We are aware of what is in our awareness, and we are not aware of what is not in our awareness – could anything be more obvious? Awareness is our everything and as a result it gets all of our attention, but that means everything outside of our awareness is getting none of our attention. Astronomers of old used to only pay attention to what they could see, but as the technology and science progressed they started paying attention to what couldn’t be seen. Some astronomers now hypothesize that dark matter and dark energy constitute more than 90% of the universe. These “dark” forces are inferred but not seen yet have a huge impact. Our human universe also has forces outside of awareness which dramatically influence our thoughts, feelings and behavior.
We have a natural bias that our conscious mind plays a greater role in controlling our behavior than it actually does. This is simply because it is the part of our self that we are aware of and identify with, our “me-ness,” if you will. Like the astronomers, psychologists are able to use experiments that allow them to observe the impact of the unconscious mind.
David Eagleman is a neuroscientist who delves into the significant influence of the unconscious in his book Incongnito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (1). Early in the book he discusses an experiment where men were asked to rank how attractive they found photographs of different women’s faces. The photographs were very subtly altered in a way none of the men in the study noticed but which served to dramatically influence the results. In half of the photographs the eyes of the women were dilated, and as it turns out, these were the women the men found more attractive (eye dilation corresponds with sexual excitement and readiness).
Chances are that the men might be able to come up with reasons for their attraction, but this would likely be a confabulation not unlike those of the split brain subjects I discussed in Pretty Good Stories. We naturally explain our actions with what is in our awareness; but as a great body of research literature demonstrates, we are significantly influenced by what is out of our awareness.
Much of our behavior is as unconscious to us as what happens within our computers when we manipulate the keyboard or mouse. While we have no idea how we do most of what we do or why, we don’t generally experience life in a state of total confusion. We have evolved to know enough to live our lives and adapt to our world, just as the astronomers of old knew enough to predict the changing seasons. The challenge now is how to make sense of and function in a world where we have discovered “dark” awareness.
John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.