Some years ago I was pondering Civil War battles and in particular what could possibly motivate men to make a charge knowing there was an almost 100 percent certainty that they would die. This saying came to my mind: “We consistently overestimate our level of consciousness, and we consistently underestimate our level of unconsciousness.” This was the only way I could make sense of it; there was something besides the rational conscious mind propelling those men to their doom.
Over the years this insight has seemed more and more powerful to me. I think it can be applied in a general fashion. Most of us think we have a lot more control over our thoughts and actions than we really do. In fact, this is where the belief in free will comes from; we think we consciously choose our thoughts and actions.
Of course it’s easy to understand why we would have this bias. We are only aware of what is in our conscious mind, so we think that’s where all the action is. However, neuroscientists are now establishing the power of our unconscious mind and the limitations of consciousness. This may sound like a bad thing at first, but when you begin to understand how it works, you can learn how to harness the unconscious mind to your advantage.
In Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts, French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene quotes Freud: “A return from the over-estimation of the property of consciousness is the indispensable preliminary to any genuine insight into the course of psychic events.” (The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900)
Dehaene goes on to say,
Dehaene goes on to say,
Freud was right: consciousness is overrated. Consider this simple truism: we are conscious only of our conscious thoughts. Because our unconscious operations elude us, we constantly overestimate the role that consciousness plays in our physical and mental lives. By forgetting the amazing power of the unconscious, we over-attribute our actions to conscious decisions and therefore mischaracterize our consciousness as a major player in our daily lives. In the words of the Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes, ‘Consciousness is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of.’
Most of us have had the experience of a sudden insight or solution to a problem coming to us complete and whole in a sudden flash. There are many stories of scientific insights coming in this fashion. While studying biochemistry in college, I heard a fabulous story about the discovery of the structure of benzene, which is a circle formed by six carbon atoms. A scientist had been struggling to understand the nature of the benzene molecule. One evening while relaxing in his study smoking his pipe, he blew a smoke ring and realized “ring” was the key: he saw the circular nature of the molecule. Wikipedia has another version, in which the chemist Friedrich Kekulé had a daydream about a snake eating its own tail.
Dehaene gives an example from the life of mathematician Henri Poincaré. Poincaré was working on some complex problem, and one day while getting onto a bus with some friends, the solution came to him. He wrote,
At the moment I put my foot on the step, the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it…I did not verify the idea; I should not have had time, as, upon taking my seat in the omnibus, I went on with a conversation already commenced, but I felt a perfect certainty.
This quote is from Jacques Hadamard’s An Essay on the Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field. Hadamard divided mathematical discovery into four successive stages: initiation, incubation, illumination, and verification. Initiation includes all the preparation, study, and conscious exploration of a problem. Incubation is the process where the unconscious mind works on the problem. Incubation can entail a good night’s sleep or a walk—the important thing is the conscious attention is taken off the problem—and then illumination occurs: the solution appears fully formed in the conscious mind. Then the conscious mind can come along and fill in details.
I think this process is applicable to any problem in life. I use it all the time; I’ll identify an issue, then think, “take it away unconscious mind” and wait for an answer. I think of it as “looking at a problem sideways,” like looking at a faint star out of the corner of your eye to see it better. Even if I’ve forgotten where something is, I’ll say to myself, “Where is the ______?” and then let it go. It’s amazing how often the answer will pop up in a short time. Once again, the key is not obsessing about obtaining the answer with the conscious mind. That just slows things down.
Dehaene describes an experiment that showed this system working for ordinary problems:
Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis presented subjects with the choice of 4 brands of cars, which differed by up to 12 features. After reading the problem, half of the participants were given time to consciously think about the problem, while the other half were distracted for that same amount of time solving anagrams. What’s incredible is the distracted group picked the best choice much more often than the conscious-deliberating group (60% vs 22%). “On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-without-Attention Effect,” Science, 311 (5763): 1005-7, 2006 [Dehaene doesn’t explain how the “right” choice was decided by the scientists, but I imagine the original researcher did.]
Neuroscientist David Eagleman, in his book Incognito, suggested an interesting tool for accessing the wisdom of the unconscious mind while making decisions. If you’re having trouble choosing between two alternatives, try this: Flip a coin. Assign one choice to heads, the other to tails. Then, as Eagleman writes,
The important part is to assess your gut feeling after the coin lands. If you feel a subtle sense of relief at being ‘told’ what to do by the coin, that’s the right choice for you. If, instead, you conclude that it’s ludicrous to make a decision based on a coin toss, that will clue you to choose the other option.
Some people, incredibly, conclude from all of this research that consciousness serves no purpose; it’s the side-effect of some other function. Dehaene argues that consciousness does serve a purpose—this is the “functionalist” view of consciousness, which means it was selected for in evolution. He sees it as a division of labor, where an army (the unconscious mind) labors in the basement sifting through mountains of data. The executives at top (the conscious mind), examine only a brief prepared by the laborers, and slowly make conscious decisions. Of course our conscious mind wants to be the CEO! But this does seem to fit what we know of the mind’s functioning.
I, for one, am celebrating the awesome power of the unconscious mind.