mind, matter, meaning and information

conscious and unconscious minds

Soon after first learning to juggle, I noticed something rather strange. One of the main aims in juggling is to throw the balls (clubs, etc.) so that they come back down in just the right place. They may thus be caught and thrown again with just a simple, rhythmic movement of the hands—but this ideal is not always achieved, and a hand will sometimes have to go out of its way. Though the routine movements soon become automatic, I would have assumed that such a recovery attempt would be conscious. I was therefore rather surprised, one day, to notice my hand going out to catch a misplaced ball without my asking it to do so. It seemed almost as if the arm belonged to someone else who was reaching around from behind me.

But you don't need to juggle to notice unconscious action. An example many people have experienced is that of driving while “elsewhere.” You suddenly “come to,” feeling almost as if awakening from sleep, with no memory of having driven the last few hundred yards—maybe more. That you were not actually sleeping is shown by the fact that you drove with some competence. Those who fall asleep at the wheel for more than a moment usually drive over the kerb or across the centre line, but a friend of mine once drove from one end to the other of a small but busy town, and on “awakening” could recall nothing whatsoever.

It might be said that just because there is no memory of doing a thing, does not mean that it was done unconsciously—perhaps the memory malfunctions from time to time. The only significant difference, though, between the case of driving and that of juggling—which such a malfunction could not explain—is that here the action is much more complex. If we agree that some actions might be unconscious, there seems no good reason to say that consciousness is required beyond a certain degree of complexity (and anyway, we would probably become aware of such memory blackouts in other ways).

On the other hand, it does seem to be the case that consciousness is required to deal with novelty. I am often “awakened” when driving by an unexpected red light. It seems likely that this sort of experience is what leads to the expectation that a conscious effort would be required to catch a ball falling out of place. That, to a juggler, is apparently not a very novel occurrence.

In fact, anything done as a matter of habit, while the attention is elsewhere, is done unconsciously. That might even be said to be true by definition. I talk about recovering from an error in juggling, and automatic driving, because the more dramatic examples make better illustrations, to bring the unconscious to light, but every habitual action is, to whatever extent, an unconscious action.

Subjectivity and objectivity are very closely associated with the unconscious and conscious minds, respectively. To say that we spend our time moving back and forth between subjectivity and objectivity means that our unconscious and conscious minds generally cooperate, but either might tend to dominate, at any given moment, or over a period of time. Attempting to solve a practical problem, or indulging in abstract theorising and other intellectual pursuits, are predominantly consciously-controlled activities. The exercise of sporting or other physical skills, being creative, seeking inspiration, or making love, are largely spontaneous, controlled by, or at least, deeply involving the unconscious. Creative intellectual pursuits, amongst others, require close cooperation between the minds.

(What characterises the subjective state is unconscious control: in it (or near it) the temptation to reach out is more likely to result in unhesitating action. Its effectiveness, for instance for sportspeople, can be viewed as being due to an appropriate division of labour: perception is conscious, and action unconscious. Or, to be a little more accurate: consciousness is concentrated upon perception, while you are, of course, conscious of actions, though not of being in direct control of them.)

The question as to what exactly is implied by the word “mind” is tackled elsewhere [link(s) to come]. The proposal here is that what we usually think of as “the human mind” can usefully be considered to consist of two relatively independent components. If we drive unknowingly through a town, or feel that someone else is controlling our body when juggling, it is quite natural to speak of these things as being done by “the unconscious mind,” or simply “the unconscious.” Such experiences certainly seem to have another mind behind them.

The concept of conscious versus unconscious minds is probably over-simple for some purposes, but, like that of the subjective state, is sufficiently valuable to be retained until it seems to be generating confusion. There is no ontological claim here: I don't say “we each really have two minds, you know!” But I do claim that this can be quite a useful way to think, and I hope to demonstrate that.

Typically, for an intellectually-inclined (or neurotic) type, I took quite a long time to learn to juggle, because I had trouble “letting go”: allowing my unconscious mind to take control. Many actions involve the unconscious mind, but they differ in just what part it plays: the automated mechanism of juggling, which is something that you would usually make a conscious decision to do, contrasts with the commonly unconscious initiation of the act of reaching out to someone. Spontaneity and skills are the two main aspects of action governed by the unconscious.

Cooperation between conscious and unconscious minds is evident in the activity of writing. The conscious mind is occupied with the question of what to say, and in what order to say it; but the matter of how to say it, and in particular the choice of individual words and phrases, seems to be left to the unconscious mind. Most of the time, they spring into consciousness more-or-less unbidden, but sometimes you have to “search” for the right word. This is not a conscious activity. You seem merely to make a demand, by concentrating on what is to be expressed, and “opening your mind ” to the answer. The decision as to whether a particular answer is really what is required, is largely conscious, but not always wholly so: you often decide “by feel,” using intuition, rather than by consciously considering every relevant factor.

Not only words may be evoked in this way, however. When I require an illustration of a particular point, I make a similar sort of request. You merely decide on the specification, then wait expectantly for it to be fulfilled. The use of writing to illustrate cooperation between the two minds was suggested by my unconscious—it “just popped up.”

