#55 On the unconscious

Dear Mat,

Apologies for the lateness but I was on my own European jaunt and was equally if not more appalled by the moribund ivory tower I encountered at an academic conference.

One somewhat snide response to your call for giving people real problems, would of course be that it’s something someone without serious real problems would say: i.e. a rich, educated, Western male. So on an historical scale we are tower-kept princes, not Grimeses — and we wouldn’t want it any other way, surely?

But instead — having nonetheless said the snide thing — I’ll respond to your mention of the gut. 

By gut I mean the unconscious, instinctual thinking that has gotten a lot of renewed attention in recent years. Unconscious biases, the illusion of rationality, the microbiome as the second brain, snap decisions, heuristics — they all point to the foolishness of supposing that we can reason things out and intellectually arrive at good ideas.

All true, in and of themselves, but there’s one thing missing. To me (and as a sceptic I’ve revelled in these findings as much as anyone) they suffer slightly from the same problem as those studies that try and point out the non-uniqueness of humans by showing that dolphins/crows/octopuses/chimps can solve puzzles/use language/recognise themselves in mirrors/use tools. The very act of performing a sophisticated study to increase human knowledge of other species is itself yet another entry in the vast catalogue of things only humans have done. Same with the ingenious and carefully executed studies that discredit aspects of human rationality, along with the lucid commentaries that explain their significance for our understanding.

I’ve been smashing through popular neuroscience books lately and I’ve noticed a big swing, not in the opposite direction (back towards the primacy or reach of human rationality) but in a new one.*

Yes, we can do most things without being conscious and indeed we wouldn’t want conscious control over breathing or snap decisions to run or fight. Hence we retain a very good mammalian cognition that solves a lot of problems in our environment that are similar to the problems in other mammals’ environments.

But we evolved in a new kind of niche, one in which communication, second-guessing, shifting alliances, manipulation, cooperation and rival groups were all salient. So we developed a new way of thinking that incorporated the combinatory power of a richer symbolic language and evolved to be able to pay attention not only to things in immediate view — like a cat focusing on a mouse —but things not present, things as yet unseen, other peoples’ actions and our own awareness. Call this conscious thought, system 2, reasoning, intellection, etc.

Turns out that conscious thought is much gappier, thinner, more shallow and more based on improvisation and post-hoc narrative building than rationalists would like to acknowledge. But it also turns out that the unconscious mind is even more barren.

There is no tumultuous ocean of feelings, archetypes, inner demons, multiple selves, or childhood imagos beneath the iceberg tip of consciousness. The unconscious mind can do almost no serious thinking. Although mathematicians like Poincare often wrote of sleeping on a problem so their unconscious mind could solve it, such a mind can do little more than add very small integers together. Although Freud wrote of complex struggles being played out in our dreams or “off stage”, our unconscious mind can only form the barest associations between words, recognising synonyms, but not able to work with more than a word at a time. And although the psychoanalysts made the seductive claim that our earliest childhood memories or even the memories of our community are always roiling away under the surface, only to be dealt with by complicated therapeutic techniques, our unconscious has a memory that decays completely in less than a minute.

Our unconscious mind does have a kind of Bayesian prediction engine honed over aeons, optimised for making quick decisions based on past environmental encounters. Or we default to what everyone else is doing, which also works fine for old problems. Even when we face a novel problem today,  we generally still run it through this engine and use the conscious feature merely to improvise a backstory for our decision. But we are able to make genuinely conscious decisions too, provided we recognise our limitations, set out alternatives, use pen and paper or a device, and commit to a result based on reasoning, not gut.

This new direction in cognitive neuroscience is not a naive claim to ratiocination as the way to robust knowledge. It is a claim that high-level knowledge of the world is almost impossible to come by through any means (a claim bolstered by AI research). But certainly, the unconscious processes of the mind are completely impotent on any of the new problems that have arisen for Homo sapiens in the last 100,000 years. That doesn’t mean deliberate thought can solve them either. But it at least has a chance and has at least elucidated this fact, which my gut tells me is an excellent start.


*Exemplary were recent books by Nick Chater, Stanislas Dehaene, Susan Greenfield, Sarah Feldman Barrett, Nicholas Humphrey and Michael Graziano. If you read one and want the most mind-bendy, read Chater. If you want the most intuitions upended: Barrett. For vanguard of experiments (especially limits of the unconscious mind) see Dehaene. If you want the most plausible theory of consciousness so far, read Graziano.

Also published on Medium.