The unconscious mind

To some this post might be old news but to others hopefully it’s informative. Over the past decade or so there’s been a revolution in psychology. Research and experimental findings in human psychology suggest that our understanding of the mind and brain are at the cusp of a major turning point or shift. This new dawn in science has been the result of breakthroughs primarily in neuroscience and social science research.

The core finding of this revolution involves our greater understanding of the unconscious mind and how it operates. Research wise we’ve been able to design experiments that manifest the operation of the unconscious mind. These experiments reveal structural biases in our thinking and the weighty influence of the unconscious mind in our everyday actions. It turns out that our unconscious mind is very active in shaping who we are, how we act, and what we become. Far more so than we ever thought. After the waning of psychoanalysis in the later part of 20th century it became taboo to talk about the unconscious mind. But the advances in science have corrected this limited perspective.

It turns out Freud was right. We do have a very active unconscious mind and it does have a big influence on our behavior. But Freud was wrong about what the unconscious was and how it functions. Freud’s view was that the unconscious was hot, wet, primitive, irrational, and seething with anger and lust. The “new” unconscious, the one that scientist are now studying, is “kindler and gentler than that and more reality bound.” Freud of course didn’t have the use of modern experimental methods and technology. His psychology was based primarily on observation and introspection. Within these limitations Freud’s project was fascinating and highly influential in the late 19th and early 20th century. Freud’s psychology is certainly not science in the modern sense, but his ideas are deeply penetrating as literature and philosophy. Stop and consider for a moment the vocabulary Freud gave us for psychoanalyzing other people. Think of words like defense mechanism, repression, libido, displacement, sublimation, condensation, over-determination and many others. Freud’s psychoanalysis isn’t science but it is a useful way for describing human behavior.

With modern technology we can now see into the brain as it operates through the use of the fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging ). We can now watch as blood moves through the brain during cognition, indicating which areas of the brain are in use during an event. Neuroscientists can now say what area of our brain–the reasoning part, the emotional parts involving fear, love etc, etc,–are functioning, or being activated during experiments. The science on this is fascinating. There have been a number of really good books over the past few years that have highlighted what we’ve learned. I’m currently reading Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. If you have an interest in psychology or if you’re just interested in human nature and how and why people do what they do then you might want to check out some of these recommendations:

The Social Animal

Think Fast, Slow

The Folly of Fools

The Righteous Mind

The Happiness Hypothesis

Stranger to Ourselves


Social Intelligence 

The above are just a sampling of books I’ve read, but you can go to and find a treasure trove of books covering neuroscience, behavioral economics and social neuroscience.

I should also note that there are still many questions in psychology that neuroscience has not been able to address. Consciousness, perception, learning and memory are some examples. Neuroscience is a very good tool and has greatly advanced our understanding, but we should be mindful that we have a long way to go and still much to learn. As is the case with science, as we continue to advance our understanding we must continually revise our views to square with new facts.

The Signal and the Noise

I started following Nate Silver’s blog after I saw him in an interview about six months ago. He’s a young statistician and writer at The New York Times. His expertise is in the science (and art) of prediction. I was impressed with his confidence and just how successful he’d been at predicting political elections. In the 2008 U.S. Presidential election Silver correctly predicted who (Obama or McCain) would win 49 of 50 states. He was wrong only on Indiana, which went to Obama by 1 percentage point. In last Tuesday’s Presidential election Silver correctly predicted who would win all 50 states. So I’m fascinated by his mind. I’d like to get into it and understand how he thinks, how he sees, so I can hopefully improve my own thinking.

Luckily, Silver has just published his first book, The Signal and the Noise. The title refers to the two aspects you typically encounter when reading or interpreting information. There is the signal you’re looking for and then there’s all the noise that surrounds it. The opening paragraphs are gems that temp anyone with a hunger for knowledge:

This is a book about information, technology, and scientific progress. This is a book about competition, free markets, and the evolution of ideas. This is a book about the things that make us smarter than any computer, and a book about human error. This is a book about how we learn, one step at a time, to come to knowledge of the objective world, and why we sometimes take a step back.

This is a book about prediction, which sits at the intersection of all these things. It is a study of why some predictions succeed and why some fail. My hope is that we might gain a little more insight into planning our futures and become a little less likely to repeat our mistakes.

And so I begin the book tonight with the idea of providing you a review eventually.

