An essay exploring issues discussed in Hidden Minds
Freud claimed the unconscious to be one of the most important ideas in the history of science. Was this claim another example of his celebrated arrogance? Or was he right?
From earliest times, human beings have speculated about the structure of the mind and concluded that certain areas are either permanently or temporarily inaccessible to awareness. A good example is St. Augustine, who wrote, ‘I cannot grasp all that I am’ – meaning that only a tiny fraction of his totality (his memories, knowledge, and mental processes) could occupy consciousness at any single point in time. Augustine recognized that most of our psychic apparatus is submerged below the awareness threshold, in a region of the mind that any modern commentator would immediately describe as ‘unconscious’. Although few would disagree with St. Augustine’s observation, the idea that much of the mind is concealed has generated considerable debate, particularly with respect to the exact nature of these concealed regions, and more importantly, the extent of their influence. Is the unconscious capable of thinking for itself, or is it merely a kind of psychic foundation that supports consciousness? And how much of what we think, feel, and do, is attributable to unconscious perceptions, memories and processes?
The debate about the unconscious is virtually unique in the history of ideas, insofar as it has frequently transgressed the two cultures divide: the concept of the unconscious has been explored by writers, poets and artists, as well as physicians, neurologists, and philosophers of science. Indeed, discussion about the unconscious has been almost promiscuous in its failure to recognize or respect interdisciplinary boundaries.
Although the concept of the unconscious has achieved an extraordinary degree of cultural penetration, in academic circles, it has been falling in and out of favour for nearly three hundred years. Recently, this cycle has been repeated. At the beginning of the 20th century, Freud promoted the unconscious as one of the most important of all scientific discoveries. By the mid 20th century, the unconscious had lost much of its currency among academic psychologists, and those with an interest in it were viewed with considerable suspicion. Yet, because of several advances – most notably in computer technology, neuroscience, and evolutionary theory – the unconscious has recently become re-established as a respectable, necessary, and essential concept. Indeed, its ascent has been so rapid, and the consolidation of its position so comprehensive, it is difficult to imagine the unconscious ever falling from academic favour again.
The modern history of the unconscious begins with the posthumous publication in 1765 of New Essays on Human Understanding, by the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. In this work, Leibniz described the mind as a marriage of conscious and unconscious parts, and suggested that behaviour could be influenced by what he called minute perceptions – that is, perceptions that occur outside of awareness. This idea was not welcomed by Enlightenment thinkers, who preferred to think of the mind as wholly transparent and rational. Indeed, they suggested that the workings of the mind could be profitably compared with a table clock – numerous examples of which were beginning to appear in the fashionable salons of Europe. Leibniz had broken ranks with The Age of Reason. His doctrine of minute perceptions strongly suggested that human beings could behave irrationally, and subsequently, his precocious enquiry into unconscious mental life was rejected (and then more or less neglected for over a hundred years). Towards the end of the 18th century, however, the rise of Romanticism resulted in a complete revision of Enlightenment values, and the reintroduction of the unconscious as a key idea among those with an interest in the mind.
For the Romantic poets, the human psyche was clearly something far more complex than a table clock and infinitely more mysterious. Wordsworth described ‘Caverns .. within my mind which sun/Could never penetrate’ and Coleridge wrote of ‘the twilight realms of consciousness.’ Such descriptions mark an interesting change with respect to how the unconscious was being conceptualized: not so much a submerged part of the mental apparatus, but rather, a place – an inner landscape. Once this conceptual leap had been made it was inevitable that some would want to go there.
The Romantic model of mind offered the prospect of Orphean journeys into a psychic underworld, and the favoured method of achieving this descent was to imbibe laudanum (a preparation of opium diluted in wine or brandy). With the conscious, rational mind in a state of narcotic paralysis, any subsequent experiences must reflect activity in the unconscious. Thus, the visions of the opium addict – as well as the dreams that occur during natural sleep – both became strongly associated with unconscious mental life.
