Have you ever started a diet or exercise program, and quit after a week? Have you ever lied in bed too long when you know you should get up? Ever woken up next to the missing link? Everyone has taken actions that they didn’t consciously plan to do. The reason for this is that different parts of your mind have different agendas. It’s pretty common knowledge these days that there’s a ‘conscious’ mind and a ‘subconscious’ mind. The conscious part is what you experience as being ‘you’. All the other parts of your mind are subconscious, and work away without your involvement.
Having a mind like this quite an interesting experience. The subconscious parts make a lot of our choices, and guide a lot of our actions. But because we only experience the conscious part of our mind, we don’t fully realise this. Plus we are very good at inventing stories and rationalisations, to make it seem like we decided to do all these things in the first place.
How we experience the mind makes it seem like driving a car. The subconscious is the car, and we’re the driver. With this metaphor, we call the shots and decide where to go – the unconscious mind then puts its resources to work in taking us there. We’re driving the car… we steer, we choose how fast we go, and we can change direction at any time. The subconscious can get us from A to B, but can’t choose where B is – all it can do is offer suggestions on the sat-nav, and hope we listen.
In reality though, it’s the other way around – the conscious mind exists to serve the subconscious mind. In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Heidt offers a different metaphor – a rider and an elephant. The elephant is the subconscious mind, the rider the conscious mind. The elephant is a big, burly beast, and will pretty much do whatever it wants. The rider isn’t strong enough to push the elephant around; all it can do is shout and nudge, and hope the elephant will listen.
Thailand Elephant Rider – painting by Helen Carson
The painting to the right, by Helen Carson, illustrates this idea perfectly. The rider has no whip, no reigns – no means of directing the elephant besides a word in it’s ear. The elephant leads the way and goes where it wants – even if the rider doesn’t want to!
Many clever studies have been done to show that the elephant is calling most of the shots. In one famous study, researchers asked people to write down behaviours they thought were characteristic of either intelligence or stupidity. Then each person was given a general knowledge test. Even though the participants had no idea that these two tasks could be related, the people that wrote about intelligence did better than average on the tests.
If you did a task like this, you might think it was a bit mundane. You wouldn’t really care about the characteristics of intelligence… but you’re getting paid, so you do it. Besides, maybe you can get in a bit of daydreaming while you’re at it. But behind the scenes, the elephant is doing some processing of its own, priming you for what might be ahead. The people that wrote about stupidity did worse than average on the tests.
This makes you wonder about news headlines. If exercises like this can affect things like test results, what’s the net effect of headlines like “Financial Crisis!”, “Knife Crime Increasing!” and “Terrorist Attacks”? Yet another justification of my decision not to watch television or read newspapers!
But why does the mind work like this? Why aren’t we in control as much as it seems we are? It’s because consciousness is a pretty new invention, whereas the rest of the mind has been around for a long time. It has survived millions of years of evolution, and been passed through many species. Along the way, bits have been added on and taken away – whatever didn’t work was weeded out. What’s left is a tried and tested formula. The rider is just the latest addition to that design, the latest hardware upgrade. The elephant is better off for having a rider, or it wouldn’t have one, but there’s no sense in reshaping everything that has proven effective for millions of years, just because the mind suddenly realised it can think!
All our subjective experiences, our identities and identity crises are basically the result of this new addition. They are there because they help the elephant to survive, just as things like memory and emotions helped other species’ to survive, at earlier points in time.
In reality though, there isn’t a divided mind. It’s all the same thing, just like the liver, lungs and heart are parts of the same body. It’s only the new rider module’s ability to self-reflect that makes it seem, to the rider at least, that there’s a divide. But as we’ll see, when the rider figures out that he exists, some more practical and useful conclusions can be reached – which is kind of the point of him being there in the first place!