Ken Eisold Ph.D.

Hidden Motives

Becoming Conscious

Hunting and trading

Posted Oct 27, 2014

Contrary to our subjective beliefs, we make most of our decisions automatically, unconsciously.  Professor Michael S. A. Graziano at Princeton recently reminded us of this.

He asked: “How does the brain go beyond processing information to become subjectively aware of information? The answer is: It doesn’t.”

It just thinks it does. Using the example of seeing the color white, he notes that we see what doesn’t actually exist, as the color white is an amalgam of the entire spectrum of colors.

It follows, then, we usually don’t need to be conscious of what we want. We already “know” what it is, and once we have started to be aware of having a choice we have already made it. In effect, we are largely sleep-walking through out lives. 

This was a great advantage to our ancestors struggling for survival, as they did not have to think of what to do when seeing an animal they could eat or a danger they needed to escape. 

Similarly, it is a great advantage to traders scanning the markets for commodities or currencies or derivatives. Opportunities for profit appear in a flash, and traders must pounce.

Under these circumstances, Professor Graziano notes, awareness is actually “a cartoonish reconstruction of attention that is as physically inaccurate as the brain’s internal model of color. In this theory, awareness is not an illusion. It’s a caricature.”

But that’s not sufficient for making complex and difficult decisions. Our ancestors needed to become conscious to hunt down very large beasts or to organize and manage their communities. So we, too, need to think about managing our wealth, when to buy and sell, how to plan, when to be suspicious, when to hedge.

More importantly, we have to think together so we can act together. Cartoonish reconstructions may work when the choices we face are simple and need to be acted upon quickly. But faced with making communal choices we need to weigh alternatives, to debate and reflect, exploring the long-range consequences, and think about the impact on our communities.

That means, in short, we have to inhibit our impulses for immediate action. That’s tricky. We need to be able to think fast as well to think slow, as Daniel Kahneman put it in his useful book on the mind, but when do we know which is best?

In politics, it’s easy to have knee jerk reactions. Apart from being driven by ideologies and interests, we are often overwhelmed by the complexity and importance of the social issues we face. A quick and dirty response is sometimes the best we can manage, especially when our choice is only one among thousands or millions of votes being cast. And then we have to contend with the thought: “Does it matter?” And, if it doesn’t, is that a reason not to act?

Neuro-science has made huge contributions to our understanding of how the mind works, but it does not have much to say, yet, about us as social animals or group members. Research will no doubt illuminate the pathways in the brain that lead us to follow the crowd, but we also need to understand better how to cooperate, to listen, to reflect and to contribute.

We can’t really do much just by ourselves.