The Limits of Conscious Awareness

The Ancient Greek temple of Apollo at Delphi had an inscription in its forecourt that read γνῶθι σεαυτόν meaning “know thyself.” The inscription implies that most men have little self-insight and that contemplation and introspection leads to wisdom. Socrates took this to heart and declared that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

“There are likely many reasons for [our] lack of self-insight,” writes the psychologist Timothy D. Wilson in his wonderful book Strangers to Ourselves. Commonly cited reasons are that “people may be blinded by hubris (a favorite Greek and Shakespearean theme), confused, or simply never take the time to examine their own lives and psyche carefully.” 

In contrast, Wilson argues that the main cause of our lack of self-insight is that “much of what we want to know about ourselves resides outside of conscious awareness.” To understand this, consider the following story.

In 1998, a patient called Anna had epilepsy, and neuroscientists wanted to understand which region of her brain was causing it. So they start monitoring her brain with a multitude of electric sensors. They sit and wait for her to have a seizure, but nothing happens. She then agrees to let them stimulate her neurons. However, she remains entirely unaware of which parts of her brain they will stimulate, or when, or what kind of effect this will have.

When they start sending electrical signals into her brain, she starts laughing. The researchers ask, “Why did you laugh?” Anna does not know that the surgeon had just pressed a button to stimulate her brain. “The picture of the horse is funny,” says Anna. They do it again. She laughs. What’s fascinating is that Anna always has a reason to explain her behavior following an electrical stimulation. The first time it was the picture of the horse. The second time it is “the doctor just told a joke.” The third time it is “you guys are just so funny standing around like that.” And so on.

Anna’s brain effectively invents reasons to explain her own behavior, without her being aware of it. This shows a fundamental aspect of the human mind: “people have privileged access to a great deal of information about themselves, such as the content of their current thoughts and memories and the object of their attention. But these are mental contents, not mental processes.”

Although we have access to the feelings, judgments and behaviors that result from our mental activity, we actually don’t have access to the mental processes that produced them — even though we often believe we do.

Wilson points out that the experience of consciousness is often akin to the “third variable” problem in statistical correlation. “We often experience a thought followed by an action, and assume it was the thought that caused that action.” But the fact is often that a third variable, an unconscious process, actually produced the conscious thought and the action.

The realization that a large portion of the human mind operates unconsciously was Sigmund Freud’s greatest insight. However, “Freud’s view of the unconscious was far too limited. When he said that consciousness is the tip of the mental iceberg, he was short of the mark by quite a bit – it may be more the size of a snowball on top of that iceberg. The mind operates most efficiently by relegating a good deal of high-level, sophisticated thinking to the unconscious, just as a jumbo jetliner is able to fly on automatic pilot with little or no input from a human.”

Unlike what Freud had imagined, the unconscious mind is not a single entity or “ego” with a will of its own. The human brain is actually made up of “a collection of modules that have evolved over time to operate outside consciousness […] quite possibly because they evolved before consciousness did.”

A problematic aspect of Freudian psychoanalysis was that it entirely rejected the hypothesis-driven scientific method as a means to study the human mind. Freud believed that the complexity of the unconscious mind made it unsuitable for study under controlled experiments, preferring instead to rely on clinical observation. 

Freud invented a number of theories and generalizations to explain what many regarded as anecdotal observations. “One reason behaviorism flourished in the early and mid-twentieth century,” says Wilson, “was that it provided a scientific alternative to what was viewed as the fuzziness of psychoanalytic concepts and methods.”

According to Wilson, psychoanalysis shares with many other approaches the assumption that the path to self-knowledge lies in careful introspection, that “we can penetrate the haze that obscures our true feelings and motives.” The problem is that research on the unconscious largely “suggests that much of what we want to see is unseeable.”

There is no direct access to our unconscious, no matter how hard we try.

As the psychologist Daryl Bem once noted, not only is the mind a black box for the scientist; it is often a black box to the person who owns that mind. Psychology literature is filled with examples suggesting that “we all share a tendency to confabulate explanations” and that “the conscious verbal self often does not know why we do what we do and thus creates an explanation that makes most sense.”

Wilson even argues that “people’s reasons about their own responses are as much conjectures as their reasons for other people’s responses […] The amount of information we have produces a misleading feeling of confidence” about the causes of our own behavior. We may think we know why we acted a certain way, but in reality we do not; whatever reason we have to explain what we did was simply invented by our mind.

Many philosophers from Descartes to Hume and Wittgenstein took it for granted that our thoughts and feelings are what we perceive them to be, that there is no reason to doubt them. Wilson argues that this assumption is wrong – and that it has persisted for two reasons: the measurement problem and the theory problem.

“The measurement problem is that even if people can be wrong about their feelings in principle, we have no way of knowing if and when this is the case, because we do not have a pipeline to people’s feelings that is independent of their self-reports. The theory problem is the question of how and why the mind would be organized in such a way that people can be wrong about their feelings.”

