Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Who (or What) Chooses Healthy Thoughts?

Unconscious processes, not conscious reasoning, may help us reframe situations.

What are you going to do when you come across two different ideas in the same day, each of them not only compelling and seemingly full of truth, but also apparently in conflict with each other? One answer is to think through the ideas by writing about them, and then posting the results to see what others think.

The first idea I encountered this morning came from an essay by Ed Gibney on taming emotions to improve mental health. I was quite intrigued by the novel definition of insanity in this essay:

Insanity is the inability of reason to control the emotions, either through brain chemistry that does not respond to cognitive appraisals or cognitive appraisals that refuse to respond to reality. This lack of control also ranges from mild (neurotic) to extreme (psychotic). Treatment for insanity must be based on the correct cause and severity of the affliction.

I like this definition because it meshes well with what we know at this point in time concerning the most effective therapies for psychological problems. Two of the most common problems that lead people to seek therapy are anxiety and depression. Feeling anxious or depressed is a normal, adaptive response to certain situations, but sometimes these emotions get out of control, becoming inappropriately pervasive and/or intense. For all but the most severe forms of these disorders, cognitive therapy tends to be the most effective treatment. In cognitive therapies, people learn how to reappraise their situation. When people can think about their situations in ways that are possibly more realistic than the narrow, distorted appraisals that leave them mired in anxiety or depression, they have a chance of reducing or even dispelling the inappropriate feelings that are making them miserable.

Sometimes, though, anxiety or depression can be so severe that the person cannot engage in cognitive reappraisals. In these cases, medication can improve brain chemistry to a point where the person can start using cognitive techniques to improve their condition. The bottom line is that being able the reason realistically in order to avoid loss of control over feelings turns out to be a pretty good definition of sanity. [Note: "sanity" is actually a legal term rather than a diagnostic category; but Gibney and I are using that word colloquially.]

But then later in the morning I encountered an article in the New Scientist that challenges the idea that we have conscious, rational control over anything. According to psychologists Peter Halligan and David Oakley, conscious experience is a broadcast from unconscious brain processes rather than an agent that controls and directs our behavior. Evidence for this position comes from experiments demonstrating that the awareness of intentions to move occurs after—not before—muscles and brain areas prepare for movement. Contrary to our perception that intentions are conscious choices, intentions actually arise in the unconscious and we become aware of our intentions after they have already been formed. According to Halligan and Oakley, all of the contents of conscious experience, including self-awareness, thoughts, feelings, and intentions, are reflections of unconscious activity: things that happen to us rather than events that we consciously control.

The Halligan-Oakley thesis causes problems for Gibney's suggestion that sanity is the result of conscious control of our cognitive appraisals of our situation. According to Halligan and Oakley, consciousness has no control over cognitive appraisals. Instead, cognitive appraisals are produced by unconscious activity, and we become aware of our cognitive appraisals after they are formed. Even the choice among possible ways of looking at a situation is unconscious, not conscious. So, if we are successful in reducing inappropriate negative feelings by finding a better way to look at our situation, this is something that happens to us rather than the result of the conscious intention to look at our situation differently. In other words, conscious reasoning never has the ability to control emotions, so if we define insanity as the "the inability of reason to control the emotions," then all of us are insane all the time.

The only way that I see out of this conundrum is to give up the idea that our sense that our conscious, reasoning self is the source of cognitive reappraisals and give credit to processes that are inaccessible to conscious awareness. The conscious self is not the genius that comes up with a new way of looking at things that leads to improved psychological well-being. When helpful cognitive reappraisals do occur, this is a fortunate product of unconscious processes. People who are lucky enough to manage helpful cognitive appraisals are sane; those whose unconscious cannot reappraise or appraise unrealistically are insane.

Oakley goes on to suggest that the evolved function of "unconsciously generated, consciously experienced self-narratives" is mutual regulation of each other's behavior by the selective sharing of our self-narratives. He says that this allows "the mental content of individuals [to] be changed by outside influences such as education and other forms of socialising." I would suggest that one important outside influence is therapy. Hopefully, your unconscious will lead you to seek out therapy when you need it.