Salvador Dali: The Living Unconscious

The Mind’s Eye

The difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels: it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant.” – Salvador Dali

Helen Fukuhara, wife of a watercolor artist and daughter of an abstract painter, received her bachelor’s degree in music and speech arts. She later went on to study fine art, including ceramics, printmaking, and mixed media in Los Angeles. Eventually, she moved towards two-dimensional work. She is now 61 years old and continues to make art.

None of this sounds minutely interesting, as it almost appears to be a somewhat predictable storyline. Except that Helen is congenitally blind. She earned her degree from the Braille Institute of Los Angeles. Two-dimensional work came after having to learn how to conceptualize it with the help of her father (UUSM, 2008).

If you are born without sight, how then, can a satisfactory life revolve around visual arts?

Picture, what may be a composition of line, form, and color, is only one form of imagery. Furthermore, picture is external; image is internal. As described by expert on the emotional brain, Antonio Damasio, “the brain makes neural patterns in its nerve-cell circuits and manages to turn those neural patterns into the explicit mental patterns which constitute the highest level of biological phenomenon… images”. Images are electrochemical and can be accessed and generated at any time, awake or asleep, so long as you are alive.

Let us try an exercise to help show Damasio’s point. Close your eyes. Picture an open field, clear sky, 3:00pm sunlight, and tall grass. One tall oak tree stands one hundred yards in front of you, and a mother and her two children, one boy and one girl, are having a picnic under its shade. Hold that image, with eyes closed, for a moment. Note the details.

Now open your eyes. Imagine that same image. It is perfectly clear, hovering somewhere just above your eyes in the top of your head. In addition, unless you have the lights turned off, you are simultaneously able to see everything that currently surrounds you. I can see the mother, her blue dress rippling in the wind, and my grocery list hanging on the refrigerator.

Michael Gazzaniga, leading researcher in cognitive neuroscience, sheds light on this phenomenon. He concludes that imagery must be a byproduct of brain plasticity, the changing of neurons and their organization, not that of retinal stimulation (2004). Who needs light to see? Moreover, who needs vision to see? Blindness simply occurs in the eye, and therefore does not affect the brain’s ability to conjure image. In addition, words transfer seamlessly into image, as does music for some.

“Because each neuron may be a part of many different systems of meaning, each activation potentiates circuitry and spiraling meaning,” states Ann Marie Barry, professor in the Boston College Department of Communication. This substantiates the mental connections we make between Grandma and the smell of cookies, or Pachabel’s Canon and the sentiments of academia. These associations are the brain’s way of taking creative liberty in summoning memory. Furthermore, lasting memories that retain neural circuitry rely on the limbic system, the section of the brain responsible for emotion. Not only do we create the apparently random coupling of cookies and grandmothers, they are maintained by an emotional fuel. How odd this all may seem?

Go back to the field with the picnic and tree. I will assume that you have never been to this actual field and physically witnessed this scene. Each element on which I asked you to call upon, is one from the depths of your neural circuitry. Even if you have never seen an oak before in your life, you may have heard a description of one, or have just replaced it with what you might think is an oak.

Helen never saw an oak. She learned to conceptualize what trees are. In fact, much of any of our thought processes are conceptualized. It is not as though you see an oak tree once and a replica is recorded in your memory. That mental pattern is susceptible to change through pruning, addition or combination of other images, etc.

The brain not only contains image, it also generates image. This opens doors for incredible lengths of creativity. The mind’s eye is more powerful than picture because it hosts image; and image, malleable and full of emotion, is arguably the most beautiful form of creativity because it does not need conscious action in order to morph.

Dalí: Paranoiac or Ambiguity?

Salvador Dalí, infamously known for his unusual behavior and love of the grandiose, bled passion. He created hundreds of works of art in his lifetime, experimenting with film, photography, paint, sculpture, and more.

From 1929 until 1938, Dalí created some of his best known and highly acclaimed work. It was in this time-period in which he utilized his self-proclaimed “paranoiac-critical” technique. He defined this process as a “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena,” (Dalí, 1936).

As previously discussed, the brain acquires a wealth of imagery from prior experiences over a lifetime. These images turn into somewhat archetypical bodies that are used as a reference point in determining what is rational. In addition, the irrational is determined through the process of contrasting or comparing to what is known as rational. Dalí was looking for a way in which the irrational could be taken in without having to be first processed by the archetypes. He wanted to systemize irrational thought.

