Awareness Is Not a Necessary Stop
If critical information-processing goes on beyond awareness, then much of what we think and do is under the spell of influences we cannot perceive. Freud’s sense that this was so led him to posit that there were three zones of consciousness: the unconscious (by far the largest), preconscious, and conscious. George Mandler, a cognitive psychologist, suggests that Freud’s model fits well with how schemas act to guide attention.P The preconscious is a stage midway between the unconscious and awareness, a sort of backstage area to mental life. Here, says Mandler, there is a pool of schemas at various levels of activation. Which ones are activated varies from moment to moment. The most highly activated schema is the one that reaches consciousness.
An activated schema dominates awareness; it glides from the pool available and guides attention. As you walk down a street, you may not notice a dog approaching, but the relevant schema for dogs would float toward preconsciousness. At the moment you hear a growl, though, the “dog”-or perhaps the “dog bite”-schema becomes most highly activated, and the dog looms into awareness. But while a schema is quiescent in long-term memory, waiting for its moment to come, it is in something very like the unconscious.
For many years, psychologists (other than those with psychoanalytic leanings) doubted that zones beyond awareness existed, or said that if the unconscious existed, its impact on behavior was trivial. This debate broke into public scrutiny when, in the early 1960s, an enterprising advertising man claimed to have boosted sales of Coke and popcorn by flashing subliminal messages during a movie. The psychological community, by and large, hooted.
Subliminal material-that is, stimuli presented so quickly that, no matter how alert and focused you are, you cannot consciously see them-was thought to go entirely unperceived. But evidence for unconscious perception was mounting. By 1971, a comprehensive review of research. literature concluded that subliminal perception is, indeed, possible. At the same time, a theoretical framework evolved that explains how such perception might be possible. By 1977, although some holdouts remained, many cognitive scientists took unconscious perception for granted. For example, as psychologists discussing the issues noted:
The basic question of whether people can respond to a stimulus in the absence of the ability to report verbally on its existence would today be answered in the affirmative by many more investigators than would have been the case a decade ago … largely because of better experimental methods and convincing theoretical argument that subliminal perception … [results] from … selective attention and filtering.
In the ensuing years, the weight of evidence for unconscious processing of information has become overwhelming. The case no longer rests on the weight of theoretical arguments, but on strong. experimental evidence. For example, in 1980, psychologists published in Science data showing that people formed preferences for geometric shapes (a variety of oddly shaped octagons) that they had been exposed to without being consciously aware that they had seen them.” The familiar, the data showed, becomes the preferred -even when familiarity is unconscious.
A great deal of other research has made the same point, that information which never reaches awareness nevertheless has a strong influence on how we perceive and act. For example, Howard Shevrin at the University of Michigan measured brain waves while showing student volunteers a series of words and pictures.” The presentations were made at a few thousandths of a second, presumably too brief for the volunteers to be consciously aware of their meaning. Meanwhile, the volunteers free-associated aloud.
The flashed messages made an impact on free association. For example, when the volunteers saw a picture of a bee, their free associations strayed to connected words like “bug,” “sting,” and “honey”. Although they had no idea what the word or picture might have been, there was clear evidence that they got the message at a level out of awareness, and their schemas were activated accordingly.
Shevrin’s explanation fits well with the working model of the mind we have described:
At anyone time we are aware of only a small percentage of the total stimulation reaching our senses. We actively select what we attend to mainly on the basis of need, interest and perceptual prominence. The selection process itself, however, is unconscious. We experience something “popping” into consciousness but a complex and unconscious process prepares that “pop.” … Taken together, subliminal and attention studies show that our brains are humming with cognitive and emotional activity prior to consciousness.
The model of mind we have generated here easily accommodates this version of the mind’s operations. Schemas work backstage, in the vicinity we have labeled “long-term memory” (another, more general term might be better-like “the unconscious”). The mind is aware of the meaning of an event before that event and its significance enter awareness. In schema terms, this preawareness means that schemas which are activated but are out of awareness organize experience and filter it before it gets into awareness. Once the most relevant schemas are activated, they “pop into consciousness.”
But, as the research results suggest, schemas can guide awareness while remaining out of awareness. We observe only their effects, not their identity. As Freud put it, “We learn from observing neurosis that a latent, or unconscious, idea is not necessarily a weak one.”
This model can accommodate several diverse phenomena that have long puzzled students of the mind. For instance, Ernest Hilgard, a noted hypnosis researcher at Stanford, tells of a classroom demonstration of hypnosis during which a volunteer was hypnotized and told he would be temporarily deaf. While “deaf,” the volunteer did not flinch at loud sounds like a gunshot and blocks being banged together.
One student asked whether “some part” of the subject might be aware of sounds, since his ears were presumably functioning. The instructor then whispered softly to the hypnotized student:
As you know, there are parts of our nervous system that carry on activities that occur out of awareness, [like] circulation of the blood …. There may be intellectual processes also of which we are unaware, such as those that find expression in … dreams. Although you are hypnotically deaf, perhaps there is some part of you that is hearing my voice and processing the information. If there is, I should like the index finger of your right hand to rise as a sign that this is the case.
To the instructor’s dismay, the finger rose. Immediately afterward, the hypnotized student spontaneously said that he felt his index finger rise, but had no idea why it had done so. He wanted to know why.
The instructor then released the volunteer from hypnotic deafness and asked what he thought had happened. “I remember,” said the volunteer, “your telling me that I would be deaf at the count of three, and would have my hearing restored when you placed your hand on my shoulder. Then everything was quiet for a while. It was a little boring just sitting here, so I busied myself with a statistical problem I was working on. I was still doing that when suddenly I felt my finger lift; that is what I want you to explain.”
Hilgard’s explanation (assuming the volunteer is to be believed) is that there is a capacity of mind that can register and store information outside a person’s awareness. Under certain circumstances, that unconscious awareness can be contacted and can communicate, still outside the person’s main awareness. That special capacity Hilgard calls the “hidden observer.”
Hilgard, since the surprise discovery of this capacity, has performed numerous experiments which confirm the robustness of the hidden observer. For example, in a study of hypnotic analgesia, Hilgard hypnotized a young woman who was able to immerse her hand in a bucket of icy water, but reported’ she felt no pain. When Hilgard asked one hand to report out of the woman’s awareness what was going on, the hand filled out” a pain rating scale showing an increasing level of distress, essentially normal pain. Meanwhile, when asked, the young woman was calmly reporting she felt no pain at all.