I’m reading Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy Wilson and trying to digest what he’s getting at with his discussion of the “adaptive unconscious.” His theories don’t sound new or ground-breaking at first–after all, notably Malcolm Gladwell has raised the discussion to a more popular level with “Blink,” but Wilson’s approach is a deeper dive with a lot of science behind it.
Wilson is interested in finding out what the vast unconscious world in our brains is up to with the 10 million bits of information it’s absorbing every second. That 10 million bits covers everything from making your fingers coordinate with the keyboard to hearing the fan in the background to considering if the scorching sun is frying the vegetable garden out back. In this last instance, it appears that when the unconscious mind has decided that the vegetable garden is indeed at risk, it will hopefully manage to get a message to the conscious mind, even if it is non-verbal and just a “have-to-go-water-the-garden” impulse, one that make me get up and go outside…sometimes before I even realize that I’m out there for this very good and time sensitive reason.
So, like Gladwell, Wilson is giving us lots of reasons to clear defensive thinking, conscious perceptions, pre-conceptions and the like out of the way so our great big unconscious can get some timely information to us on a regular basis.
In amongst the studies he cites is this one about people who have suffered damage to left and right lobes, destroying communication between the two. The left lobe controls the right side of the body, the right controls the left. The study involved showing pictures to each eye, with the other one covered, and seeing what information could be communicated about the picture. To the right eye (left brain) they showed a picture of a chicken claw; the participants associated that picture with a chicken.
Next they showed the left eye (right brain) a picture of a snow drift and the participants associated that picture with a shovel. After this, the participants were given their associated results but since the right brain cannot communicate the association of the snow with shovel, the participants didn’t know why they had chosen a shovel.
Here’s the kicker: in the blink of an eye, the left brain (story-telling, conscious part of the brain) came up with a story for the selection of the shovel that combined it with the chicken: the chicken lives in a chicken coop which needs to be cleaned with a shovel. Is this really what happened? No. Is this now what the participant thinks happened? Yes. And that story will be the official story until such time as the individual finds out differently.
Wilson’s point again and again is that the conscious mind is way more fallable than we ever thought and that fallability can lead us as individuals and a part of the collective group to make assumptions and decisions based on information that is simply not correct. The conscious mind’s drive to create a story for what it perceives, whether or not that story is in any way true, is its raison d’etre. And doesn’t every successful marketer and lawyer out there know this instinctively!
The ability of the conscious mind to create stories without getting input from or listening to the unconscious is a bit of a design flaw, it seems to me. It inhibits us from perceiving correctly AND from getting, trusting and using information from our unconscious minds.
Strangers to Ourselves is full of good studies that cause one to consider how we get and process information. Few of us are willing to really listen to our “intuition.” It can’t be measured, it can’t be controlled, its processes are vast, random and unexpected. But when Jack Welch popularizes the notion of managing “from the gut,” whether he knows it or not, or even cares, he’s talking about getting information from the adaptive unconscious.
The more I allow myself to draw from my unconscious, the more interesting my solutions become. The more spot-on, the more creative, the more unexpected and exciting. Bringing intuitive solutions into a corporate setting is edgy and exciting! And often just what’s needed. Dump the old stories. Allow a new story to emerge!