We like to think of ourselves as being in control of our own thoughts, decisions and actions – what we say and what we do. But how much do our conscious thoughts and intentions guide our actions? How far does the writ of the conscious mind reach? And just how much of our behaviour comes under its control?
Contemporary neuroscience has been responsible for de-throning consciousness from its central place in the workings of the mind. It is no longer thought of as exercising constant vigilance and guidance over our actions. Instead, many of the things we set out to do happen because of fast and automatic processes in the brain that ensure the fluency of our actions. We anticipate a great deal based on past patterns of perception and action, and this takes the strain off the conscious mind; though the conscious mind still assumes that it is involved in and orchestrating even the simplest actions. We imagine that when we reach for a cup in front of us that we are guiding our hand on the basis of visual experience, correcting the movement, if need be, as we go. However, that would be much too slow. Instead, the brain calculates and predicts the movement needed to achieve the goal. The motor system launches the arm and sends an efferent copy of the predicted sensations. These either match what happens – in which case they are cancelled out – or receive an error signal about mismatch and need to be revised. We are not actually aware of the sensations of the cup in our fingers, or how we made the right movement. We don't need to be. There is also evidence that too much conscious attention to what we are doing in the skillful execution of a tennis shot, or when playing a tricky musical passage on the piano, would ensure a failure to perform them well or at all.
We are often oblivious to the lack of our conscious control over something that we are sure we are deliberately carrying out. A nice experiment by neuroscientists Chris Frith and Marc Jeannerod had subjects using a cursor to draw circles that appeared on a screen in front of them. They couldn’t see the hand holding the cursor, which was below the desk. When the computer was manipulated to produce larger circles on the screen than they were actually drawing, the subjects’ hands gradually adjusted to bring it into line with the movements required to make the large circles. The subjects were utterly unaware they were doing this; they thought they were simply choosing to draw circles of various diameters under their own control. I suspect there are many other instances when we consciously claim responsibility for things we did not consciously do.
Does this mean that other forces, like a deliberate and willful unconscious, are actually carrying out the actions and decision-making that govern our behaviour? For some people, this is the role played by Freud’s notion of the unconscious. Though, in fact, there are several things Freud meant by the unconscious at different times in his intellectual development, and it is by no means clear that he had in mind an agent with its own plans and intentions, its own beliefs and desires. Before 1915, he certainly thought of the unconscious as a repressed part of the conscious mind: parts of our subjectivity that we had turned away from and repressed because of their unwanted or disturbing nature. By means of therapy – the talking cure – these could be recovered and brought back to mind (i.e. into consciousness). However, after 1915, in the metapsychology, he no longer viewed the unconscious as containing the sorts of things we could, with therapeutic work, bring – or bring back – to mind. Instead, he now viewed the unconscious as a matter of elemental forces or drives: parts of our natures more closely linked to phylogenetically ancient parts of the mammalian brain, that could well up and overcome the conscious and controlling part of our natures. Drives for sex or death were things we struggled to harness or contain. In this sense, the unconscious was not something to be reasoned with, something that could be integrated into the rest of our psychological make-up or beliefs, desires, hopes and fears. It wasn’t something to articulate or interpret. Instead, it was something to be aware of, something not to ignore, though not necessarily something to give in to either. Denying its urgings could sap our energy, and it has be recognised as fuelling our desires – sometimes dangerously so – but it had to be channeled.
"We flatter ourselves that we are in control. But who is the ‘I’ that separates itself from the neurons, from the full panoply of unconscious cognitive processes?"
This second notion of the unconscious – no longer thoughts or wishes – is a little better and perhaps closer to what we now know. But there is still too much Jekyll and Hyde about this picture: the cunning monster, living inside us, waiting to wrest power from the knowing self. This is a romantic literary picture involving a struggle with dark and unruly forces. But the truth is more likely to be one of very different neurological systems and processes having to cooperate to ensure the smooth functioning of the organism. The largely unconscious part of our natures has no plan. The phylogenetically ancient part of the brain – namely the limbic system – is lost without the planning and organised systems of the neo-cortex, as we see in patients with the breakdown of action, planning and agency following neurological damage to the pre-frontal cortex. At the same time, as work by Antonio Damassio has shown, damage to some of the emotional centres of the brain, like the insula, can leave patients as rational narrators unable to act: people who cannot make decisions, plump for one rather than another of the options they have painstakingly worked out. What’s needed is cooperation between the ensemble of systems that make up the mind, and that orchestration is done by nature not by us.
We flatter ourselves that we are in control. When we fear that the conscious mind does not rule all of our actions we suddenly say, “I am at the mercy of unconscious forces”. Or neurons. However, I am all of those things. Who is the ‘I’ that separates itself from the neurons, from the full panoply of unconscious cognitive and affective processes? It’s the conception of the self, the knowing ‘I’ that is the tricky part of our natures: not some hidden inner vault of dark forces. The conscious mind conveniently makes up its mind to suit the circumstances, claiming responsibility for many things that would go on anyway, or distancing itself from the whole of our natures and what makes me, me.
It is here that we might find what people think of as the unconsciousness: not a place, an inner container, but a version of our conscious storytelling and explaining that leaves out certain inconvenient truths. When we try to explain our own behaviour, our motivations, our feelings, our thoughts, we need to give a convincing account that makes sense of what we say and do. Sometimes, that rational explanation will have a seductive and satisfying appeal – especially to ourselves. But it may leave out lots of facts that don’t fit into the story, and there may be an interpretation of what we think and feel, hope and fear, want and wish, that makes much better sense of what we actually say and do than the self-serving account that we ourselves would give. That gap between the interpretation that makes best sense of our overall life and conduct and the version we cling to might be a good way to think of the unconscious. But this is very much about giving the right explanation to the conscious goings on.
Underneath that will be many cognitive and affective processes that shape and structure what surfaces in consciousness. How things really work there and what enables us to do what we do may be quite unlike the picture of ourselves that everyday experience provides. Cognitive neuroscience is providing fascinating examples of the gaps between how things really work and how we think they work. This notion of unconscious, or better, non-conscious processes, that can never come to mind, are best approached from the point of view of scientific investigation. They are not (just) a matter of making sense in a narrative way. We are governed neither by reason nor by causes alone but by content-using cognitive and affective processes that work in tandem with the sophisticated reasoning and language-using systems we have developed as humans.
We care about our capacity for language and reasoning but it can also lead us astray. Peter Johannson and colleagues conducted some fascinating research where people are stopped on the street and asked for their political opinions by ticking boxes on a questionnaire. When they finish and the researcher takes back the questionnaire on the clipboard, they cleverly superimpose a different version of the same page showing the opposite answers to those given by the participants. And yet, when asked why they made the choices they did a large majority of the participants will start offering spurious justifications for the choices they did not make. We are served by our capacity for reasoning but it can also provide the means by which we confabulate. We do not always know ourselves so well.