Demystifying the unconscious…

It’s been a while, so I thought I’d try something a bit more challenging than usual, and less ranty! I’ve chosen a deliberately obtuse title today – so let’s start with some demystification of that…

Most of us have a pretty limited idea of what consciousness means. When it comes to the unconscious (the noun rather than the adjective), most of us (including many psychologists) default to fuzzy Freudian notions of ids and egos. When pressed, most of us would probably describe the unconscious as “the stuff that happens automatically and that manipulates us” – and we wouldn’t be far off. Today I’d like to give you a clearer idea of what that means for us, especially when it comes to our behaviours.

So let’s start with a definition (or at least the best that I can do) of the unconscious. When I talk about the unconscious, or unconscious process, I mean intrinsic processes that underlie the majority of brain function. Consciousness, on the other hand, represents a relatively small amount of ‘higher’ processes, localised predominantly in the prefrontal lobes, and which runs at around a half second behind most unconscious processes. Note, because today is about unconscious process, I’ll aim to cover more on consciousness in my next blog (and you can read more about it in earlier blogs here, here, here, and here).

For humans, experience and the sense of self is a conscious process. We see the world through the focus of “me”, and so we assume that we are the agents of our experiences; that we are in control of most, if not all, of our engagements with the world. Nevertheless, from an evolutionary perspective, our conscious selves are a relatively recent addition. Given the cerebral development of other apes, it’s most likely that the rudiments of human consciousness developed some 200,000 years ago, with the emergence of homo sapiens. The mutation that distinguished our ancestors from other hominids most likely allowed for increased brain size which, in turn allowed more complex social organisation, rudimentary technology, and the origins of language. It’s probably impossible to know at what stage the modern concept of ‘self’ emerged (some argue that it’s as recent as 3000 years – read about the rather contentious notion of the bicameral mind here), but it’s probably the result of our increased cognitive abilities; after all, it’s extremely costly to run the processing power required to host consciousness – to fuel it requires a regular, high level of calories (especially carbohydrates), and that requires cooperation, collaboration, technology, and a relative amount of safety (probably engendered by the combination of the first three factors).

But we’re not just homo sapiens. Our brain development takes into account our large evolutionary history, including reptilian, amphibian, and early mammalian origins. And for the majority of that time, consciousness was completely unnecessary. Prior to our human origins, our forbears were concerned with two activities: survival and reproduction. Both require a system that is geared toward avoiding danger and competing for resources. Such a system needs to be fast, but not particularly smart or adaptive. And it’s the system that still manages most of our functions as modern humans – despite our perception that “we” are in control. Yup, it’s the unconscious.

We can get a pretty good glimpse at the unconscious processes that run most of our interactions by looking at the neurological development of children during gestation and early childhood. As humans develop, our brains start out as management systems – we grow the underlying hardware that keeps us operating (managing amongst other things, respiration, homeostasis, digestion, and motor control) in various environments (including dangerous ones). Young children retain these automatic systems, and then develop other systems for motivating behaviour (the emotional systems in the midbrain – read here), before developing higher functions that allow for consciousness. In fact, consciousness doesn’t really come online until about four or five years old; until then we have no real sense of self and, therefore, can’t store any autobiographical memories (this is why most people have no true memories prior to the age of five). Interacting with a three year-old is probably an excellent model of what it would be like to be around an early protohuman – everything would be about instinct and emotion, with very little capacity for deliberate planning, inhibition of behaviour, or considered communication (verbal or gesture-based).

In other words, three year-olds are largely the expression of what, as adults, we call the unconscious. They act without any conscious thought or direction. Instead they function based on fast, intrinsic processes that allow them to interact with their environment, but not to master it (at least not yet). Most importantly, by default, they place excessive trust in these underlying processes. This makes sense: first, there’s no self, and therefore no internal cognition that allows for questioning of the system; and, second, the system is self-directing – because it exists to enhance survival there is no reason question it, it just does what it thinks is best (based on a limited process that is built around short-term survival). Whilst most three year-olds have some language, that language is not connected to conscious thought, and so toddlers communicate by expressing their sensations, their emotions, and their impressions (often loudly and without consideration for the consequences – note this is because they aren’t yet able to comprehend the notion of consequence). In other words, our unconscious can only communicate independent of language. It’s expression is through impression, sensation and emotion – all things that we have a large amount of difficulty translating into language (and, therefore, understanding – something that many of us struggle with throughout our adult lives).

As we develop as humans, and start to grow the hardware needed to host consciousness, we also develop language, internal cognition, and the potential to direct our own actions. Nevertheless, we retain the underlying systems, and those unconscious systems still direct many (if not most) of our actions. This is because we are programmed to trust this system (we trust that our impressions, sensations, and feelings are an appropriate guide to reality), and because we pick up some unhelpful programming as we develop. This second point needs a bit of elaboration, because this core programming integrates into the unconscious system to manipulate behaviour even when we develop a conscious self.

During our development, we are exposed to all sorts of environmental experiences. Children require certain conditions for healthy brain development, including emotional care, exposure to language, and effective behavioural modelling. Because pretty much all of us (no matter what our intentions) are lousy parents (because of our programming and our trust in unconscious processes), there’s a pretty good chance that we’ll screw up some of the fundamental aspects of effective child rearing. As children develop, they adapt to their (screwed up) surroundings, and learn mechanisms to enhance functioning, even in the absence of appropriate guidance. These adaptations become inherent, a form of core programming, that we learn to trust. Although potentially adaptive in childhood, these “schemas” can be highly maladaptive later on. Effectively, they integrate with other unconscious processes, so that we trust in our feelings, and act on them without any conscious awareness either of what we’re doing or why we’re doing it. Like all other unconscious processes, we act on them because we trust the system – it just “feels right”.

OK, getting to the point now. All humans develop consciousness eventually, and with it the ability to question our experience of the world and the veracity of our unconscious motives. Unfortunately, unless we’re explicitly taught how to (yay education), very few of us are guided by conscious decision. Instead, we rely on unconscious systems and then rationalise our actions post hoc. In a complex, modern world, this gets us in trouble because we make decisions that affect us in the longer term using a system that evolved to make short-term decisions based on immediate survival needs (without any consideration of long-term consequences, or complex, confounding variables). Unsurprisingly, this makes things tricky, and it’s the reason why my profession (psychology) exists.

Speaking of my profession, the majority of the work I do as a practising psychologist is to help people to use their conscious systems in preference to trusting and acting on unconscious process. Having our actions controlled by our feelings isn’t a lot of fun, and repeating actions because of some early programming can doom us to a lifetime of dysfunction. I should point out that, as awesome as conscious thought can be, consciousness doesn’t actually have control over the unconscious. Rather, consciousness is informed by unconscious systems, but often assumes that the incoming information is inherent (in other words, consciousness assumes that it’s in charge rather than just a passive receiver). Learning to notice and label incoming information from unconscious systems, and making informed decisions about our actions is what psychological treatment is all about. We learn to make the implicit explicit and, in doing so, we can work with the unconscious rather than spending our lives victims to our survival systems and our core programming.

One Reply to “Demystifying the unconscious…”

  1. Thanks again for another insightful article. I am very interested in neuroplasticity & neuropsychology and I always find your writing illuminations and helpful. In this article the thing that resonates the most personally was instead of using our executive function to oversee our intuitive reactions, we use it to justify why it is OK to behave that way. I have also sent this to a number of people who have small children and are frustrated and angry at their “unconscious” behaviour. Your description of them as purely intuitive with little or no cognitive analysis I hope will be for helpful, it certainly was for me!

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