Coleridge’s infamous poem, Kubla Khan – written under the influence of laudanum – and replete with references to exotic pleasure domes, underground rivers, and sunless seas, is nothing less than a post-card from the unconscious; but for those wishing to consult a travelogue, there is no better guide than Thomas De Quincey, whose Confessions of an English Opium Eater and Suspiria de Profundis are not only early examples of cult literature, but also a serious attempt at understanding the relationship between experience, dreams, and the unconscious. After many excursions across the surreal landscape of his own unconscious, one of De Quincey’s principal insights was that early life events leave their signature in the content of dreams: an idea that was influentially revisited many decades later by Freud.
The association between the unconscious and dreams was reinforced by Romantic philosophers such as Gotthilf von Schubert, who in 1814 published The Symbolism of Dreams, and later, Karl Albert Scherner, who in 1861 published The Life of the Dream. Both of these men were advocates of dream interpretation, although Scherner in particular – like De Quincey – pre-empted psychoanalytic thinking by suggesting that certain objects (such as a clarinet or staircase) might represent the male and female genitalia.
By the mid 19th century, the unconscious was relatively well established. It could be understood as a level of the mind at which mental processes operated outside awareness, or an inner landscape that could be experienced as a dream.
Three other phenomena also helped to consolidate the concept of the unconscious. These were hypnotism, medical observations of multiple personality, and the burgeoning Spiritualist movement. Post-hypnotic suggestion showed that a command given to an individual in a trance state might still be carried out after waking, even though typically such an individual would have no recollection of that command. Thus, a post-hypnotic suggestion might be viewed as an instruction hidden in the unconscious. Cases of multiple personality represented this same phenomenon but writ large. Instead of a simple command being hidden in the unconscious, it was suggested that a whole secondary personality might be concealed (the primary personality having no knowledge of the secondary personality and its activities). The possibility that the mind could accommodate several – usually unconscious – sub-personalities, was immediately welcomed by the scientific community as an explanation for Spirit Guides. The proliferation of Roman Senators and Indian Chiefs who routinely spoke through trance mediums during séances were taken to be merely a further example of multiple personality.
The belief that the human mind might conceal a secondary, or even several unconscious personalities proved irresistible to writers. Throughout the 19th century (although more so in the latter half) numerous works were published that touch upon this theme: James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Shadow, Dostoevsky’s The Double, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and most explicitly, Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In all of these works, a protagonist encounters – as either a doppelganger, alter ego, or image – a manifestation of his darker, unconscious self; however, as the concept of the unconscious was becoming more mysterious and strange, another view was beginning to emerge: a cooler, less dramatic view.
In 1876, Benjamin Carpenter (a professor of physiology at University College, London), observed that volition seems to play a very minor role in the execution of simple behaviours. For example producing a musical note or articulating a syllable: ‘We simply conceive the tone or syllable we wish to utter and say to our automatic self, do this and the well trained automaton executes it.’ For Carpenter, the unconscious was not a place of spirit guides, secondary personalities and dreamscapes, but the mind’s engine room: a kind of factory, where the neural machinery works insensibly, generating and enabling cognition, emotion, and complex actions. About the same time, the great T.H Huxley, also contemplating automatic processes in the brain, reached an astonishing conclusion: ‘The feeling we call volition is not the cause of the voluntary act, but simply the symbol in consciousness of the stage of the brain which is the immediate cause of the act. Like the steam whistle which signals but doesn’t cause the starting of the locomotive.’ Thus, according to Huxley, human beings are merely very sophisticated automata, arrogating responsibility for actions that in truth arise from unconscious neural processes. This post-industrial, mechanistic view of the unconscious might well have caught on, were it not for the arrival of a monumental figure who claimed the unconscious as his own, and gave the Romantic unconscious an unexpected new lease of life: Sigmund Freud.
It is often said that more words have been written about Sigmund Freud than Jesus Christ. Although this may not be exactly true, the very fact that such a comparison is made at all is a reminder of Freud’s cultural credentials. He has become an icon. Yet, in some circles, Freud continues to be decried – particularly with respect to his ideas about the unconscious sexual origins of neurotic illness and its treatment by psychoanalysis. Libraries have been written – and continue to be written – on the subject of why Freud was wrong; however, the longevity (and energy) of this enterprise is somewhat surprising. The problems inherent in Freudian theory and the inefficiency of psychoanalysis were being discussed vigorously by Freud’s contemporaries and the less loyal members of his medical coterie. Indeed, it has been common knowledge for nearly a century that many of Freud’s ideas – such as penis envy or the Oedipus complex – are absurd and of little clinical value.
