A misleading juxtaposition?
In the February issue Magda Osman (‘Does our unconscious rule?’) asserted the view that the conscious mind should be given more credit for its role in our self-control and decision-making processes. Yet the very juxtaposition at the core of her argument, positioning the ‘unconscious’ in opposition to the ‘conscious,’ strikes me as fallacious. I would like to offer an alternative perspective.
Osman begins by weighing up intuitive against conscious decision making, suggesting that mental practice and simulation improve performance. I am both a theatre practitioner (actor/director and facilitator) and a psychologist. Reflecting on the actor’s experience in rehearsal, I can, of course, appreciate the importance of psycho-physical simulation. It’s what actors, musicians, dancers, athletes and martial artists do to excel at their craft. Yet the conscious rehearsal reflects only half the picture. Once in performance, the actor or dancer or musician does not repeat a simulation but enters into a living process, in which there is both a profound embodiment of technique and an awareness of what is emerging in the moment… between the ensemble and within the self. Technical mastery of a choreography or score goes hand in hand with improvisation; and improvisation requires mindful presence.
I use the term mindfulness on purpose here. Actors or dancers or musicians do not perform on autopilot. Rather, there is a sophisticated balancing act, in which complex embodied scores of action are executed with heightened psychosomatic awareness. Unconscious and conscious (if this duality still holds) work as one.
We can refer here, among others, to Csíkszentmihályi (1990), who described this phenomenon as ‘flow’ or being in the zone. And when it comes to those experts mentioned by Osman who have to make speedy decisions in high-stake situations… I would think the same applies. The danger of lapsing into autopilot or panicking and dropping out of the flow state always exists. As Osman herself asserts, ‘familiarity can breed contempt’; and furthermore, as Csíkszentmihályi would suggest, if the challenge of a situation does not match the person’s level of skill, then again the flow state will be compromised and ‘bad decisions’ may result.
I would also suggest that it’s worth differentiating between intuition and instinct. In her article Osman uses the two terms interchangeably; and in doing so, I believe she is committing what Wilber (1998) calls a pre/trans fallacy, confusing pre-rational discernment (which I would equate with instinct) with trans-rational discernment (which I would call intuition). Crucially, I posit that intuitive discernment includes and transcends the rational mind, whilst instinctive decision making involves a bypassing of rationality.
This differentiation is important, because it has practical implications: I would suggest that whilst we are born with a basic pre-rational capacity to make decisions (which aids our survival), as we grow older we can achieve higher, more complex levels of insight which combine irrational and rational capacities. Moreover, the natural evolution from pre-rational instinct to trans-rational intuition can be nurtured through a great range of practices which have been explored in both ancient wisdom traditions and contemporary humanistic and transpersonal pathways. There is potential for research here, no doubt!
I would also like to comment on Libet’s (1985) famous findings. The question is not whether they were right or wrong. Rather, the idea that our brains are controlling us may be wrong. It is again so peculiarly dualistic. Just because there is activity in the motor cortex before there is conscious intention doesn’t mean that we are not in control of ourselves. I would suggest that Libet’s findings point us to the illusory nature of our ordinary sense of self. As Lancaster (2004) asserts, the ‘I’ is a ‘construct, recreated from moment to moment in the mind’ (p.164). Crucially, the surface-level construct does not negate that a deeper intentionality may inform our actions. We can draw on the writings of numerous psychologists, psychotherapists and scholars to illuminate the nature of the two streams within, certainly Freud and Jung and those who followed in their footsteps: Jacques Lacan, James Hillman and Arnold Mindell, to name a few.
I would like to close with a reference to the work of Sheets-Johnstone (2009), who proposes that we think in movement. ‘To be thinking in movement means that a mindful body is creating a particular dynamic as that very dynamic is kinetically unfolding. A kinetic intelligence is forging its way into the world, shaping and being shaped by the developing dynamic patterns in which it is living’ (pp.33–34). So, when Libet’s participants were asked to lift their fingers, they thought in movement: their intentions emerged as moving impulses, not as mental constructs divorced from action.
I believe that, as Sheets-Johnstone suggests, ‘movement constitutes the thoughts themselves’ (p.37). All our thoughts emerge and unfold through movement. Mental awareness and ‘I’ emerge as a secondary phenomenon from the primary stream of thinking-in-movement. Thus, the notion that the conscious mind cannot claim ownership of an intention until it has been initiated (put in motion) does not negate our agency or deny us control. For we are that embodied being.
There is no doubt that the conscious mind has its place, but it is also not the whole story. Indeed, if we live our lives believing that our conscious minds will serve us best when we make plans, envision our future and strive for fulfilment, we may cut ourselves off from the deeper living stream of which we are a part.
Jessica Bockler PhD
Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.
Lancaster, B.L. (2004). Approaches to consciousness: The marriage of science and mysticism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Libet, B. (1985). Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 8, 529–566.
Sheets-Johnstone, M. (2009). The corporeal turn. Exeter: Imprint Academic.
Wilber, K. (1998). The essential Ken Wilber. Boston: Shambhala.
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