We were stuck. The game involved wondering through a world picking up clues, opening hidden passageways, finding codes to open locked doors into other worlds. However, for the last three days we had been unable to open a locked box which required a secret code. The strange thing is we had the code. I was sure it was the right code, but when I put the code into the lock it would not open. It was infuriating. My kids had given up. I was about to. I had the code to open the door, but the door would not open. Even a cheat book was not helpful it told us to use every combination of numbers to find the right code. Evidently the cheat book people hadn’t cracked this one. It didn’t=t make sense. However, on the third night of our being stuck, I awoke at 3:00 AM out of a deep dreamless sleep, sat up in bed and said excitedly aloud, AThe code is in base 5, not base 10!@ It was absolutely clear. The problem with the frustrating door code was that I had naturally assumed it was in base 10, instead of the obscure base 5. In base 10 we use the numbers 1, 2, 3, . . . 10, 11, etc. However, in base 5 the numbers go 1, 2, 3, 4, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 20, . . . etc. So that when what I thought was a 7, was equivalent of 12 in base 5. In the coding system used in the game this completely changed what the numbers meant. Why hadn=t seen this before? The hints had been everywhere. The people of the imagined land inhabiting the computer had worshiped the number five. There were fives carved everywhere. It made perfect sense. The next morning with complete confidence I called my children together, input the code into the lock reformulated in base 5 and pushed the button. The door swung wide. We here in.
Unconsciously, my brain had been doing things without me being consciously aware. It had been reviewing memories of screen shots from the computer game. It had been exploring concepts from number theory. It had been trying to find a solution to the problem of opening the door without my consciousness even being involved. My conscious choices had set the task certainly. My conscious mind had been involved in exploring the computer game, in learning the materials that were needed to define and consider the problem, but once that was done, by brain had gone to work without the conscious mind. Apparently, even while I, the conscious part of me, was asleep, my subconscious was busily at work, sorting thorough masses of material, searching for a solution to the door problem. It had found that solution in the middle of the night. Apparently, given my worry involved in searching for a solution, my brain thought it an important enough event that it woke me up and sent the solution to the problem up to my conscious mind. The utter confidence of the subconsciousness that it had found a solution is interesting in itself. When I woke up I knew I had found the solution. I knew! Look at the interplay here, conscious mind defining problem, unconscious mind working on the problem, finding a solution and knowing it had found it and sending up into consciousness. What an amazing process!
That our brain can work on things without us what does mean about free agency? Who was it working on this project? Who was responsible for my brain’s continued attention to it? How much junk can be going on in background processes? No wonder we are tired all the time.