Unfortunately, the ease with which it is possible to point out Freud’s weaknesses has generally dulled awareness of his strengths. Indeed, in the 1970s and 1980s, sustained criticism from the likes of the psychologist, Hans Eysenck, and the philosopher, Adolf Grunbaum, helped to complete an iconoclastic process that destroyed the academic credibility of Freudianism altogether – and the unconscious suffered by association.
The lynchpin of much of the criticism aimed at Freudian theory has been Karl Popper’s criterion of demarcation between science and non-science: falsifiability. The psychoanalytic framework is sufficiently elastic to accommodate almost any observation – thus, it can never be decisively invalidated. Freud can explain everything, and in doing so, explains nothing.
Freud, and generations of his disciples, have always maintained that psychoanalytic theory is supported by clinical evidence. That is, the behaviour of patients and their subsequent response to treatment. But very few in the scientific community have been convinced by this defence. With typical bluntness, Hans Eysenck maintained: ‘we can no more test Freudian hypotheses on the couch than we can adjudicate between the rival hypotheses of Newton and Einstein by going to sleep under an apple tree’.
It should be pointed out, however, that Popper’s views on psychoanalysis have been repeatedly misinterpreted in print. Popper advanced falsifiability as a criterion for demarcating science and non-science – not sense and nonsense. Moreover, he was happy to concede that although psychoanalytic theory might not be testable on the couch, it might nevertheless become testable in the fullness of time.
Of Freud and Adler’s work, Popper said: ‘I personally do not doubt that much of what they say is of considerable importance, and may well play its part one day in a psychological science which is testable.’
Popper’s words were prophetic. Firstly, there can be little doubt that psychoanalytic theory has proved to be of considerable importance. Indeed, Freud’s cultural impact is almost incalculable. And secondly, psychoanalytic ideas – or at least some of them, have not proved impenetrable with respect to scientific investigations. For example, with the advent of brain scanning technology, there have been several attempts at linking brain structures with Freudian concepts. In a 1990 review of neuroimaging studies of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Lewis Baxter and colleagues were bold enough to suggest that repression might take place in a brain structure known as the caudate nucleus. Thus, the intrusive, id-like thoughts – on themes of sex and violence – that often plague individuals with OCD might be due to a dysfunctional caudate. Although the marriage of 19th century psychology with 20th century technology seems strange at first sight, it is only strange because of the way Freud has been represented – more like a shaman than a man of science. Freud trained as a neurologist and would have been delighted to see his concepts investigated with neuroimmaging technology.
One of Freud’s greatest achievements was his evangelical promotion of the unconscious. He rescued it from the obscure backwaters of philosophy, psychiatry, and mesmeric stage shows, and branded it for general consumption. After Freud, the idea of a submerged agency – or hidden intelligence – that might reveal its motives in dreams, became widely accepted, and by the time the critics were landing their most powerful punches on the body of psychoanalysis, the Freudian unconscious was already an established feature of cultural life. We see it everywhere: in Schoenberg’s opera, Erwartung, and in the surrealist dreamscapes of Dali, Magritte, and Delvaux. In the stories of Arthur Schnitzler and Georges Bataille, and at the cinema in films such as Alfred Hitchock’s Spellbound. We even see the influence of the Freudian unconscious in Broadway musicals – most notably Gershwin and Weill’s Lady in the Dark. The tradition of running a thread of narrative through a protagonist’s unconscious is now an accepted and readily recognized story-telling device. D.M. Thomas’s novel The White Hotel, and David Lynch’s recent film, Mulholland Drive, serve as particularly compelling modern examples.
But Freud’s real achievement – even more than his cultural conquest of the western world – was his estimation of the importance of the unconscious; an estimation that is arresting on account of its sheer magnitude.
