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How the Unconscious Works

Basic principles of unconscious processes explain much of our functioning.

Current theory and research in psychology accepts the existence and importance of the unconscious. In fact, it is impossible to conceptualize the mind/brain without positing it. Further, there is agreement about some central aspects of unconscious functioning. This post begins by laying out those basic tenets. Future posts will apply them to current issues in psychotherapy, business, politics and everyday life.

The first and foremost point I want to make is that unconscious processes underlie most of our functioning. Moreover, the way the brain/mind is structured, this has to be so.

Next, our brains and minds are a result of our evolutionary past. They are designed to operate in a certain type of environment, the environment in which our ancestors evolved, namely the Pleistocene era. Our brains and minds are best adapted to a world that no longer exists. That means that some of how we are designed works really well, and some worked well back then but not so much now. A simple example is our eating preferences. We like sweet, salty, and fatty tasting foods. This was adaptive back in a subsistence era when such tastes indicated nutrition and calories. Now, in an era of candy, chips, and fried food, these preferences can lead to obesity, diabetes, and other ailments. The same holds true for much of our psychological functioning.

As it is easier and cheaper biologically to take in information than to act on it, we evolved more sensory than motor capabilities, and both of these evolved before so-called higher mental processes. That means that such higher processes are built on pre-existing sensory and motor capabilities. This, in turn, means that physical and psychological functioning share the same circuits. For example, our sense of an emotionally warm person is based on the same circuits as our sense of physical warmth. In psychological science, this is called embodied cognition.

Next, the mind/brain is organized associatively. The brain is literally organized into networks of neurons. The mind, which parallels the brain, is organized into associatively connected networks of ideas, thoughts, motivations, and emotions. Since there are so many associative pathways, we cannot possibly be aware of all of them. Thus, unconscious processes are a given.

The mind and brain learn by establishing and strengthening the associative connections. In psychological science, this is termed implicit memory and implicit learning. These are unconscious by definition and mean that much of what we “know” and “remember” is unconscious. When such connections are very strong, the functioning they instantiate goes forward quickly and efficiently. This is called automaticity. Sometimes this is conscious and sometimes it is not.

Such learning and automatic behaviors are usually adaptive but need not be. Adaptiveness depends upon what is learned and whether it fits with the environment in which it is enacted. It also depends upon whether pre-existing associative networks (there through evolution and/or earlier learning) fit with the environment in which they are applied. Sometimes the fit is good, and sometimes it is not.

Finally, the mind/brain operates in parallel, rather than serially like a computer. That is, our minds and brains do many things at once. This makes up for the relatively slow processing speed of the brain (hundredths of a second). A computer does one thing at a time but does so with blinding speed (nanoseconds).

Parallel processing necessitates unconscious processes, as we cannot possibly be aware of all of the simultaneous operations occurring in the mind/brain. In fact, we can be aware of only a very small subset of them. This accounts for the many dissociations between what we believe, what we feel, and how we behave. It also accounts for tip-of-the-tongue and slips-o- the-tongue experiences.

Thus, the unconscious is built into the very architecture of our brains and minds. Our theories and our research require it. With these few points in place, we will be able to shed some new light on many business, political, psychotherapeutic, and everyday phenomena. We will use these points as well as empirical findings in the areas of automaticity, heuristics, implicit memory, implicit learning, implicit motivation, and embodied cognition to explain these phenomena.

In future posts, I will use these principles of unconscious processes to address issues of tribalism, prejudice, political campaigns, product ads, and principles of psychotherapy.

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Hassin, R. R. (2013). Yes it can on the functional abilities of the human unconscious. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8, 195-207.

Lakoff, G. (2012). Explaining embodied cognition results. Topics in Cognitive Science. 4, 773-785.

Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (1995). Mapping the evolved functional organization of mind and brain. In M. Gazzaniga (Ed.), The cognitive neurosciences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (pp. 1185-1197).

Weinberger, J., & Stoycheva, V. (2019). The unconscious: Theory, research and clinical implications. New York: Guilford.

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