Why don't we know ourselves? cover image

Why don't we know ourselves?

Dorian Minors • August 12, 2015

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

Consciousness is a confusing topic. Sleeping people can be 'unconscious'. So does consciousness refer to awareness? Animals are certainly awake and aware, but some would argue that they aren't conscious (most famously René Descartes in the 1600's). But while we're awake we can have unconscious or subconscious thoughts . So is consciousness simply the act of paying attention; of being aware of what we're thinking? Well, Descartes thought the point was irrelevant:

As to the fact that there can be nothing in the mind, in so far as it is a thinking thing, of which it is not aware, this seems to me self-evident…. we cannot have any thought of which we are not aware at the very moment when it is in us...

Essentially, the guy didn't believe in unconscious thought. It's clear to us now that there 'awareness' and 'awareness of awareness' are two distinct things. If it were up to Descartes, we would still probably be torturing animals needlessly and ignoring the fact that we can think without being aware that we are thinking.

This little bad boy can't know himself (we think). One wonders if he's better off... This little bad boy can't know himself (we think). One wonders if he's better off...

Consciousness is easy

Luckily we had Freud, who despite being extraordinarily controversial in his time, had the first major contribution to trying to define consciousness:

The oldest and best meaning of the word ‘unconscious’ is the descriptive one: we call a psychical process unconscious whose existence we are obliged to assume—for some such reason as that we infer from its effects—but of which we know nothing

Or, put into more modern words, anything we aren't aware of, but know exists, can be considered 'descriptively unconscious'. For example, our beliefs are often unconscious. You know whether you believe ghosts exist or not, but aren't always thinking about it. You certainly can't forget your belief in the paranormal (if you do believe, you're more vulnerable to being screwed over by con-artists).

Did you spot the problem?

Once he'd defined that, he realised that things that slip in and out of consciousness are problematic. So, he went on to develop the idea into the 'systematic unconscious'; a way of thinking about our unconscious processes in three segments:

He said that if we never learn the necessary language, or frameworks to plug thoughts into, they would never become preconscious and thus reach consciousness. That thoughts only become conscious:

becoming connected with the word-presentations corresponding to it

But there are issues with this model of unconsciousness. Firstly, if we need language to make the unconscious conscious, then consciousness must come first (otherwise, how did we develop our language?). Secondly, if unconscious thought is literally inaccessible to conscious thought then how on earth am I writing (and you hopefully comprehending) this now? And thirdly, those unconscious thoughts described in detail in Freud's work have been found in the study of dreams. Finally, the lines between the three states are pretty blurry. For example, irrational thought would most likely be typified as unconscious, but we can certainly be irrational in our conscious thought to. So we move to the idea of 'nonconscious' thought.

The 'new' unconscious

Nonconscious is an idea that's so new, my spellchecker brings it up. Essentially, it describes a kind of background processing that we can infer, but never 'experience' as far as consciousness goes. That's where things like our visual processing come in, as I mentioned before. This gives a little more robustness to our model. But that doesn't explain everything.

Unconscious repression

We can't always know ourselves, but knowing how can make it easier. 'We can't always know if we're knowing ourselves, but knowing how we can't can make it easier to know what we aren't knowing.' - How Freud probably would have finished this article.

Sometimes, when things conflict in our minds, we actively prevent them from being conscious (our brains seriously hate mental conflict, or cognitive dissonance, and does all sorts of weird stuff to fix it). The 'dynamic unconscious' describes this process in the form of defence mechanisms. Basically, sometimes our mind thinks it would be a good idea to not let us experience that stuff and hides it in all sorts of creative ways like denial or repression, or through more complicated processes like sublimation (channeling it into something socially acceptable, like anger into sports).

So how well do we know ourselves?

Not very. We're still only just scratching the surface when it comes to the unconscious. The problem is that our poor brains receive far too much information to be able to process it and has to develop all sorts of methods for sorting it. But not knowing is problematic because it affects how we behave whether we know it or not. And sometimes knowing is uncomfortable or even painful; imagine trying to deal with those things all the time. But I suppose, as Carl Jung once said:

There is no coming to consciousness without pain.

At least now, you can take a bit more control over what you do and don't know. Unconscious processes have a huge impact on our everyday lives. Learn how one process ensures that all groups will eventually become stale, unless we intervene. Or learn what unconscious desire drives our sexual preferences. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.