“The new theory of the unconscious, it is it who commands!” says Anne Debroise in Science & Vie, after reading Andrew Budson, a neurologist in Boston, but without having understood him well. I no longer know whether to rejoice or be sorry for this litany of articles aimed at de-pedestalizing our unfortunate consciousness. Certainly among our ancestors it swelled a little too much of its importance. But today? A phalanx of neuroscientists has begun to reduce it to the state of mental veneer or even illusion. Is this not the opposite excess of the previous one?
Andrew Budson is a behaviorist, that is, he favors unconscious processes in the determinism of behavior. Nevertheless, it is necessary to read his article to rectify Anne Debroise’s profane discourse. He does not seek to redefine consciousness; he is interested in its origin and puts forward the interesting hypothesis that it is the evolution of a short-term memory space synthesizing together the different mental functions. He is not distributing staff positions to the unconscious and the conscious, only specifying the framework of their relations. Certainly all this is a little “flat”. The time is to erase hierarchies so as not to offend anyone. However, we can continue to believe that organizational space is superior to independent functions. This powerful consciousness has made the success of Homo sapiens!
From Freud to Libet
Anne is not the first to disillusion the consciousness of its claims. Its decline was begun more than a century ago by Freud, who opposed it with the irreducible power of the ‘It’, hidden in the mental basement. Already at the time Freud made the unconscious a quasi-second brain, endowed with its own will, deciding the behavior before the consciousness takes note of it, and sometimes feels very fed up with the result. The “new” theory of the unconscious is therefore not so new, dear Anne.
Neurologists’ assaults on consciousness have continued at more recent times. Benjamin Libet in the 1970s, with his “premotor potential”, demonstrates that unconscious areas start motor action before consciousness is warned. From 300ms to several seconds ahead, sometimes. It is difficult to keep one’s consciousness on the throne of free will, under these conditions!
Some basics in neuroscience
Let’s take a closer look at the story with which Anne begins her article: “You are at a party, your attention is captured by a group of people to your left. Normal ! Your first name has just been pronounced. “Are you going to Greece? If you want some tips, ask Betty.” On the other hand, what is not normal is that you become aware of the sentence in its entirety, while your first name appears only at the very end… And if it is thanks to it that your mind has focused on the conversation, that your consciousness has clung to it… So how can you know what was said before?“
Anne, you are confusing consciousness and attention here. You land in neuroscience, my word! We have long known about the ant work perpetuated by the unconscious on sensory signals. Its existing representations seek themselves in the sensory field and automatically create a reproduction of the world that is our mental stage. On this stage are then placed the actors, that is, the subjects worthy of conscious attention.
It is therefore perfectly “normal”, on the contrary, that the entire sentence pronounced by the group has been recorded, like all ambient noise. It is part of the scene. From this scene are extracted the highlights, such as the first name of the one who hears. These facts are accessible to the conscious workspace, within the limits of immediate memory. Hearing one’s first name does not allow you to go back to the sentences previously spoken by the group, only to the one that contains the first name. The areas of language process words in batches, in sentences.
No novelty then, but the title of Anne is nevertheless peremptory: “The unconscious, it is it who commands !!” Does this justify debunking the consciousness of its role as CEO? Not really, if we understood the role of a CEO precisely. It is not there to serve as a tasker. Imagine being forced to consciously decipher every noise of that party. Here’s a voice! Hold, it pronounced the words ‘are’, ‘you’, ‘going’! Well, that’s the start of a journey! Etc… Don’t you think the evening would be over before we could answer any questions?
The brain is very well organized; most routine tasks are performed by the unconscious, which is not the “commander” but an extremely well-trained and refined mental machinery. It describes our environment and starts the majority of behavioral reflexes that we call ‘habits’. This frees up considerable time for conscious attention, which can focus on unusual events. It also checks that habits lead to the desired result. Finally, it takes care of the most difficult predictions, unfolds a hoped-for destiny and determines the best actions to stay on the path.
A CEO up to the task?
It does well, in truth, its job as CEO. It grumbles willingly against the underlings, against these habits always difficult to redirect. The most restive are called addictions. But all of them can be corrected if consciousness devotes enough attention to them. Expensive, very expensive attention. So many events demand it, despite the unconscious filtering. The highest free will, finally, is formed on a perfectly trained unconscious, which takes care of most of the daily events, and dispenses the consciousness of its work of policing. Insoluble addictions come from a consciousness that has not “freed” enough from its habits.
If you are passionate about the consciousness-unconscious relationship, you will read with interest the theory of Stratium, which explains how our mental “small business” works.
A loop that opens onto a huge space of symbolization
Otherwise, here is an analogy that explains more simply what has just been said: Think of the path between sensory signals and motor acting as a reflex loop. It can be very short, not protruding from the spinal cord: a small hammer blow on the patellar tendon and your leg rises. But the loop can be much longer, opening in the central nervous system at many stages of its functioning. The higher the signal goes up the mental hierarchy, the more likely it is to become conscious. Previously it has already been enriched with sophisticated treatments by the unconscious levels. It is well dressed when it arrives in the conscious workspace. From a collection of bright spots on the retina, the signal has become the image of your companion dancing across the room.
It’s hard to believe that your consciousness isn’t paying attention. That is all it has to do! The unconscious has already prepared everything else! Your gaze follows this moving body, your bust has tilted if necessary, the face has been identified, the body language of your companion is integrated. You know exactly what she wants. But your consciousness still has a choice: how will it finally close this wide open mental loop?
Beware of speeches that want to send your conscious impressions back to basements. You might not enjoy it as much…
Budson AE, Richman KA, Kensinger EA. Consciousness as a Memory System. Cogn Behav Neurol. 2022 Dec 1;35(4):263-297
Science & Vie, February 2023