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Timothy D. Wilson


Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
This is a book about the unconscious, or nonconscious. as Wilson prefers to call it. In the Freudian scheme the unconscious is the home of repressed memories, mainly of a sexual nature, connected with incestuous desires formed in early infancy. (Jung had a different, larger, and less pejorative view of the unconscious.) The main reason we cannot access these memories and fantasies is that we have 'repressed' them because they are socially unacceptable.

For Wilson it is not a question of repression: rather, the nonconscious refers to brain processes that are not available to introspection. For example, maintaining one's balance when standing or walking requires the participation of numerous brain processes but these normally operate at an unconscious level. Very rarely people lose the proprioceptive inputs which are needed for these processes to work, and then the unfortunate patients do have to learn to maintain their balance by looking at where their limbs actually are and by issuing conscious instructions to their muscles. Wilson describes one such patient who fell over in his kitchen when the lights went out suddenly owing to a power cut.

The nonconscious has characteristic ways of interpreting the social environment and stable motives that guide how we hehave in different circumstances. These ways may be more or less at variance with how we think consciously but, because they are nonconscious, we cannot know this directly. But we can infer the existence of these processes in various ways, including the use of peychological tests and using the insights of others; sometimes other people may know us better than we do ourselves, though this is not invariably true. In any case, a measure of over-estimation of our good qualities is probably not a bad thing providing it is not too far from the truth.

Our nonconscious preferences, personality traits, goals, and feelings are not available to introspection and can only be inferred. So what function does consciousness serve? Mainly it provides the 'narratives' by which we lead our lives. The conscious picture we have of ourselves will usually be somewhat different from our nonconscious personality, but it should not be too distant, otherwise psychologica problems will arise. Psychotherapy works, Wilson suggests, by changing people's narratives— giving them new, more belpful, narratives that solve their problems better. For this to work it doesn't matter which particular set of theories the therapist subscribes to, which is why there can be very different theories of psychotherapy which all seem to be equally effective. And there is not necessarily only one narrative that will work for a particular patient.

Although he is certainly not a Freudian, Wilson does think that Freud got some things right. Some of Freud's claims can be reinterpreted in terms of the modern understanding of the nonconscious. But Wilson doesn't mention dreams at all, and this was something I kept wondering about. Jung attached great importance to dreams as revealing hidden uncoscious aspects of the personality. It would be easy to reinterpret Wilson's description of the nonconscious in Jungian terms. Is it not possible that dreams give us an insight into some of these processes?

The book concludes with some suggestions for modifying how our nonconscious selves work. Some of these, such as repeatedly doing actions that we think are desirable (e.g. being kind to people) can bring about a progressive change in our behaviour as determined by our nonconscious selves. This is curiously reminiscent of the kind of advice given by religious preachers.

This is a well-written account of an interesting subject, with nice touches of humour and plenty of practical examples. And I think its basic message is probably correct. In confirmation of the idea of the narrative role of consciousness, I have myself seen patients who have been helped by means of an explanation for their symptoms which I believed at the time but now know to have been mistaken, and I think it likely that much of the success of homeopathy is due to the fact that the homeopath is actually performing psychotherapy, by providing the patient with a narrative to explain their symptoms and how to resolve them.

See also The Mind Is Flat, by Nick Chater

24 August 2012

%T Strangers to Ourselves
%S Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious
%A Wilson, Timothy D.
%I The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
%C Cambridte, Massachusetts
%D 2002
%G ISBN 0674013824
%P viii+262pp
%K psychology
%O paperback edition; notes and bibliography