Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Unconscious 3

In a recent article in The New York Times, Benedict Carey writes an illuminating and interesting article on what motivates the human being - both at a conscious and an unconscious level.  This article may be read here The Subconscious Brain. Interesting tidbits from this article may be profitably quoted here:

New studies have found that people tidy up more thoroughly when there’s a faint tang of cleaning liquid in the air; they become more competitive if there’s a briefcase in sight, or more cooperative if they glimpse words like “dependable” and “support” — all without being aware of the change, or what prompted it...

He then quotes Dr John A. Bargh, a professor of psychology at Yale as saying the following at a psychology conference:

“Well, we’re finding that we have these unconscious behavioural guidance systems that are continually furnishing suggestions through the day about what to do next, and the brain is considering and often acting on those, all before conscious awareness.”

We have, indeed, long been aware of the somewhat underhanded and cynical use of subliminal influences especially because of their use or misuse in the world of advertising in getting us to buy what we do not really want.  However, what interested me greatly with Mr. Carey's well balanced and well researched article is that it would seem that the more "unconscious" decisions are made in the primitive brain, that bottom part of the brain which we learned to call the "reptilian brain" when I was at college.  This, to my mind at least, parallels Freud's archaeological topography of the brain namely that of the layers - with the unconscious layer being the deepest, the preconscious layer next and then finally the conscious layer which would correspond nicely to the cortex of the brain.  Research suggests, according to Mr Carey, that the "ventral pallidum was particularly active" when unconscious decisions were made.  He continues by quoting the relevant research:

“This area is located in what used to be called the reptilian brain, well below the conscious areas of the brain,” said the study’s senior author, Chris Frith, a professor in neuropsychology at University College London who wrote the book “Making Up The Mind: How the Brain Creates our Mental World.”

The results suggest a “bottom-up” decision-making process, in which the ventral pallidum is part of a circuit that first weighs the reward and decides, then interacts with the higher-level, conscious regions later, if at all, Dr. Frith said.

Therefore, recent scientific research backs up our man Freud, and indeed we are little surprised with these results.  As I've often quoted in other posts we humans know more than we are aware of.  Also we have long been aware that our motivations are often very much unconscious.  How often have we said, "Why did I do that?"  "Why did I say that?" "Where did that thought come from?" "Why is he or she annoying me?"  "Why am I in bad form when there is no concrete immediate reason for being so?"

To my mind Freud and Jung were the two greatest and earliest elucidators of the role of the Unconscious in the motivations of the human psyche.  Yet, the latter, who had been the former's disciple for some ten or so years, was to diverge greatly from the founder of psychoanalysis.  One of the major differences between the two can be succinctly summarized as follows:  To Freud, the unconscious was equated with pathology while to Jung it also contained much healthy, even creative resources as well.

Above I have uploaded a picture of that marvellously resilient bush - the Furze on Howth Head!

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