The supremacy of the unconscious

We have so far seen that thinking or cognition may be conscious or unconscious. Whilst we pride ourselves as rational beings, the truth is that most of the thinking that drives our actions is done unconsciously, under the radar of our volitional control. As an indicator of how dominant our unconscious thinking is, Leonard Mlodinow, in his most insightful book Subliminal. The revolution of the new unconscious and what it teaches us about ourselves, remarked that it accounts for a remarkable 95% of our cognitive activity. The subconscious not only interprets our sensations, but in many cases it creates what we perceive; for example, it blanks out the blind spot in our visual fields when we see; it fills in inaudible sounds when we listen; and it creates its own version of memory to fill in for those we have forgotten when we try to remember. Similarly, when it comes to our presumably wilful actions, it is troubling to learn that most of these are also governed by the mindless application of powerful subconscious mental scripts and schemas that we have learned over time; driving a car is a perfect example, but so are many aspects of medical practice.

Inside the unconscious mind 3/52. Santi Xander on Flickr

It does not take a long stretch of the imagination to understand why the unconscious is the dominant part of our cognitive processes. In his excellent book, Strangers to ourselves. Discovering the adaptive unconscious, Timothy Wilson explained that ‘consciousness is a limited-capacity system’, and for the brain to operate efficiently, it has to delegate ‘a good deal of high level, sophisticated thinking to the unconscious…outside of awareness‘. And to illustrate how much of this thinking happens in the unconscious, Wilson asserts that of the 11,000,000 pieces of information we take in every second, we are only able to consciously deal with 40.

Looking into the subconscious. David Alexander Elder on Flickr.

Beyond its disproportionately smaller capacity, conscious thinking is also disadvantaged by its embarrassingly sluggish pace. Wilson graphically demonstrated this when he remarked that ‘our conscious mind is often too slow to figure out what the best course of action is’; the unconscious mind on the other hand ‘gathers information, interprets and evaluates it, and sets goals in motion, quickly and efficiently‘. He further stressed that because unconscious cognition is ‘fast, unintentional, uncontrollable, and effortless‘, it takes priority in decision-making.

Alien’s dream. .sanden. on Flickr.

The logical fallout of having a high-powered subconscious is that we need it for almost everything we do. We have, after all, come to rely on its gut instincts when we make major life decisions. But the downside is that we are also vulnerable to the damaging habits, prejudicesstereotypes, and mindlessness that it often engenders. A further drawback of the unconscious that Wilson highlighted is its inability to respond effectively to ‘new or contradictory information‘, and when faced with novel situations, it may bend them ‘to confirm preconceptions‘. He also pointed out that the unconscious has a tendency ‘to jump to conclusions‘, and ‘to fail to change its mind in the face of contrary evidence’. All these, as you can imagine, have serious consequences when it comes to medical practice.

Stanislaw Lem is Dead, Long Live Solaris. Ricardo Wang on Flickr.

One way the unconscious is so efficient is that it takes a lot of shortcuts in the way it approaches its tasks. Take its ability to read words accurately irrespective of where the letters in the word are, so long as the first and the last letters are in their place. Below is a classical example many are familiar with:

Accodring to a research at Cdmbriage Univeristy, it dseon’t mtater in waht odrer the ltteers in a wrod are. The olny imtorpant thnig is taht the fsrit and lsat letter be in the rihgt pcale. The rset can be a tatol mses and you can sitll raed it witohut prolbem. Tihs is bucaese the hamun mnid deos not raed erevy lteter by iestlf, but the wrod as a whloe.

Another shortcut the subconscious system relies on is a tendency to impose patterns where none exist; this is the driver for the wide variety of pareidolias which are dominant when seeing non-existent faces:

Pareidolia. Trevor Hurlbut on Flickr.

Another example is the well-known Kanishka triangle when the subconscious imposes shapes where none exist:

In the next blog post we will look specifically at the pitfalls of the unconscious that have direct relevance to clinical practice,  our Achille’s heels – biases and noise.

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