22 August 2009

The Adaptive Unconscious

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:43 pm

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



  1. John: “The first was written by Lacanian analyst Julia Kristeva, which deals with the place of the stranger through the history of Western culture.”

    A White Ant visiting: I may be mistaken, as it has been a very long time since I read Kristeva, but even though she is psychanalytic in her approach, and that there are some strong structuralist (Freudian, Lacanian) comparisons, I don’t believe that she is to be identified as a Lacanian analyst. Her work I believe stands on its own.

    Comment by kvond — 22 August 2009 @ 9:09 pm

    • Fair enough, kvond: I’ll strike the “Lacanian,” though she did her own analysis with Lacan.

      Comment by john doyle — 22 August 2009 @ 9:14 pm

  2. Great post, I love the direction of your thinking about what’s a part of us but unknown to us. Hopefully I’ll offer some productive comment later, but probably not. I’ll be at the beach, where the surf is wild because of the hurricane, who knows, maybe something interesting will wash up.

    Comment by amarilla — 23 August 2009 @ 7:51 am

  3. The beach?! Sounds good. Whereabouts?

    Comment by john doyle — 23 August 2009 @ 8:42 pm

    • Ocean Grove, New Jersey. The surf is still very Hawaii Five-O for these parts.

      Comment by amarilla — 24 August 2009 @ 7:29 am

  4. Interesting post. I’ve read quite a bit of Kristeva and I’d never heard of StO until just now.

    I’d also be interested in mapping out the points at which mirror neurons and other neural mechanisms of non-verbal, near-instantaneous, ‘felt’ communication might fit into this schema. (But then, I’m a naturalist with a reductionist streak a mile long…)

    Comment by anodyne lite — 24 August 2009 @ 8:11 pm

  5. I read Kristeva’s book while my wife, daughter and I were living in France, trying to get some purchase on the expatriate experience. It was odd being in the position of the other for a change. Kristeva contends that the French have historically been very embracing of foreigners as individuals but not as immigrant groups. We certainly felt welcomed despite (because of?) being Americans, but the North African community was pretty much outcast. Interestingly though, in surveys this group identifies itself as French more than as African or Arab.

    I’m persuaded that language acquisition and imitation result from the human’s distinctive ability to take the other’s perspective. It’s clearly an unconscious motivation, kicking in at around 9 months of age and occurring pretty much simultaneously with self-awareness. The mirror neuron theory is a plausible explanation — have you seen much empirical evidence supporting it, Anodyne? It seems like you’d need to study people with injury to these cells. Autism offers tantalizing evidence, since the dysfunction organically links dysfunction in language and empathy. I’m far from the cutting edge on this stuff though, alas. You say you want to be a doctor: a neurologist perhaps?

    Comment by john doyle — 24 August 2009 @ 9:21 pm

  6. Unfortunately, the science behind mirror neurons is still highly speculative, and mirror neuron systems are still contested (though I, for one, will be utterly shocked if we don’t one day discover that all primates have them to one degree or another). As neurology progresses, many people I’ve talked to expect that there will be findings confirming the basic tenets of psychoanalysis and psychology in the mix, including (I suspect) something resembling evidence for the “mirror stage”…

    (And, yes, you guessed it- I’m interested in neurology. Ideally, I’d like to get into the emerging and still highly controversial field of neuropsychiatry, but I’m a little afraid of the long residency…)

    Comment by anodyne lite — 25 August 2009 @ 8:35 pm

  7. It’s known that some brain functions can be duplicated ‘elsewhere’ so I’m with you on that thought and it does have fascinating implications. Autism, yes, but what about Aspergers, excellent language skills but very poor socialization/empathy.

    Comment by sam carr — 26 August 2009 @ 4:41 am

  8. John,

    Good post.

    How much have you studied meditation? Most meditative exercises and practices are aimed at developing awareness and mindfulness. Through meditation does one tap into the unconscious? If not, then do you see value in meditation?

