The Preconscious Mind

The liminal band, that area between conscious and subconscious, can also be called the preconscious. This gives us a third designation within the mind to add to the concepts of the conscious and the subconscious. It is at least theoretically important to have a transition area like this as part of the mind. Otherwise it would be difficult to explain things like intuition and premonition, or even memory. The term “preconscious” is borrowed from the lexicon of Sigmund Freud as used in his psychoanalytic theory.

I do not mean to imply by this that Freud was right about anything else; there is a lot of Freud’s theories Freud had some brilliant insights but, to my way of thinking, borrowed a bit heavily from his precursors and certainly did not originate the idea of an unconscious mind. In case you’re interested in knowing more: The Unconscious before Freud by Lancelot Law Whyte (1960); The Discovery of the Unconscious by Henry Ellenberger (1970). that have been shown to be wrong. But we can still use some of his basic ideas about the preconscious, the mental province between the conscious and the subconscious (unconscious in his parlance). Actually there are many facets of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory that are like religion—they can probably never be proved or disproved.

There is usually (perhaps always) a good deal of information in your preconscious mind. These are things about which you might be unaware one moment and aware next. Memory is tricky and it is difficult to come up with analogies and metaphors for it since we really have very little solid information about how it works. How we recall something is a bit like the arm-movement thing—we don’t really know how we do it. Try to analyze how you remember something and you will have to conclude, most of the time at least, that you have no clue as to how you do it.

So the concept of a preconscious comes in handy. For example, it is convenient to theorize that all of the memories For that matter what exactly is a memory anyway? And how is it that they can appear unbidden? How is it that an electrode touched to the surface of the brain can result in something like vividly hearing your mother call you to dinner even though that last happened 30 years ago? The mysteries of memory are perplexing indeed. that we can bring to consciousness reside in the preconscious until recalled. Even though we may not be able to remember what’s-her-name at the moment, if it can ever be remembered, it is in the preconscious area of the memory. Or perhaps it is in some sort of “index” in the preconscious that can pull up a memory from deeper regions of the mind.

Events about which we know we could have memories, but that we can never remember, are further down in the subconscious. Hypnosis can sometimes bring those memories up enough for them to be remembered, but often they are beyond recall.

Now that we have touched on the concept of the preconscious, and we agree that it is there, we do not have to spend any more time on it now. Much of what happens at the preconscious level belongs under the topic of the unconscious, or subconscious, mind. This is appropriate because preconscious functioning has much more in common with the subconscious than with conscious awareness. From here on, as a matter of convenience, I will just refer to the subconscious with the understanding that the preconscious is included.

The Spirit of the Machine

Permit me to repeat what I said earlier: Despite a lot of pontificating and pronouncements to the contrary by some psychologists and various other species of mind researchers, we do not know a lot about consciousness. Researchers have found it all too easy to turn a blind eye on what gave them a sense of themselves in the first place.

Behaviorism was in the ascendancy in both philosophy and psychology for much of the twentieth century. Behaviorism is fine if you want to teach dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell or children to stay out of the cookie jar. But it is an inelegant and mechanistic theory of behavior in which mind is a taboo subject.

For the behaviorist, consciousness is like a nasty family secret. It exists but it has to be kept out of sight because consciousness for them is deemed a purely private realm that could not possibly have any relevance to empirical, objective science. Even neurophysiologists during most of the 20th century denied, or at least refused to acknowledge, the scientific legitimacy of consciousness. They were perfectly content to view the brain as nothing more than a physical system of neurons and biochemistry. It was in this climate and mode of thought that philosopher Gilbert Ryle Ryle was specifically being derisive of Cartesian Dualism with the phrase “the ghost in the machine.” Unfortunately, he was widely misinterpreted as meaning “mind” was a ghost and therefore nonexistent. That’s not what he meant. was believed to have derisively label consciousness the ghost in the machine.

Recently, consciousness has escaped from the closet. Researchers, theorists and philosophers now openly acknowledge something that you have probably never doubted: that you are conscious. This change of position vis-à-vis consciousness was probably motivated by post-positivist disenchantment with behavioristic and materialistic reductionism. Or something. Whatever its cause, it may be the most significant scientific revolution Okay, I could be accused of being a bit melodramatic here. But it has been a big deal. Perhaps I should save the “scientific revolution” stuff for the developing field of genomics mentioned earlier; i.e., looking into the genetic bases of some behaviors. Time will tell (if we have enough of it left). since the 17th century when Descartes was going around doing his cogito shtick and sounding smart in Latin.

In opposition to (and often shunned by) the majority of mainstream thinkers, some of us have argued that consciousness was incontrovertibly real and that it was fundamentally irreducible to the mechanistic terms of neural science. Electrochemical impulses from neurons through synaptic gaps have always been woefully inadequate ways to explain consciousness. Indeed, the entire panoply of neurophysiology will never lead us to an understanding of the nature of consciousness, even though conscious processes are dependent upon neural processes. That is to say, no brain, no consciousness. (But it is possible to have a brain with no discernible consciousness, as for example with people in comas and unfortunate cases of so-called brain death. At least we think they have no conscious awareness.)

