The existence of unconscious processing is demonstrated by the often-observed fact that an action succeeds best after some time has passed since its learning.
By Roberto Assagioli[i], undated, from the Assagioli Archive in Florence, doc.# 23677. [ii] Original Title: Modi e Ritmi della Formazione Psicologica. Translated and edited with notes by Jan Kuniholm[iii]
- Abstract by Jan Kuniholm: The processing of experience in a person’s unconscious is a real gestation. It is multifaced and complex and has its own rhythms. Often it succeeds best after some time has passed since the learning experience. Often rather than a unitary process, there is the coexistence of numerous parallel processes that have different rhythms and influences on each other. The study of such processes is easier in children, when unconscious processes emerge on the surface more readily. The Montessori Method provides an excellent framework for observing these processes in children. Maria Montessori made an amazing discovery: that children have individual rhythms in their learning processes, in which there are natural alternation of focused attention and rest, which are disrupted when a teacher does not recognize the value of the periods of apparent non-activity. She found that respect for children’s spontaneity and the right degree of initial freedom produce the effect not of whim, indiscipline and intolerance of any restraint, but rather of prompt obedience and willing cooperation. Under the right conditions, children thus develop new aptitudes and also moral qualities, and spontaneously exhibit an inner order which needs to be supported by both teachers and parents.
One of the most important functions of the unconscious, and at the same time one of the essential “moments” of the educational process, is the processing[i] of experiences, and the vital assimilation of what has been perceived and learned.
This processing can be regarded as a real “psychic gestation,” which has close analogies with the physical one. Both take place in the depths, in mystery: one in the womb, the other in the intimate recesses of the unconscious. Both are spontaneous and autonomous activities, but so delicate and sensitive as to be easily disturbed and even compromised by external influences. Both finally culminate in the crisis and miracle of “birth,” of the manifestation of a new life.
But psychic life is far more multifaceted and complex than physical life; its rhythms are more varied and intricate, and the knowledge we have of it is scarcer. Yet even what is known to us so far would be sufficient to avoid serious errors and harm, and to give useful guidelines for intellectual, artistic, and educational work, provided it were generally understood, remembered and followed.
The existence of unconscious processing is demonstrated by the often-observed fact that an action succeeds best after some time has passed since its learning. Thus to one who is learning to play a musical instrument it usually happens that the more he persists in repeating a difficult piece the less he succeeds in performing it well. But when, after [stopping practice for] a few hours or a few days, he tries again to play that piece, he finds to his delighted surprise that he succeeds the first time. He has learned it during rest.
The method of a certain English piano teacher is based on this law. She makes her pupils cease all study three weeks before the examinations, and only a few days before the test allows them to do technical exercises and review the pieces to be presented. I was assured that in this way her students perform better than other candidates who studied uninterruptedly until the last moment.
Similar observations inspired the paradoxical German proverb: “One learns to swim in winter and skate in summer.”
This law, which may be called “[the law of] delayed effect,” also operates with regard to psychotherapeutic influences. Not infrequently these produce their greatest benefits some time later, even after treatment has ceased. Therefore, sufferers tend in such cases to give credit for the improvement or healing, not to the psychotherapy but to the last medicine or change of air that immediately preceded the benefit. Sic vos non vobis! [ii]
Having admitted this basic finding, there comes a desire to know its modalities more precisely, and the question arises, “How long must be the rest that allows processing?”
This question cannot be answered precisely and categorically. Psychological rhythms are far more complex and changeable than organic ones, and the creatures of our soul are far more different from each other in structure, size and value than the children of our flesh.
A general law can be formulated, however, that “The more important and significant a stimulus is, and the more connections it acquires in the unconscious with pre-existing psychic elements, the longer the period of elaboration.”
We have a famous example of this in Goethe’s Faust, the elaboration of which took place over much of its author’s long life, who expected it on several occasions and waited for it over intervals of years.
But the action of this law is modified often and greatly by the fact that, while in physical gestation usually only one new life is formed and only rarely two or three; in psychic gestation there is instead a coexistence of numerous parallel processes, which began at different times, which have different rhythms and which often influence each other, favoring or hindering, intertwining or repelling.