In his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, written between 1915 and 1917, Freud claimed to have delivered the ‘third blow’ to narcissistic humanity. Copernicus had delivered the first, depriving humanity of a central place in the cosmos, and Darwin had delivered the second, by proving our animal ancestry. Freud believed that by emphasizing the importance of unconscious processes in mental life, he had delivered the third and most wounding blow: our most valued characteristics – free will, rationality, and a sense of self – are mere illusions, and we are all the products of unconscious and uncontrollable forces.
The fact that Freud placed himself among such distinguished company as Copernicus and Darwin has always raised the hackles of Freud’s enemies; however, Freud’s hint that his insight into the importance of unconscious mental life might in some ways be even more significant than the heliocentric universe and evolution, reliably promises the spectacle of apoplectic rage. Yet, in this respect, most contemporary neuroscientists would agree that Freud was very probably right.
Freud did not discover the unconscious. Nor was he the father of psychotherapy – individuals such as the French neurologist Pierre Janet had discovered ‘psychoanalytic’ procedures many years before Freud’s earliest cases of hysteria were published. Nevertheless, Freud recognized that the unconscious was an extremely important feature of mental life, and that no model of the mind would be complete without it. But Freud’s unconscious is still bathed in the dying light of late 19th century Romanticism. Although Freud saw human behaviour as wholly determined by unconscious processes, the clues that he identified – in Freudian slips, primitive drives, and mental illness – when followed through the neurological labyrinth, invariably lead us to a landscape of erotic symbols, temporal anomalies, and impossible physics. A world of dreams and hidden intelligences not unfamiliar to the likes of Coleridge and De Quincey. There is no place in this Romantic gloaming for the insensible reflexes and concealed automata of Carpenter and Huxley.
In many respects, the Romantic unconscious – through Freudianism – remained dominant until the war; however, after the invention of the computer, psychology was provided with a new metaphor that revolutionized models of how the mind works. And as a direct consequence, the unconscious was completed rehabilitated for the machine age.
In 1950, the mathematician (and Bletchley code breaker) Alan Turing published an article in the philosophy journal, Mind, titled, ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’. It attempted to answer the question ‘Can machines think?’ and was the forerunner of all subsequent articles on artificial intelligence. The suggestion that a machine, composed of mere insensible components, might generate something like human consciousness raised some interesting issues. For example, could the brain – also composed of individually insensible nerve cells – work in a similar way? The mechanical, enabling unconscious of Carpenter and Huxley had reappeared again, after a seventy year dormancy.
The sub-discipline of psychology devoted to the study of basic mental process is called cognitive psychology. After the invention of the computer, almost all cognitive psychologists were happy to employ the computer as a metaphor. Thus, all forms of mental activity were construed as examples of information processing, and unconscious activity was relabeled preconscious processing. Numerous experiments were devised to examine the degree to which information could be processed without awareness. Typically, this was achieved by presenting experimental subjects with messages or images at speeds or intensities too fast or too weak for conscious registration and then observing subsequent effects. A considerable amount of evidence was collected suggesting that thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and even dreams, could be influenced by subliminal stimulation.
Unfortunately, this whole area of research suffered a major set-back, when a marketing executive in New Jersey claimed to have increased the sales of popcorn and Coca-Cola in a cinema by placing subliminal messages on a film reel. The subsequent furore created a climate of opinion in which laboratory studies using subliminal perception were considered manipulative and politically suspect for at least two decades. (Interestingly, another subliminal scandal erupted during the last presidential election, when Democrats accused George W. Bush of endorsing a television advert containing subliminal messages).
Irrespective of the general unease surrounding subliminal stimulation, the procedure was important in demonstrating the existence of what came to be called the cognitive unconscious – a close relative of the kind of unconscious espoused by theorists like Carpenter and Huxley: however, even if the new look unconscious operated like a computer and simply shunted information through a series of processing stages, it still seemed capable of behaving intelligently. For example, it could read and understand a subliminal message. Therefore, it might be argued that the hidden intelligence of the Romantic and Freudian unconscious still maintained a presence in mid to late 20th century psychology – but simply repackaged for modern tastes.
