March 2011
« Feb   Apr »

Dijksterhuis revisited

One of the easiest errors to make is to get too attached to the words you use and your pet definitions for them. I really, really try to avoid purely semantic arguments. Recent reading, and re-reading, of papers by Ap Dijiksterhuis has made me look again at how I define mind and thought.

When explaining his UTT (unconscious thought theory), Dijksterhuis uses the word mind only once (three time if counting a quote and a common set phrase) – he avoids the idea of two minds in one skull. Instead he talks of two modes of thought, a conscious mode and an unconscious mode. “we do not assume separate systems. UTT describes the characteristics of two processes, rather than two systems or modules.” I can be comfortable with two ways for a single system to work, rather than two systems. And as far as thought is concerned he appears to label the ‘heavy lifting’ of thought as unconscious mode. “However, this does not mean that conscious thought comprises only conscious processes. One could compare it to speech. Speech is conscious, but various unconscious processes (such as those responsible for choice of words or syntax) have to be active in order for one to speak. Likewise, conscious thought cannot take place without unconscious processes being active at the same time.” He has even moved, over time, to reduce some contrasts between conscious and unconscious modes as far as attention and goals are concerned. “…the understanding of the implementation of volitional behavior: implicit learning, evaluative conditioning, and unconscious thought. It is concluded that these processes are goal dependent and that they need attention, but that they can generally proceed without awareness.” So I can live with ‘two modes of thought’ – well really I’m starting to like it. My beef with ‘conscious thought’ has been that thought (the process as opposed to the results) is not conscious, we are not aware of the cognitive gears turning, only the results and sub-results of thought reach consciousness. We are only aware of the model of the world and not the construction of the model. There is only a semantic difference between the two descriptions.

What Dijksterhuis has to say about his UTT is very interesting. He has a number of differences between the two modes of thought. Conscious thought has a very limited capacity - “Depending on the context, consciousness can process between 10 and 60 bits per second. For Example, if you read, you process about 45 bits per second, which corresponds to a fairly short sentence. The entire human system combined, however, can process about 11,200,000 bits per second.” Because of this limit, thought that uses consciousness needs to use schema, stereotypes, top-down control and simplifying methods rather than having all the information available. Ironically “despite the fact that stereotypes are activated automatically, they are applied while one consciously thinks about a person or a group.” Also there is a danger from the capacity limit in prejudgment in order to simplify - “predecisional distortion shows that even when not explicitly given an expectancy, people quickly create their own guide to further conscious thought.” Relative importance also suffers from the limit on capacity. “Conscious thought leads people to put disproportionate weight on attributes that are accessible, plausible and easy to verbalize.

The limited capacity of conscious thought is probably due to the use of working memory, a facility with a very limited capacity. But there are advantages to rule based thought in using working memory to hold sub-results from each step. “The key to understanding why the unconscious cannot do arithmetic is that it cannot follow rules…The distinction between rule-based and associative thinking largely maps onto the distinction between consciousness and the unconscious. During conscious thought, one can deal with logical problems that require being precise and following rules strictly, whereas during unconscious thought, one can…distinguish between following rules and merely conforming to them, and this distinction is very important here. For example, an apple conforms to gravity by falling down rather than up, but it does not actively follow a rule in doing so.” I believe this is similar to the reason that speech tends to be in conscious mode, like math and logic, it is a stepwise, precise, rule based process to put a sentence together.

And finally the limited capacity of the conscious mode means it is convergent while the unconscious mode is divergent. This is relevant to creativity. “Creativity long associated with the notion of incubation (after some initial conscious mode thought).” Unconscious thought can range over fringe aspects rather than being confined to what is centrally important.

But I will continue with my words. I think that four things should be separated: there is (1) thought/cognition, there is (2) working memory, there is (3) focus of attention and there is (4) conscious experience. All four are probably complex groups rather that simple processes. I assume that thought/cognition is basically unconscious. Probably the only path to episodic memory is through working memory and the only path to working memory is through consciousness. The process of attention is likely to direct thought and also determine what is included in both consciousness and working memory. Consciousness is an integrated model of the world, self, now and here, which is accessible to most unconscious processes. And using Dijksterhuis’ words, you could call that two modes of thought – one conscious and one unconscious.

Dijksterhuis, A., & Nordgren, L. (2006). A Theory of Unconscious Thought Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1 (2), 95-109 DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-6916.2006.00007.x

Bos, M., Dijksterhuis, A., & Baaren, R. (2008). On the goal-dependency of unconscious thought☆ Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44 (4), 1114-1120 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.01.001

Dijksterhuis, A., & Aarts, H. (2010). Goals, Attention, and (Un)Consciousness Annual Review of Psychology, 61 (1), 467-490 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.093008.100445

Leave a Reply