Indeed, this deep life can be compared to a marvelous polyphony in which the various “voices” come together and overlap, creating a complex and rich music. According to St. Hildegard’s beautiful motto, Symphonialis est anima.[iii]
Unfortunately, in the human soul there are painful disharmonies and harsh contrasts, and often its life rather resembles certain chaotic modern music — without line, without constant rhythm, full of dissonances — or even the cacophony of instruments [tuning up] before an orchestral concert, rather than a well-constructed Bach fugue!
However, this should not lead us to abandon the study of internal rhythms. But it pays to do this under the most favorable conditions; that is, those in which the processes of elaboration take place in the simplest, most spontaneous and best observable way.
Such a study is much easier in the child than in the adult, first because the psyche of the former is simpler, less modified and deformed by disparate and conflicting influences, and also because in the child the more tenuous and limpid layer of waking consciousness easily allows the perception of the workings of the unconscious, which indeed rise freely to the surface often.
But, in addition to these favorable general conditions, it is necessary that during observation the child’s life should unfold as spontaneously and as undisturbed as possible, while at the same time it can be carefully supervised.
Now this ideal condition is offered by the Montessori Method,[iv] which thus adds to its great educational merits that of being an excellent means of scientific observation and psychological experiment.
Indeed, Maria Montessori[v] and her pupils collected a harvest of most interesting observations and results, which were set forth by her in the chapter titled “My Experimental Contribution” of her work Self-Education in the Elementary Schools.[vi]
I consider it appropriate to quote in full the account of the “fundamental finding” that led Montessori to develop her method. It is a historic page that makes the reader feel the frisson of emotion that one has when faced with great discoveries:
… I happened to observe a little girl of about three years of age remaining deeply absorbed over interlocking blocks, putting the little wooden cylinders into their respective places. The little girl’s expression was one of such intense attentiveness, that it seemed to me that this was an extraordinary manifestation: such focus on an object had never been observed in children until then. My conviction about the characteristic instability of attention in the young child — which passes unerringly from thing to thing — made me even more sensitive to the phenomenon.
At first I watched the little girl intensely without disturbing her, and began to count how many times she repeated the exercise, but then, seeing that she went on for a very long time, I took the little chair on which she was sitting, and placed chair and little girl on the table: the little girl quickly picked up her piece, then put it down across the arms of the little chair, and placing the little cylinders in her lap she continued her work. Then I invited all the children to sing: they sang, but the little girl continued undaunted to repeat her exercise even after the brief singing had ceased. I had counted forty-four exercises; and when she finally stopped, this was quite independently of the stimuli of the environment that might have disturbed her, and the child looked around contentedly, almost waking from a restful sleep.
I think that my unforgettable impression resembled that felt by those who have made a discovery.
That phenomenon then became common [in what we observed in] children; it could thus be established as a constant reaction that occurs in relation to certain external conditions that may arise. And whenever such a polarization of attention took place, the child began to transform completely, to become calmer, more intelligent and expansive; displaying extraordinary inner qualities, reminiscent of the highest phenomena of consciousness, such as those of conversion.
It seemed, as if in a saturated solution, that a crystallization point had occurred, around which the whole chaotic, fluctuating mass then gathered into a wonderfully shaped crystal. Similarly, the phenomenon of polarization of attention having occurred, everything disordered and fluctuating that existed in the child’s consciousness seemed to be organizing itself into an inner creation, whose surprising characteristics were reproduced in each individual.
This made one think of the life of man, which can remain scattered between one thing and another, in an inner state of chaos, until a something special intensely attracts and settles him, and then man has the revelation of himself, and feels that he is beginning to live.
This spiritual phenomenon, which can involve the entire adult consciousness, is thus but one of the constant aspects of the facts of “inner formation.” It is found as a normal beginning of the inner life of children, and accompanies its unfolding, so as to become accessible to research, as an experimental fact.
Thus it was that the child’s soul gave its revelations, and under the guidance of these arose a method where spiritual freedom was illustrated. [vii]
An extensive series of subsequent observations made it possible to determine the general and average pace that work takes in a Montessori classroom that is well established and disciplined .
In the first period of the morning, until about 10 o’clock, the chosen occupation is generally work that is already known and easy.
At 10 o’clock there is a time of great shift, the children are restless, not working at anything, not looking for objects. After a few minutes the most perfect order is established, the children are even immersed in the most intense work: they have chosen new and difficult occupations.