    Comment by Erdman — 27 August 2009 @ 12:00 pm

  9. I’ve not studied it much, though I have practiced it some. Isn’t it the case for most traditions that the practitioner seeks a place of silence, where the noise of the world and the chatter inside your head are either silenced or ignored? The mental chatter is, I’d say, the stuff of the unconscious coming into consciousness without being tightly locked down into intentional and purposive thinking. It seems that meditation ignores this traversal of material across the barrier from unconscious to consciousness, which is happening constantly. To do so is, in effect, to shut down consciousness. One would then presumably occupy a state of waking unconsciousness. If one consciously reflects on this state, then it paradoxically stops working and you’re conscious again.

    In free association in psychoanalysis you say whatever comes to mind, unfiltered by what “ought” to be said or how the contents of mind “ought” to fit together into a coherent story. Free writing is an exercise in which writers do this same thing. The mental process isn’t so different from typing a blog comment or talking on the phone, the content of which doesn’t become conscious until you type/say it. The difference is that the intentionality of writing/speech is set aside. Consequently in free association you get access to material that isn’t linked so tightly to particular lines of thought or argumentation.

    The brain’s neurons and synapses are multiply interconnected, but some structures and pathways get used more often and so get locked down, rigidified, “territorialized” in Deleuze & Guattari’s terminology. But many other structures and pathways already exist unconsciously as part of the brain’s wiring. It’s possible for some of these alternate structures to pass the threshold into consciousness if the rigid structures aren’t reinforced and other interconnections are allowed access to consciousness.

    Comment by john doyle — 27 August 2009 @ 12:27 pm

    • There are Buddhist meditation techniques that focus on increasing mental concentration. These prepare one for are other forms of meditation that focus on reaching enlightenment.

      In the Christian tradition it is often union with Christ or some type of Christ-consciousness that becomes the focus.

      I have heard it said (and this seems to me to have fared well in my own meditation practice) that you should neither cling to nor reject any thought. So, there is a free association element to meditation. However, there is also usually a sense in which one wants to go beyond (or perhaps better to say “deeper”) than thought. So, more fundamental to most meditation is breath. Breath is fundamental, thoughts come and go. By focusing on breath, there will be times when one ceases to think. I’ve experienced this in moments (usually they are rather brief), and for me there is often this vacuum. A big empty. This can either cause a sense of panic and anxiety, or it can be taken as spaciousness and openness.

      The Quakers emphasized silence, viewing it as an opportunity to see their “inner light” and to open up spaciousness for the Holy Spirit.

      So, in summary, it seems like the free-association of meditation is meant to be a vehicle to get to something that is deeper than both the conscious or unconscious. This deeper something-or-other is, I think, meant to be a more real and authentically genuine “me.” But it isn’t a “me” or “I” in the ego sense, it is deeper than personality, deeper than the demands of the super ego or the impulses of the Id.

      I suppose then from the perspective of the contemplative traditions, both the conscious and unconscious are not the end goal. I’ve heard it said: we are not our conscious/unconscious and yet we are not other-than our conscious/unconscious. That is, our identity is not in thought, and yet we acknowledge how important thought is (conscious and unconscious) is to who we are.

      Comment by Erdman — 27 August 2009 @ 1:01 pm

  10. “it seems like the free-association of meditation is meant to be a vehicle to get to something that is deeper than both the conscious or unconscious. This deeper something-or-other is, I think, meant to be a more real and authentically genuine “me.””

    Well I’d say that “me” is a pretty flexible thing, with plenty of ways it can manifest itself. Running the system in unusual ways or focusing attention on different objects is likely to generate different outputs. Because these manifestations of self usually remain unexpressed, they can seem hidden. When a sort of mental asceticism is practiced, it seems as though you’re looking through the surface clutter to something underneath. Maybe so. To me it seems more like cross-training: sensory deprivation yields one sort of mental experience, sensory overload brings a different expreience. When you sleep you dream; when you stay awake too long you hallucinate. When you go on a fast your brain does one thing, when you imbibe a lot of booze is does something else. But I could be wrong and there’s something else back there, some deep and hidden essence that can be coaxed out only under certain conditions, and only slightly.

