Monday, 23 May 2011

The Non-rational Mind?

I have just ordered "The Social Animal" by David Brooks, having had quite a strong negative reaction to his views, as represented in The Guardian on 19th May.  Reading Stuart Jeffries' report of an interview with Brooks I felt my hackles rise in response to what seemed to be a mish mash of half-digested ideas from selected philosophers of the enlightenment age.  He seemed to praise intuitive, and unconscious responses as a guide to decision making, and poses an "anti-rationalist" stance. The author came across as not only lacking in rigour but as very right wing.  I am worried that politicians will seize upon his ideas as having the answer to all our social problems, instead of as an argument in context that gives one possible approach to problems that have been for ages insoluble. 

Because I am a rational being and because I believe in working from the source material I thought that I had better read the book.  I might give my considered opinion of the book, and of Brooks' emphasis on "unconscious choices" at a later date.  I bet you can't wait.

I did start wondering, though, about my own rational and non-rational mind, and about the unconscious mind.  If you are thinking, "That way lies madness", please bear with me.

I am fairly familiar with what have come to be known as "unconscious processes".  In my counselling work I aim to help people to discover and to understand the "hidden" fears and desires that have created anxiety and self-doubt in their present lives.  Of course once a fear or a desire is no longer hidden (by denial or repression or sublimation or any of the other unconscious defences) it becomes part of our conscious mind and open to rational thinking.  Once we are able to look at our fears they become either issues to confront or ghostly will-o-the whisps that are irrelevant to our current lives. 

Stories of giants, witches, monsters, impenetrable forests, castles, trolls and princes help children to learn to confront fear in a safe and cathartic way.  Parents whose children have nightmares might not at first agree with this point, but the memory of a parent's comfort and solid reassurance sustains many of us through difficult times in our adult lives. The case for reading such stories to our children is made best by Bruno Bettelheim in "The Uses of Enchantment". 

Perhaps the "unconscious choices", that the increasing number of anti-rationalists would have us make, are not so much those based on fear and doubt as those better described as "intuitive" or "instinctive".  I find instinctive choices easier to understand and so I shall deal with them first.

If we are any kind of animal it is because of what we have in common with other animals on the planet: life and death, mating, breeding, feeding, pain and some other sorts of sensory experience.  It makes sense therefore that many of our choices are based either on avoidance of pain or on attraction, and on the preservation of our own lives.  Good food gives me pleasure and I hope that like most animals I know when to stop eating.  Like most animals I am revolted by the smell of food gone bad or by other signs of decay and steer clear of them as signs of danger.  The evidence of my senses is a reliable guide and I won't go so far as to say that when I sniff the air in a meeting I know whether people will agree with me, but if the air is clean and cool and I see smiling faces and relaxed bodies and hear calm voices accompanying warm handshakes I am more inclined to trust that my points will be heard fairly.  I would go further and say I that I can usually spot the posture or expression of the person who is going to disagree with me. Reading such "signs" seems to be part of our instinctive animal nature.

But in my view, instinctive choices only go so far.  I avoid pain but go, however reluctantly, to the dentist.  In such cases the rational mind overpowers instinctive avoidance.  On first encountering someone I might get an instinctive "I like this person", or "I do not like this person" based on some prejudice of which I am not even aware, but I know full well that  longer acquaintance has proved me wrong as often as it has proved me right.  It would be folly for me to rely on my instinct in every circumstance.  It would be equal folly to ignore my instinct.  I need to use my instinct but not to allow myself to be its creature.

Intuition is more difficult, because it is harder to define.  Sometimes intuition is referred to as a sixth sense.  In that case it would be part of our instinctive, inherent capacities.  One dictionary describes it as "direct perception". I see it as a working together of that which we have observed with our senses and that which we have learned about people and the environment.  "Sniffing the air", noting subtle changes in posture or expression or mood or noting silence and stillness and "Knowing" what is to happen might be called intuition.  To me it is what we get when we ally our instinctive knowledge with our rational observation, but done so fast that we are not aware of the complex computations.  I often think that my brain is cleverer than I am.

Other ways of thinking that have been praised in recent decision-making trends are daydreaming, speculating, imagining, and creating. They are all functions of our rational mind, in my view.  They are all about the mind processing ideas in some form.  I do not believe that they come from our unconscious mind just because they come from beyond a level of immediate awareness.  When I am physically relaxed I become aware of the softest warm breeze on my skin.  When I am mentally relaxed I become aware of ideas I did not know I had.  I am no Archimedes but I understand how the mind can bring the best ideas to awareness when in a state of idleness.  I do not see anything either mystical or unconscious in this process.  It is for me evidence of the complexity of human levels of thought. I like the fact that my mind is playful and creative, even though some of its brews are unusable.

While I read John Brooks and his ideas about the "Social Animal", you could read the works of Carl Jung and especially his model that claims that we have four polarities: Rational, Emotional, Sensate and Intuitive.  The best position to be in is to have access to all these areas and not to make judgements based on one sort of habitual response from our own little corner.


  1. I agree that most of our "intuitive" responses are probably learned over time and are so fast that we don't think about them. We "read" someone's face without analysing it, yet there are 100s of muscles in that person's face which will be giving us information about what they are thinking.
    The brain works on so many levels. Just as when we are mentally relaxed we can become more aware of ideas, there is evidence that the unconscious or sleeping brain can process information that we have just assimilated - a well known tip for revising before exams!
    Brooks says that "non-cognitive skills can be honed". Does this not mean that they have been refined through experience and learning and thattherefore refutes his own argument?

  2. Judith,I am glad that someone else finds Brooks' statements contradictory. It could be that he means that we can learn to access deeper levels of our minds. In which case he should say so.
    If Brooks were more precise I might be more open to his argument.
    I wonder if a lot of the problem when writing about the brain is a matter of not having enough distinction in the language we use. The word "unconscious" is freely used in the medical sphere, the psychotherapeutic sphere and in the philosophy of the mind, all with different meanings.
    I like your phrase "the sleeping brain" as it implies a level below awareness but above unconsciousness, and it is at times a busy level of brain activity, as you say.
    Anyone out there with a more definitive language for levels of awareness of brain activity?

  3. June
    Sue has helped me set up a "user name" - will post a comment later.


  4. By 'non-cognitive' I'm convinced people usually mean to say 'non-rational'. But our society has such a bias towards rationality, that 'non-rational' has a displeasing ring for most people, so I assume that's why 'non-cognitive' has stuck! 'Cognitive' comes from the Latin 'cognoscere' 'to know', so 'non-cognitive' means 'not knowable'. The only thing that can legitimately be said to be 'non-cognitive' would be something spiritual, like knowledge of God that is beyond human understanding. The fact that 'non-cognitive' has caught on, is proof that most people don't know what they're talking about!