Natural and Artificial Cognition On the Proper Place of Reason

The limits of consciousness

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3. The limits of consciousness

Recent research in cognitive psychology bears out Whitehead’s dictum (Whitehead 1911):

It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilisation advances by extending the number of operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.

The experimental study of ‘ego depletion’ has demonstrated that humans have strictly limited conscious self-regulatory capacities (Muraven, Tice, and Baumeister 1998; Baumeister et al. 1998). An act of will in one domain, such as not eating any of the chocolate chip cookies sitting in front of the subject, reduces the subject’s ability to engage in self-control in a subsequent unrelated task, such as persistence in a verbal task. These experiments falsify the hypothesis that the conscious self guides most of the decision-making in our daily lives. The alternative to conscious control is automaticity: non-conscious mental processes operating effortlessly and without demanding attentional resources. The most familiar forms of automaticity are those associated with perception and with learning.

Research on perception and priming has shown that the early stages of perceptual analysis (encoding of environmental events) are preconscious (there is no awareness that the process is taking place) and without intention or effort. Stimulus information perceived without awareness leads to further automatic reactions. For example, when a visual stimulus is perceived without awareness it influences which stimuli are subsequently perceived with awareness and how subsequent visual stimuli are consciously experienced (Merikle, Smilek and Eastwood 2001). Subjects consider the line segment whose angled lines go away to be longer than the (equally long) line segment whose angled lines point inward (see figure 1), even if the angular lines are made so faint that they fall below the participants’ threshold for reporting awareness.

Figure 1
More familiar is the automaticity associated with learning (skill acquisition). Over time (and with practice) intentional, goal-directed processes (such as playing a topspin backhand in tennis or changing the gears of a car) become more efficient until they can operate without conscious guidance. While these processes become effortless and cease to place demands on attentional resources, they may require an act of will as trigger, in order to start operation. Childhood is a period dedicated to automating such skills as brushing teeth, crossing the road safely, reading, and interacting socially.

Recently it has become evident that automaticity encompasses much more than low-level perception and skill acquisition (Bargh and Chartrand 1999). Information-processing goals, such as the goal to remember information and the goal to form an impression of someone, can be activated nonconsciously and then guide subsequent cognition. For example, subjects primed unobtrusively by a ‘language test’ containing synonyms of evaluation, and who were then presented with a series of descriptions of behaviours, later recalled more behaviours and showed greater organisation of the material in memory around trait categories relevant to the target’s behaviour (e.g. sociable, intelligent) than those subjects who were not primed in this manner. Behavioural goals can be activated similarly. Subjects primed by a ‘word search task’ in which synonyms of achievement (e.g. strive, succeed) were presented, subsequently outperformed control participants on verbal tasks, although extensive questioning of the participants revealed no awareness of a possible effect of the priming task on their later performance.

If conscious deduction cannot assume responsibility for everyday decision-making, what can? The form of cognition called intuition by Freud and Jung has regained respectability since Zajonc demonstrated that preferences (affectively valenced evaluations) are formed ubiquitously and rapidly, before any conscious processing has taken place and without evidence of symbol-manipulation (Zajonc 1980). The sections to follow describe how information is gleaned from the environment by a human agent, the status of symbolic representations of information, and what intuition is. It will become apparent that since intuition exploits categorisation, it gets relevance and analogy for free.

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