Glimpses of the Unconscious Mind

There is a little experiment that I’ve sometimes recommended as a way of appreciating what our brains do unconsciously. It concerns the phenomenon of finding that one has a tune ‘running through one’s head’. Namely, the next time this happens to you, stop and try to think why you has this particular tune in mind right now.

When I’ve tried this, I’ve often had success. What happens is that I’ll recall that a few minutes before I noticed the tune, some key word or phrase from its lyrics happened to occur in a conversation. The conversation was not about the song, or anything closely related to it, and the word or phrase did not trigger any inner speech that had the sense of “Oh, that word/phrase is from <such and such piece of music>.” No: there were several minutes of attending to a conversation on completely unrelated matters, and then “out of the blue” the inner humming of some tune.

(I regret to report that discovery of the explanation for the tune’s running through one’s head does nothing to get rid of its annoying repetition.)

The successes I can recall all worked through the words associated with the tune. But, in his new book, Antonio Damasio reports a more interesting case that worked a little differently. In brief, he found himself thinking of a certain colleague, Dr. B. Damasio had not talked with Dr. B. recently. They were not collaborating on a project, there was no need to see Dr. B., and no plan to do so. Damasio had seen Dr. B. walking by his office window sometime earlier, but that was only remembered later and had not been an object of attention at the time. Damasio wondered why he was thinking of Dr. B.

The explanation that came to mind on reflection was that Damasio had happened, quite unintentionally, to have moved in a way that was similar to Dr. B’s somewhat distinctive gait. Damasio’s explanation is that the accidental circumstance of moving in a way similar to Dr. B. triggered an unconscious process that resulted in Dr. B’s coming to mind.

What makes this case so interesting to me is that, unlike my tune cases, it does not plausibly work through the language system. Of course, I know a few words I could use to describe a person’s gait, but even if I worked hard at it, I think the best I could do would be a vague description that would apply to many people. I suspect it’s the same for most of us. It’s just not believable that Damasio had a verbal description of gait that was specific for Dr. B. And even if he were capable of such a feat of literary skill, he had not been trying to describe his own movement, and so there would have been no route to making a connection by association through words.

What’s left is that the thought of Dr. B. was produced through a process that was not only not conscious, but also not verbal. The memory of Dr. B.’s motion was called up by Damasio’s own motion directly by the similarity of the motions, not through the medium of verbal representations of those motions.

(The suggestion that the motion may not have been accidental, but was caused by Damasio’s having seen his colleague walking by his window, in no way undercuts the point here. For, that would also be a case of unconscious processing leading to, this time, actual movement, without having gone through verbal representations of the stimulus or the resulting motion.)

An attractive analogy for a leading strand in Your Brain and You is that unconscious, nonverbal processing underlies our mental processing in the way that rock strata underlie the ground we walk on. Unless we’re lucky enough to be in a place like the Grand Canyon, we see the strata clearly only occasionally, where there is an outcrop. Damasio’s case seems to me to be one of these outcrops, where we can get a clear glimpse of our unconscious, nonverbal mind at work.

[A. Damasio, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (New York: Pantheon, 2010). The coming to mind of Dr. B. is discussed on pp. 104-106 ]

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