That the more creative aspects of writing should be the responsibility of the unconscious mind is entirely appropriate. There are many stories of important insights being achieved either in dreams, or while the conscious mind is otherwise occupied. Arthur Koestler investigated cases of scientific discovery and invention, and came to the conclusion that such creativity always involves the unconscious mind. The conscious mind is equally important, though, being required first to interpret and then to test the validity of what is offered to it.

(The less obviously creative aspects of writing can be governed to some extent by the unconscious, too. Not long after writing that paragraph, I found myself unable to go any further, in particular to begin the next chapter. So, to pass the time as profitably as possible, I went back and revised what I had already written, and the plan for the rest of the book, and ended up making some fairly fundamental changes. It eventually came to “feel right,” and I was able to carry on. To say that I had been unconsciously dissatisfied with what I had so far seems at least as useful a way of looking at this, as any other.)

It does generally seem possible to set yourself a problem, then go on and do something else, and have the answer appear spontaneously some time later. Memory often seems to work in this way: you can try to recall something, but fail, only to find the thing coming to mind later as if unbidden.

Cooperation between conscious and unconscious minds may be seen also in the learning and exercise of any skill. That of axe wielding is very simple. If you burn much wood, and split your own logs, you find that as time passes, your accuracy improves. Before long, you can swing an axe over a metre long from overhead (and out of sight) through an arc of perhaps two metres, and most times hit a point within a few millimeters of that targeted. The gaining of this skill is wholly unconscious—you can be quite surprised by it. The conscious mind just lifts the axe and swings it while “willing” it towards the target. The improvement over time is automatic; the unconscious mind learns primarily (perhaps solely) by experience. On each swing, while gross movements are conscious, the “willing” has the effect of passing target information and fine muscle control to the unconscious.

Of course, our ordinary control over our bodies is by a certain sort of willing, too. When I raise my right hand, I am not aware of sending nerve impulses from my brain to certain muscles—I just raise the hand. The willing of the axe towards the target is less direct, but otherwise very similar, even though the axe is not part of my body, and what I am willing in this case is more complex; or, rather, entails more complexity. When the skill of axe-wielding has been to some extent acquired, the process of swinging the axe is to that extent automated. The control of the various muscles while taking the size and weight of the axe and the swinging technique into account seems to consciousness almost as simple as moving my hand. The axe comes to feel like an extension of the arms.

To acquire a skill is to delegate routine actions, or aspects of action, to the unconscious mind. That is like a part of the body, in terms of the way consciousness communicates with it (“willpower”), but its function in this context is, using its relative intelligence, to relieve consciousness of some of its burdens regarding bodily control—and tool control, too. In the subjective state, with unconscious initiation of all action, skills seem to be more readily accessible, or more easily deployed (if that is a meaningful distinction), explaining that state's utility in sport. Spontaneity and skillful behaviour are complementary.

Juggling is actually beyond the capacity of the conscious mind. Three or more balls moving at once are just too much for it. You cannot keep them up for more than a few moments until it has become automatic. When “learning” to juggle, the conscious mind, which has an idea of how it should be done but cannot do it, coaches the unconscious, which has the capacity, but sometimes seems rather slow to get the idea. Similarly, much of the learning process for any musical instrument consists of practicing until the more technical aspects are largely automatic; the conscious mind can then concentrate on the more “musicianly” qualities.

(In fact, learning generally seems to consist of dinning things into the unconscious, in that they are intended to remain within the mind, though outwith consciousness. Which is not to deny that there are obvious differences between trying to ensure that certain facts are easily recalled, and gaining skills that like bicycle riding may be difficult to forget.)

Automation is one of the main functions, at least, of the unconscious as regards action; when we consider perception (including that of internal objects, i.e. introspection), a major function is the matching of patterns.

This is how both memory and the provision of words and illustrations work: you consciously specify the pattern of the thing required, then the memory is automatically searched for anything corresponding to that pattern, and the closest match is retrieved. One of the more impressive abilities of the human mind is the recognition of faces: we can often recall something, at least, about someone met just once, many years before, who not only looks older, but now wears glasses, or their hair in a different style—out of all the people encountered over that period. It would seem that the recall function is optimised for certain things.

Creative insight very often seems to involve the recognition of a common pattern in what otherwise seem quite unrelated pieces of knowledge. Koestler coined the term “bisociation” for this phenomenon.

Automation of output (action) is very similar to the matching of patterns in input (perception). In both cases, a number of elements are bound up to form a single entity; they are handled “at a higher level.”

All emotional influences on our actions and perceptions, of course, emanate from the unconscious mind. These responses are also elicited by patterns, whether the shape of a human body, or of a social situation—or both. The emotion might be due to a previously experienced association between pattern and feeling, or to something inherited.

The “nature/nurture” dichotomy, however, between what is learned and what is encoded in the genes, is somewhat simplistic. In particular, what is inherited can be no more than a potential, which in many cases if not all will require some environmental condition to be fulfilled. The tendency to identify, or empathise, with others is an example.

