Adaptive Unconscious

Miyagi Wax by rubyred

lizard brain by  Deanna Halsall

In cognitive psychology the adaptive unconscious is thought to be a set of mental processes that influence judgment and decision making in a way that is inaccessible to introspective awareness, and thus linked to the unconscious mind. It is different from conscious processing: it is faster, effortless, more focused on the present, but less flexible. In other theories of the mind, the unconscious is limited to ‘low-level’ activity, such as carrying out goals which have been decided consciously. In contrast, the adaptive unconscious is thought to be involved in ‘high-level’ cognition such as goal-setting as well.

The term ‘adaptive unconscious’ suggests it has survival value and hence is an adaptation which was strongly selected in the past. Indeed, for much of vertebrate evolution, all mental activity was unconscious. No-one supposes that fish have consciousness. Thus our consciousness is added to an already-existing set of mechanisms which operate but whose operation is normally not felt by us.

The theory was influenced by some of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung’s views on the unconscious mind. According to Freud, the unconscious mind stored a lot of mental content which needs to be repressed, however the term adaptive unconscious reflects the idea that much of what the unconscious does is actually beneficial to the organism, in closer accordance with Jung’s thought. For example, its various processes have been streamlined through evolution to quickly evaluate and respond to patterns in an organism’s environment.

Implicit (or ‘tacit’) learning is when a person learns without realizing it. According to cognitive scientist Arthur Reber: ‘This knowledge can be used to guide behavior, make decisions and solve problems without the [person] being aware of the complex knowledge which enables him or her to act in this fashion.’ An important point made by Reber is that ‘implicit learning is a fundamental ‘root’ process, one that lies at the very heart of the adaptive behavioral repertoire of every complex organism.’ What that means is that implicit learning is very much more ancient than the conscious type of learning that we, as humans, normally notice. This is an expanding field of research covering topics such as the acquisition of language and the process of socialization. Children learn to speak their native language and become socialized to their society without being conscious of the principles which guide their behavior.

Unconscious processes have a number of typical features which are quite different from the conscious processes. Obviously, by definition, unconscious processes are less available than conscious processes. Yet there is traffic between the two. For example, there is a well-known tendency for all training to move from halting, difficult conscious steps to smooth, semi-automatic performance. That, as psychologist John Robert Anderson recognized, is a shift from conscious to unconscious control as mastery is achieved. Anderson’s key distinction is between ‘declarative knowledge,’ knowledge we are aware of and can talk about, and ‘procedural knowledge’, which guides action and decision-making, but which happens outside of conscious ‘view.’

Access to memory also happens unconsciously, even when we try to remember the actual process is unconscious. It can happen entirely unconsciously. An early experiment by 19th century Russian neuropsychiatrist Sergei Korsakoff on patients with loss of conscious memory involved administering mild electric shocks to patients suffering from memory impairments. Later, when Korsakoff returned, the patient had forgotten all about it. Yet when shown the apparatus, the patient became anxious. The experiment has been repeated since in various ways.

Research suggests that much of our preferences, attitudes, and ideas come from the adaptive unconscious. However, subjects themselves do not realize this, and they are ‘unaware of their own unawareness.’ For example, people often wrongly think they have direct insight into the origins of their mental states. Individuals offer explanations for their behavior (i.e. their preferences, attitudes, and ideas), but tend to be inaccurate in their insight. The false explanations of their own behavior is the what psychologists call the ‘Introspection illusion.’ In some experiments, subjects provide explanations that are fabricated, distorted, or misinterpreted memories, but not lies – a phenomenon called ‘confabulation.’ This suggests that introspection is instead an indirect, unreliable process of inference. It has been argued that this illusion underlies a number of perceived differences between the self and other people, because people trust these unreliable introspections when forming attitudes about themselves but not about others.

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