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Chapter: Psychology: Consciousness

Consciousness: The Cognitive Unconscious

Introspection is limited for another reason: There are many things going on in our minds that we are just not aware of.

The Cognitive Unconscious

Introspection is limited for another reason: There are many things going on in our minds that we are just not aware of. These unconscious events, by definition, are not detectable through introspection, and so cannot be revealed via self-report.

For example, what was your first-grade teacher’s name? Odds are good that the answer to this question just popped into your mind, and that event leads us to ask: How did you manage this memory retrieval? How did you locate this bit of information within the vast warehouse of long-term memory? In fact, we have reason to believe you needed several steps to find this information; but you have no awareness of those steps—all you’re aware of is the sought-after name.

Likewise, look around the room in which you’re sitting. You can see various familiar objects, and you’re immediately aware of the size, shape, and position of each one. As we saw, however, your perception of the world requires several types of activity on your part—you must parse the input, separate figure from ground, and make infer-ences about aspects of the environment that are partly hidden from your view. However, you’re unaware of all this activity; indeed, we used the term unconscious inference to describe some aspects of your perception. What you are aware of is just the “output” from these var-ious processes—the perceptual world as you consciously experience it.

Considerations like these highlight the role of the cognitive unconscious—the name given to the considerable support machinery that makes our ordinary perception, memory, and thinking possible (after Kihlstrom, 1987; also Glaser & Kihlstrom, 2005). Let’s be careful, though, not to confuse the cognitive unconscious with the idea that many people have of the unconscious mind—an idea derived from the thinking of Sigmund Freud. According to Freud, the unconscious mind is, in effect, an adversary to the conscious mind: Each of these opponents has its own needs, its own goals, and its own style of operation. The uncon-scious mind, in this view, is constantly striving to assert itself while the conscious mind is constantly on guard against the unconscious mind’s actions.

This Freudian conception is markedly different from the way modern scholars understand the cognitive unconscious. They believe instead that the cognitive uncon-scious is in no sense an adversary to conscious experience. Indeed, it seems misleading to speak of these as two separate “minds,” each with its own identity—although that style of speaking is reasonable when discussing the Freudian view. Instead, the cogni-tive unconscious is—as we’ve said—merely the term we give for the broad set of back-ground operations that make our experience possible.

Here’s an analogy. Let’s say you’re sitting at your computer, surfing the Internet, and you click your mouse on a link. Your computer has to translate your mouse click into a numerical address, seek out the content at that address, download the content onto your computer, and then translate the HTML code or Java script to activate pixel patterns on your screen and thus create the images. All of these operations take place “behind the scenes,” outside of your awareness. You, the user, are aware of only the initial mouse click and then the resulting images. Put differently, you’re completely unaware of the process that brings the images to your screen; you’re conscious only of the product created by that process—the images themselves.

In the same way, you’re usually unaware of the processes that make your experience possible. You’re aware only of the product created by those processes, and most of the time that’s exactly what you want. You want to know what objects surround you; you generally have no reason to care about the processes that helped you perceive and iden-tify these objects. You want to recall a past event, and you generally have no reason to worry about exactly how you’re gaining that information. In these and many other examples, the cognitive unconscious provides you with the information you need while keeping the support machinery appropriately in the background.

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