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

Redirect

Social Intelligence 

The above are just a sampling of books I’ve read, but you can go to Amazon.com 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.

Master-Mind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

Mastermind-cover-new-pipeI recently finished reading Maria Konnikova’s new book. It’s called Master-Mind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. Konnikova is mostly known for her blog “Literally Psyched” at The Scientific American. Her blog is, for the most part, an exploration and discussion of topics in literature and psychology. So it’s not surprising that her first book is an exploration in psychology and scientific thinking as demonstrated through the mind of Sherlock Holmes, the great fictional character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Konnikova uses the literary character of Sherlock Holmes and his successful thinking methods (for solving crimes) as a model for a particular way of thinking. This method is the scientific method of mind. The central purpose of Master-Mind is to demonstrate how to develop a scientific method of mind and thereby improve your thinking.

There are five basic principles to Konnikova’s scientific method of mind:

1. Self awareness and context matter. The first thing we must realize from the start, before we even begin to evaluate, judge, or reason is that each of us have built in cognitive biases, predispositions, and prejudices that push our perspectives, our thinking and decisions, in ways that we’re not even conscious of. Being consciously aware and attempting to mitigate these stereotyping influences is critical to the scientific state of mind and effective thinking. Related to this is the principle of “mindfulness.” This is another theme running throughout the book. The idea is that we need to be passive (not letting our minds “actively” wander) observers (not just looking but “seeing”) of the phenomenon.

The second part of this principle is “context matters.” This means being mindful of the external (and internal) environment–the whole situation–before you start making judgements. How you initially frame the situation can have a significant impact on whether you succeed or fail. This is important because our intuitions tend to race ahead of our deliberative thinking if we’re not mindful of the need to slow down the process and observe. You need to know if the environment has something to tell you about the situation. Understanding the environment also means understanding your own state of mind. “Remember: specific, mindful motivation matters.” Are you engaged? What are you trying to accomplish? What are your goals? You need to clarify these important points before you start your journey of thought.

2. Be a careful and thoughtful observer. Once you’re aware of your limitations and considered the context you must then truly observe the phenomenon. You must be attentive to details. One needs to be open minded and allow objects, events, and evidence to speak for themselves, without you filtering it through any prior assumptions, preconceptions or expectations.

3. Make room for creative space. Once you have observed and gathered information then it’s time to mull it over, taking the time to ask yourself questions and consider various possibilities and probabilities. In a sense, you’re forming a hypothesis.

4. Deduce. After mulling it over you begin the process of weighing your theories against the known facts and then choosing the best answer. “Objective fact, to a consideration of multiple possibilities, to a narrowing of the most likely ones. No extraneous details, no holes filled in by an all too willing imagination. Scientific deduction at it’s best.”

5. And principle 5 is straight forward: “Learn–from your failures just as you do from your successes.”

These 5 basic principles make up the scientific method of mind. Master-Mind is loaded with a lot of insights gleaned from research in neuroscience and psychology. This brief post doesn’t do her book justice. If you’re interested in improving your thinking and becoming more reasonable and approaching situations more objectively (and scientifically) then I highly recommend her book.