    “our identity is not in thought, and yet we acknowledge how important thought is (conscious and unconscious) is to who we are”

    I agree with that. Consciousness is a tiny tip of the iceberg, the vast bulk of which remains inaccessible to awareness or only surfaces for brief moments before going underwater again. The whole iceberg is real, not just the bit on the surface. It’s disconcerting not to have much better access to our own mental processes than we do to others’. We have more self-awareness than cats and stones and thunderstorms, but that doesn’t make us any more real than they are.

    Is this something a deeper way of knowing? Or is it an awareness of some other inner thing or force other than brain activity? How would you distinguish them from ordinary mental processes, which are quite flexible and surprising sometimes?

    Comment by john doyle — 27 August 2009 @ 1:44 pm

    • Good questions.

      Probably better answered by a spiritual master, certainly not I!

      It seems as though there may not be a positive answer to the question “who am I if not thought?” At the very least, this is up for metaphysical discussion.

      What is the phenomenon that is being experienced when one dissociates with thought? Another tricky one.

      I think it gets into the realm of the ineffable, where language cannot adequately describe…..perhaps….I really don’t have a solid answer to your questions, and I suspect that the answers vary greatly within the various contemplative traditions.

      What does seem to be consistently true is that awareness and mindfulness have something of a centering effect.

      If one is too closely associated with their own thoughts (or emotions….or even their own wills), then one is at the whim of whatever chaotic thoughts/emotions/volition occurs at a given moment. In extreme forms, this is called neurosis. Most of us, though not neurotics, have our share of neurotic-feeling moments: nervousness, anxiety, anger, fear, panic, greed, envy, sloth, etc. These moments feel overpowering, like we aren’t in control or centered. Like the thought/emotion/volition is stronger than us, like its got its own force under which we are powerless. So, in response to this, the contemplative traditions talk about the “well trained mind” (Buddhist) or “the mind of Christ” (Philippians?) or “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans).

      By not linking ourselves with the activity of the mind/emotion/will, these phenomenon seem to lose its power. This does not, of course, mean that one should suppress these forces, which is the favorite tactic of many religious folk. It treats the forces of thought/emotion/will in a violent way. This, of course, is just repression, which causes deeper problems and possibly real and dangerous neurosis.

      It seems like this is much of what psychoanalysis starts to go for, no? Letting the chaotic emerge? Voting “no” to repression?

      Comment by Erdman — 27 August 2009 @ 2:11 pm

  11. “who am I if not thought?”

    Definitely metaphysical, my friend. This is Descartes’ core contention: I am the one who thinks. It’s not just a Freudian thing to question this proposition. There’s science too! An idealist like Descartes would hold that the thinking self transcends the body, but from a biological POV thinking is an emergent property of all sorts of perceptual and motor and neural activity going on outside of our awareness. I am all of this activity; all of it together is the “real me.”

    “Like the thought/emotion/volition is stronger than us, like its got its own force under which we are powerless.”

    Well I think that’s true to a large extent for all thought. Stuff “comes to mind”: why and from where? It comes from the workings of the unconscious, the things occupying our environment, conversation, the momentum of our own train of thought or feeling. Rarely do we consciously will ourselves to have particular thoughts. We can concentrate on reading a text or solving a problem, but that’s mostly an effort to direct the unconscious processing of environmental material. Stuff still comes to mind based on the flow of words on the page or the precise nature of the problem. Even the will, the decision to think about this particular thing, doesn’t come out of nowhere. We talked about this on your blog once, and how the old Puritan Jonathan Edwards proposed a theory of will whereby unconscious processes finally reach a tipping point and we say “I have decided.”

    I am certainly in favor of exploring the linkages between environmental stimuli, emotions, habits of thought, will, and so on. As you say, this gives a greater sense of control. But as you also say, we already exert too much control over some of our thoughts and feelings, locking us into rigid patterns that ironically inhibit our freedom in the name of self-control. So yes, analysis works on both the loosening-up of structures and the self-distancing from knee-jerk reactions. Writing a journal has proven helpful in doing this as well. In the way we’ve been talking about it here, meditation has more in common with analysis than with introspection. But analysis is about bringing the unconscious into consciousness, not about setting consciousness aside in order to gain direct access to the ineffably Real.

