This may seem a bit counter-intuitive to followers of mindfulness meditation or Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, but unconsciousness too can be a necessary facet to a healthy mental life.
Think of it this way. Our attention span is a finite resource. In order to expand consciousness toward one aspect of life, we must sometimes contract consciousness in other aspects. Trying to juggle it all at the same time is impractical and mentally taxing.
Non-awareness, too, is not only an unavoidable aspect of mind, but a valuable counterforce that contributes to our psychological homeostasis.
I am talking about deliberate non-awareness – “letting go.” To let go is to lack concern – to shift consciousness away from and, perhaps, toward more important things.
Like economic resources (raw materials, capital, labor, time) our mental resources must be allocated depending on our needs. Consciousness (or awareness) is that currency of exchange that makes it all possible. It is the center of our control.
If you are pitching a baseball game, but you are worried about the fans booing you or your girlfriend cheating on you or a pigeon flying by and taking a dump on your head – you are diverting focus – and, therefore, not concentrating all of your resources efficiently in the moment (the psychological state of flow is often accompanied by a loss of self-consciousness and the filtering of irrelevant stimuli).
It has been shown that our working memory can only hold so many isolated bits of information in a single moment (see George Miller’s “The Magic Number 7, Plus or Minus Two: Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information“), so it can be concluded that, to some extent, there is a decision to be made on what to pay attention to and what to ignore.
We’ve all had those periods in our life where we spend day and night worrying about something in the past. We can’t let it go, and it eats away at our ability to think and live fully in the present. Think of all the creative and productive things you could be doing if you weren’t wracking your brain over stuff that you can’t control.
The most obvious form of unconsciousness is when we go to sleep. Sleep is crucial to our mental acuity as well as the consolidation of memories. Without sufficient sleep, some may even become psychotic. Sleep is a way the mind shuts itself off from the moment-by-moment experience of time so that it can unconsciously process the information it has gathered throughout the day.
Similarly, scientists, artists, and other experts often report how their brains need time to mull over details and search for answers at a deeper and more unconscious level. Some of the greatest ideas of our times have taken years of processing and re-processing different solutions for a particular question. This kind of creative problem-solving is one of the main mechanisms described in Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation; he called it the “slow hunch,” and it perfectly describes intelligence at an unconscious level.
Perhaps intuition in itself is a byproduct of unconscious intelligence. I have seen many people argue intuition as “a laser fast version of logic,” a logic that is performed unconsciously. Certainly it can be argued that there are levels of understanding that seem to lay beyond verbally-expressed reason – so perhaps these can be attributed to unconscious processes of knowledge – a contextual understanding that we can’t pick apart into individual bits of knowledge.
Unfortunately, intuition has become a kind of taboo in Western Psychology because of its difficulty in being studied under a scientific, third person framework. This taboo has in-itself contributed to the inefficacy of scientists to figure out more about intuition or to develop any explanation regarding its evolutionary origins.
However, it has been illustrated that many people use intuition and are wrong – so, a scientist might say, intuition is inaccurate and untrustworthy (?) – but perhaps these people have not worked with their unconscious enough to be good at intuition (just like people are bad at reason, or writing, or swimming, or any other skill). I don’t see enough evidence to altogether dismiss using intuition as a means of knowledge or practical decision-making.
Perhaps the most extreme form of alleged unconscious intelligence can be attributed to revelations and mystical experiences. These claims to knowledge, like intuition, are subject to the same modern day scientific scrutiny, and often times (if you compare the modern definitions with the religious experiences) equatable to mental disorders. I don’t think this is a fair characterization however, and I believe there is a lot more study that needs to be done to draw conclusions on the psycho-“spiritual” factors of revelations and the supposed knowledge acquired through those experiences.
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