In my unconscious mind what will I find? A depth of perception? A constant reflection? Or something far more benign? Below a thought's surface will I find a purpose? (How different are my thoughts from those of a porpoise?) Deep in my inners will I find a child? or something more freewheeling, randomized, wild?
During medical school, aside from being taught that Sigmund Freud’s theories had largely been discredited when finally subjected to scientific inquiry, we were taught that he still made great contributions to the field of psychiatry. Among these contributions was the assertion that all humans have an unconscious (or subconscious) mind, the contents of which have a profound impact on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. According to the army of freudian psychoanalysts, we had but to understand the nature of this vast inner world in order to find solutions to all mental disorders.
Although I never really bought Freud’s model, my vague concept of the mind was little more than a “spirit” trapped within a box of neurons: greater than its parts yet dependent on them for its transcendent existence. But what if the mind does not transcend anything?
I once believed, that the mind has unconscious “rooms” that store things like my memories, concepts, and beliefs. In these rooms there are invisible, unknowable processors tirelessly trying to make sense of the world. Maybe even competing personalities from my past are duking it out for dominance. I like the idea of the unconscious as a way to explain why previous experiences, even those for which we do not have clear memories, seem to have such a profound impact on our future thoughts and actions.
But what if my mind has rooms to store things in and neural machines to process those things, but the processing necessary to produce thought is so demanding that there is almost no room for any complex unconscious effort. The functions of my brain that I am not conscious of have little to do with the development of any belief I may have about the world beyond the transmission of sensory signals and a little house keeping. Whatever I stored in this kind of ming would eventually gather dust, maybe disintegrate with time. Maybe the inhabitants of the rooms contort over years like wax figures in the sun. Maybe when theses stored things are used, they are reinvigorated in the process. My thoughts wouldn’t change in any “intentional” way due to any hidden effort of my mind. It would require conscious effort, or random decay.
But what if explanations for the unconscious are metaphors of a metaphor?
True progress in science comes when we cease to explain specific phenomenon using vague, ambiguous concepts that are derivative of mystical speculation and, instead, build a concept based on the stepwise progress of careful observation and experimentation. Is the unconscious mind a scientific concept or vague speculation? That depends on who you ask.
Nick Chater has written a fantastically heretical book (The mind is flat : the remarkable shallowness of the improvising brain) that details how a wealth of experiments in psychology seemly demonstrated that the unconscious mind is unlikely to exist, at least in any substantial depth. For example, our attention seems to always focus on one object or concept at a time, and our brain has to work really hard to keep a good train of thought going. According to Chater, every time we access a memory, our beliefs about that memory are not influenced by years of subconscious pondering, but by our immediate emotional and intellectual state. In Chater’s assessment, it is as if we can have merely one coherent thought at a time, and our brain convinces us that this is the only truth that is or ever was. The depth that we think our mind has is just an illusion in the same way that the fictional characters we create in our mind while reading a book is an illusion.
Our concept of self is an improvised, fictional version of our true self. In Chater’s assessment, it appears that not only do we not have unconscious thought, but we may not even be conscious by some definitions. I’ll get back to that.
In her review of Chater’s book, Susan Blackmore pokes fun at this idea by pointing out that throughout her day she is able to do tasks that appear to require having unconscious thoughts, like knowing when to stop brushing her teeth while thinking about internet memes or counting while taking steps. However, she is forced to admit that maybe her brain is just able to hold a couple things in memory and switch quickly between them. But what about songs that get stuck in our heads? These are good questions. Chater could always counter with the assertion that our mind is just creating the illusion of depth and causation because that is what it is made to do.
There are many competing concepts of mind and consciousness. Some believe that conscious thought is just the observed surface of a deep and complex web of constantly processed beliefs, perceptions, sensations, and memories. William R. Klemm, Ph.D proposes the apparent inverse of Chater: consciousness is actually just an afterthought, when our mind selectively attends to a single slice of our immense depth of thoughts. Chater would likely say that our brains are just not capable of such things because they have to work so hard just to attend to their current state of inputs and outputs.
Sometimes I feel like both authors are saying the same thing in effect. The fuzziness of our definitions of consciousness leave a lot of room for interpretation. It is ironic that so much is written about the unconscious mind when there is not a good working, universally accepted definition of consciousness. Some even deny that consciousness exist.
To complicate things more is to think about the mind from an evolutionary perspective. Throughout history people are loath to admit that other animals are conscious. Unconsciousness must be the ancestral state, and consciousness evolved in higher animals only, and probably only in humans. Any answer to this would require a good definition of both. As a prior phylogeneticist I find this to be immensely dissatisfying. Psychologists who propose this seem to assume that most creatures are unaware of the content of their senses and the motives it inspired. They just react like robots. At some magical point the complexity of the jelly led to the emergent property of consciousness.
I struggle to find the science in this. Why not as an alternative explanation: primitive brains were obligatorily conscious. The complexity of this consciousness evolved into what humans recognize in themselves as consciousness: the ability to form a representation of the outside world, consider multiple options to interpret our sensory inputs, predict the future, etc. In this hypothesis, these traits exist in less complex brains as well.