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You Are Your Unconscious

Updated: Jul 2

Stop othering your unconscious to develop an integrated mind


Yosemite Falls
If consciousness is the waterfall, the unconscious is the river that feeds it. Yosemite Falls. Photo by the author. June 2024.

The conscious and the unconscious

I have come to the realization that we are framing the main problems about the mind—the problem of consciousness and the problem of free will—the wrong way.

We think that our subjective experience is all there is in the human mind when, in fact, it is only a small part of what goes on in the mind.

One of the silly things we hear said about consciousness is that it is an illusion. It is not; consciousness is real. What is an illusion is to consider it something separated from the rest of the mind, which is unconscious. When you look at the evidence, you realize that there is a fuzzy boundary between the conscious and the unconscious. One flows into the other continuously.

As Daniel Dennett argued in his book Consciousness Explained, whether you consider something that happens in your mind is conscious or unconscious depends on whether you are experiencing it now or trying to remember it later. Something that is clearly conscious now may seem unconscious later because you have forgotten about it.

In other words, we are conscious of things that are present in working memory—the desktop space in our mind where we manipulate sensations, ideas, memories and emotions. However, we tend to forget most of the things that were in working memory a moment ago. Then, how do we know that we were conscious of them?

The false conflict between the conscious and the unconscious

The key issue is, who do we think we are?

People automatically think that they are only the conscious part of their minds. Then, everything done by their unconscious seems like is done by somebody else. When they become aware of the strong influence that the unconscious has on them, they feel out of control. It’s like somebody else is running their minds. Then they, inevitably, conclude that we do not have free will.

In fact, we are both our conscious and our unconscious, because there is no separation between them.

When we realize that we are the totality of our mind, conscious and unconscious, we understand that we really are able to make decisions, which always arise from the unconscious.

This sheds a new light on the problem of free will.

How the mind works

Putting together everything I know about neuroscience, this is how I think our mind works.

Our brain is constantly bombarded by a barrage of sensations: visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, tastes, pain, itch and inner sensations. These sensations need to be prioritized according to their value for survival and their relevance to what we are doing at the moment. The brain does that by assigning an emotion to each sensation. Sensations that arise strong emotions—for example, pain—are given a higher priority, which is called salience. Other sensations are given priority because they are relevant to what we are doing. For example, if I am rock-climbing, the tactile sensation of the holds in my hands becomes salient.

Salient sensations are assembled together in a representation of the world constructed in a working space in our mind, where it is used to make decisions about what to do next.

In my rock-climbing example, the visual representation of the rock wall is put together with the sensations from my hands and feet and the inner sensations about the position of my body and the tension in my muscles. This allows me to make the decision about the next move: I can let go of my right hand without falling and grab that hold that I see within my reach.

I am only conscious of what is in the working space at each moment. Consciousness and working space are pretty much the same thing. However, this is only part of the story. The working space works because there are a series of incoming sensations being lined up to enter it in the unconscious part of the mind. Once sensations stop being relevant, they lose salience and are relegated back to the unconscious. The unconscious flow into the conscious and back to the unconscious.

If consciousness is a waterfall, the unconscious is the river. The river flows into a waterfall and back into a river. There is no waterfall without the river.

How decisions are made

But this doesn’t mean that decisions are made by consciousness.

During rock-climbing, the assembling of movements to reach the next hold happens unconsciously in the motor cortex and the cerebellum. Even the “go” command to start the action of the next move is given by the unconscious and presented to consciousness after the fact. This is because it takes a relatively long time for a representation to be built in working space—in consciousness—so everything has to happen beforehand.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio summarized this idea by saying “we are always late for consciousness.”

Therefore, if I believe that the only decisions that count as having free will are decisions made by consciousness, then I don’t have free will, because every decision is assembled and made by the unconscious.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t decide, because that “I” is my unconscious and conscious working together. There is simply no separation between the unconscious and the conscious. That is not how the mind works.

Emotions

Starting with the famous case of Phineas Gage, and continuing with many experiments done in humans by Antonio Damasio and his wife Hanna Damasio, there is abundant evidence that emotions are an essential part of decision-making. Every decision involves assigning value to each of the options we have. That value is an emotion, the same way that emotions set the saliency of sensations that determines whether they become conscious or not.

Therefore, the old division between the rational and the emotional parts of the mind doesn’t really exist. We reason with our emotions and each reasoning thought is loaded with emotions.

We simply do not recognize some of the emotions involved in reasoning because they are not the usual ones—like anger, sadness of fear—but more obscure ones like curiosity, interest, surprise (‘this is unexpected’), discovery (‘aha!’), veracity (‘this is right’) and falsity (‘this is wrong’).

Next time you read a bullshit article, pay attention to the strong emotions that arise when you realize that the author is wrong in his reasoning or is making things up.

Intuition

There is a large unconscious component to reasoning and intelligence because a lot of the information being processed in the mind is too large to be represented in consciousness. Therefore, our unconscious may reach conclusions that, to our conscious mind, seem to appear out of nowhere. That is what we call intuition.

Intuition is not magical. It doesn’t come out of our gut. It’s simply unconscious reasoning.