Now a brief word about “agency.” I see this word cropping up nearly everywhere today and yet there does not seem to be any consensus as to what it means. It is sometimes conflated with consciousness but we ought be careful about that. An entity has agency when it can act autonomously to change its behavior and environment to achieve its goals. This is the kind of definition a behaviorist might come up with to describe consciousness. The ingredients might be necessary for consciousness but they are not sufficient. Robots and computers and all kinds of artificial intelligence also fit and we should resist the current crop of Silicon Valley mavens trying to convince us consciousness extends to anything they want it to.

It is comfortable to say humans have consciousness and agency and at the human level the two concepts might not have a lot of distinction. A rabbit being chased by a fox are both agents and probably conscious. A macrophage chasing down and destroying an invader in the bloodstream might be said to have agency. Maybe. I’m not sure. But I am pretty sure that a macrophage is in no way conscious.

The newly emerged recognition of and respect for consciousness, though, has not yet led to any consensus about what it is or how it works. We are still stumped by mind. Does this scientific ignorance create a problem for us in our pursuit of our day-to-day goals? Not really. As far as we’re concerned at a practical level it doesn’t really make any difference. It is kind of like my neighbor’s wife. She has no awareness at all of what makes her car work, but she still manages to use it to come and go. A lot.

Of course I have my own ideas and I lean more toward the mental side of the mind-body issue. To borrow the terms of Ryle’s unfortunate phrase, I am more tempted to view the machine as a ghost in disguise. It is not inconceivable that the body is no more than a mirage, an insubstantial energy construct that exists primarily for the purpose of making more minds. I am not ready to go quite that far—at least not in mixed company—but I certainly see plenty of evidence that matter is less substantial than it pretends to be.

Our entire conception of the material world as what is“real” is suspect in the light of modern day physics. When we tunnel down into the smaller and smaller elements of which matter is composed, we eventually reach a sub-microscopic level (in theory, anyway) where the concrete elements are so far apart as to be virtually non-existent. And even they do partake of corporal existence, they may be composed of energy fields.

Solid matter is mostly empty space and electromagnetic wavelengths.

This is what makes the apparent solidity of matter suspect and leads me to at least entertain the notion that mind Mind is what houses, perhaps causes, consciousness. Mind is implied with consciousness. The reverse is not true. might be more real than matter. Matter is real in the practical sense, of course. Otherwise you would not bruise your shin when you bump into the coffee table. But is it possible that matter is more like mind than mind is like matter?

Compartmentalization

Compartmentalization is a very common, conscious mode of thinking. A certain amount of compartmentalization is necessary to organize our mental lives. But it can also go wrong and really gum up the works. No one is immune to it.

Consider this conversation I had when I was a student. It was with my primary adviser, who was a psychologist of the first rank, a leading thinker, researcher and clinician. He was a giant in the field, recognized internationally as brilliant and incisive.

One day the topic of animal cognition came up. To make the point that some non-humans are capable of certain limited kinds of thinking similar to the way humans do it, Bruce (not his real name) related an incident with his poodle. He said that a few days earlier he and his wife had gone out to run an errand and left the dog alone in the house. They thought they would be gone only a few minutes but something came up that detained them and they were gone several hours.

They were worried because their dog had a small bladder and they were afraid he could not hold his water for as long as it was taking them to get back home. Sure enough they discovered when they got home that the pooch had not been able to wait. But instead of making a mess like they had feared, he had piddled in a bathtub, much to their relief.

Now here is the part that surprised me. Bruce contended that the incident showed how his poodle had used human-like reasoning to urinate in a place where it would do the least damage and would be least likely to get him into trouble.

I was flabbergasted! That is not at all why the dog whizzed in the bathtub. It is well known that dogs’ bladders and bowels are triggered by the smells of other animals’ waste and that is what they look for when they relieve themselves. Bruce’s poodle had obviously followed the smell to the drain in the bathtub and that is why he had done his business there. It was the smell working on the dog’s instincts, not his reason, that prompted him to take a leak in the bathtub instead of on the carpet.

Don’t get me wrong. I love dogs. I am in fact overly fond of all animals and some of my best buddies have been dogs and cats. I know from experience that they are capable of strange and wondrous things. But I was dumbfounded to hear a neuroscientist of Bruce’s caliber leap to such an unfounded and no doubt incorrect conclusion. His professional judgment, the hard critical thinking for which he was famous, had been corrupted by sentimentality because of the affection he felt for his beloved pet. (This is why most professionals will not treat members of their own family.) He had probably flunked many a student for less.

This student did not deign to point out the error of Bruce’s thinking.

Bruce’s anthropomorphic interpretation of his dog’s behavior is a typical example of how compartmentalizing goes works. It is as if we have separate, different parts of the mind where we store or deal with different cognitive constructs. Family constructs (mother, brother, cousin, father-in-law, etc.) might be in one compartment, probably with lots of sub-compartments, while logical reasoning (cause and effect, mathematics, the principle of Ockham’s razor, etc.) is in another. Religion is in yet another. Jumping across compartments can be difficult for anyone. Most of us have trouble when we try to be coolly logical about our parents or our children, for example.

I consider this tale of Bruce’s dog as cautionary. If a person of his intelligence and psychological sophistication can be blind-sided by compartmentalized thinking, so can we all. This is especially true when we analyze our own mental needs, conditions, and problems. We are easily blinded by what we want to believe or by what it is convenient to think about something. Sometimes our emotions drive us to think or feel a certain way despite any logic to the contrary. As the old adage goes, none are so blind as those who will not see. (That’s will not, not cannot.)

Now on to part 4.