04 July 2011

Strangers to Ourselves - Timothy D. Wilson (2002)

I recently finished the book "Strangers to Ourselves" (2002) by Timothy D. Wilson, a professor of psychology.  The subtitle is 'Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious" - and the book is essentially a look into those mental processes which we aren't directly aware of.  He makes a point of diverging from Freud - "the modern view of the adaptive unconscious is that a lot of the interesting stuff about the human mind  judgments, feelings, motives - occur outside of awareness for reasons of efficiency, and not because of represssion."  I found the book to be a pretty good general overview of modern thinking about unconscious mental capabilities and patterns, how to make conscious use of them, and even perhaps guide them in new directions.

A few points of interest. While we refer to the unconscious, which makes sense in referring to that which our conscious awareness does not include, as an organism we are clearly "aware" of much that goes on around us even if that awareness does not extend to our consciousness.  One simple example of this that Wilson notes is at parties, while speaking with one group of people, we may suddenly become aware of another conversation if our name is mentioned.  And in some ways our goal is to make that which requires conscious attention fade into the unconscious background - that is in essence what learning is all about.  Once we've mastered something, we no longer consciously work at it, and in fact we can befuddle ourselves by thinking too carefully about tasks which we can already do on "auto-pilot".

Page 51: Wilson makes this claim: "Nor can the adaptive unconscious muse about the past and integrate it into a coherent self-narrative."  If one takes "musing" to be only available to the conscious mind, then I guess this is almost a tautology, but I think it's very possible that the unconscious does indeed process memories and thoughts to alter our own conscious conception of the past.

There are some interesting observations about introspection and self-narrative. He discusses the difficulties of fully knowing the reasons why we might act or have certain preferences, and the potential dangers of trying to be too analytical about it.  "Because people have too much faith in their explanations, they come to believe that their feelings match the reasons they list." (p. 168). We seem to have a deep need for stories that we can tell ourselves to explain our own behaviors, but we can mislead ourselves when creating those stories by committing to what we are able to consciously list out as reasons.  "Introspection should not be viewed as a process whereby people open the door to a hidden room, giving them direct access to something they could not see before.  The trick is to allow the feelings to surface and to see them through the haze of one's theories and expectations." (p. 173)

"On what basis can we say that one self-story is healthier than another? Self-stories should be accurate, I believe, in a simple sense: they should capture the nature of the person's nonconscious goals, feelings and temperaments." (p. 181)

In the end Wilson settles for a pretty simple formula for self-improvement.  As he says, "It is not easy to know what our nonconscious states are, much less to change them." (p. 211)  By deliberately taking actions that are part of the desired behavior, we take steps toward making those actions more automatic, more deeply embedded into the foundations of our adaptive unconscious.

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