The Unconscious: Friend or Foe?!

Since the beginning of time, different roles have been given to the unconscious in different cultures. Of course, all this changed with the advent of one coke sniffing therapist from Vienna, and suddenly the unconscious was bad, very bad indeed. Add another 80 years, and suddenly, we are told that the unconscious decides things for us a few milliseconds before we are consciously aware of it. Damn, does that mean that evil thing is now also running my life…RATS! Add another 5 years, and more research appears suggesting the opposite…that the unconscious only decides things for us in simple motor tests…phew! saved by the bell there. But hold on, there is another piece of research that might just blow your mind….

Shamans, spiritual healers, meditators, and other “Primitve” people have always known that the unconscious is a powerful storehouse of resources and ideas. However, with the advent of Sigmund Freud, all that changed. Suddenly, the unconscious was the place where you repressed memories from childhood (and even if you think you had a good one, Sigmund says it just ain’t so!), and all the other junk you do not want. Most excellent. That meant that for about 50 years we all had a part in us that was dark, dingy, and alltogether as inviting as the dirty pub around the corner you never go to.

One of Freud’s disciples took a little bit of a different view. He said that we were all somewhat connected through the “collective unconscious” of the culture we live in. Thus, the unconscious became a touch less dingy, and a lot more of a “spiritual” component. One way or another, suddenly it was alright again to be in our heads!

Next comes Milton Erickson, a doctor and hypnotherapist, who single handedly re-invented hypnosis. He saw the unconscious as a massive storehouse of resources and memories that has the ability to help you change whenever you want, and will help you get what you want. Suddenly, the unconscious was something good and we could be proud to have one. Most excellent.

Now, let’s fast forward a couple of years. Suddenly, research appeared stating that in simple motor tasks, the unconscious mind decided what to do before we were consciously aware of it. of course, the decision preceded conscious knowledge of the act only by mere fractions of a second (roughly 4/10 of a second). Of course, it would not be science if it there wasn’t some research out there saying something else. And thus, early this year another study came out, saying that this unconscious decision making is only in simple motor tasks, and for anything more complex than 2 choices, conscious thinking takes over.

So far, so good. BUT, new research has appeared that might just turn all this on its head: Recently, a study from the University of London showed that unconscious activity happens in more places than just the ones for motor functions. In fact, they showed that the unconscious meddles in the prefrontal cortex, the very place we (believe) is the seat of conscious reasoning and decision making. But here, as the poet says, lies the rub: This unconscious meddling preceded conscious experience of a decision being made not by mere fractions of a second, but by a whole 10(!!!) seconds. While on an every day basis that is not an awful lot, in the brain this might as well be years!

This might very well indicate that “actions come from preconscious brain activity patterns and not from a person consciously thinking about what they are going to do.”  For some, this might mean that free will is under fire, yet that largely depends on what you define it as: can’t the unconscious have a free will too, maybe even your free will?!


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