We are living in the middle of a revolution in consciousness. Over the past few years, geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, anthropologists, and others have made great strides in understanding the building blocks of human flourishing. And a core finding of their work is that we are not primarily the products of our conscious thinking. We are primarily the products of thinking that happens below the level of awareness. The unconscious parts of the mind are not primitive vestiges that need to be conquered in order to make wise decisions. They are not dark caverns of repressed sexual urges. Instead, the unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind -- where most of the decisions and many of the most impressive acts of thinking take place. These submerged processes are the seedbeds of accomplishment.
In his book, 'Strangers to Ourselves,' Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia writes that the human mind can take in 11 million pieces of information at any given moment. The most generous estimate is that people can be consciously aware of forty of these. "Some researchers," Wilson notes, "have gone so far as to suggest that the un-conscious mind does virtually all the work and that conscious will may be an illusion." The conscious mind merely confabulates stories that try to make sense of what the unconscious mind is doing of its own accord.
Wilson and most of the researchers I'll be talking about in this book do not go so far. But they do believe that mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness organize our thinking, shape our judgments, form our characters, and provide us with the skills we need in order to thrive. John Bargh of Yale argues that just as Galileo "removed the earth from its privileged position at the center of the universe," so this intellectual revolution removes the conscious mind from its privileged place at the center of human behavior. This story removes it from the center of everyday life. It points to a deeper way of flourishing and a different definition of success.
The Empire of Emotion
This inner realm is illuminated by science, but it is not a dry, mechanistic place. It is an emotional and an enchanted place. If the study of the conscious mind highlights the importance of reason and analysis, study of the unconscious mind highlights the importance of passions and perception. If the outer mind highlights the power of the individual, the inner mind highlights the power of relationships and the invisible bonds between people. If the outer mind hungers for status, money, and applause, the inner mind hungers for harmony and connection -- those moments when self-consciousness fades away and a person is lost in a challenge, a cause, the love of another or the love of God.
If the conscious mind is like a general atop a platform, who sees the world from a distance and analyzes things linearly and linguistically, the unconscious mind is like a million little scouts. The scouts careen across the landscape, sending back a constant flow of signals and generating instant responses. They maintain no distance from the environment around them, but are immersed in it. They scurry about, interpenetrating other minds, landscapes, and ideas.