Swans Reflecting Elephants, 1936

Swans Reflecting Elephants reveals this world of systemized irrationality with grace. This otherworldly landscape seems strangely familiar. The luminosity of the water and sky is vivid yet serene. Visual illusions define a new type of “eye movement”. It first appears to be a classical landscape before turning slightly unnerving, yet, acceptable. And then finally, it just appears beautiful.

This simultaneous mixture of true and false, rational and irrational, creates quite a matchless sensation. Semir Zeki (2005) argues that it is the result of ambiguity. He states that the Surrealists’ goal was to “include in the world of our experience…what is not easily or readily accessible in daily life”; in other words, elements of the sub- or unconscious. Dalí, however, “wanted to maintain the apparent contradiction, or opposition between the rational and the irrational, not merge one into the other”.

This theory does not appear to be delirious at all. While the brain seeks out truths, or stabilities, in the objects it perceives, it is not always granted with its wish. Because of the nature of our mind, the brain may not always conjure just one interpretation. The mind’s eye can see an oak as many different things and so the brain is left to choose from an unstable image. Zeki (2005) claims that ambiguity is the openness to many interpretations because any given one may be plausible at any given time. Dalí intentionally exploited this notion.

The Living Unconscious

Dream Caused by a Bumble Bee Flying Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening, 1944

Sleep, 1937


Phenomenally, all of this image making and changing occurs throughout our waking life. Yet, the flow of information continuously ingested by vision puts a slight damper on the true depths of our minds. Dreams seem to be a loosening of the psychiatric reigns, which tend to remain taught throughout the day. It has been proposed that they are an attempt to rid the mind of unneeded memories or make sense of spontaneous neural impulses.

Current research dictates otherwise. Dreams do not result from random neural firing at all, they are just another way of thinking; sleep thinking (Diamond, E., 2005). The difference is that the neurotransmitters present during REM sleep are different than those during waking life, creating an alternate brain chemistry which can account for the bizarre dreamscapes (Diamond, E., 2005).

Dalí was fascinated with ambiguity and alternating states of thought. No wonder his paintings appear similar to that of a dreamscape. He even goes so far as to title them after this alternative state of mind. Of Sleep, Dalí is quoted as saying, “for sleep to be possible, a whole system of crutches in psychic equilibrium is essential. If only one is missing, one would wake up and above all the little boat would disappear immediately” (Descharnes, R., 1962).

The crutches appear to be “dream-work”; or as we would call it today, a different concoction of neurotransmitters, that if chemically off by the smallest amount, would immediately cause awakening. Thus, the little boat in the distance, and the city and dog would all be lost. Back to the rational chemical distribution, we go. How fragile this difference in dream life and waking life? Again, his title Dream Caused by a Bumble Bee Flying Around a Pomegranate a Second Away From Awakening, could only have been given by Dalí. He knew how delicate the line between conscious and unconscious indeed is.

It is at this point, which I could take one of two routes. The more obvious of the two would be to pose the question: are we all living in a dream world where the unconscious secretly dictates our every thought? Are we asleep or are we awake? Humans, and film for that matter, tend to love this question.

But if we listen to Dalí, the opposing route is much more appealing: does it have to be one or the other? Are these truly separate states? Ambiguity gives us the freedom to hold many interpretations of a single “thing”, and that seems to be just as intriguing as what occurs during sleep thinking. The lesson learned was painted by Dalí and said by Zeki (2005): “…once the brain develops a capacity that is successful in seeking knowledge, it does not restrict that capacity to a single system only”.


Dalí, S. (1936). The Conquest of the Irrational.

Damasio, A. (1999). The feeling of what happens. New York: Harcourt Brace, pp 9

Diamond, E. (2005). A Neurobiology of Dreaming. Serendip Web Paper, Bryn

Gazzaniga, M. (2004). Hearing better in the dark: Blindness fuels ability to place distant

sounds. Science News, 166, pp 245

UUSM (2008). Henry Fukuhara and Helen Fukuhara. Retrieved March 10, 2010 from

Zeki, S. (2005). The Neural Sources of Salvador Dali’s Ambiguity. University College of




  1. Helen sounds she didn’t let anything stop her from her passion in creating art. Inspiring!

    Fan of Dali, I have visited his museum several times.

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