Conceptual theories and practices about the unthought known


The Unthought Known is a concept first framed by Christopher Bollas. In his book The Shadow of the Object Bollas describes the Unthought Known as the experiences we all have when sense that we know something but that, try as we might, we can’t consciously grasp it or put into words what it is that we're knowing. For Bollas, these ethereal moments are markers for the memory traces that were laid down early in our lives. Events or experiences we’ve had, either in utero or sometime during the first several months of our lives, that pop up in our lives as troubling doldrums, almost memories, or persistently painful relationship echoes from the past. These traces are what Bollas calls  "preverbal, unschematized experiences" that were etched into our body and brain well before we'd ever developed thought or language. Unthought Knows are wordless memories. Bollas identified three types of Unthought Known experiences: 

  • Recurring moods that we have, bodily sensations both fresh and new, while also strangely familiar that come unbidden to us in certain kinds of situations.

  • Deeply implicit, preternatural instincts, feelings that carry untouchable impressions about the rules governing our relationships which, once again, show up in vaguely familiar circumstances and situations.

  • Trace experiences about love, belonging, and beauty; fleetingly impressions of transcendent experience that were captured in our neuronal circuitry before we developed thought or language, sensations that we now feel only occasionally.

All three of these early experiences are preverbal, unschmatized experiences, what today's most experienced therapists see as walled off, disconnected experiences that we've stored in the unconscious regions of our brains. There are psychic scars covering these preverbal, unschematized infant wounds. Here at TLO, we've taken to calling these experiences "Bang-ups,”  “Hang-ups,” and “Windows Not Lighted,” terms that Dr. Seuss coined in his book, Oh, the Places You'll Go!

The Unthought Known's Pioneers

Christopher Bollas was the first clinician who specifically explored the Unthought Known. However, in the later part of the 19th Century, Sigmund Freud had already investigated what he, at that point, labeled "repetition compulsions." Back then, Freud hypothesized that human beings are constantly trying to repair the early intra-psychic wounds that were, in their adult lives, still causing them pain, either by seizing on present day situations or people to resurface, reclaim, and repair the trace memories these current situations and people evoked. The repetitive use of current situations to re-enact old wounds, for Freud, was how he thought we unconsciously try to repair our painful preverbal, unschematized memory traces.

Wilfred Bion also investigated this phenomena, looking at the ways his patients tried to transform what he called  their "beta-elements" (i.e., "unmetabolized experiences") into "alpha elements"  (i.e., "thoughts they can think"). Donald Winnicott explored the connection between what he called our False and our True Selves. Most recently, Robert Scaer has been thinking about what he's calling our "dissociation capsules," the parts of our brain where we record and store un-integrated traumatic experiences. 

If Freud, Bion, Winnicott, Scaer, and Bollas are right, and our brains and minds are truly committed to repairing the Unthought Known wounds we suffered early in our lives, then they're also right that, behind the scenes, each of us has neural pathways in our brain that are constantly activating old trace memories in an effort to heal our Unthought Known wounds. These pathways do this by constantly on the lookout for people, places, and circumstances that have similar looks and feels to those early experiences . When when a viable situation or person shows up, our neural pathways apparently have ways to tease us with a mood, a preternatural instinct, or a fleeting sense of longing that, if attended to in the right way, can ever so slightly open a doorway that leads to the neural structures stored in Scaer's dissociation capsules. Repetition compulsions, the transformation of beta-elements into alpha-elements, and the nurturance of our True Selves; all are nuanced ways of describing the Unthought Known and its processes that Bollas described in his book, The Shadow of the Object.

The Unthought Known's Poetic Doorway

Jane Hirshfield, one of America's most accomplished poets, seems to know something about all this. In her book of essays titled Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, she comments:

"Poems do not make appointments with their subject---they stalk them...And when at last the leap comes, it is most often...from the side, the rear, an overhead perch, from some word-blind woven of brush or shadow or fire...There is a shyness at the core of existence...There are things we can possess only by following them into the realm of disguise."

It seems to me that this quote suggests three important possibilities to those of us who are interested in either continuing or completing our transformational journeys.

  • First, that every one of us, as we pursue our own unique development learning journey, is probably going to be surprised by the emergence of an “unthought known” from our past that is searching for recognition.

  • Second, that this “specter” is almost certainly going to emerge in some undecipherable way, at least at first. And,

  • Third, when this specter does show up, whether its “from the side, the rear, or an overhead perch,” we would be wise to pay it its due and recognize if for what Robert Kegan has told us it will be; a “subject” we’ve never before made “object.”

These “sneak attacks, as Hirshfield might call them, are what I’m thinking are actually doorways of enlightenment that Hirshfield’s told us can be possessed “only by following them into the realm of disguise". In the months to come, this idea is precisely what we're committed to exploring here in TLO's Unthought Known Resource Center.