Blinded By Science: What Were We Thinking?

All along it has been the unconscious mind churning away brilliantly and undetectably that has raised us above the din

By Bruno Maddox|Monday, May 29, 2006

The jolt was buried rather far back in the newspaper, given its importance: That once celebrated human activity known as Thought, also known as Thinking, is apparently not that useful after all. And that was that. The adjacent article was on another topic entirely, and the space adjacent to that one was an advertisement for women's shoes.

It was a whimperish exit for a tradition with roots stretching back to Descartes, Plato, and presumably beyond. Had you taken either of those two gentlemen aside—not to mention any of the billion souls who have ever stared up at a star-filled sky and taken a moment or two to mull things over—and told them Thought would one day be downgraded to just another human attribute like hair, or nostrils, or jealousy, they would have called you a liar to your face. Thought is what makes humans human, they would have explained. It's the luminous spark of reason that grants us lordship over the animals, endows us with cell phones, and offers hope, even in our darkest hours, that our species will somehow calculate the way forward to a brighter tomorrow. How could a thing like Thought ever be discredited?

The answer is: by a team of researchers in the Netherlands.

I'll spare you as many of the details as I can, but what appears to have happened is that said researchers assembled a crowd of typical Dutch shoppers—sending home, one would imagine, the ones whose shoulder-slung panpipes and Caucasian dreadlocks marked them as liable to freak out in a laboratory setting—and put them through a series of tests to see how they make buying decisions. In one test, the volunteers were split into two groups and asked to choose among four cars. One group was given much more elaborate descriptions of the cars than the other group. Then half of the members of each group spent four minutes in a quiet room, carefully considering their choices. The rest were forced to spend four minutes doing anagram puzzles, in Dutch—which can't be much of a picnic even if you speak Dutch—to distract their conscious minds.

After the test subjects were dismissed and the research team crunched all the numbers, a startling truth emerged: "Conscious thinkers were better able to make the best choice among simple products, whereas unconscious thinkers were better able to make the best choice among complex products."

Thinking, in other words—that mysterious art that made superstars out of nobodies like Ludwig Wittgenstein, Garry Kasparov, and Ralph Waldo Emerson—can safely be engaged in only when one is shopping for a new umbrella. Unless you're prepared to end up owning a car that a chimpanzee would be embarrassed to drive around the ring of a failing circus, you're better off leaving vehicle buying, along with the rest of life's more involved decisions, to the unconscious, that vast, silent Siberia of gray matter that until the very last year of the 19th century nobody even knew existed.

What this means in practice is hard to say. There are those who have for centuries been preaching the benefits of not thinking terribly hard, Zen Buddhists and certain U.S. presidents, obviously, but athletes as well. Countless baseball pitchers have had their careers cut short not by a pulverized rotator cuff or a line drive to the eye socket but simply by thinking about what they were doing. Once a pitcher starts "aiming his pitches," as the commentators call it, their voices heavy with foreboding, it usually isn't very long before he's back riding a tractor near the house he was born in, cursing his mental apparatus and simultaneously using it to figure out how much he can get for the sweat-stained athletic supporter he pilfered from an all-star teammate.

The great British snooker champion Jimmy White (snooker, for the uninitiated, is a version of pool played on a table the size of a football field with pockets the size of pinpricks) was known for his habit of rhythmically tapping the table surface with his ring finger as he lined up his shot. A presumptuous interviewer once proposed to him that it was a timing device, like a drummer's four-beat count-in, a technique to help him marshal his powers of concentration. Not at all, said White. He actually found it incredibly distracting to have some idiot—albeit himself—tapping on the table as he lined up a shot. And that was the whole point. If he weren't distracted, he'd be calculating angles, and every time he had tried doing that, the cue ball had ended up in the audience.

Even among so-called intellectuals (which Jimmy White, for the record, isn't; he once confessed that writing wasn't his strong suit and famously added that he was "not much good at the reading neither . . . either"), the power of mindless thought has always had its devotees. Archimedes came up with the simultaneous theories of density and buoyancy while lowering himself into a bathtub. Sir Isaac Newton may or may not have hit upon gravity beneath an apple tree. "Kubla Khan" supposedly dictated itself verbatim to Samuel Coleridge while he was passed out on laudanum at home and would have been indefinitely longer if someone hadn't banged on his door and broken his trance. That they didn't bang on his door—or even his face, vigorously—after a page or 10 of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is one of the great What Might Have Beens of English literature.

But what of the rest of us? What of those cursed souls who hitched their wagon to Thinking at some point in early childhood and now can't imagine life without it? Should we invest in a library of coloring books and word-search puzzles—the easy ones, of course; no reverse diagonals—and just try to keep busy until our unconscious mind bothers to fill us in on what it's been working on? Are future Nobel Prize recipients supposed to regale the crowd in Stockholm with a lively account of two "awesome" weeks sportfishing in Belize, at the end of which one says, "I'm literally reaching into the cooler to grab the last Corona when boom—it comes to me: the sub-subatomic structure of matter"?

Upsettingly, the answer to all of these thoughtful questions is no. The conscious mind will still have a role in our lives, but it will be as menial as you can imagine. While the unconscious churns brilliantly and undetectably away at its cures for cancer and its Great American Novels, it will fall increasingly to the conscious mind to sweat the small stuff, like some headset-wearing, 20-grand-a-year personal assistant to a globe-trotting billionaire diva. While the unconscious mind deals with ending war and desalinating the oceans, the conscious mind will be entrusted to keep the temperature steady in the apartment, plump the pillows, and cruise online for ever-purer encapsulations of omega-3s. And when the Big Idea finally comes, as surely it will, God help the conscious mind if there aren't sufficient notebooks and sharpened pencils to write the blessed thing down.

If you think this seems far-fetched, that's an interesting reaction, but you're wrong. Already we can see the outlines of our future drudgery in the life-hacking craze sweeping the Internet. There are now thousands of sites, and more every day, listing the tedious nuts and bolts of how to be better servants to our own unreachable selves: take a nap every 25 minutes; watch television standing up; keep a felt-tip pen on the nightstand; walk backward through your house; write a letter to yourself and mail it; make a list of 10 ideas and draw a picture of number 8. All because on some not-too-far-off night you'll jerk awake and find you've drawn a blueprint for number 2 on your spouse's pillowcase.

Yes, it's going to be a lot of hard work, the future, but we'll embrace it. We'll shop for felt-tip pens and binder clips with joy and a sense of fulfillment, our conscious minds working at what we now know is their full capacity. That awful guilt we used to feel will never trouble us again. Thanks to a team of Dutch researchers, never again will self-hatred overcome a young man as he wanders the aisles at Staples, that nasty, sneering voice in his head demanding to be told why he has spent an afternoon considering various shades of Post-it Notes rather than figuring out how to save the world through love.

Because perhaps he is.

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