Talking to the elephant

If you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants.”― J. Haidt

If you haven’t read Jonathan Haidt’s work, I highly recommend you do. Haidt is a social psychologist who specializes in moral psychology. His latest book, The Righteous Mind, is a fascinating book on why it’s so difficult for people to talk about religion and politics. You’ve probably heard the saying: “You can talk about anything with people but religion and politics.” Why is that? The short answer is that religious and political beliefs have strong, non-rational, emotional elements that make critical discussions very difficult if not, depending on the person, impossible. We may want to have that honest, open philosophical discussion about politics or religion (or maybe even football!) but we tend to find that most people can’t without getting too angry or personal. Well, Dr. Haidt provides a way of seeing, and hence understanding, this problem.

Haidt invents a very useful metaphor for understanding how the rational and intuitive (emotional, non-rational) parts of our mind interact when our moral passions are engaged by questions of politics or religion. Haidt asks us to see our mind as divided into two parts: an elephant and a rider. The elephant is the emotional or intuitive part of our mind. The rider is the rational part of our mind. The elephant is much bigger and stronger and is ultimately in charge. The rider, who represents the slower, more reasoning part of the human psyche, can try to influence, goad, or reason with the elephant but the rider can’t make the elephant ultimately do what it doesn’t want to. More often than not the rider merely plays the part of a lawyer defending his client’s (the elephant) actions or decisions post-mortem. So when it comes to religion and politics our inner elephant is already leaning (or stampeding) in the preferred direction from the start. The rider does what he can, but for the most part he’s along for the ride.

So our moral judgments are mostly the product of emotional preference. Rational considerations play a very small part in moral judgments. Haidt’s first principle of moral psychology is: “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” If we want to change people’s minds we have to begin by understanding that few people can be “reasoned” out of their moral beliefs. Reasoning is attempting to convince the rider. To change minds you have to talk to the elephant. And that’s not easy. People, as the old saying goes, believe what they want to in spite of mountains of evidence to the absolute contrary. There is an emotional attachment (and pay off) to moral beliefs and the sense of belonging people get from standing with like minded people (“your team”). There actually are some social benefits to this mindset. But this “tribal” mindset has also led to some of the worst atrocities in history.

So if the emotions play such a powerful role in the quality of our society and individual lives, what might we do to improve our moral emotional intelligence – if that’s possible at all. Basically, how do we train the elephant? Let me suggest one way. What this means, in my mind, is that an education in the Arts & Humanities is far more important than we ever thought. The Arts and Humanities, more than any other study, helps educate the emotions – the fuel of our moral sentiments. Besides teaching you how to think, more importantly, the Arts and Humanities teach us how to feel. The philosopher Roger Scruton makes a compelling argument along these lines in his book Culture Counts. Scruton is, of course, referring to the larger, more encompassing idea of (Western) Culture. But much of what he means by culture falls within the Arts & Humanities.

At first I actually came away from reading Haidt’s work with the impression that we’re all doomed. I mean if emotionality settles everything then what hope can we have in reason and progress. In fact, Haidt even says at one point that faith in reason is an illusion. But of course this is coming from a social scientist who’s just presented a well crafted scientifically “reasoned” argument. Should our faith in his conclusions also be considered illusory?

Let me conclude this ramble with some parting thoughts. Haidt’s elephant and rider metaphor are an excellent way to understand how individuals reach moral decisions. We are emotionally driven creatures who feel first and reason second. As Shakespeare’s Gloucester says in King Lear, “I see it feelingly.” I think this idea is a sound observation that most of us understand intuitively. Emotions are king. But Haidt doesn’t attempt to say how we channel these emotional forces like, say, the ancient Greeks did in through their art, philosophy and history. Haidt provides an excellent image for understanding our dilemma, but he really doesn’t offer any ideas for how we might mitigate the problem. Or at least none that satisfies me. My thoughts are that we can, in the modern world, channel or inform our emotions through education, specifically in the Arts & Humanities. I’m not saying an education in the Arts and Humanities will be a sure bet for taming the inner elephant, but certainly it may help calm it. And it might even help soothe the elephant into listening to the rider.

Books change your view

I can’t recall who it was right now, but one Enlightenment era philosopher said, “The way to the world is through the printed page.” Reading allows us to broaden our minds beyond the narrow confines of our own experience and way of thinking. It helps us “see.” As Douglas Wilson said: “Education is the process of selling someone on books.” The importance of education and reading is one of my themes in this blog. I found this picture on the net and it nicely displays just how books work – by changing our view.

(Photo credit: DMotivation)