Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Fido Inside

Students, it was reported in yesterday's New York Times, work harder if they are in sight of a briefcase. Also, snackers are more tidy when they smell cleaning fluid, and people are more likely to judge hypothetical persons as warm after holding a warm cup of coffee.

Researchers conclude, yet again, that the subconscious brain is "active, purposeful, and independent." The conscious part of the brain "can be one of the last neural areas to know when a decision is made." We frequently have no idea why we are doing what we do.

Like lots of people, I feel a twinge of sorrow on contemplating such facts. But why? Presumably part of the reason has to do with the loss of control: it turns out we're not as much in charge as we might have thought.

But it seems to me there is something else here as well, that I would have to describe as a kind of loneliness. Who is this person who lives inside me? Why do I know so little about her? The most I can do, it seems, to know my inner self, is watch my own inclinations and try to figure stuff out. It's like living with an adored but completely inscrutable pet. We can watch -- "oh! she likes to drink lattes, that's for sure" -- but we can't have any intimate knowledge.

Actually, my inner life often feels like this. Nonetheless, it's a little sad. At the end of the story The Times is characteristically sunny:

. . . the new research makes it clear that we are not alone in our consciousness. We have company, an invisible partner who has strong reactions about the world that don't always agree with our own, but whose instincts, these studies clearly show, are at least as likely to be helpful, and attentive to others, as they are to be disruptive.

This makes it sound like having a subconscious is like having a poorly trained but very friendly dog. But it doesn't make me feel any better.


Captain Colossal said...

I also get nervous thinking of what that makes of the part I identify as "me." I mean, if I think I'm doing something because of reason x, but in fact it's because my subconscious has made connection z, I'm not real crazy about the fact that I'm willfully self-deceptive.

The Secretary said...

Do you guys prefer the term "subconscious" to "unconscious"? The NYT article uses the term "unconscious". Do you draw a distinction between the terms? Maybe you two just have a preference for Jung over Freud?

The Secretary said...

CC: I fear some yet unnamed third part of your mind is hiding reason y.

Noko Marie said...

Hi Secretary,
Very interesting question.

I just looked back and found "unconcious act" and "subconscious brain" in the Times piece, and you're right, they use the latter much more often. I think I am subconsciously preferring subconscious because it has a nicer-sounding noun formation. But I might be mistaken about that, ha ha.