Why your unconscious isn't the bad guy

January 24, 2018

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So many of the self-improvement soundbites that are written and rewritten in our media feeds revolve around the idea that freedom comes from unchaining ourselves from the routines of the everyday. But, something very valuable gets lost in these pithy reminders.

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This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.

So many of the self-improvement soundbites that are written and rewritten in our media feeds revolve around the idea that freedom comes from unchaining ourselves from those automatic routines of the everyday we each collect. But, something very valuable gets lost in these pithy reminders.

The standard narrative; we must conquer our subconscious

Plato described emotion and reason as the horses that pull us in two directions. Isaiah, the biblical prophet, encouraged us to come together and reason, rather than act without thinking.

The idea is truly as old as writing, and the idea is still popular today.

Daniel Kahneman's exemplary (if a tad inaccessible) book, Thinking, Fast and Slow neatly breaks down our mental processes into two 'systems'. 'System 1' is fast and subconscious, acting based on our implicit biases, emotions, and stereotypes. 'System 2' is slower (or perhaps, lazier), but conscious and calculating---the 'rational' mind.

Kahneman tells us that, though we assume we typically make our decisions with the slower and more analytical System 2, we are actually far more likely to use our faster and more biased System 1.

In his hugely popular TED Talk and book, Simon Sinek speaks to the same core idea—-a split between our emotional decision-making, and our newer and more feeble rational brain. Alluding to Paul MacLean's Triune Theory of the brain, Sinek tells us:

The neocortex is responsible for all of our rational and analytical thought and language. The middle two sections make up our limbic brains, and our limbic brains are responsible for all of our feelings, like trust and loyalty. It's also responsible for all human behavior, all decision-making, and it has no capacity for language

While there is a considerable amount of debate as to how neatly our mental processes can be sorted into such categories, not to mention the academic resistance to the rather simplistic "Triune Brain" model, this core schism is fundamental across cognitive science of any kind. Essentially, we generally think that humans place too much emphasis on our own rational judgments, when in reality, we're more commonly the victim of our unconscious biases.

Logically, what falls out of this kind of thinking, is something akin to mindfulness. The notion that we should spend time working to identify our unconscious biases, and strengthen our critical thinking. Push back on the "emotional" limbic system, and engage the neocortex. By learning how System 1 works, we can help System 2 to be more effective (or, perhaps, just participate more). In short, we should endeavour to be slow, deliberate, and considered as we make our decisions. We must control our automatic thinking. And of course, as this message gets diluted over time, we start to believe that the speedy and subconscious System 1 is our hidden enemy.

Who's the real bad guy here?

Let's me ask you something. If you were put in charge of your breathing, instead of the unconscious mechanism that usually does the job, would you be better at it? What about your heartbeat? There's a scary thought. Do you know what peristalsis is? Do you want to be in conscious control of moving your food from your stomach to your toilet bowl? I would suggest not. Why do we treat our thinking so differently from these other automatic processes?

For whatever reason, a large number (if not the majority) of our decisions are handled by our automatic mental systems. It seems a touch foolish to focus on taking back control, without considering why we aren't in control in the first place. Consider the poor stereotype. Nowhere has an automatic process been demonised to such an extent as our tendency to stereotype. It's true enough to say that stereotypes can be harmful. But no one ever mentions the fact that stereotypes can be exceptionally useful in an unfamiliar social situation. It lets a brain short on resources make quick and usually accurate social judgments. Which in turn, is probably at least partially responsible for the fact that you have friends.

What about emotion? The predominant perspective holds that emotions are primarily designed to motivate us to rectify some speedbump on the path to our goals. Once our goals have been internalised (set in stone in our minds), then our brains stimulate emotions to elicit automatic responses if it feels like we're going off track. Recently, the boom in mindfulness as a tool for wellbeing has placed the emphasis on letting emotions go, and not acting on them. This has led to a kind of hostility toward emotion that neglects their purpose. Imagine needing to hold in your mind all of your goals, and making sure every worldly action is in alignment. Doesn't leave a lot of room for anything else, does it? I'll admit, true mindfulness doesn't espouse this kind of anti-emotion. But when the message is distilled over and over again, the automatic process is made out to be the bad guy.

The unconscious has a job to do, and you're ruining it.

We don't have a particularly good grasp of the unconscious. Your brain is an enormously complex organism with many tasks to accomplish. It would be only sensible to delegate some of these to automatic systems. We can assume that the tasks it has automated have been selected by generations of evolutionary pressure. Basically, it happens this way because it works.

As such, I suggest one should challenge the idea that we should place such an emphasis on controlling these underlying processes. Such an emphasis discourages us from working with our automatic thoughts. From embracing them and letting them do their job. Rather, we should work on understanding them, and using them as teachers to gain insight about ourselves. For instance, our emotions will likely reveal our goals to some extent. Our stereotypes (if they aren't broken) will grease the way for smoother social interactions. Don't make your emotions, your desires, and your unconscious into the enemy.

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