Mysteries of the Mind
Your unconscious is making your everyday decisions
The snap judgment. The song that constantly runs through your head whenever you close your office door. The desire to drink Coke rather than Pepsi or to drive a Mustang rather than a Prius. The expression on your spouse's face that inexplicably makes you feel either amorous or enraged. Or how about the now incomprehensible reasons you married your spouse in the first place?
Welcome to evidence of your robust unconscious at work.
While these events are all superficially unrelated, each reveals an aspect of a rich inner life that is not a part of conscious, much less rational, thought. Today, long after Sigmund Freud introduced the world to the fact that much of what we do is determined by mysterious memories and emotional forces, the depths of the mind and the brain are being explored anew. "Most of what we do every minute of every day is unconscious, " says University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Paul Whelan. "Life would be chaos if everything were on the forefront of our consciousness."
Fueled by powerful neuroimaging technology, questions about how we make snap decisions, why we feel uncomfortable without any obvious causes, what motivates us, and what satisfies us are being answered not through lying on a couch and exploring individual childhood miseries but by looking at neurons firing in particular parts of our brains. Hardly a week passes without the release of the results of a new study on these kinds of processes. And popular culture is so fascinated by neuroscience that Blink, journalist Malcolm Gladwell's exploration of "thinking without thinking," has remained on the bestseller lists for four weeks.
Most of us can appreciate the fact that we make up our minds about things based on thinking that takes place somewhere just out of our reach. But today, scientists are finding neural correlates to those processes, parts of the brain that we never gave their due, communicating with other parts, triggering neurotransmitters, and driving our actions. Says Clinton Kilts, a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory, "There is nothing that you do, there is no thought that you have, there is no awareness, there is no lack of awareness, there is nothing that marks your daily existence that doesn't have a neural code. The greatest challenge for us is to figure out how to design the study that will reveal these codes."
Burgeoning understanding of our unconscious has deeply personal and also fascinating medical implications. The realization that our actions may not be the pristine results of our high-level reasoning can shake our faith in the strength of such cherished values as free will, a capacity to choose, and a sense of responsibility over those choices. We will never be able to control the rhythm of our heartbeats or the choreography of our limbic system. And yet, Gladwell writes that "our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled . . . [and] the task of making sense of ourselves and our behavior requires that we acknowledge there can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis."