I am progressing though the non-fiction book, Incognito, by David Eagleman. At the moment it is a survey of research into the subconscious, presenting one study after another that sheds light on that part of our minds. Up to this point it has been mostly a presentation of data, with little other interpretation or speculation. On one hand, I hope that changes as the book progresses, but on the other hand it is allowing me to come up with my own interpretations and speculations.
Take, for example, the following typical excerpt from the book.
Imagine that you arrange all you fingers over ten buttons and each button corresponds to a colored light. Your task is simple: each time a light blinks on, you hit the corresponding button as quickly as you can. If the sequence of lights is random, your reaction times will generally not be very fast. However, investigators discovered that if there is a hidden patten to the lights, your reaction times will eventually speed up, indicating that you have picked up on the sequence and can make some sort of predictions about which light will flash next. If an unexpected light then comes on, your reaction time will be slow again. The surprise is that his speed up works even when you are completely unaware of the sequence. The conscious mind does not need to be involved at all for this type of learning to occur. Your ability to consciously name what is going to occur next is limited or non-existent. And yet you might have a hunch.”
In other words, some part of the mind, whether you call it subconscious or something else, notices the pattern and influences your response without you knowing it. In my teaching of meditation, we call this inner vision. This is when information comes to your conscious awareness or has an effect on your overt actions from an unknown source. You can call it “inner vision” or intuition or a hunch, but it is basically the same thing. An unconscious source has analyzed a pattern or a situation or has become aware of something outside of you conscious attention and is presenting it to you in the form of a physical response or an emotional feeling or a compulsion. Sometimes these can be positive and useful, but sometimes, like in the case of a phobia, they can be negative and debilitating. The process has no innate good or bad; it is just a process.
In the philosophy of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, sometimes called “The Fourth Way”, two ideas were presented which correspond to this research. The first is the idea that the human mind is divided into a number of compartment, starting with the large compartments of Intellectual, Emotional and Physical. Each of these were then subdivided into the same compartment, so that there was an Intellectual, Emotional and Physical level inside of, say, the Intellectual Centre. The I-I compartment would be the level at which cognitive thought took place. The I-E would be our emotional presumptions about certain ideas. Interestingly, the P-I (Intellectual sub compartment of the Physical Centre) was the part that learned to do things like ride a bike or type on a keyboard. They were leaned, physical skills, but were not mediated by cognitive functions. True, this is only a model, and “the map is not the landscape”, but it is an interesting parallel to the kinds of results that are found by Eagleman.
The second thing presented by Gurdjieff and Ouspensky is the idea that the Will (being the conscious ego) is very weak, most often being driven by mechanical reactions and compulsions steered by subconscious factors. Eagleman’s book is very clear in claiming that subconscious impulses and non-conscious brain functions are dominant in guiding our actions and thoughts.
The interesting part will be to see to what degree the Will, rational decision making and awareness can step in to take more control, and the role that meditation and other awareness activities can take in facilitating this.