While we have no direct access to our unconscious mind, Wilson suggests that clues about the origin of our feelings can sometimes be derived from our behavior. He provides the following example for this:

Sam observes his wife chatting with an attractive man at a party. The man asks his wife for a dance and she accepts. On the way home, Sam is curt and remote toward his wife. When she asks if anything is wrong, he sincerely replies, ‘No, I’m just tired.’ Sam truly believes he is not jealous, even though anyone who observed his behavior would say otherwise. The next day Sam recognizes that he did feel threatened by his wife’s attention to the other man.

Wilson argues that “it is often better to deduce the nature of our hidden minds by looking outward at our behavior and how others react to us, and come up with a good narrative. We must be like biographers of our own lives, distilling our behavior and feelings into a meaningful and effective narrative.”

“The best way to author a good self-story is not necessarily to engage in a lot of navel-gazing introspection,” says the author. “In fact there is evidence that it can be counterproductive to look inward too much […] Socrates was only partly wrong that the unexamined life is not worth living. The key is the kind of self-examination that people perform, and the extent to which people attempt to know themselves solely by looking inward, versus looking outward at their own behavior and how others react to them.”

At some point in his early adult life, Kant decided to restrict himself to smoking a single pipe of tobacco per day. He managed to stick to this rule; for nearly all his life, he drank tea and smoked his pipe every morning during his regular two-hour meditation break. But his peers apparently reported that as he grew older, the size of his smoking pipes became enormous.

It is not easy to know what our nonconscious states are, but they can sometimes be deduced from our behavior, as Kant’s example shows.

To what extent can we exert our reason to not only acquire self-knowledge, but to achieve self-improvement? Aristotle once suggested that “we acquire [virtues] by first having put them into action […] we become just by the practice of just actions.”

In a similar vein, Wilson argues that “people do not transform themselves into saints by doing one kind act. People who no longer love their partners cannot make themselves fall in love again simply by acting as if it were so. An extremely shy person cannot suddenly become the life of the party by deciding to chat with a few strangers. I think we underestimate, however, how much we can change feelings and traits by changing our behavior […] Part of the credo of Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, is fake it until you make it.”

What Wilson essentially suggests is that we can sometimes internalize a certain behavior that we force ourselves to adopt. The reason for this is that we naturally rationalize personal behaviors to which we are spectators.

Rationalization is a powerful mechanism through which our mind generates rather than discovers reasons. For example, if we go out on a date and the other person turns us down, we typically go through a short phase of regret and then almost automatically start convincing ourselves that this was not the right person for us after all. Wilson explains that this is essentially a defensive mechanism:

Events hurt when they first occur, but very quickly we find ways of warding off the pain by reinterpreting them. Just as we have a physiological immune system that identifies dangerous foreign bodies and minimizes their impact, so do we have a psychological immune system that identifies threats to our self-esteem and finds ways of neutralizing these threats.

What might facilitate this process of recovery, in the case of an attractive date who rejected us, is to act as if we didn’t care and just start dating someone else; somehow we quickly forget about our past amorous desires as new ones develop.

A premise of Enlightenment philosophy is that we are all endowed with universal reason, and that we can all use this reason to objectively explain the world and provide guidance to our actions. Yet the very existence of rationalization undermines the rationalist belief that we can understand our own behavior.

For Wilson, our minds evolved to construct personal narratives about our lives, just like a biographer would. “We weave what we can observe (our conscious thoughts, feelings, and memories, our own behavior, the reactions of other people to us) into a story that, with luck, captures at least a part of what we cannot observe (our nonconscious personality traits, goals, and feelings.)”

This is not to say that people are always wrong when they explain and narrate the reasons for their feelings and actions. They may be right. What Wilson argues is simply that “people do not have access to all the determinants of their feelings […] and their reasons are often a function of cultural or personal theories that can be wrong.” As Immanuel Kant put it, “we can never, even by the strictest examination, get completely behind the secret spring of action.”

In the end, conscious reasons and declared intentions may not matter as much as we think they do. The accuracy of our reasons will always be suspect. What matters is how we actually behave in the world — and what that behavior says about us. People can “infer their internal states just as an outside observer would, by seeing how they behave and guessing what feelings or traits must underlie that behavior.”

The difference between self-revelation and self-fabrication is crucial from the point of view of gaining self-knowledge.

Wilson advises us to avoid analyzing information about ourselves in an overly deliberate and conscious manner, such as making explicit lists of pros and cons. We should rather give our adaptive unconscious the time required to form reliable feelings; and then recognize and trust those feelings, even if we cannot explain them entirely. “The trick is to allow feelings to surface and to see them through the haze of one’s theories and expectations.”

Moments where we face important decisions, such as whether to marry or divorce, whether to have children, whether to accept a job offer, or give up on a project: this is when we should take a step back and carefully observe, rather than introspect.