The concept of the unconscious has always struggled to achieve scientific respectability, but never more so than in the decades following the second World War. The modern world was not eager to embrace a concept developed by Romantic poets – associated with hypnosis, Spiritualism, and exotic sub-personalities – and latterly linked with the worse excesses of the Freudian obsession with sex. Perhaps for this reason, even the rehabilitated cognitive unconscious was viewed in some quarters with residual suspicion; however, a series of studies conducted by a physiologist, Benjamin Libet, finally allowed the unconscious to shake off its disreputable past and enter the world of ‘hard science’.
Libet’s early worked involved electrically stimulating the cerebral cortex of patients who were undergoing brain surgery. Because the brain cannot ‘feel’ pain directly (having no pain receptor cells), such patients can remain awake while the operation is conducted. Libet discovered that when certain areas of the cortex were stimulated, patients would report specific sensations – for example, a drop of water trickling down the back of the hand; however, Libet noticed that there was a gap of about a half second between electrical stimulation, and the patients’ verbal response. Moreover, if Libet began stimulating the cortex, but stopped before a half second had elapsed, patients would report nothing. These observations suggested that it took half a second (500 milliseconds) for activity in the brain to reach awareness. Or, to express this in the new language of cognitive psychology: every experience is preceded by a half second of preconscious processing.
In order to achieve a better understanding of this half-second delay, Libet began to experiment with electroencephalography (or EEG) – the measurement of the brain’s electrical activity. Such measurements are expressed on charts in the form of ‘brain waves’. Libet administered mild shocks (to the back of the hand), and averaged the chart readings. The subsequent brain wave showed a very early response – within 10-20 milliseconds (i.e. too early to be experienced by the subject); however, the curve continued to rise, showing the brain actually building awareness. Libet had succeeded in plotting preconscious processing on a graph – a shallow arc, climbing towards consciousness.
Libet then undertook the most challenging and thought provoking studies in his research programme. He became interested in the relationship between volition and preconscious processing. By using a very sophisticated experimental design, he was able to demonstrate that simple movements, like moving a finger, are preceded by a half-second of electrical activity in the cortex; yet, individuals only become aware of the urge to move 200 milliseconds before an action is executed. Such findings strongly suggest that our choices are determined by brain processes that occur at least 300 milliseconds before we become aware of making such choices. In other words, it is the unconscious mind (or brain) that pulls the strings. We are nothing more than marionettes, jerking in response to the skillfull manipulations of a hidden – and more agent – intelligence.
Since Benjamin Libet’s work, technological advances have allowed us to examine unconscious mental activity even more closely.
A great insight into brain functioning afforded by cognitive psychology is that the mental apparatus has a tendency towards automation. Consciousness might be required to learn a new skill, but with practice, the execution of that skill can be achieved with diminishing levels of awareness. Perhaps the best example of this is driving. At first, every move must be thought about and co-ordinated, but within a relatively short period of time, hardly any conscious attention is required. In many respects, the efficiency with which we perform a skill reflects the degree to which it has become automated – or unconscious.
This process of progressive automation is now readily observable using brain scans. On certain language tasks (such as matching verbs with nouns), scans show a burst of activity affecting many areas of the brain; however, with only a few task repetitions, the areas of illumination shrink dramatically. As we become more skilled, learning becomes automated and the execution of skills requires less and less conscious engagement.
Scanning studies have provided even more dramatic evidence of unconscious activity by illuminating the sleeping brain. When a dreaming individual is scanned, we can actually see the visual and auditory cortices making visions and spectral voices. Moreover, when a dream becomes a nightmare, we see sub-cortical structures that mediate fear glowing – like warning beacons in the dark.
If Khubla Khan was a post-card from the unconscious then today, we can boast snapshots and videos. With such technological advances, the tired old argument that the unconscious is not amenable to empirical investigation is beginning to pall.
The psychophysiological studies of Benjamin Libet – and subsequent brain scanning investigations – were crucial in helping to legitimize the concept of the unconscious among scientists; however, the unconscious was decisively and fully embraced by the scientific community when it received the posthumous celebrity endorsement of no less a luminary than Charles Darwin. This was achieved after the advent and rapid ascent of the sub-discipline now known as evolutionary psychology.
