The Ancient and Modern Unconscious

Classics, UCSB

How do we know that the actions we are performing are actually conscious choices that we are making and not merely some unconscious urge coming to the surface? Freud made this label famous, but he obviously was not the first to suggest that such a thing existed. We, humans, believe that we are unique organisms because we have the ability to behave according to “reason”.  In some ways this definition hasn’t really changed since the ancient period.

While neuroscientists are now exploring consciousness and our actions by likening our minds to computers, ancient scientists believed the mind was a product of all its sensory inputs along with a divine inspirational force. Ancient Greeks believed they were acting according to their own rationality, but in reality, were acting in accordance with the dictates of fate. A Homeric hero’s intended actions would go awry, leaving him wondering who was actually controlling his behavior and decisions. Neuroscience has begun to systematically examine the specific function of different parts of the brain and to document which regions are activated during certain stimulatory events. fMRI and PET scans allow researchers to do so without having to perform live dissections on patients to poke and prod the sensory cortex itself like the ancient doctor Galen is said to have done in the 2nd century CE. Until his time, the Greeks believed the chest and midriff (phren) to be the region where the heart-mind was located. It was where reasoning, perception, emotion, and contemplation occurred.

The distinction between the conscious and the unconscious mind was perhaps as fuzzy a concept as it is for us, but they did note a difference between them which we find in Greek Tragedy. Characters in these plays sometimes act outside the norm, only to snap out of it, see the destruction they’ve caused, and consider themselves mad. The viewer is left wondering whether the character is acting according to fate’s dictates or merely manifesting their true nature (phusis), i.e. how they truly are without any conscious suppression of their behavior. Could the character have stopped himself from doing what he did? Usually these questions are left unanswered at the end of each Greek tragedy, but we see that the Greeks believed there were different levels of conscious and unconscious control.

The Greeks also placed great cultural value in poets who were divinely inspired to compose their verses.  In describing the Trojan War, Homer calls upon the Muses, goddesses who presided over the fine arts, to sing through him. Does this make Homer’s poetry a product of his conscious mind or is it coming from some deeper realm of his mind which he can access only by invoking the muses first? Was his invocation of the muses to sing through him a type of mental causation that then allowed the physical action of his reciting poetry to take place? What about Hesiod who came soon after Homer and wrote poetry for the first time? What sorts of neurobiological processes are involved in his subconsciously controlled writing?

I think there is value in trying to understand the connections between the mind and the physical process of writing. By studying the ancient Greeks, whose written literary tradition arose from unwritten, divinely inspired oral poetry, what can we learn about the mind from the process of encoding unwritten thoughts into sentences or poetry? I think the Greeks were on the scent of the concepts of conscious and unconscious and, interestingly, their literary output is what allowed them to explore these ideas.

Published January 5, 2019

Computational Approaches to Personal Memory

Computer Science, UCSB

Human visual and auditory perception can be mimicked by ever-improving software programs for electronic eyes and ears. Natural language processing provides computers with basic skills in comprehension. Moreover, our superb powers of information recall are slowly being replaced by queries to stored data. The emergence of statistical models of learning allow machines to solve problems in prediction and planning that once required guidance by human intuition. For instance, in games of chess or financial investing, the number of possible outcomes once prevented automation. Now, machine learning is strong enough to beat humans. These developments mirror one goal of technology: to replicate our cognitive abilities.

Less common than the work described above are efforts to reproduce features of the mind like personality, identity, and memory. We have generalized computational models of language understanding and visual perception, but how can we instantiate them to reflect notions of individuality? I believe issues of personality and identity can be partially rooted in personal memory, the internal representations of past events and our past selves, both those accessible through introspection and those in our unconscious awareness. Neural structures controlling, for example, language and vision in an individual’s brain develop during the same, specific series of settings and sensations, that is, over a lifetime. Even if the functions of my visual cortex and my neural language centers are relatively independent, they have been subject to similar patterns of input because they reside in the same brain. But if I was building a computer model of a human, I might piece it together using different software programs; one for language, one for vision, one for motion, and so on. These pieces would come from different, relatively unrelated, sources. Thus structures that could be treated as modular in a computer would be blended together, interconnected, in a brain. The computer wouldn't reflect the many biases, unconscious associations, and idiosyncrasies either, which exist in an individual human being. Yet, how accurately do we remember the progression of these interconnections in ourselves over time?

This leads me to wonder: how can a computer model of the mind be imbued with self-memory? How can advancing computational models of the mind reflect human-like introspection, especially with access to memories of an individual? My interpretation of memory draws inspiration from John Locke’s model of personal identity, which centers our sense of self around our continuous, subjective memory of our past selves.

The Unconscious Memory project provides an opportunity for me and my colleagues to study the formation of idiosyncratic associations in the depths of the mind and the ways in which these associations are encapsulated by memory. I hope to use the project to evaluate computational approaches to autobiographical memory and to write computer programs that extract biographical memory from relevant datasets.

Published December 29, 2018


Second Year, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UCSB

My conscious awareness seems paramount in my existence. Indeed, as many philosophers have noted, it is the only thing that I can ever be sure really exists. However, an ever-growing body of neuroscientific and psychological research reveals that unconscious processes play a necessary—and, in some cases, sufficient— role in many of the mental and behavioral actions I had long-assumed to result from consciousness. One surprising example involves the generation and evaluation of creative works.

