Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Tapping the power of the unconscious

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Many modern discussions on free will include a particular experiment along with observations that the conscious part of our minds often get in the way, rather than helping. From an earlier post:

Curiously, considering it is over 20 years old, a single experiment dominated our discussions. Reported in 1983 (and replicated variously) by Benjamin Libet at the University of California, San Francisco, the experiment is crucial because it seems to show we don’t have free will. Using an electroencephalogram, Libet and his colleagues monitored their subjects’ brains, telling them: “Lift your finger whenever you feel the urge to do so.” This is about as near as we get to free will in the lab.

It was already known that there is a detectable change in brain activity up to a second before you “spontaneously” lift your finger, but when did the urge occur in the mind? Amazingly, Libet found that his subjects’ change in brain activity occurred 300 milliseconds before they reported the urge to lift their fingers. This implies that, by measuring your brain activity, I can predict when you are going to have an urge to act. Apparently this simple but freely chosen decision is determined by the preceding brain activity. It is our brains that cause our actions. Our minds just come along for the ride.

Surely this must be nonsense. I know perfectly well that I am in control of my actions, particularly when it’s something as simple as moving my finger. Unfortunately there is ample evidence that we cannot rely on our personal experience in the case of action. As Thomas Metzinger, a philosopher at the University of Mainz in Germany, put it in Disorders of Volition, our experience of our own actions is “thin and evasive”.

This seems a strange thing to say, since our brains receive constant information about where our limbs are and how they are moving. This information comes from our skin, muscles and joints, as well as eyes and ears, and is critical for accurate movement. To reach for something, we need to know where we are starting from as well as where we are going.

However, this information forms a very minor part of our conscious experience. When we reach for something we are unaware of the way our fingers shape themselves to match the shape of the object we want to pick up, or of the corrections we make during the movement. All this is achieved by an automatic pilot in our brains. If we stop to think about it, we are likely to perform worse.

We even seem to be better at making complex decisions without conscious thought. In a recent experiment, Ap Dijksterhuis and his colleagues at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands asked people to decide which car to buy. The striking result was that people made better decisions if they were not given the chance to think about them.

The picture that emerges is that free will exists, but it’s the unconscious part of the mind that makes the decisions, not the conscious part. Indeed, the main job of the conscious mind seems to be to provide a story-line and rationalizations for what the unconscious mind is having us do. One has the image of the conscious mind as an observer in a howdah riding on the back of the elephant Unconscious, with the elephant picking its own route and the observer simply along for the ride, perhaps occasionally shouting warnings.

It’s when the conscious mind grabs the reins that trouble begins, certainly in the area of skills. Martial arts training often emphasizes quieting the conscious mind, letting the actions flow. Alan Kay in a talk I saw showed a video of a woman in her 60’s, as I recall, learning to play tennis in just a few hours by keeping her conscious mind out of it and letting her unconscious mind take over. The way they did that was to give the conscious mind (meaningless) tasks to keep it occupied and out of the way—for example, counting aloud each bounce the ball made. The unconscious mind then grasped immediately the moves demonstrated and could do them—and it was interesting to watch the unconscious small movements of her racket as she observed the demonstration, which (Kay said) was the unconscious practicing what she saw.

A story told about golf illustrates the point. A long-time golfing pair played at about the same level, when suddenly one of the pair seemed to “get it,” and his game improved that he left the other guy behind. So the other guy bought a book on improving your golf technique and gave it to his opponent. The opponent read it, consciously (uh-oh) started applying the precepts, and soon his game was back at the old level.

If you watch, you can see your unconscious in action all the time: picking up something, for example. You see it, and you pick it up, with no conscious effort involved in placing your hand and fingers correctly, using proper pressure, etc. Tying your shoes: you don’t think about it, and if you do, it becomes harder. Walking. Running. Driving to a store in a town you know well—you don’t really think about the route, you just picture the store and start driving.

(I saw this in action once. I lived several years in Annapolis, then several years in Iowa City, then several years in Annapolis, then several years in Iowa City, then several years in Annapolis, then several years in Iowa City. In that last sojourn, shortly after moving back from Annapolis, I wanted to go to the drugstore. I pulled out of the driveway, drove to the intersection, turned right, got to the stoplight, and when it turned green, I was suddenly totally confused—I had no idea of the right direction. Left? Right? Straight? I sat there for a second, nonplussed, and then realized that the drugstore I had pictured was in Annapolis, not Iowa City. I had started out fine, not even thinking about the route, but when I got to the first decision point, my unconscious threw up its hands. OTOH, if I had been in Annapolis, I would have completed a drive to that drugstore without once consciously picking the route.)

This is not to say that the unconscious always uses superior technique. I taught myself to tie my shoes, and it was only much later that I realized I was making the knot incorrectly—along the lines of a granny knot instead of a square knot. I had to consciously change the direction of the wrap until the unconscious “got it,” and now I can again tie my shoes without (consciously) thinking about it.

Self-taught practitioners in various skills—string bass (cf. Bill Crow’s enjoyable memoir From Birdland to Broadway: Scenes from a Jazz Life), golf, swimming, decision-making, and so on—make common mistakes that reduce their effectiveness. A good coach can readily spot and correct the common mistakes so that performance—once the lesson is grasped by the unconscious—is significantly enhanced. For example, self-taught swimmers often strive to keep their heads above water, from the unconscious’s desire to stay alive. Instruction will show the swimmer how to submerge the head and efficiency goes way up. Self-taught decision-makers make common errors that sales people and marketing managers exploit to direct a buying decision to go their way. (That’s the point of the books Decision Traps and Winning Decisions.)

Similarly, we all have learned how we can (consciously) struggle to solve some problem, attacking it in various ways, and have no success. Then we go to sleep for the night, and the next morning we see the solution. It seems that the conscious efforts are necessary to bring the problem to the attention of the unconscious, and the various solution attempts provide it with more information. Then, while the conscious mind goes away during sleep and is out of the picture, the unconscious will work out the problem and present the answer to the conscious mind when it returns the next morning.

All this is an introduction to this post, which seems to me to be about exploiting the power of the unconscious mind. (Do read the first two links in the linked post—in particular, the Scott Adams passage explains a lot.)

The idea is that if you set your conscious mind to work to achieve a goal, it may well gum it up. (See above examples.) But if you can convince the unconscious mind to work on the goal, it will do all sorts of things to reach the goal that the conscious mind would not think of and of which the conscious mind is unaware.

In a way, it reminds me of using neural nets to program an analog computer. There have been some remarkable successes, but often the result is obtained in a way that’s peculiar to the particular computer used—depending, for example, on the particular characteristics of one or another component, so that the program, if transferred to a different computer (or the component in question is replaced) will no longer work. I read an account of this, but cannot right now find it.

So, in this analogy, the unconscious mind will exploit the peculiarities of your own life—when you live, whom you know, what you can do, where you work, and so on—to find ways to work toward the goal you’ve convinced it to seek. It will do things you wouldn’t have thought of, and when it’s doing them, you will not grasp what’s happening.

Written by Leisureguy

28 September 2007 at 10:00 am

Posted in Daily life

Tagged with , ,

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