Until relatively recently, the relationship between psychology and evolution has attracted little interest. This is rather surprising, as Darwin himself was always fascinated by psychology. This fascination was made quite explicit in 1872, when he published The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Darwin’s thesis was that emotions could be understood in terms of their function or purpose. Anger, for example, engenders a readiness to deal with attack – which in turn might have survival value. Within an evolutionary framework, all psychological phenomena are supposed to have a function, having been selected because they confer a competitive advantage.
In spite of Darwin’s interest in psychology, the term evolutionary psychology didn’t come into common usage until the 1990s, when its potential as a unifying framework within which many psychological (and social) phenomena could be explained was truly recognized. One of the least expected consequences of widespread interest in evolutionary psychology was a revival of interest in the unconscious. Moreover, this whole process sprung from a most unlikely source – the study of camouflage phenomena.
In the natural world, disguise is a very popular survival strategy. For example, evolutionary pressures might result in butterfly pupae acquiring the markings of a snake’s head (thus reducing the chances of predation). The kind of deception observed in the animal kingdom has a counterpart in human social behaviour, where the ability to dupe others is frequently practiced in the service of self-interest. Though for humans, the strategy of deception is fraught with problems.
Although many, jaded by experience, are inclined to condemn the human race as untrustworthy, the fact of the matter is human beings – on the whole – are not very good at lying at all. For example, faking a smile is a physical impossibility. A real smile requires the activation of muscles around the eyes which are not under voluntary control and are only recruited when an individual is genuinely happy or content. This is why we see the rather disturbed array of expressions that pass for smiles in group photographs – which fool no-one. In addition, when people lie, they fidget more, fail to make proper eye contact, and experience a rise in vocal register. They start to look ‘shifty’. The inadequacy of human imposture was underscored by Freud in one of his most famous observations: ‘He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent he chatters with his finger-tips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.’
Clearly, the ability to deceive others is a useful talent in a social animal, but exploitation of that talent is a risky business. Discovery can be very costly, incurring the anger of the group or even expulsion. And in our ancestral environment, a lone human was as good as a dead human. Social animals can only survive in groups. Even in the contemporary, civilized world, deception is a high risk strategy, associated with fairly devastating consequences for those who are found out (think, for example, of Lord Archer).
If it were possible to ensure a good performance – to stem the tell tale signs that give a deceiver away – then deception would be a much more efficient method of optimizing self-interest. But how can this be done? If we give ourselves away so easily, how can we deceive others? Evolution seems to have equipped us with the means to do this – a part of the mind, partitioned off from consciousness, in which we can deposit and conceal our real intentions.
The idea that the unconscious might be an evolutionary necessity first came to public attention in 1976, in Robert Trivers’ foreward to Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene. Trivers wrote that if ‘deceit is fundamental to animal communication, then there must be strong selection to spot deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray – by the subtle signs of self-knowledge – the deception being practiced.’
In other words, we deceive ourselves in order to deceive others better. Once the unconscious was stamped with a Darwinian seal of approval, there was no stopping it.
Evolutionary psychology has not only redeemed the unconscious, it has also gone some way to towards redeeming Freud. Only a few decades ago, it seemed that Freud and Darwin existed in different universes and few would bother to examine the possible links between evolution and psychoanalysis; however, such links are now frequently made. Christopher Badcock, whose PsychoDarwinsism represents an interesting synthesis of Freud and Darwin, has argued that evolution and psychology share much common ground. Moreover, he shows how the unconscious – and many other features of Freudian theory – might be re-examined from an evolutionary perspective.
Obviously, Freud and Darwin both emphasized the importance of sex; however, there are a number of far more interesting and subtle commonalities.
In his essay On Narcissism, Freud wrote:
‘The individual himself regards sexuality as one of his own ends; whereas from another point of view he is an appendage to his germ-plasm, at whose disposal he puts his energies in return for a bonus of pleasure. He is the mortal vehicle of a (possibly) immortal substance – like the inheritor of an entailed property, who is only the temporary holder of an estate that survives him.’
