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The Rational Unconscious

You learn more than you can know.

Curly Pat / Shutterstock
Source: Curly Pat / Shutterstock

Since the late 19th century, psychologists have been finding more and more mental operations that operate outside of awareness. In the popular mind, the unconscious is primarily the repository of repressed thoughts about violence and sex and other things best unmentioned. In fact, however, the conscious pot has no right to call the unconscious kettle black. There’s plenty of sex and violence roaming around in the conscious mind. If you give a buzzer to college students who are attending a lecture and have them write down what they were thinking about each time the buzzer goes off, half the time it’s a sexual thought. And the great majority of college students report that they have entertained thoughts of killing someone.

It’s beginning to be clear that unconscious operations underlie our many of our inferences and judgments as well as a great deal of decision-making and problem-solving. What’s more, the unconscious mind can often do a better job of these things than the conscious mind. Indeed, a great many operations can only be handled by the unconscious mind. (I discuss many of these superiorities in my book Mindware.)

The unconscious mind can be vastly superior to the conscious mind in learning some kinds of highly complex patterns. More than that, actually: It can learn things that the conscious mind can’t. Pavel Lewicki and his coworkers asked people to pay attention to a computer screen divided into four quadrants. An X would appear in one of the quadrants, and the participant’s task was to press a button predicting which quadrant the X was going to appear in. Though participants didn’t know it, the order in which an X appeared in a given quadrant was dictated by a very complicated set of rules. For example, an X never appeared twice in a row in the same quadrant, an X never returned to its original location until it had appeared in at least two of the other quadrants, an X in the second location determined the location of the third, and the fourth location was determined by the location on the previous two trials.

The unconscious mind can learn this complicated pattern – without bothering to inform the conscious mind of its accomplishment. We know the learning takes place because 1) participants became faster over time at pressing the correct button and 2) when the rules suddenly changed, their performance deteriorated badly. But the conscious mind was not let in on what was happening. Participants didn’t even consciously recognize that there was a pattern, let alone know exactly what it was.

The conscious mind of participants was adept, however, at accounting for suddenly worsened performance. That may have been especially true because the participants were psychology professors (who incidentally knew they were in a study on non-conscious learning). Three of the professors said they had just “lost the rhythm.” Two accused the experimenter of putting distracting subliminal messages on the screen.

Why don’t we recognize consciously just what pattern it is that we’ve learned? The short answer is “Why should we?” For most purposes what’s crucial is that we learn a pattern, not that we be able to articulate exactly what the rules behind the pattern are.

Consider a parallel to visual pattern recognition. Imagine a computer grid with 1,000 pixels that can be either black or white. Take half of that grid and randomly make some proportion of the pixels black and some white. Then flip the half-grid over and create the mirror image of the original. Place the two images side by side. You will instantly see the symmetry between the two halves.

How is it that you see there is perfect symmetry? It’s certainly not by conscious calculation, determining whether each pixel in the same mirror-image location is the same or not. The number of calculations necessary to determine whether there is perfect symmetry is 500,000. That’s a computational trick that couldn’t be performed quickly even by computers until relatively recently. The unconscious is a quick study and it gets lots of crucial things right. That saves time and energy for problems the conscious mind is uniquely equipped to solve.