by Ted D. Wade
How the conscious mind steers the unconscious
Psychology has always made a big deal of the obvious. One such enthusiasm of recent decades was dual process theory (this actually got a Nobel, though it was in Economics), which tells us, quelle surprise!, that we are each of two minds: the Conscious (System 2) and the Unconscious (System 1).
A bit more of a stunner (no, this time I mean it) is that the unconscious is almost entirely running the show. As if, they say, the conscious self is a rider who can’t even steer the unconscious elephant. Does this mean that consciousness is only good for drudgery like balancing accounts, planning kiddie birthday parties, and coding online shopping carts? I’m here to tell you no.
The conscious System 2 has some power, and it’s easy to demonstrate. To ensure that the present unfolds into the that future you want, your conscious self needs to, literally and figuratively, look where you want to go.
The brain works mostly by prediction. I’ll show examples that the conscious mind makes predictions about where and how you ought to be, and System 1 then does the grunt work to make that happen. Your physical safety depends on the conscious, in effect, steering the unconscious, which in turn steers the body. You, as represented by the tiny homunculus behind your eyes, have some power.
When you’re skiing your path is a series of back and forth turns. As soon as you get going left then you turn your head and shoulders to the right. In effect, you look at where you are going next. Now this seems a little obvious because when you turn your upper body the lower part will follow shortly, so that you turn your skis towards your gaze. But there’s more to it. If you focus on what’s underneath you, such as looking at your skis, or a bump, you are likely to mess up. If you look ahead at your overall path, your mind and body automatically maintain a flowing rhythm of turns to make it happen.
Suppose instead you are riding a horse. Any instructor will tell you: always look ahead in the direction that you want the horse to go. I’m not a rider, so I asked one why. It’s because the horse is “listening” for the subtle shifts of body weight, leg pressure, and rein tension that tell her what you want. The unconscious part of your mind gives the horse the right signals based on your lookahead (and your long riding experience). If you look down at the ground, the signals get confused, and so does the horse, who might even dump you to resolve the ambiguity.
Get off the horse and buckle into the five-point harness in your race car. Speed in racing takes smooth and firm applications of power, brakes, and steering, but these also have to change often and fast. Too abrupt a change will, as the hot-shoes call it, “unsettle” the car. This can unsettle your race, or even your life. It’s a marvelous dance of mind and body, trying to safely avoid other drivers but find and hold the fastest line around the corners. To succeed, however — you guessed it — you have to look where you want to go. Otherwise, given your speed, there will not be time for the unconscious planning of the actions that keep you safely and swiftly on that line.
Time for a change, so out of the car and onto your mountain bike. Whether you are a high flier or, like me, one who wants both wheels on the ground, the requirement is the same. Look ahead to see what line you want to take, what bumps or dips to absorb with your legs, or when a slope requires you to move your butt forward or back to weigh more evenly on both wheels. You see ahead what the obstacles are, and your unconscious applies, just in time, the skills to do it.
My worst crash happened when I saw ahead of me a slot in the rock wide enough to trap a wheel, but then in passing I looked down to “make sure” that I missed it. The wheel went right into the slot, stopping the bike, the energy absorbed by bending the wheel like a taco, and slamming my shoulder into the rocks. I should’na looked down.
Attention and skilled movement
What’s the lesson here? The familiar interpretation is that skilled movement happens best when you don’t think about it. The reason, they say, is that the unconscious System 1 is the quick, automatic part of the mind.
That’s fine, but the other half of this, consciousness, is controlling your attention. The unconscious needs relevant data to make the plans to move muscles correctly.
When you’re moving forward, your future is in front of you. So, paradoxically, in order to to stay in the present, and not fall down or crash, you need to literally look ahead.
In sports, looking ahead might also include ‘keeping your eye on the ball.’ You might also need ‘situational awareness’ about threats and opportunities: the open pass in basketball, the lateral hold in rock climbing. In each case, you see it, and System 1 does it.
We are used to the idea that looking where you want to go, like eye-on-the-ball, is a metaphor for setting and sticking to longer term goals. Of course it can be obsessive. It can bore those around us, even when it leads to our own “success.”
But the principle also applies dramatically in the short term. Focusing immediate attention is a step beyond mere mindful contemplation and towards skilled action. It thus transitions into mental and physical flow.
The conscious you is not a waste of your brain’s ATP. It (at least) has the power to keep the hairy side up and the rubber side down.