The human drive to create seems to transpire, at least in part, from conscious thought— humans appear to create with agency and intentionality. However, many discerning creatives have noticed that this is often not the phenomenology of their creative process. Indeed, numerous innovators, scientists and painters have noted that it can feel as though they are channeling some creative “spirit”; they feel in some ways a mere vessel for their creative productivity. At times, I myself have experienced this when creating. If someone were to ask me what inspires the content of my work, I would feel somehow disingenuous saying that “I”—my conscious self— came up with it at all!

Recent psychological and neuroscientific research supports these observations and reveals that creative ideas may precipitate from the unconscious. This was elegantly shown in a series of experiments led by Dutch social psychologist Albert Dijksterhuis. In these studies, individuals are presented with a creativity problem and then are asked to either reflect consciously and deliberately on possible creative solutions or, alternatively, engage in a non-creative task that requires complete conscious attention directed elsewhere. In the latter condition, individuals cannot consciously think about creative solutions, but of course unconscious processes will proceed regardless. After a period of time, the individuals are asked to write down their ideas to the creative task they had earlier been presented with. These experiments show that individuals in the “unconscious” condition end up creating ideas that are more creative. Perhaps even more surprising, follow up work revealed that the unconscious group was also better at evaluating and selecting their best creative idea.

My work has researched unconscious factors that influence creativity and insight, including our mindsets, personality, and even beliefs. It is quite likely that creativity arises from a specific interplay between regions of the brain associated with self-monitoring and attention, so-called executive functions, and regions responsible for broadening possible solutions through tracking context-relevance, abstract reasoning and memory, regions of the salience network. I have often heard it said that creativity may result from a balance of order and chaos; now I am learning that, in neurological terms, this may translate as an interplay between the conscious and unconscious.

Published December 20, 2018

English, UCSB

In his brilliantly educational and entertaining course on human behavioral biology (available on YouTube), Stanford Professor Robert Sapolsky frequently discusses how our neurobiological make-up structures our everyday lives. As someone interested in the function of narratives in human life, two facts stand out to me: the neurobiology of metaphors and the fragility of human memory.

Because the human brain evolved during a time when human existence looked quite different and symbolic communication was far from as sophisticated as it is today, we are doomed to use these same old brain circuits to make sense of our brave new world. Evolution is slow, and we can only work with the tools we have. The effects of this recycling of brain capacity is striking when considering that the same area of the brain (the insula) is activated when you are presented with disgusting food as when you are presented with something morally disgusting. The fact that gustatory disgust and moral disgust are so closely linked in our brain hints at how figures of speech are shaped by our evolutionary history and how they continue to shape our experiences.

Neuroscientific research has also shown human memories to be fragile and flexible constructs. Not only can existing memories be altered by the stories we tell others and ourselves, but false memories can be created by the telling and retelling of narratives, and—perhaps most astoundingly—substances such as ethanol can hinder the formation of the synaptic connections that today are thought to be the material basis of memories. In other words, that last beer the other night might quite literally have prohibited memories from being created in your brain!

These are but a few of the facts that open up for astonishing ideas about the profound power of the symbols we use to understand ourselves, each others, and our surroundings. They gesture toward how much there is yet to discover about what goes on in the unconscious parts of our mental worlds, some tiny corner of which I hope to explore with the support of my colleagues in the Unconscious Memory project.

Published December 14, 2018

Third Year, Comparative Literature, UCSB

I join Unconscious Memory expecting to leave a changed man. The opportunity to study the mind with eminent colleagues from neuroscience, AI and psychology represents not only the chance to develop a deeper insight into human nature but also an augmentation of literary theory worthy of the 21st century. For how do we make sense of our narratives in the context of new insights into unconscious processes?

My present circumstances are an indication of past causes, just as my actions today point towards what tomorrow will look like. Yet when I evaluate former beliefs, even extended inferences are often generalized or affectively charged without my conscious control. Reflecting on my move from Denmark to France and later the UK, I instantly relive a certain optimism, inspired by the light of the cosmopolises and the positive experiences that I had there. Yet I also know the sentiments contradict declarative memories, like how I for years felt alone, lost in the crowds and averse to the pollution. The cognitive situation resembles a false memory of which I have limited control. My awareness of the past feels right, yet also misguided.

The implication is that what shapes my actions today may not be accessible to me in the future. I may constantly produce new narratives. Many of these involve unconscious inferences. The person I see myself as today – based on an evaluation of who I was ten years ago – is used to project into a new future, say that of a professor. The scene is vague: a house by the ocean large enough to host students. I have an inkling of what I want yet I don’t recall actively having painted the picture. Whose brushstrokes are they? Are they based on a description from a book, or a home I once visited? How did this desire take shape?

I don’t know what our project will uncover. Certainly, I don’t expect to permanently solve the mystery of the unconscious. The relationship between the mind and our cultural products like scripts and tools, for instance, point to the complexity of our cognitive capacities. Affects and shared symbols – such as what a house on the water represents – suggests that we are never the sole scriptwriters of our individual lives. To perceive ourselves is to perceive the world and hence there is no reason why analyses of the unconscious should yield a stable insular phenomenon.

This is precisely why we must advance critically and analytically across disciplines. When our approaches to research match the manifold nature of the unconscious, we increase our chances of asking the right questions.

Published November 16, 2018