Be Conscious of Your Unconscious to Set you Free

April 2, 2006 | By | 2 Replies More

A lot of people are beating up on old Sigmund Freud these days.  More than a century ago, however, Freud hit a particular ball out of the park and it’s still sailing:  he concluded that many important thought processes are unconscious

In Philosophy in the Flesh (1999), Mark Johnson and George Lakoff listed some of the many important unconscious mental activities:

  • Accessing memories relevant to what is being said.
  • Comprehending a stream of sound as being language, dividing it into distinctive phonetic features.
  • Picking out words and giving them meanings appropriate to context.
  • Making semantic and pragmatic sense of the sentences as a whole.
  • Framing what is said in terms relevant to the discussion.
  • Making inferences relevant to what is being said.
  • Constructing mental images where relevant.
  • Filling in gaps in the discourse.
  • Noticing and interpreting a speaker’s body language.

In short, most of what is going on in our heads is unconscious. Lakoff and Johnson concluded that “unconscious thought is at least 95 percent of all thought and that our unconscious conceptual systems function like a “hidden hand” that “shapes how we automatically and unconsciously comprehend what we experience.  It constitutes our unreflective common sense.”

Nietzsche expressed this same idea in Thus Spake Zarathustra

“It is by invisible hands that we are bent and tortured worst.”

Freud and Nietzsche have been proven absolutely correct on this point.  That consciousness is only the “tip of the iceberg” has been conclusively proven by hundreds of experiments outlined in numerous works including the following: Joseph LeDoux’s The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, Touchstone Books (1996), Daniel Schacter’s, Searching for Memory; Owen Flanagan’s Science of the Mind (1991); Thomas Gilovich’s How We Know What Isn’t So (1993); and Why We Get Sick : The New Science of Darwinian Medicine by Nesse and Williams (1996).

Yet most of us still follow in the footsteps of Descartes, who held that the “mind” consists only of that which is conscious; if isn’t conscious, it isn’t mental. 

Until we get comfortable with the fact that almost all most mental activity is unconscious, we will be limited to using “folk psychology” to understand human behavior.  Folk psychology is psychology used by untrained “folks.”  It is the approach used by young children; the starting point for all folk psychological self-understanding is listening to that voice in one’s head and relying on gut hunches.  The use of Folk psychology makes people content to believe Sonnets and chocolate are fully explained by “love,” that sex is explained by “lust” and the need to eat is explained by “hunger.”  Using Folk psychology, we “know” that we are each run by a “little person” inside our heads and that the tens of billions of neurons in each of our skulls are largely beside the point.

Although it often seems useful, folk psychology fails to provide any comprehensive framework for understanding why humans do the things they do.  It fails to consider why much of the behavior of human animals parallels the behavior of other social animals.  It therefore cuts off the possibility of a deeper and richer understanding of humans based on human biological and cultural evolution.   The use folk psychology keeps us from utilizing the comprehensive survey of our behavior set forth by ethologist Nico Tinbergen.   

Limiting our understanding to folk psychology (instead of making use of the vast array of modern scientific tools available to study human cognitive) makes us content to rely on those little voices in our heads without wondering where those voices come from.  Relying on folk psychology causes us to shut out the possibility that sub-conscious triggers often give rise to a sense of intellectual and moral certitude.  This certitude, in turn, leads people to close their minds to further inquiry and understanding.  It makes them afraid to look into the big mirror that science is meticulously constructing.

Society is a huge battleground involving two types of people: A) those who are content to rely on folk psychology and B) those courageous souls who won’t rest until the mental world is more fully explored.   Unfortunately, those who “know what they know” outnumber the adventurers and often strive to handcuff legitimate science.  Because folk psychology keeps them from being self-critical, such people take introspection as validation to whatever they want to believe.  Very few of the postings that appear on this blog will ever make sense to those chose the folks over the scientists.

The antidote is to listen carefully to Siggy Freud: that which constitutes each of us is a multi-dimensional and mostly unexplored bubbling ferment.  It is the newest frontier and it awaits all of us.

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Category: Evolution, Psychology Cognition, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. Wilson says:

    Isnt cognitive neuroscience in some ways validating Freud's seemingly half-baked theories?

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Ole' Freud can't be completely written off. That much goes on in the subconscious, for example, seems so obvious to us today, but was dramatic and bold when Freud presented it. I'm currently re-reading Civilization and its Discontents. An incredibly fruitful work I plan to discuss in an upcoming post.

    Freud was definitely mistaken about many things, based on current understanding, but he was often more interesting in his mistakes than many other writers are in their truths. One of my favorite Freud collections is "Character and Culture" (1963), a terrific read.

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