While doing science, I often had hunches and sudden inspirations. Although they are accompanied by the strong feeling that they are true, I need to examine then rationality, step by step, to check if they make sense. Intuitions are a dime a dozen. We cannot always trust them; they are often wrong. However, other times my reasoning through them is just reconstructing something that my unconscious has done already.

Another kind of intuition is about knowing what other people are feeling and thinking. This is called theory-of-mind and is a unique human faculty. We unconsciously process a lot of information about face expression, tone of voice, body position and sentence construction, which we integrate as an internal representation of the other person’s mind. We feel what they are feeling. We empathize.

The ego

The ego—or what psychoanalysts call the super-ego—is a part of our unconscious mind that chides us when we do something wrong and takes credit when we succeed. It is based on the opposing emotions of pride and shame. We internalize the admonitions of our parents and teachers and create an internal figure that directs us in our lives. It is particularly strong in successful people and can make them miserable. This could be the origin of the stereotypical depressed winner.

There are several problems with the ego. It can become an internal dictator that tries to control everything that happens in our mind. Since it is based on external affirmation, it creates goals that are in disagreement with what we really want, the things that make us happy. It is fixated on goals, not on the process, which prevents us from entering the mental state of flow. When it tries to control other parts of our unconscious, it hinders their activity and stops creativity.

Like everything else in the mind, the ego has its place. However, in our over-competitive society, we tend to develop oversized egos that make our lives miserable. The puritanical ethos, religions and certain philosophies encourage growing unhealthy egos and prevent us from seeing the damage they cause.

Is there a repressed unconscious?

The idea of the subconscious arose in the 19th century and became the center of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud realized that we do things for motives different from what we think, usually having to do with sex or childhood trauma. For him, the unconscious exists because we are unable to confront those hidden motives.

The repressed unconscious is different from the idea of the unconscious that I explained above. The unconscious is there, not because of repressed ideas and motivations, but because this is the way the brain works. Still, it may be true that some ideas may have enough emotional charge to enter consciousness, but they create such an inner conflict in the mind that some protective mechanism keeps it in the unconscious. However, this is an anomaly and not how the mind usually works.

Carl Gustav Jung, another of the fathers of psychoanalysis, proposed the idea of the collective unconscious. It consists of a series of myths and archetypes that we absorb from our culture because they resonate deeply with our psychological needs. The idea of the collective unconscious has been useful to understand literature and art. For example, Joseph Campbell used it to found the common myths that form part of different cultures and that appear, time and time again, in novels and movies: the Path of the Hero.

Expanding consciousness

The unconscious is the largest part of our mind, because only a tiny fraction of what we experience at every moment has enough salience to enter consciousness. If it was otherwise, our mental working space would become so crowded that we would not be able to do anything.

However, consciousness can work in many modes. It can be hyper-focused in a small set of sensations, ideas and emotions. Or it can be diffused, open to many of the things we experience. It’s like one of those camera objectives that can go from wide angle to telephoto.

Many of the things that we do in modern life tend to put our consciousness in a highly focused state. Thus, when we watch a movie we exclude everything except what is on the screen. Something similar happens when we read a book, study or listen to a lecture. This creates a habit of being in a focused state of consciousness.

At the extreme, we fall into tunnel vision. Strong emotions make our consciousness become so focused on some idea that it becomes obsessive and we cannot get it out of our mind.

In contrast, the hunter-gatherers of our evolutionary environment had to live in a widespread state of consciousness, to be aware of small changes in their environment that could signal the presence of a predator or a social change in their tribe.

Mindfulness and some forms of meditation counteract our focused consciousness habits by deliberately pay attention to as many sensations as possible. At the same time, we tune down our emotions by being non-judgmental, so no emotion becomes strong enough to give saliency to any mental content in particular.

Drugs like cannabis and psychodelics (psilocybin, LSD, mescaline, etc.) increase the saliency our sensations and scramble the whole process of presenting mental contents to consciousness. That way, a part of the unconscious mind of which we are not usually aware becomes conscious, revealing hidden aspects of ourselves.

This is how mindfulness and psychedelics truly expand our consciousness: they widen our range of experience by giving us access to the unconscious. They make consciousness expand into the unconscious.

There is no ‘pure consciousness’

There are some mystical ideas about consciousness that are attempts to bring back the religious concept of an immortal soul. Wishful thinking makes us resist that idea that one day we will die: our mind, conscious and conscious, will simply cease to exist. That’s why we are attracted to the idea that our consciousness is a magical thing, impossible to explain, that exists independently of the rest of our mind. That way, we hope that it can somehow detach from our brain when we die and go live somewhere else.

People who should know better, like Sam Harris, believe that they can experience pure consciousness. They say that, when they meditate, they experience a state in which there is only consciousness, without any sensations, ideas or emotions to fill that consciousness.

Like San Harris, I have done a lot of meditation myself. I have never experienced such a state of pure consciousness. I regarded it as something meditation beginners would say when they experience states of inner silence that they had never experienced before. The inner dialog and constant music that normally plays in our mind go away. It may seem that there are no ideas, no memories, no sensations. Therefore, there is only consciousness.

