Field of Science

Not your granddaddy's subconscious mind

To the average person, the paired associate for "psychology," for better or worse, is "Sigmund Freud." Freud is probably best known for his study of the "unconscious" or "subconscious". Although Freudian defense mechanisms have long since retired to the history books and Hollywood movies, along with the ego, superego and id, Freud was largely right in his claim that much of human behavior has its roots outside of conscious thought and perception. Scientists are continually discovering new roles for nonconscious activities. In this post, I'll try to go through a few major aspects of the nonconscious mind.

A lab recently reported that they were able to alter people's opinions through a cup of coffee. This was not an effect of caffeine, since the cup of coffee was not actually drunk. Instead, study participants were asked to hold a cup of coffee momentarily. The cup was either hot or cold. Those who held the hot cup judged other people to be warmer and more sociable than those who held the cold cup.

This is one in a series of similar experiments. People are more competitive if a briefcase (a symbol of success) is in sight. They do better in a trivia contest immediately after thinking about their mothers (someone who wants you to succeed). These are all examples of what is called "social priming" -- where a socially-relevant cue affects your behavior.

Social priming is an example of a broader phenomenon (priming) that is a classic example of nonconscious processing. One simple experiment is to have somebody read a list of words presenting one at a time on a computer. The participant is faster if the words are all related (dog, cat, bear, mouse) than if they are relatively unrelated (dog, table, mountain, car). The idea is that thinking about dogs also makes other concepts related to dogs (i.e., other animals) more accessible to your conscious thought. In fact, if you briefly present the word "dog" on the screen so fast that the participant isn't even aware of having seen it, they will still be faster at reading "cat" immediately afterwards than if "mountain" had flashed on the screen.

Mahzarin Banaji has made a career around the Implicit Association Test. In this test, you press a key (say "g") when you see a white face or a positive word (like "good" or "special" or "happy") and a different key (say "b") when you see a black face or a negative word (like "bad" or "dangerous"). You do this as fast as you can. Then the groupings switch -- good words with black faces and bad words with white faces. The latter condition is typically harder for white Americans, even those who self-report being free of racial prejudice. Similar versions of the test have been used in different cultures (i.e., Japan) and have generally found that people are better able to associate good words with their own in-group than a non-favored out-group. I didn't describe the methodology in detail here, but trust me when I say it is rock-solid. The interpretation that this is a measure of implicit, nonconscious prejudice is up for debate. For the purposes of my post here, though, this is clearly a nonconscious prejudice. (Try it for yourself here.)

Vision turns out to be divided into conscious vision and nonconscious vision. Yes, you read that correctly: nonconscious vision. The easiest way to tell this for yourself is to blindfold a single eye. You probably know that you need two eyes for depth perception, but with one eye blindfolded, the world doesn't suddenly look flat. (At least, it doesn't for me.) You may notice some small differences, but to get a real sense of what you have lost, try playing tennis. The ball becomes nearly impossible to find. This is because the part of your vision that you use to orient in space is largely inaccessible to your conscious mind.

An even more interesting case study of this -- though not one you can try at home -- is blindsight. People with blindsight report being blind. As far as they can tell, they can't see a thing. However, if you show them a picture and ask them to guess what the picture is of, they can "guess" correctly. They can also reach out and take the picture. They are unaware of being able to see, but clearly on some level they are able to do so.

It is also possible to learn something without being aware of learning it. My old mentor studies contextual cueing. The experiment works like this: You see a bunch of letters on the screen. You are looking for the letter T. Once you find it, you press an arrow key to report which direction the "T" faces. This repeats many hundreds of times. Some of the displays repeat over and over (the letters are all in the same places). Although you aren't aware of the repetition -- if asked, you would be unable to tell a repeated display from a new display -- you are faster at finding the T on repeated displays than new displays.

In similar experiments about language learning, you listed to nonsense sentences made of nonsense words. Unknown to you, the sentences all conform to a grammar. If asked to explain the grammar, you would probably just say "huh?" but if asked to pick between two sentences, one of which is grammatical and one of which is not, you can do so successfully.

Actually, an experiment isn't needed to prove this last point. Most native speakers are completely ignorant of the grammar rules governing their language. Nobody knows all the grammar rules of their language. Yet we are perfectly capable of following those grammar rules. When presented with an ungrammatical sentence, you may not be able to explain why it's ungrammatical (compare "Human being is important" with "The empathy is important"), yet you still instinctively know there is a problem.

And the list goes on. If people can think of other broad areas of subconscious processing, please comment away. These are simply the aspects of the unconscious I have studied.

You'll notice I haven't talked about defense mechanisms or repressed memories. These Freudian ideas have fallen out of the mainstream. But the fact remains that conscious thought and perception are just one corner of our minds.

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