    Comment by john doyle — 27 August 2009 @ 3:26 pm

  12. I am reminded of J. Krishnamurthy and his attempt to have unfettered thought. He was especially concerned with how memory tends to make us follow the same paths over and over again. I’m not sure how effective his system was at shutting out the past and leaving only the present, the now, but it is a fascinating area to explore.

    Comment by sam carr — 28 August 2009 @ 7:02 am

    • And I am reminded of a Genesis P’orridge of Psychic TV/Throbbing Gristle, who, through out his life, participated in some kind of practice in which one avoids habituation by deliberately altering practice constantly, for instance, you sleep with your head on the pillow one night, the next night, it’s the feet on the pillow. I think that some part of this practice allows greater freedom and creativity, somehow demands from oneself more openness to a variety of experiences, perhaps more openness to our own depths as well. Never tried it, don’t know for sure…

      Comment by amarilla — 28 August 2009 @ 3:15 pm

  13. For some reason I never thought I’d get a comment referring to Throbbing Gristle. I don’t do much of this sort of intentional cross-training of the senses either. Too lazy maybe.

    Comment by john doyle — 29 August 2009 @ 10:25 am

    • I’m too lazy too. The only thing I’ve seriously considered doing is wearing weights around my ankles to see how light I feel when I take them off.

      Comment by Amarilla — 29 August 2009 @ 4:22 pm

  14. In a recent post Levi Bryant asserts that

    “if the last 300 years of philosophy have shown us anything, it has shown us that we do not have any direct or immanent or immediate access to our own minds. As Lacan liked to say, following Freud, the subject is split.”

    My initial reaction: what has philosophy actually shown us about mind? Philosophers can think about mind, but they do they really demonstrate anything to support their contentions? Isn’t this an empirical question? And “direct access to mind” — doesn’t this phrasing already presume a split in the mind, between the part being accessed and the part doing the accessing? The split is pivotal to Hegel’s master-bondsman discourse, with the ongoing inner struggle for dominance between self-as-agent and self-consciousness. But that doesn’t mean Hegel, or Lacan for that matter, demonstrated this split.

    The most extreme part of Levi’s pronouncement is that we have NO direct access to mind. In this post I wrote about how the mind has limited access to its own workings. I have access to at least some of my own thoughts, but not to the inputs and process from which these thoughts take shape. But I do have SOME access, even if it’s not complete. What I definitely don’t have direct access to are the unconscious workings of the mind, which mostly have to do with the neural structures and synaptic firings from which my conscious thoughts arise. Similarly, I have some direct access to my digestive tract — I’m aware of being hungry, or nauseated, or needing to pee — even if I don’t have access to the biological processes generating my awareness. To deny any direct access to mind is to reduce mind to the unconscious brain functions — which I suspect goes beyond what Levi intends.

    In search of self-awareness I might subject myself to experimentation, by which my mental processes are inferred by my intermediate mental outputs — steps along the way to solving a problem or drawing an inference, say. Coming at it from the other direction, neuroscientists might look at my biochemical brain structures and processes and match them up with my thinking processes and results. Eventually this multidisciplinary team of scientists might be able to present me with a fairly complete analysis of my mind at work. Detailed scientific investigation is different from DIRECT intuition of one’s own mental workings, or for direct apprehension of the workings of any other aspect of the universe for that matter. But the point is that DIRECT mental access to anything is limited and flawed. Empiricism cooks up methods of sidestepping and neutralizing these limitations and biases in search for more accurate understanding.

    Comment by john doyle — 25 October 2009 @ 11:12 am

  15. Here’s another comment from Levi, on a different post but with a similar thrust:

    “No credible source has been able to establish direct self-relation since the advent of neurology and the unconscious”

    I don’t understand what that assertion means with respect to human cognition. It’s clear, and supported empirically, that when I think thoughts I’m aware that I’m thinking them. Are these supposed to be two separate entities, the thinking one and the self-reflecting one? They’re two operations of the same mind. Again, if one wants to regard “direct self-relation” as referring only to conscious awareness of one’s own neural activities, then no, we can’t do that. But why should self-relation be restricted in that way? We’re consciously aware of the activities and outputs of our own consciousness: that’s not just direct relation but also direct self-awareness of the relation. Consciousness is an emergent property of brain activity; unless we believe in the soul or some form of panpsychism there is no source of consciousness other than brain activity. So consciousness has to be in direct relation with the unconscious brain activity that generates it, doesn’t it, even if that direct relation doesn’t take the form of conscious awareness of brain function. My hand is in direct connection with the cells and structures that make up my hand, even if my hand can’t hold them in its grip. The rock is in direct connection with the molecules that comprise it…

    Perhaps appropriately, just after I wrote this comment this song came on the radio.

