Turn around to find who you really are

Strangers to Ourselves
March 28, 2003

We are strangers to ourselves, says Timothy Wilson, because the human personality resides in two places. One of these is the consciously aware self, the self each of us consults in order to know our own mind and to guide our behaviour. Because we know this self, we think we know our whole self, but we are wrong. We are ignoring our second seat of personality, what Wilson calls the adaptive unconscious.

Unlike the Freudian unconscious, which will eventually yield its secrets through psychoanalysis, Wilson's adaptive unconscious is totally immune to introspection. Far from revealing this strange self, an inwardly directed search will further obscure it. To discover our unconscious self we must look in the opposite direction. Our outward behaviour will yield the clues to our hidden nature.

To defend this unlikely thesis, Wilson draws on a number of familiar findings in experimental psychology. For instance, it is well established that light falling on the eye leads to two parallel and complementary sets of responses in the brain. One is a fast-track system that picks up key information such as the position, direction and speed of a moving object.

The other is a slower process that fills in details such as the size, shape and colour of a visual stimulus. The first uses evolutionarily older brain paths and can initiate action before any image enters consciousness. The second takes place in the highly developed cortical regions associated with the contents of consciousness.

Wilson links the latter of these systems to the conscious self and the former to the adaptive unconscious. "Adaptive" takes its meaning from evolutionary biology, and is the opposite of adaptable or flexible. It refers to the automatic response that in primitive times made the difference between eating and being eaten. The adaptive unconscious is a fast, inflexible online pattern detector, concerned with the here-and-now.

It is largely inherited, inflexible and biased to initiate negative reactions that, because they are pre-conscious, must be studied via the behaviour they produce and not by introspection.

Another well-known trait of human consciousness is a tendency to confabulate. To explain why we did or said things, we invent stories that we believe but that psychologists can show to be false. Wilson uses such evidence to argue that self-reports are never reliable. They are self-deluding stories told by our conscious selves in ignorance of the true causes to be found in the adaptive unconscious. We are even wrong when we interpret our emotional states.

This is not exactly a self-help book, but its author does intend his readers to improve their lives. To do this, people must know themselves better, and to achieve this he advises them "to think less about themselves and try to change their behaviour instead". In a nutshell, adopt a "do good, be good" strategy. Making our behaviour match the kind of person we wish to be is the best way to bring into line the inaccessible unconscious that hampers our efforts.

This neo-behaviourist prescription could have come straight out of any Catholic primer of moral theology from the 17th century until about 1960.

There is nothing new under the sun.

Anthony Freeman is managing editor, Journal of Consciousness Studies .

Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious

Author - Timothy D. Wilson
ISBN - 0 674 00936 3
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £18.50
Pages - 262

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