Studies have shown that babies as young as one day old tend to cry when they hear others crying. But on a more positive note, we might wonder what prompts a young baby first to respond with a smile, to the smile of her mother.

The obvious answer is “instinct,” but that requires some elaboration. The implication that it is spontaneous rather than a considered response is surely correct. Whether recognition of the smile itself is genetically programmed, as are certain sexual stimuli (the others being learned by association), is open to debate; but that faces and expressions are deeply embedded in our minds, is shown by our readiness to interpret as a smiling face the simplest of graphics [example to come]. This is no doubt connected with the capacity for facial recognition mentioned above. So adults and babies incline towards recognition of faces, in particular and in general, and smiles.

(The psychologist Richard Gregory says that babies will recognise faces as such ten minutes after birth, and the mother's face at three weeks, while the recognition of smiles seems innate. The Desert Island Discs programme on BBC Radio 4 broadcast on 5 December 1993.)

Children learn, to a very great extent, by copying the actions of adults and other children. Psychologists call this “modelling behaviour,” where the person being emulated is the model, and it is generally accepted as being central to socialisation. To respond with a smile to the smile of her mother, is one of the first of many, many occasions on which the child will follow another person, imitating what they do. A short time spent observing any young child will confirm this.

It might be suggested that the crying and smiling responses are no more than automatic reactions, implying nothing about the feelings of the child. But we, as adults, have no experience of reacting in such ways without the appropriate feelings. While it may be more scientific —that is, objective—to avoid considering such things, in fact it is more sensible to take the intersubjective approach and assume that a baby cries because she finds the crying of others distressing, and smiles because she finds his mother's smile pleasing, than that his feelings are wholly irrelevant, or that he is a mere mechanism that will suddenly acquire consciousness, for instance when he learns to talk.

Such empathy seems innate; and for modelling to get off the ground in the first place, there must be some kind of tendency to recognise other people as such. We apparently have an innate predisposition towards intersubjectivity —to identify and empathise with other people—to feel that objects of a certain shape and manner of movement, making certain noises, are subjects too.

Being no more than a tendency, of course, it requires development. There seems (in my experience) to be a parental inclination, when talking to the child, to speak of both themselves and the child in the third person. Mother to two-year-old: “Is Julian going to eat up his yogurt, or will Mummy take it away?” I do not know what prompts parents to do this, but it will obviously encourage the child to see himself as “just” another person, with his own identity, and to adopt other peoples' points of view.

Very young children do not possess conscious minds. They are certainly conscious, some if not much of the time, but do not have the same type of control over their actions as do adults. They are not viewed as morally responsible—everything they do is spontaneous—they do not think. The child is initially in the subjective state:

You must hold the drawn bowstring like a little child holding the proffered finger. It grips so firmly that one marvels at the strength of the tiny fist. And when it lets the finger go, there is not the slightest jerk. Do you know why? Because a child doesn't think: I will now let go of the finger in order to grasp this other thing. Completely un-selfconsciously, without purpose, it turns from one to the other.
but the child's state differs from that of the adult in that the physical, social and other skills available to the adult in the subjective state have yet to be learned.

The distinction between subject and object does not exist in the subjective state, but there is a fundamental distinction between body and non-body, between

  • things which hurt if hit, and are physically connected with the sites of the other sense organs, and
  • the rest of the world,
between self and other, that seems to have the potential to develop into the dichotomy between subject and object. Finding herself crying and smiling with others, and them with her, the child begins to see them not just as parts of the rest of the world, but as beings like herself, and realises that she inhabits part of the rest of the world—her body—like them—which is the other side of the same coin. The “inside” (I apologise for that metaphor ) is the subject, while the “outside” is the physical body, an object. They feel like me—projecting my experience onto them—and I look like them—supposing that I look to them much as they look to me (which also involves projection). The significance of the body/non-body, self/other division of the universe diminishes, as other people are promoted to the status of selves, and the body is demoted to mere physical object.

As the child gains a sense of self, and becomes capable of the detachment required to view oneself as just another person, the conscious mind develops. Instead of spontaneous and immediate reaction to all stimuli, we begin to see signs of reflection, self-consciousness, hesitation, and an “inner life.” What was just a baby, a bundle of desires, has become a “proper little person,” and joined the community.

(Our self-consciousness is directly related to our social functioning—it is based on the thought that others may be aware of us, just as we are of them, and so is intellectual rather than perceptual—though it may be associated with the perception of someone apparently watching you, and with perceptions of increased anxiety. To be literally conscious of one's own consciousness would be strangely circular. If we never met another person, and thought of them as being conscious, then we would never think of ourselves as conscious.)

Copyright © 1998--2005 by Robin Faichney. This material may be distributed only subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License, v1.0 or later (the latest version is presently available at http://www.opencontent.org/openpub/). Distribution of substantively modified versions of this document is prohibited without the explicit permission of the copyright holder. Distribution of the work or derivative of the work in any standard (paper) book form is prohibited unless prior permission is obtained from the copyright holder.
Last modified 23-Feb-2005 14:36:17 by Robin Faichney .