However, this is just an illusion. If there was only consciousness, then we would not be able to remember the experience, because the recording of the experience would be something that fills consciousness. The meditator is telling himself, “I am experiencing pure consciousness,” which is something that is filling their consciousness. Therefore, they are not experiencing pure consciousness.

In fact, EEG recordings of experienced Zen monks during meditation show that they become more sensitive to external stimuli, not less (Tomio Hirai, Zen Meditation and Psychotherapy).

Learning to live with your unconscious

I center my current spiritual practice in trying to integrate my mind by opening my consciousness to my unconscious.

I also try to dispel the illusion that I am my consciousness.

Both things can be accomplished by practicing mindfulness to develop meta-attention: the ability to be aware of what we are paying attention to, and how we direct our attention. By doing that, I realize how my mental contents flow in and out of consciousness.

By cultivating flow, I experience mental states of selflessness and creativity. In fact, flow means an unimpeded streaming of contents from the unconscious to the conscious. By abandoning the illusion of conscious control over the unconscious mind, we are able to unleash the full creative potential of our mind.

Most of the time, I move through life like an unconscious zombie, and that’s okay. When I drive, an unconscious part of my mind is at the wheel. When I ski, my body flows automatically into every turn and, if I try to over-control them, I mess up. When I rock-climb, my conscious mind falters at a seemingly impossible move, but then my body goes and does it, anyway.

This doesn’t mean that I go through my life out of control. In fact, people who know me marvel at my self-discipline. I exercise regularly, do not overeat, write for hours every day, and have no bad habits or compulsions. It is not that I have a strong will, but rather that I have reached a good agreement with every part of myself about what ‘we’ want to do.

Mental habits

The best way to develop self-discipline is to cultivate good habits.

Then, the unconscious does what it needs to be done and there is no need for pushing myself and nasty self-lectures. It’s like showering and brushing your teeth: you do it over and over again until there is no question about doing it.

The most important habits to cultivate are emotional habits. If you allow yourself to be angry, fearful or sad, you develop an inertia for having those emotions. Conversely, if you cultivate patience, courage and joy, they will have staying power.

Likewise, states of consciousness are habit-forming. If you enter flow every day, flow will come naturally to you. If you work at mindfulness, you will have the necessary meta-attention to discover your negative states of mind and correct them. But if you live surrounded by confusion, confrontation and negativity, they would seep into your consciousness as well.

The DJ

Another thing I do is to become familiar with the different parts of my unconscious mind. I befriend them, instead of trying to control them.

For example, there is the DJ. You probably have it, too. It’s the part of your mind in charge of constantly playing songs and music in the background. We all have had the experience of our DJ getting stuck in a sticky song. When that happens, perhaps the DJ is trying to alert you that you are in a low energy state of mind or falling into some negative emotions.

The DJ is a nice guy, although sometimes he’s a bit dumb. Talk nicely to him. Tell him: “Hey, DJ, enough of that! How about the song that goes…” Then play a song in your mind for him. More often than not, he will latch on to it. If not, suggest another song. He’s better than Spotify, I tell you!

Inner dialog

There is also the inner dialog. I have it in two languages, English and Spanish. It’s useful to keep track of what language I speak to myself because I have different personalities in each language. Spanish is the older, emotional and child-like part of me, while English is newer, rational and serious.

There is an annoying part of my unconscious that would say nasty things (always in Spanish) when I feel fearful or ashamed. For the longest time, I tried to push it away. Now I have come to realize that it’s a child-like part of me that needs to be reassured and comforted. It lets me know that thing are not as okay as I think; that I need to be more careful about what I am doing.

Managing inner dialog is key to many things we do in life. In The Rock Warrior’s Way, Arlo Ilgner explains how inner dialog can be used to direct focus while rock-climbing. This is essential to achieve the famous flow of the climber.

Likewise, flow during writing consists of evoking an inner dialog of what we are about to write. The most amazing thing is when I write fiction. I have created several characters that are so fully developed that they speak with their own voice inside my head. I just have to type what I hear them saying.

That is, in fact, what happens with inner dialog: we have no choice but to listen to it. However, it can be directed. How to do that involves a subtle negotiation inside yourself, some gentle pushing here and there.

Achieving an integrated mind

Some parts of your unconscious are childish. They are easily affected by your emotions and often need to be comforted and reassured. Other parts are unexpectedly wise, like an old guru sitting inside your brain. The ego tries to control the other parts, often without much success. Inner dialog and the DJ increase the noise inside your head.

Yes, there is a conscious ‘you’ that seems to make decisions and direct the other parts of your mind. The forebrain and the anterior cingulate cortex work together to make decisions. But even large parts of their work remain hidden behind the curtains.

A healthy mind is a mind in which all the parts work together, instead of being in conflict with each other.

You have to learn to make peace with your unconscious.

Only then you will truly integrate your mind. And only an integrated mind is a healthy mind.

You cannot integrate your mind if you are othering you unconscious, if you consider it something that is not you.

This is perhaps the most difficult task. To let go of the illusion that you are only what you are able to see inside your mind.

We need to accept that there are invisible parts of our being that are as much ‘I’ as our consciousness.

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