I just finished reading Strangers to Ourselves. It’s the second book by that title I’ve read. The first was written by Lacanian psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, which deals with the place of the stranger through the history of Western culture. The book I just read is by Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the U. of Virginia where I went to grad school. Tim focuses largely on humans’ limited ability to gain conscious access to the unconscious. He’s not an analyst or a therapist but a researcher in social psych, so he brings a different sort of information and interpretive framework to the conscious/unconscious division.
Based on a count of receptor cells and their neural connections, neuroscientists estimate that the human sensory system takes in more than 11 million pieces of information per second. Based on studies of processing speed on tasks like reading and detecting different flashes of light, cognitive psychologists estimate that people can process consciously about 40 pieces of information per second. What happens to the other 10,999,960? It’s processed unconsciously.
That’s how we acquire most of what we learn about environment, people, language, routine behaviors, and social interaction. We acquire this kind of knowledge not by assembling a series of discrete facts or events — the kinds of things consciousness is good at attending to — but by mastering complex patterns. The unconscious is particularly good at dealing with patterns, not through conscious calculations of algorithms but through intricate neural networks that compare already-stored arrays of information with new arrays continuously presented to it through broad-band environmental tracking systems. The 10 million bits of sensory input aren’t all lined up in a row, waiting for our perceptual systems to structure them. The sensory systems are broad-band matrices that are able to detect structure that already exists in the ambient environmental array.
Consciousness is useful when we want to pay particular attention to something: catching a ball, cooking dinner, reading a blog post. A lot of other stuff is happening around us that we’re not consciously attending to — traffic sounds outside, the breeze from the fan, small movements of the other people in the room. Still, we’re aware of the details of our environment even when we’re not focuing our attention on them. It’s adaptive to be in a constant state of awareness in case something happens that calls for us to react. It’s not adaptive, though, to pay conscious attention to all the little details, because then we lose focus on the main task at hand.
We can call much of this unconsciously-compiled information into conscious awareness pretty much on demand. The accessible stuff is mostly content: names of childhood neighbors, how to order a meal at McDonald’s, the color of pumpkins. It’s nearly impossible to retrieve unconscious processes: how we know where a baseball hit over our head is likely to land, why we take an immediate liking to certain people, why we suddenly feel apprehensive or giddy, how we usually come across to other people.
It turns out that introspecting about unconscious processes isn’t a very useful retrieval method. These processes didn’t start out in consciousness only to be repressed or forgotten; they never appeared in consciousness in the first place. Human cognition is more adaptive when most of it takes place in background mode, out of our awareness. There just aren’t very many direct neural pathways hauling this stuff up from the sensory and emotional and pattern-matching activities going on in our brains. “Look out, not in” is an appropriate rubric. Often it’s more reliable to observe our own behavior in particular situations and try to reverse-engineer what might have motivated it. This is how other people infer things about our goals and motivations and biases — by watching and evaluating behavior. Consequently it’s also informative to ask other people what they see in us — if we can bear hearing the truth. Or we can invent situational scenarios and imagine how we would likely react. We’re unconsciously equipped to communicate with other people, so talking can be a productive way of getting the unconscious material out of our heads and into words. Writing works too, as a sort of simulated conversational medium. Still:
“Although it may feel as though we are discovering important truths about ourselves when we introspect, we are not gaining direct access to the adaptive unconscious. Introspection is more like literary criticism in which we are the text to be understood. Just as there is no single truth that lies within a literary text, but many truths, so there are many truths about a person that can be constructed. The analogy I favor is introspection as personal narrative, whereby people construct stories about their lives.”
– Timothy Wilson, Strangers to Ourselves, p. 162