Saturday, July 21, 2012

What are we afraid of?

I just returned from having lunch with a wonderful friend of mine, Rebecca Armstrong. She's a minister and a counselor, and she's teaching a class at a local university about how our thoughts and feelings affect our bodies. Because I'm giving a guest lecture for her class, we thought we'd better meet to discuss the details of the course.

She told me a hilarious story about how a high-level administrator at this university didn't want the class to go forward, because he said, "This idea that feelings affect our bodies is ridiculous." I practically peed my pants when she told me this. It's as if he had said, "I put no stock into this idea that we breathe air." He didn't want students learning the heretical theory that feelings matter physiologically, even though of course it's empirically the case that they do, and there's nothing really controversial about those results.

After recovering from the giggling fit, I started to wonder...what's going on for this guy? What's his fear about? It had to be fear, right? Otherwise, he'd just shrug his shoulders and say, "I don't believe that's real, but there's a lot of things out there I don't believe." No, he couldn't do that. He was clearly threatened by the class -- therefore afraid of something.

What was he afraid of?

I started to think about how for me, my conscious/verbal mind is the one that decides most of what I do. It lays claim to my day: these are my plans, these are my goals, these are my backup plans. It does a lot of work, and it deserves to get a lot of credit. I give it a lot of credit, but it also wants more -- it wants me to say this to it: "You are all of me; or at least the most important part of me. There's nothing else here that matters. You are what drives this body and mind, friend. Go for it -- be the King of Me!"

Why does it want that that? If it were really confident -- for that matter, if my conscious/verbal brain were actually "all of me" and "the most important part" -- why would it need such reassurance?

What is it afraid of?

I think the university administrator and my verbal/conscious mind share the same fear. It's a fear of a stronger, more powerful, greater force that they both know is there: the subconscious.

I often feel that the conscious mind is not just lesser in size compared to the subconscious but also lesser in quality. There's plenty of evidence that the parts of the brain producing the subconscious dominate in size and operate more efficiently than the conscious mind. But I am also starting to believe that the subconscious is actually on the correct track more than the conscious mind. Not necessarily the rationally correct track but the evolutionarily adaptive track.

For instance, as Rebecca pointed out, in Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking Fast & Slow, he is very discouraged about the results of an experiment in which participants want to keep their hands in cold ice water for 30 seconds longer if their previous experience showed them for that last 30 seconds the water would get a tiny bit warmer. Their conscious/verbal minds aren't aware of this -- they say there's no difference over time in the temperature of the water. But when asked to repeat an experiment, they choose to repeat a 90-second ice-water experiment (in which they subconsciously experienced an increase in water temperature) rather than a 60-second ice-water experiment (in which the water didn't change temperature).

Why should this bother Kahneman so much? He doesn't like it because the subconscious seems to want to do the incorrect thing -- it wants to keep the body in danger longer -- but it is in control of us! It seems as if an ill-intentioned yet very powerful force is controlling our lives and endangering our bodies. This would be something to fear, indeed, but it's not true.

Of course keeping the hand in ice cold water for 30 seconds longer would seem like the incorrect decision to anyone's conscious mind. But the conscious and subconscious don't play by the same rules. The subconscious knows that even our subconscious feelings and stories about what happened -- "First the water was cold, then it got warmer, so it wasn't that bad" are more influential in our lives than what actually happened -- "I left my hand in the cold water for 30 seconds longer." Instead of the subconscious being a threat, it actually saves us, every day. It lets us have a good feeling about a situation (it got better) rather than a bad one (it was really cold the whole time), even when we don't know it's doing this for us.

I'm starting to think that the conscious mind is kind of like a kid standing beside a beautiful mountain and saying, "Everyone's looking at my pet ant! Come look at the ant with me! There is only the ant, right? I am angry you think there is anything else to look at! There's just me and the ant!"

Meanwhile, the mountain of the subconscious stands majestically soaring, quietly pointing out the obvious. There's a mountain here. It's pretty much the main point. It controls our attention and actions for a reason -- it's a frigging mountain, and it's going to help us survive. Of course it doesn't play by the rules made up by a child. Those are the rules of a child, after all.

So what are we afraid of? The subconscious is uncontrollable, mysterious, and beautiful. It doesn't give a whit about our egoic machinations to feel like there's an "us" in control. The subconscious is a radically feminist woman who is seen as very traditional. She runs her own business and never mentions it. She controls whatever commodity she sells by letting everyone else think they control it. She pulls the strings for an entire world of marionettes, but she's brilliantly woven the strings from spider thread. They're so thin, we think we control ourselves.

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