The idea that the organism is merely a temporary vehicle for the transmission of genes has of course gained considerable currency since the publication of Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Badcock argues that had he been alive today, Freud would have almost certainly adopted the position of a modern Darwinist. For both Freud and the modern Darwinist, the individual makes few choices, but is hoodwinked into the illusion of agency by his or her own genetic material. In a very real sense, the ultimate origins of unconscious motivation can be found in the twists and turns of the double helix.
The unconscious – in spite of its chequered past – is now a central concept in contemporary neuroscience. It seems that the rehabilitated cognitive unconscious, psychophysiological investigations, and the endorsement of evolutionary psychology, has helped to re-establish the unconscious as a thoroughly respectable concept. In the 1960s and 1970s, main-stream brain scientists would have eschewed terms such as ‘unconscious emotion’ and ‘unconscious self’, because of their 19th century associations. Yet, such terms appear – somewhat sanitized admittedly – in many contemporary books and articles about the mind. Moreover, it is now not uncommon to hear distinguished brain scientists like Antonio Damasio and Susan Greenfield saying rather complimentary things about Sigmund Freud.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the scientific world was excited by three big ideas. The gene, quantum physics, and the unconscious. It has been widely held that although the gene and quantum physics realized their early promise, the unconscious proved to be a great disappointment: an idea with a past, but no future; an idea weighed down with too much 19th century baggage to jump the millennial hurdle into the 21st century. But nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, the essence of Freud’s third blow – that everything we are is determined by unconscious processes – is no longer considered controversial.
With the success of the human genome project, the imminent prospect of human cloning, and the medical necessity of gene therapy, there has been much discussion about the limits of genetic determinism, and the degree to which we are able to exercise free will. If the unconscious continues to play an increasingly important role in contemporary models of the mind, then these arguments are destined to be revisited again – although with even greater frequency – in the near future.
The obvious implication of the contemporary model of mind is that the self – our sense of identity – is a mere illusion: Huxley’s train whistle. Curiously, this has been a concept familiar to Buddhists for approximately six thousand years. Buddhists have always assumed that identity (or consciousness) is to the brain what the shape of a wave is to moving water. The wave exists, but only in a very limited sense. Contemporary neuroscience does not quibble with this view: unconscious activity in the total brain – now observable with brain scanning technology – produces electrochemical ripples and the shape of those ripples is us.
Such a deterministic model opens a Pandora’s box of moral dilemmas. If the conscious self and the exercise of free will are both illusory, then to what extent is it correct to punish people for crimes which are the direct result of automatic and unconscious brain processes? As Libet’s work strongly suggests, a thief may only become aware of deciding to steal something after the decision has already been made in his or her own unconscious. Why should people be punished when they have no real freedom to choose their actions? To what is extent is philanthropy, good, and theft, bad, in a universe where conscious choices are simply epiphenomena?
Finally, awareness of the importance of unconscious mental processes may bring us a step closer to finding the Holy Grail of neuroscience – an answer to the problem of consciousness. The question of how consciousness arises in a material brain has troubled great thinkers since the dawn of civilization; however, today, there are many who feel that we are getting close to finding an answer, and that the key to that answer must lie in the unconscious.
The concluding section of philosopher Daniel Dennnett’s seminal 1991 work Consciousness Explained, contains a sobering message to any who doubt the importance of the unconscious in contemporary neuroscience. He writes: ‘Only a theory that explained conscious events in terms of unconscious events could explain consciousness at all.’ For millennia, the human race has been trying to understand itself by trying to understand consciousness; however, perhaps the answer lies not in the light, but in the darkness.
Only a few decades ago, the unconscious seemed a spent idea. A piece of historical flotsam that had been carried into the 20th century on the crest of a freak tidal wave – psychoanalysis; yet today, Freud’s basic contention that all behaviour is determined by events occurring below the threshold of awareness is a central tenet of contemporary neuroscience. Moreover, in terms of processing capacity, the rehabilitated cognitive unconscious shares many talents with its former Romantic incarnation. Both are forms of hidden intelligence, capable of making judgements and initiating actions. Whether the unconscious hides a homunculus, or a circuit board, is of less significance than the fact that the unconscious has been regained.