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Science / Medicine : Findings Suggest A 'Kinder, Gentler, More Rational...' : UNCONSCIOUS MIND

August 21, 1989|MARGIE PATLAK | Patlak is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore

In the late 19th Century, Sigmund Freud revolutionized psychiatry by promoting the notion that our conscious thoughts and actions were driven by unconscious motives. A hundred years later, researchers in psychology and neurobiology are churning up some experimental evidence for Freud's theoretical unconscious. These scientists are finding that although the unconscious mind has a great deal of influence in our everyday lives, as Freud proposed, the unconscious is much more vast and versatile than originally thought.

"In classical Freudian theory, the unconscious mind is primitive, aggressive, sexually charged, emotional and basically undesirable," says psychologist John Kihlstrom, an expert in the unconscious mind who works at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "But we're finding a kinder, gentler and more rational unconscious that can do all those things we normally ascribe to the conscious mind."

Common experience and controlled studies reveal that the unconscious mind is a critical behind-the-scenes director of the thinking needed to do a task automatically. When a person first learns to type, for example, he has to concentrate and consciously link his fingers to the keys needed to type words. When he becomes proficient at the task, however, typing becomes automatic--shifted over to the unconscious so the conscious mind can attend to more challenging tasks. But once this typing knowledge takes up residence in the unconscious, it's difficult for a person to tap into it. "Just try to get an old salt to teach you how to tie a sailor's knot," Kihlstrom points out.

A study by Elizabeth Spelke at Cornell University has shown that subjects could be trained to read unfamiliar prose material and take dictation at the same time. Although tests showed the subjects were able to comprehend about 80% of the poetry they read, they couldn't recall the words they transcribed from the dictation. The dictation task was apparently being done by the unconscious mind so that the conscious mind could concentrate on reading the prose.

It is unlikely that Freud would have ever supposed the unconscious mind could have such practical usefulness.

The irrational and seething unconscious that Freud imagined also never would have been used for the complex problem-solving that seems to occur outside of consciousness.

Probably all of us have experienced such problem-solving that occurs beyond our awareness while working on a solution to a math problem, for example, or a crossword puzzle. After minutes of concentrated effort the solution eludes us only to "pop into mind" hours later when we have given up hope.

This "eureka" phenomenon is being studied by Kenneth Bowers of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. In a study published in the journal Canadian Psychology in 1987, he gave volunteers a group of three words and asked them to find the concept the words all have in common. "Playing," "credit" and "report" have "card" as the uniting concept, for example. He then showed the subjects a series of such word triads. Some of the triads in the series were solvable--i.e., they shared a uniting concept--and some were not.

When Bowers asked his subjects to indicate which triads were solvable, he found that they could do this task with a greater-than-chance degree of accuracy, even though they did not know what the uniting concepts were for the solvable triads. The volunteers reported having a vague "feeling of knowing" which triads were solvable. Such feelings apparently stemmed from the problem-solving that was going on in their unconscious minds.

Experiments such as Spelke's and Bowers' are important, Kihlstrom says, because they show that a great deal of complex thinking can go on outside conscious awareness and guide our judgments and actions. For example, information compiled and processed in the unconscious mind can color our first impressions of a person.

In a study conducted by John Bargh at New York University, hostile words such as "unkind" or "thoughtless" were flashed on a screen in front of subjects too quickly for them to consciously perceive them. The words apparently registered in the subjects' unconscious, however, for when they were then shown a picture of a person's face, they rated the person more negatively than those subjects not given the subliminal exposure to hostile words.

"When we trust our intuition," Kihlstrom says, "we're probably trusting our unconscious mind." Intuitive decisions are based, he suggests, on an abundance of information compiled in the unconscious.

This information can provide some amnesiacs with memory and in some cases give blind people a sense of sight, studies show.

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