Consciousness is Overrated

by F.

“Sponges don’t have bad days,” the narrator of Choke observes wistfully. I would add that they also don’t make bad decisions. Maybe it would be better to be a sponge or a barnacle or a Twinkie.

Is consciousness overrated? We read more and more stuff that suggests it is—and I’ve been reading this for years, starting with Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience. While this idea idea has some dangerous implications, it sure is circulating widely in the ideosphere. Another example from The Guardian:

New research by Ap Dijksterhuis and his colleagues at the University of Amsterdam suggests that we would be better off thinking about the simple choices, and leaving the life-changing decisions to our unconscious mind….

Our brain seems to be split between the actions we can take with little or no conscious control (although scientists prefer to talk about “attention”), such as riding a bike, and those that require conscious attention, such as arithmetic. We tend to think of our unconscious mind as the more primitive arm of cognition, with consciousness in reserve for the hard problems. But Dijksterhuis’s research suggests we have it the wrong way around.

What is consciousness good for then? Anything?

Dijksterhuis points out that consciousness is good at following precise rules – arithmetic, solving anagrams, etc – but has only limited capacity for handling more complex problems.

He proposes the “deliberation without attention” hypothesis, whereby complex problems are best solved by the parallel-computing capabilities of the unconscious mind. So bear this in mind the next time you need to choose between the flat-pack wardrobe and the futon: trust your instincts.

I’m on board with all of that except the punchline—which is facile. “Instincts,” we know, can be just as faulty as conscious deliberation. The unconscious has a number of biases (short term thinking, misunderstands probability, etc.), and if it’s not trained or tuned, it can suck just as bad as consciousness when making decisions.

But perhaps the solution is simple: train the unconscious using an appropriately tight feedback loop, the way you learn to play music or draw or cook, or become expert at anything.