Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Lights are on. Obviously someone is home. but could she get the door open?

There’s a concept in psychology, called “Automaticity” which is defined as the ability to do things automatically and without occupying the conscious mind. An action or behavior becomes automatic by learning, practicing and habituating. By this definition, one might think that, okay; this “Automaticity” only takes a fraction of our daily actions, meaning that we are conscious the rest of the time, but is it really so?

Automaticity has also been considered as the "lack of awareness in mental processes" in some texts. In that sense, three ways have been identified in which we may be unaware of a mental process: 1) we may be unaware of the presence of a stimulus (e.g., subliminal priming, like in hypnosis). 2) We may be unaware of the way in which a stimulus has been interpreted or categorized(for e.g due to some unconscious beliefs). 3) We may be unaware of factors that influence our behavior(like environmental or physiological factors).

There have been quite a few studies on the subject (on priming mostly in the studies I saw), a few of which are done by Bargh which led him to, in the extreme case, claim that:

“I emphatically push the point that automatic, nonconscious processes pervade all aspects of mental and social life, in order to overcome what I consider dominant, even implicit, assumptions to the contrary.”

Then he was criticized that he might have overestimated the role of automatic processes in the social interactions, which led him to revise his statement as follows:

“Bloodied but unbowed, I gamely concede that the commentators did push me back from a position of 100% automaticity but only to an Ivory soap bar degree of purity in my beliefs about the degree of automaticity in our psychological reactions from moment to moment.”

He implies that social cognition and behavior is 99.44% automatic.
I also found the quote from Malcom Gladwell's book "Blink"(I haven't read the book though, only saw the quote in some paper) worth noting here:

"The adaptive unconscious is not to be confused with the unconscious described by Sigmund Freud, which was a dark and murky place filled with desires and memories and fantasies that were too disturbing for us to think about consciously. This new notion of the adaptive unconscious is thought of, instead, as a kind of giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of data we need in order to keep functioning as human beings.”

What it means is that, not only do we need function unconsciously in order to do most of our everyday actions efficienlty, it might have even slowed us down if we were to do otherwise. We might think we are conscious (I sure do) while doing things, but it doesn’t mean that our being conscious leads to our doing whatever we are doing in the right manner.

I’m very much tempted to relate this to the issue of “free will” and I’ve seen the hints and comments in some papers to this area as well (so it’s not only me). But the subject by itself requires a great deal of pondering. If this is true, it might even prove that mental states are only epiphenomenal, i.e. consciousness doesn’t play a causal role and is only a by-product of the brain states.