Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

To Know Me Is To Like Me IV: The "Brazil" Theory of Consciousness

Your unconscious is less interesting than you think.
Art Markman, Ph.D.
This post is a response to To know me is to like me III: Subliminal advertising by Art Markman, Ph.D.

One reason that I write this blog is that I think most people know very little about their own minds. As a result, we rely on our folk psychology to give us intuitions about how we think. Folk psychology is the general term for the general set of beliefs hanging around in our culture for the way the mind works. Our folk psychology draws from a number of sources including our own observations about or minds, popular myths about the mind (like "we only use 10% of our brain) and aspects of psychological theories past and present that have made it into common discussion (like elements of Freudian psychology that color our beliefs about mind).

In many cases, our folk psychology does a good job of helping us to understand ourselves and other people, even if it has some scientific inaccuracies. One aspect of our folk psychology that seems to be wildly inaccurate, though, is our understanding of the relationship between conscious and unconscious thought.

Most people have what I call the "Brazil" theory of consciousness.

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The Brazil I am referring to here is the 1985 movie by Terry Gilliam. At one point in the movie, the main character (played by Jonathan Pryce) goes to work in a large office building. As he walks through the building, he sees bustling activity and talking workers, many of them following around a busy chief executive. Finally, he enters a small office with a desk. Periodically, he gets a note in a small pneumatic tube and can send notes of his own through the same tube.

In the Brazil theory of consciousness, our conscious mind is Jonathan Pryce waiting for a communiqué from our unconscious through that pneumatic tube (thwump!). Our unconscious is thought to be a roiling mass of busy workers. These unconscious workers are constantly solving problems for us and sometimes sending us answers through our own pneumatic tube (thwump!) and we can send our new questions back to our unconscious in the same way (thwump!).

The Brazil theory is what allows us to believe that things like subliminal advertising (which I discussed in my last post) can have such a profound impact on our behavior. After all, if our unconscious is an incredibly smart organization of workers, then perhaps subliminal advertising slips a message into our pneumatic tube without our knowing it (thwump!). Then, our own group of workers in our unconscious will create an elaborate plan for us that we never authorized. Our bodies will carry out a plan that was controlled by someone or something else. That is a scary thought.

As the last few posts should make clear, though, our unconscious is really much less interesting than we think it is. Our habitual behaviors can be carried out automatically and without conscious awareness. Our knowledge can be made somewhat more or less accessible without our conscious knowledge. But really, that is about it. We don't do any complex problem solving, reasoning, or decision making without at least some conscious knowledge of what we are doing. The Brazil theory of consciousness is interesting, but ultimately misleading.

Finally, it is important to remember that while unconscious thought is less elaborate than we might believe, it is still a huge part of our everyday life. That is, most of the actions we take are habitual actions. We are not aware of all of the information in our environment that drives our habitual behaviors. So, much of our daily life involves actions that do not involve much of our consciousness. But that is a topic to be saved for another post.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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