iAge

Changing how we see aging

Our Subconscious Internal Reality

We live more within our internal representation of reality inside our brain.

We live in automatic mode most of the time.

Our brain is the most complex structure. Throughout our lifespan--culminating in our mature years--our brain develops a working model of our reality. We live in our mind much more than in reality. The mind becomes so good at this that we live in an unconscious mode. Even if we think that we are making conscious decisions, they are not conscious in the way we understand it.

As we grow older we become more sophisticated at internalizing the world and learning to predict and anticipate changes. This is our model of the world and our sense of self. We get so good at this that we do this automatically all the time. It is not that we are not aware of what we are doing, it is that we become aware and respond after our unconscious mind has already determined it. John Bargh from Yale University has written extensively on the unconscious. He pushes for the concept of the unconscious determining decision-making. People often do not give much conscious thought to how they vote, what they buy, what they eat or the way they negotiate their daily life. Consciousness is an afterthought.

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The world has always been very complex and we cannot deal with this complexity without shortcuts that our internal model of reality can create. We live within this model of the world. Our brain is complex enough to allow an internal representation of the world, and we live vicariously through this model. Chun Siong Soon and other scientists from Germany and Belgium have studied this phenomenon and measured in minute details when consciousness is brought into play within our internal world. They reported that areas in the brain initiate an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness. Our awareness seems to be an illusion of control, an after thought.

Writing more than three decades ago, Felicia Pratto discussed how we are constantly engaged in evaluating our immediate environments without being aware of the process, the outcome of the process, nor even of the stimuli we are faced with. Furthermore, she perceptively argues that it may be that we cannot control automatic evaluations, but they can influence our conscious experiences, including judgments, emotions, and attitudes.

Older adults are experts of this unconscious reality. Our brain has been designing these simulations of our immediate environment for many decades and it has become so good at it that we interact in our life in automatic most of the time. Most psychologists put this reliance on our internal world as a result of some diminished or compromised cognitive or recall ability.  A reliance on “gist” memory is perhaps older adults reliance on their very complex internal representation rather than the unique details of the immediate environment. This works well until we have a trauma. A dissonance between the reality and the internal model. Then we wake up. We switch the automatic pilot off (or it is switched off) and we have to figure how to engage in our immediate environment consciously. That is when we face problems.

© USA Copyrighted 2014 Mario D. Garrett

Mario Garrett, Ph.D., is a professor at the school of social work, San Diego State University.

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