Sheryle Bolton at Brain Reserves has an interesting post commenting on recent research suggesting that “down time” can improve performance.  In that research, a lengthy rest period after memorization appeared to improve recall performance. 

In her post Sheryle goes on to describe the familiar experience, that we can sometimes solve a difficult problem by “sleeping on it.”  She concludes “Our brains clearly need some down time to work on their own without our conscious interference.” 

The conclusion is clearly right.  Our brains do the vast majority of their processing – and ultimately, our thinking – without conscious interference or indeed any kind of conscious access at all.  Our conscious mental life is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg. 

In fact our conscious mental life is so partial, fragmented and haphazard that it is risky to try drawing any conclusions about what is or isn’t in, or done by, our conscious mental life from observations of that conscious mental life.  Consciousness is an unreliable observer of itself.  Just as we are not conscious of everything around us, we are not conscious of everything about consciousness.

So for example, the fact that we often wake up with the solution to some problem with no awareness of conscious processing of the problem doesn’t prove that it was solved solely by our unconscious minds.  Another possibility is that our conscious minds were involved in working on the problem during those sleep hours, but due to the peculiar nature of sleep, all that conscious work has been forgotten by the time we wake up. 

We know that most of what we are conscious of while we sleep – our dreaming – is not remembered when we wake up.  (Some people use special techniques to try to increase the amount they remember.)   Even the fact that we had that dreaming experience is not generally presented to conscious awareness once we wake up. 

So there is nothing mysterious in having large parts of our mental life go by and, at a later point in time, our having no awareness of it.  At that point, it may as well not have existed at all.

I once had a student who asserted that he had conclusive evidence that zombies exist.  For many months, he claimed, he was one himself.

In the philosophical literature on consciousness, a zombie is a person just like you or me in outward behavior, but who has no “inner” conscious mental life at all.

We had a dialogue a bit like this:

Student: I was a zombie once.

Me: What makes you think you were a zombie?

Student: One day I suddenly became aware that for the previous few months I had had no conscious experience at all.  But I had been going about all my activities quite normally. 

Me: Here’s another hypothesis: during those months, you were conscious in the normal way, but one day (strangely enough) you suddenly couldn’t remember any of that conscious experience.  A bit like waking up from a good sleep – you had lots of great dreams, but you wake up in the morning unable to recall any of their contents, and not even consciously aware that you had any dreams at all.

Student: No, that’s not what happened. I really was a zombie. 

To me, the “couldn’t remember” hypothesis is more plausible hypothesis than the “was a genuine zombie all that time” hypothesis.  Just apply Occam’s Razor.  The memory failure hypothesis requires a one-time mental dysfunction.  The zombie hypothesis requires something very unusual to be going on for months on end. 

So, bringing this back to the main point: people often say that, when a problem is solved after sleeping on it, that this shows that they can solve problems unconsciously. 

To me it is more plausible that they solved the problem with the usual mix of unconscious processing (doing, as with everything, most of the work) and chaotic conscious awareness.  It is just that, due to the nature of sleep, they retained no awareness of all that conscious activity.

Which brings me to a larger point – when it comes to effective thinking, the conscious/unconscious distinction is really a red herring.  Whether activity is conscious or unconscious just doesn’t have much to do with whether it is effective or not. 

The debate “is it better to think consciously about a problem, or let your unconscious mind do the work?” is ill-conceived.

It is obvious that conscious thinking, by itself, is not much help in solving problems. 

In workshops, I often present a problem and ask people to think hard about it. 

For example, you could try the famous McKinsey problem – how would you move Mt. Fuji?  (We don’t use that particular problem ourselves, but it is a good example for current purposes.)

After giving people a while to think about it, I ask: what was going through your mind when thinking about it?  What did your conscious mind DO to help you solve problem?

People generally answer that, on reflection, there were two things going on.  First, they were conscious of the problem itself.  Second, they were conscious of the need to think hard about the problem.  In other words, one part – half? – of their conscious activity was acting like a kind of cheerleader on the sidelines – making a lot of noise, but not really affecting the way the game goes.

Clearly, cheerleading is a waste of mental effort – it would be much better to direct that cognitive activity in more productive ways. 

Often, people do end up solving the problem, and I ask – where did the solution come from? How did you get it?  The answer, generally, is that it somehow popped into their minds, out of nowhere.  Suddenly, there it was.

In other words, even when consciously thinking very hard about a problem, what people are often doing is relying on their unconscious mental processing – what I call the subconsious genius – to simply – magically – deliver up the answer.  

But don’t get  me wrong – the path to better thinking is NOT “just let your unconscious mind solve your problems.”  Because unconscious processing, for all its wonderful strengths, has lots of limitations as well. 

It can solve some problems brilliantly – problems such as what is that thing I’m looking at?

But our native/innate/untutored unconcious mental powers are quite hopeless at many other tasks – such as should Australia become a republic? 

For many, if not all of our most interesting intellectual challenges, unconscious mental processing needs to be augmented or harnessed by something else.   That “something else” is not conscious thought processes – at least, not consciousness per se.  Conscious activity is as likely as not to just get in the way.

Rather, what we need to make our thinking more effective are things like

  • systematic or structured processes (conscious or not) for tackling complex problems
  • augmentation by external resources which can handle those aspects of complex cognitive tasks which our biological brains are not well adapted to handling – such as holding and manipulating complex structures of information in short term memory.

So, ditch the conscious/unconscious distinction.  It is much less helpful than others, such as the important one Sheryle raises at the end of her post:

practice on cognitive process (fluid intelligence) is just as important as acquired knowledge (crystallized intelligence). It takes both to keep our mental edge.