The Rational Unconscious

One of the greatest scientific insights of the twentieth century was that most psychological processes are not conscious. But the "unconscious" that made it into the popular imagination was Freud's irrational unconscious — the unconscious as a roiling, passionate id, barely held in check by conscious reason and reflection. This picture is still widespread even though Freud has been largely discredited scientifically.

The "unconscious" that has actually led to the greatest scientific and technological advances might be called Turing's rational unconscious .If the vision of the "unconscious" you see in movies like Inception was scientifically accurate, it would include phalanxes of nerds with slide rules, instead of women in negligees wielding revolvers amid Daliesque landscapes.. At least that might lead the audience to develop a more useful view of the mind if not, admittedly, to buy more tickets.

Earlier thinkers like Locke and Hume anticipated many of the discoveries of psychological science but thought that the fundamental building blocks of the mind were conscious "ideas". Alan Turing, the father of the modern computer, began by thinking about the highly conscious and deliberate step-by-step calculations performed by human "computers" like the women decoding German ciphers at Bletchley Park. His first great insight was that the same processes could be instantiated in an entirely unconscious machine with the same results. A machine could rationally decode the German ciphers using the same steps that the conscious "computers" went through. And the unconscious relay and vacuum tube computers could get to the right answers in the same way that the flesh and blood ones could.

Turing's second great insight was that we could understand much of the human mind and brain as an unconscious computer too. The women at Bletchley Park brilliantly performed conscious computations in their day jobs, but they were unconsciously performing equally powerful and accurate computations every time they spoke a word or looked across the room. Discovering the hidden messages about three- dimensional objects in the confusing mess of retinal images is just as difficult and important as discovering the hidden messages about submarines in the incomprehensible Nazi telegrams, and the mind turns out to solve both mysteries in a similar way.

More recently, cognitive scientists have added the idea of probability into the mix, so that we can describe an unconscious mind, and design a computer, that can perform feats of inductive as well as deductive inference. Using this sort of probabilistic logic a system can accurately learn about the world in a gradual, probabilistic way, raising the probability of some hypotheses and lowering that of others, and revising hypotheses in the light of new evidence. This work relies on a kind of reverse engineering. First work out how any rational system could best infer the truth from the evidence it has. Often enough, it will turn out that the unconscious human mind does just that.

Some of the greatest advances in cognitive science have been the result of this strategy. But they've been largely invisible in popular culture, which has been understandably preoccupied with the sex and violence of much evolutionary psychology (like Freud, it makes for a better movie). Vision science studies how we are able to transform the chaos of stimulation at our retinas into a coherent and accurate perception of the outside world. It is, arguably, the most scientifically successful branch of both cognitive science and neuroscience. It takes off from the idea that our visual system is, entirely unconsciously, making rational inferences from retinal data to figure out what objects are like. Vision scientists began by figuring out the best way to solve the problem of vision, and then discovered, in detail, just how the brain performs those computations.

The idea of the rational unconscious has also transformed our scientific understanding of creatures who have traditionally been denied rationality, such as young children and animals. It should transform our everyday understanding too. The Freudian picture identifies infants with that fantasizing, irrational unconscious, and even on the classic Piagetian view young children are profoundly illogical. But contemporary research shows the enormous gap between what young children say, and presumably what they experience, and their spectacularly accurate if unconscious feats of learning, induction and reasoning. The rational unconscious gives us a way of understanding how babies can learn so much when they consciously seem to understand so little.

Another way the rational unconscious could inform everyday thinking is by acting as a bridge between conscious experience and the few pounds of grey goo in our skulls. The gap between our experience and our brains is so great that people ping-pong between amazement and incredulity at every study that shows that knowledge or love or goodness is "really in the brain" (though where else would it be?). There is important work linking the rational unconscious to both conscious experience and neurology.

Intuitively, we feel that we know our own minds — that our conscious experience is a direct reflection of what goes on underneath. But much of the most interesting work in social and cognitive psychology demonstrates the gulf between our rationally unconscious minds and our conscious experience. Our conscious understanding of probability, for example, is truly awful, in spite of the fact that we unconsciously make subtle probabilistic judgments all the time. The scientific study of consciousness has made us realize just how complex, unpredictable and subtle the relation is between our minds and our experience.

At the same time, to be genuinely explanatory neuroscience has to go beyond "the new phrenology" of simply locating psychological functions in particular brain regions. The rational unconscious lets us understand the how and why of the brain and not just the where. Again, vision science has led the way, with elegant empirical studies showing just how specific networks of neurons can act as computers rationally solving the problem of vision.

Of course, the rational unconscious has its limits. Visual illusions demonstrate that our brilliantly accurate visual system does sometimes get it wrong. Conscious reflection may be misleading sometimes, but it can also provide cognitive prostheses, the intellectual equivalent of glasses with corrective lenses, to help compensate for the limitations of the rational unconscious. The institutions of science do just that.

The greatest advantage of understanding the rational unconscious would be to demonstrate that rational discovery isn't a specialized abstruse privilege of the few we call "scientists", but is instead the evolutionary birthright of us all. Really tapping into our inner vision and inner child might not make us happier or more well-adjusted, but it might make us appreciate just how smart we really are.