Influenced by the discoveries of cognitive science, many of us will now accept that much of our mental life is unconscious. There are subliminal perceptions, implicit attitudes and beliefs, inferences that take place tacitly outside of our awareness, and much more. But we are apt to identify ourselves with our conscious minds. People who take the implicit attitudes test, for example, are often horrified to discover that they harbor racial prejudices or gender biases they were unaware of. If they accept the science, they are forced to believe that these attitudes are in some sense part of themselves. But they are an unwelcome part, an alien part, something to be got rid of if possible.
We are also apt to think that it is our conscious minds that are in control, much of the time; or at any rate, that our conscious minds are capable of taking control. When we pause to reflect, and act on our reflections, it is our conscious thoughts — our conscious beliefs, goals, and decisions — that get to control what we do. Or so we think. But this sense of self-control is an illusion. In reality our conscious minds are controlled and manipulated by unconscious processes.
The reason is simple. Beliefs, goals, and decisions are never conscious. Rather, these states pull the strings in the background, selecting and manipulating the sensory-based contents that do figure in consciousness. Our conscious reflections are exclusively composed of sensory-like events such as visual images, episodic memories, inner speech, and so on. But because we swiftly and unconsciously interpret these events as manifestations of corresponding beliefs, goals, or decisions, we have the impression that we are consciously aware of such thoughts. You can, as it were, hear yourself as deciding to do something when the appropriate sensory-like episode — “I’ll do it now”, say — figures in consciousness. But your access to the underlying decision is just as indirect and interpretive as is your access to someone else’s decision when they say such a thing out loud. In our own case, however, we are under the illusion that the decision is a conscious one.
What are my grounds for making these surprising claims? In short, the science of working memory. This is the sort of memory that is involved when one needs to keep in mind an image or a phone number to report or write down a while later. It is also the short-term memory system in which episodes of inner speech take place. Indeed, many in cognitive science think that working memory is the system in which all conscious episodes play out. It is sometimes described as a “global workspace” because its contents are simultaneously available to many different faculties of the mind (for forming explicit memories, for drawing inferences, for guiding reasoning and planning, and for reporting in speech). But working memory is a sensory-based system. It uses so-called “top-down attention” to activate and sustain imagistic representations in conscious form. There is no place within it for purely abstract non-sensory states such as beliefs, goals, or decisions.
Consider a particular example. You are studying for a French class, trying to learn the meanings of the designated words. But all the while images and memories are being sparked unconsciously by aspects of what you read, see, and hear. These are initially unconscious, but are evaluated by the bottom-up attentional network for relevance to current goals and values. These ideas then compete for top-down attention to enter working memory and become conscious. At a certain point you take a decision (unconsciously) to switch attention from the French words to an image of yourself on a sandy beach, with palm trees, blue sky, and green sea. Before you know it you are drifting in fantasy, while your goal of learning vocabulary struggles to regain control of attention. At a certain point it wins the competition and you snap back, tell yourself off for time-wasting, and focus your attention on the textbook again.
In this manner our conscious minds are continually under the control of our unconscious thoughts. We decide what to pay attention to, what to remember, what to think of, what to imagine, and what sentences to rehearse in inner speech. There is control, of course, and it is a form of self-control. But is not control by a conscious self. Rather, what we take to be the conscious self is a puppet manipulated by our unconscious goals, beliefs, and decisions. Who’s in charge? Well, we are. But the “we” who are in charge are not the conscious selves we take ourselves to be, but rather a set of unconsciously operating mental states. Consciousness does make a difference. Indeed, it is vital to the overall functioning of the human mind. But a controlling conscious self is an illusion.
Header image credit: “Museo Internazionale delle Marionette”, by Leonardo Pilara. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.