When this work ceases, the children are happy, kind and calm.
If in the period of “false fatigue,” at 10 o’clock, the unpracticed teacher intervenes, interpreting the phenomenon of suspension or preparation for the great work as disorder, calls the schoolchildren back to herself, “makes them rest,” etc., then the agitation persists and the next work does not organize itself. That is, if children are interrupted in their cycle, they lose all the characteristics that are connected with a regularly and fully developed inner function. [viii]
Some of the essential principles of psychological learning and training are evident from these observations.
The first is the importance — indeed the necessity — of repetition of the initial stimulus. In this lies the secret of the deepening of that stimulus in the unconscious and thus its effectiveness.
The second is the unifying and formative power of attention which is spontaneous, intense, and concentrated for a long period: this brings about true self-creation or psychosynthesis. The child’s personality is awakened and organized; new intellectual aptitudes and new moral qualities are manifested in him.
Among these, perhaps the most striking and valuable are the development of discipline and social sense. Children feel the need to have a rule; they become exact and methodical, and experience satisfaction in overcoming difficulties. At the same time they develop respect for the work of others and consideration for their rights; this is because they more frequently observe the work of others and compare it with their own. They broaden the sphere of their interest by placing themselves in harmonious relationship with their companions and the environment. But there is more: children become capable of spontaneous and willing obedience. When they are led in teaching lessons where they [themselves] serve as “subjects of study,” they willingly comply with what is asked of them, and perform the exercises with interest and not with resignation, as if they were conscious of collaborating with the teacher.
This shows how respect for spontaneity and the right [degree of] initial freedom produce the effect not of whim, indiscipline and intolerance of any restraint, but rather of prompt obedience and willing cooperation.
Each of us can understand what important consequences can be drawn from this finding for education and for the whole system of social and human relations.
There are many other interesting facts and observations in Montessori’s book about the “explosive” character of the “discoveries” made by children and the emergence of their aptitudes; about the joy that accompanies ordinary work, which is indicative of internal growth; about the various rhythms of work (illustrated with clear graphics) of children who have not yet settled themselves, and of those who have reached a higher level of “order.”
That book, and Maria Montessori’s others, should be read — and the valuable advice in it followed — not only by teachers, but also by every mother and father aware of their serious responsibility and high privilege as educators.
It is not enough to send children to school, even the best one; the home environment exerts a powerful and unavoidable influence: if it does not educate, it dis-educates; if it does not form, it deforms. School and family should proceed together; teachers and parents, anxious and reverent before the miracle of the “formation” of children’s personalities, should be equally aware of their task, which is that of loving, yet respectful, gentle and wise collaborators in the child’s self-education.
[i] The Italian word here is l’elaborazione, which I have translated sometimes as “processing” and sometimes as “elaboration.” It may have the sense of either of these English words as well as “handling” or “development.”—Tr.
[ii] Latin: “For you [to use], but [it is] not yours!” (Vergil) suggesting inaccuate attribution. —Tr.
[iii] Latin” “The soul is symphonic.” —Tr.
[iv] The Montessori Method is a unique form of early education developed by Italian educator Maria Montessori. The program is presented in several books in English, including The Montessori Method. —Ed.
[v] Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was an Italian physician and educator best known for her philosophy of education and her writings on scientific pedagogy. —Ed.
[vi] L’autoeducazione nelle scuole elementari, by Maria Montessori, published in 1916 and available in modern editions. A variety of Montessori’s works are available in English-language editions. These quotations are taken directly from Assagioli’s essay without reference to the original work, for which the author gave no specific citation. —Tr.
[vii] L’autoeducazione nelle scuole elementari (Roma, Maglione e Strini, 1916), pp. 51-52. —Author’s Note.
[viii] Op. cit., pp. 74-75. —Author’s Note.
[i] The Italian word formazione may have the sense of “training,” or “education” or “formation,” as it here has to do with the “formation” or “assimilation” of patterns in the psyche.—Ed.
[ii] This essay also appears in Archive doc.s #23673,23674,23675,and 23676. This article was first published in Montessori magazine and then republished in L’Economia Umana [The Human Economy], Anno VII, 1956, n. 6. The printed manuscript in the Archives is marked with hand-written changes and corrections by the author. —Ed.
[iii] Editor’s interpolations appear in [brackets]. —Ed.