One of the defining differences between human intelligence and that of other animals is that we can think about what we think about. We can think in abstract terms, but only once we reach a certain level of maturity. I described the process in an earlier post about child psychologist Jean Piaget, for whom abstract reasoning represents the stage at which childhood intellectual development transitions into adulthood.
We can think about what we think about, but do we actually do this?
How often has some bit of news coming over the radio kicked off a string of angry thoughts and emotions? For me pretty much every day on my way home from work. And how often do you recognize what’s happening and say, “No, what happened is horrible and I feel crappy about it, but I’m going home to my family and I don’t want to be in this mood when I get there,” and actually stopped your thought process and consciously put your mind on something positive?
It took me years to learn to catch myself, to recognize the kind of energy a particular train of thought was generating in me, and I’m still working on the part where I can actually change my mood in the few minutes left before I get home. We all know we should do this, but why is it so difficult?
The problem is that I’m still partially embedded in my thoughts. I am my thoughts in the sense that pursuing a stream of thoughts and daydreams on a long drive home affects everything about me. The capacity for abstract thought should allow me to say something like, “I have thoughts in my head the same way I have a watch on my wrist and a pair of glasses on my nose.” What’s happening instead is that I am my thoughts, because what I am is angry or happy or pensive or anxious depending on whatever random stream of conscious babble I’m riding through my own head at any given moment.
There are a couple of things we can recognize about ourselves. First, that we are fully capable of recognizing and then accepting or rejecting thoughts or even whole trains of thoughts, and we also need to figure out the relationship between our thoughts and our mood.
Our emotional reaction to an event generally comes before our thoughts about the event start rolling. When I’m driving home with the radio on and I hear something that affects me or something I care about, I react emotionally without even thinking about it. The “thinking about it” part comes after I’ve already reacted. In fact the reaction is done “for me” by my own mind outside my conscious awareness. So the event triggers an emotional reaction, the emotions trigger a stream of thoughts, and the thoughts add energy to my feelings about it. Just that quickly it has spiraled into an endless and entirely pointless feedback loop between my self-selected thoughts and some very real emotions.
How you react emotionally depends on your relationship to the event. For an example, I’m a big NBA fan and I love my hometown team, so let’s suppose that I turn on the radio to find out they got humiliated in a game that everyone expected them to easily win. If you’re a sports fan you can imagine the reaction: shock, anger, dismay. Those are real emotions I’m feeling. That’s real pain, that’s real anger, I feel like something happened to me.
Clearly I am emotionally embedded in my team. Heh, “my” team, I wrote that without even thinking about it, but that’s how every true sports fan feels. What’s going here?
It has to do with identity, with your sense of self and what you identify with. And when we use terms like “self” and “identity” we are firmly within the psychological concept of the conscious and unconscious mind. There is nothing mysterious about the unconscious mind, or as some call it the “subconscious” mind. It is simply that part of you that is busy processing information outside your conscious awareness.
When you studied for that exam in high school you didn’t get to select how and where your brain stored all that information. You just “crammed”, and hoped it would be available to you when that multiple-choice question about it came up on the test. Your unconscious mind took care of the storage for you, and hopefully it correctly responded to the desperate call from your conscious mind the next day when you had to choose between a, b, c, or d-all of the above.
The mind takes care of all kinds of things outside your conscious awareness. It takes care of your breathing, for example. You can control your breathing or you can forget about it, you’re fine either way because your unconscious mind has got you covered. And your heartbeat? If we had to consciously do that chore we would have had to evolve a way to live without sleep.
As for those thoughts that cruise through our minds all day, the unconscious could be envisioned as the framework or the pattern on which conscious thoughts are organized. The conscious mind can know its contents, but it cannot perceive how it is functionally organized, because that is not done consciously. We just experience it. We can perceive patterns of conscious thought, but we cannot directly detect the underlying structure, although parts of it can be deduced.
The conscious mind can be seen as being embedded in the unconscious in the same way our feelings and emotions are embedded in our conscious thoughts and perceptions. Or perhaps the other way around, you could argue it either way because the two are intimately related. When you think of all the functions handled by the unconscious mind it becomes clear that compared to our conscious awareness, that bit of us we usually identify as our “selves”, is only a tiny piece of who were really are.
The vast majority of the daily emotional ups and downs we all experience are just as fleeting, temporary, and ultimately unimportant as the vast majority of the thoughts and opinions that zip through our minds every day. They’re products of a human brain doing what it does best, describing the world it perceives and interpreting it in such a way that our current view of the world can assimilate what we perceive.
I emphasize the word “current” because our view of the world inevitably changes as we mature. Piaget described the mechanism as assimilation and accommodation, where assimilation accepts new information into our existing worldview, and accommodation happens when new information no longer fits, and the worldview must be changed to accommodate it.
To easily accommodate a worldview to new information requires the same level of self-awareness that can recognize crappy thoughts and moods, and the strength of will to change their course. That was easy to write, but it is not so easy to do because most of us are fully embedded in our worldviews. Emerging from embeddedness in anything is hard, but to emerge from something as deeply meaningful as your personal schema of how the world fits together is not only hard but often emotionally painful as well.
This post is getting longer than I anticipated when I started it, so I’ll stop it here and continue in another post.