To Know Me Is To Like Me IV: The "Brazil" Theory of Consciousness
Your unconscious is less interesting than you think.
Posted Nov 28, 2008
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.
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.
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.