Another viewpoint

In my last post I gave my own ideas about consciousness and unconsciousness. I have to say that my outlook would be considered a bit extreme by some very respected neuroscientists, and so here I give a more orthodox view.


Bargh and Morsella (citation below) (The Unconscious Mind) have examined the various versions of unconsciousness. Here is the abstract:


The unconscious mind is still viewed by many psychological scientists as the shadow of a “real” conscious mind, though there now exists substantial evidence that the unconscious is not identifiably less flexible, complex, controlling, deliberative, or action-oriented than is its counterpart. This “conscious-centric” bias is due in part to the operational definition within cognitive psychology that equates unconscious with subliminal. We review the evidence challenging this restricted view of the unconscious emerging from contemporary social cognition research, which has traditionally defined the unconscious in terms of its unintentional nature; this research has demonstrated the existence of several independent unconscious behavioral guidance systems: perceptual, evaluative, and motivational. From this perspective, it is concluded that in both phylogeny and ontogeny, actions of an unconscious mind precede the arrival of a conscious mind—that action precedes reflection.”


The paper is realistic in its view of the limits of consciousness but still models the brain as having two minds, a conscious mind and an unconscious mind. In contrast, my view is that consciousness and unconsciousness are two parts of a single mind with consciousness not having much of a role outside of awareness.


Bargh and Morsella, contrast the views of cognitive psychology and social psychology. Cognitive psychology concerned itself with unconscious information processing, subliminal information. “Because subliminal-strength stimuli are relatively weak and of low intensity by definition, the mental processes they drive are necessarily minimal and unsophisticated, and so these studies have led to the conclusion that the powers of the unconscious mind are limited and that the unconscious is rather “dumb”.”Social psychology looked at mental processes that were hidden from awareness. “This research, in contrast with the cognitive psychology tradition, has led to the view that the unconscious mind is a pervasive, powerful influence over such higher mental processes.” There is also the popular view of the unconscious, the Freudian model. The details of Freud’s model have not survived later science but the authors feel that the general idea survives. “… in broad-brush terms the cognitive and social psychological evidence does support Freud as to the existence of unconscious mentation and its potential to impact judgments and behavior.” Pre-Freudian ideas of unconsciousness are rare and the conscious mind was viewed naively as ‘the mind’ or most of it.


The authors say that there is a consensus on conscious thought but not on unconscious thought. “…the qualities of conscious thought processes: they are intentional, controllable, serial in nature (consumptive of limited processing resources), and accessible to awareness (i.e., verbally reportable).” They point out that two of the unconscious processes that were studied in some detail: the pre-conscious perception processes that supply conscious awareness; and, the acquisition of skills through practice so that they become unconscious. Also in the mix, is the idea derived from hypnosis of ‘unconscious’ meaning a person being unaware of the causes for their behavior.


And this equation of unconscious with unintentional is how unconscious phenomena have been conceptualized and studied within social psychology for the past quarter century or so. Nisbett and Wilson’s seminal article posed the question, “To what extent are people aware of and able to report on the true causes of their behavior?” The answer was “not very well”, which was surprising and controversial at the time given the overall assumption of many that judgments and behavior (the higher mental processes) were typically consciously intended and thus available to conscious awareness. If these processes weren’t accessible to awareness, then perhaps they weren’t consciously intended, and if they weren’t consciously intended, then how in fact were they accomplished? This latter question motivated the social psychology research into priming and automaticity effects, which investigated the ways in which the higher mental processes such as judgment and social behavior could be triggered and then operate in the absence of conscious intent and guidance. Consequently, this research operationally defined unconscious influences in terms of a lack of awareness of the influences or effects of a triggering stimulus and not of the triggering stimulus itself. And what a difference this change in operational definition makes! If one shifts the operational definition of the unconscious from the processing of stimuli of which one is not aware to the influences or effects of stimulus processing of which one is not aware, suddenly the true power and scope of the unconscious in daily life become apparent. Defining the unconscious in terms of the former leads directly to the conclusion that it is dumb as dirt, whereas defining it in terms of the latter affords the opinion that it is highly intelligent and adaptive….social cognition research on priming and automaticity effects have shown the existence of sophisticated, flexible, and adaptive unconscious behavior guidance systems. These would seem to be of high functional value, especially as default behavioral tendencies when the conscious mind, as is its wont, travels away from the present environment into the past or the future. It is nice to know that the unconscious is minding the store when the owner is absent.”


So although this paper shows that the consciousness-bias is no longer strongly in vogue, it also shows that my viewpoint, that consciousness is awareness and not processes of cognition (or perception, action, emotion, volition etc.), is not generally accepted. I am not alone though – there is Thomas Metzinger.

John A. Bargh, & Ezequiel Morsella (2008). The Unconscious Mind Perspect Pyschol Sci., 3 (1), 73-79

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