    Comment by john doyle — 1 November 2009 @ 6:13 pm

    • I’m with you, but perhaps the method to Levi’s madness is in his insistence on the words ‘direct’ or ‘immediate’. So when you say “I have some direct access to my digestive tract — I’m aware of being hungry, or nauseated, or needing to pee — even if I don’t have access to the biological processes generating my awareness,” the second part of the sentence puts you in agreement with him. Technically, ‘you’ in the sense of a synthetic awareness are not directly aware of your digestion at all, but of the precognitively-mediated nervous impulses therefrom. Similarly ‘you’ are not directly aware of yourself, but of the complex of sensory inputs, thoughts, affects and memories assembled by your neurons at any given moment. Although it strikes me that given how I’ve defined ‘you’ here, direct self-awarenss is tautological.

      Comment by Carl — 2 November 2009 @ 4:35 pm

  16. Hey Carl, I wondered whether anybody would follow these comments back to an old post. When I comment on my own post, am I in direct and immediate contact with myself?

    I agree that Levi seems to regard access to the biological processes as the sine qua non of directness. But doesn’t that make him a reductionist or eliminativist? His ontology regards mind as an emergent object in its own right, caused by but distinct from the biological substrate and mechanisms that generate it. So if mind has access to itself within the realm of conscious thinking and awareness, then I’d say that qualifies as direct access within the emergent object called “mind.” I’m not quite sure why he wants to contest direct access, but I presume it has something to do with preserving the idea of hermetically-sealed essences of objects that never participate in direct relations, even with themselves.

    “‘you’ are not directly aware of yourself, but of the complex of sensory inputs, thoughts, affects and memories assembled by your neurons at any given moment.”

    I suppose so, as long as you regard “self” as having some holistic essence over and above this complex. I’d regard thoughts, affects, memories and so on as properties or processes of the self, even if they don’t sum up to an exhaustive total of all that self comprises. So too is self-awareness a property or process of self. So if one property/process is directly aware of some other property/process, isn’t this a direct relation of self with self?

    What Harman would do is to regard all these properties as relational rather than essential, hence not in direct contact with the hermetic essence. But this seems like a kind of game to me: if something is in direct relation with something else, then by object-oriented definition the connections and properties are relational and not essential. No matter how hard you try to find a direct relation, the OO theory will immediately rule it out as not being essential.

    I would have thought that Levi would opt out of this hermetic sealedness, but I think it’s integral to Lacanian theory that forms a central component of Levi’s thought. In Lacan the self is always split, without direct relations between the parts. This is not demonstrated empirically but rather is asserted as a base condition, presumably via the Hegelian intellectual tradition which Lacan inherited.

    Comment by john doyle — 2 November 2009 @ 5:11 pm

    • I don’t really see why the parts of the split self must be hermetically sealed. Their deployment and interaction is situated (my Hegel in this respect comes through G.H. Mead), so sometimes they may be apart, sometimes together; resituation is always possible. Now, as a puritan hedonist existentialist, I tend to think that the claim that parts of the self are essentially sealed off from the aware parts is a cop-out. Take responsibility for your freaks, yo.

      Comment by Carl — 2 November 2009 @ 8:26 pm

  17. “direct self-awareness is tautological”

    Self-awareness is a specific kind of self-relation. So if we back up to the more general category, how is it possible for some object NOT to be in direct relation to itself? That seems like tautology in a good way to me. What could it possibly mean for a rock not to be in direct relation with itself? Surely there’s some Badiouan set-theoretical principle we could invoke here to make the obvious sound more formal and philosophical.

    Comment by john doyle — 2 November 2009 @ 5:51 pm

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