Will a title come to me when I'm not thinking about it?
July 27, 2018 10:48 AM   Subscribe

I have on at least three separate occasions solved some computer programming bug I'd been working on while I was asleep, dreaming, and awoke still remembering what the dreamt (and correct!) solution was. Is that unconscious thought? I'm not sure I really believe consciousness is really as important as our brains have tricked themselves into thinking it is, or if it really even is a thing at all.
posted by smcameron at 11:00 AM on July 27, 2018 [17 favorites]

So the argument is that 1. No matter how much it feels like something sprang up from your unconscious mind fully-formed into consciousness, such as a musical creation, no matter how you've suspected it lurking and growing down there for weeks before being able to see its full shape, it remains that you can't trace the details of its genesis in sufficient detail to prove beyond question where it came from, so therefore it didn't come from the unconscious. And 2. Since you can't, with trivial ease, send your unconscious mind on a shopping trip for the names of all the countries recognized by the United Nations while you consciously think about something else, therefore the unconscious mind is a simpleton, and good for nothing.

I'm reminded of the old problem with philosophy of mind: When you think about your own thinking, you have to consider the possibility that your mind doesn't work like everyone else's. Because Nick Chater's apparently doesn't work like mine.
posted by sfenders at 11:22 AM on July 27, 2018 [12 favorites]

Related articles if you're interested: Dehaene et al.'s Conscious, preconscious, and subliminal processing: a testable taxonomy and Boxel et al.'s Consciousness and Attention: On Sufficiency and Necessity. I believe the links are not behind a paywall.

Tangential, but Block's On a confusion about a function of consciousness is also interesting.
posted by typify at 11:23 AM on July 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm skeptical of anyone who says "this is how the brain works, QED."
posted by grumpybear69 at 11:23 AM on July 27, 2018 [39 favorites]

I really REALLY hate it when behavioralists somehow assume they know neuroscience.

Please ignore 99% of what he's claiming about the brain. It's not all wrong, but it's mixed up with enough wrong that it's not good.

For example, experiments with split brain patients (where the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres, was cut) offered specific examples of how we can have independent* circuits working on a similar problem. Both hemispheres would "think*" about a situation, and often had different answers.

*These are also simplifications, but are close enough to the exact science for the purposes of refuting his arguments.

Also, fist bump to grumpybear69.
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 11:28 AM on July 27, 2018 [27 favorites]

Spoiler alert – the entire thing hinges on equating simple image processing with deeply complex problem-solving, and this assumption: "The brain is a cooperative computing machine—large networks of neurons collectively piece together the solution to a single problem. Importantly, the cycle of thought proceeds one step at a time. The brain’s networks of neurons are highly interconnected, so there seems little scope for assigning different problems to different brain networks. If interconnected neurons are working on entirely different problems, then the signals they pass between them will be hopelessly at cross-purposes—and neither task will be completed successfully: Each neuron has no idea which of the signals it receives are relevant to the problem it is working on, and which are just irrelevant junk. If the brain solves problems through the cooperation computation of vast networks of individually sluggish neurons, then any specific network of neurons can work on just one solution to one problem at a time."

As a professionally-trained musician (I may not play concerts any more, but my 20 years of training and performing can't be erased), it irks me to no end to read serious people who equate looking at a picture with the years and years and years of discipline, training, study, growth, and sacrifice that go into something like music. "You got a flash of insight about drawings, thus flashes of insight claimed by people who have reached the pinnacle of their highly-disciplined niches have no idea what they meant when they talked about unconscious thought."

I work in a field almost entirely unrelated to my studies now. I say "almost" because playing in music groups has been just as good management training as getting an MBA (feel free to ask directors of mine who have MBAs, they agree). Anyway. Suffice to say, it's happened often enough that I'll be sitting there looking at Excel sheets and quality assurance reports and all of a sudden I think of a Japanese haiku I read way back when. In Japanese. I work in France.

Go on, tell me my neurons aren't doing different things at the same time. I can listen to it and not believe it at the same time, QED.
posted by fraula at 11:29 AM on July 27, 2018 [13 favorites]

The brain’s networks of neurons are highly interconnected, so there seems little scope for assigning different problems to different brain networks.

Yeah that's another of the parts that struck me as particularly nonsensical. To take for example a neural network that I do understand the details of, the original AlphaGo Go-playing AI, the first computer to get good at Go, used two completely separate networks for the two separate tasks that were the most difficult things it needed to do. One of them estimated who was winning the game, its output being a single number representing the "win percentage" for the given board state. The other generated potential moves, its output being a 19x19 matrix representing how good an idea it might be to play the next move at each point on the board.

Newer programs combine the two networks into one, a single neural network that produces both outputs. The advantage is efficiency, since the two problems, despite being clearly distinct in various ways, are not completely unrelated and it needs to do this many millions of times per game. The highly interconnected neurons of the new single-network programs do both tasks at once with no difficulty.

As we start to understand how these simpler neural networks behave, it becomes clear that the brain must in part be a self-organizing network of many such networks and other components, arranged according to some higher-level architecture that for the most part people still have only vague ideas about. That is, if it's not something even more complicated that looks only superficially similar. To imagine such a simplistic limitation to what it's capable of seems irrational to say the least.
posted by sfenders at 11:48 AM on July 27, 2018

Oy. I'm in full agreement with BlueBlueElectricBlue and grumpybear69 here. The author of this piece doesn't know enough neuroscience to actually ground any of this set of disjoined philosophy into a solid scientific argument, and he's doing it from a cognitive science viewpoint that doesn't actually acknowledge how hard it is to do good behavioral experiments.

The core assumption he makes seems to be that if it isn't conscious, then it doesn't happen. I spend a lot of time arguing about this with engineers when it comes to visual perception, but I guess I get to spend time arguing with cognitive scientists as well. It's really easy to think "if I'm not consciously aware of it, my brain (or my visual system) has no information about it", if you don't (and reading this piece, he demonstrably doesn't) consider the fact that to become aware of something you have to have information that you can become aware of.

I think I've talked about this before in the context of visual attention, where there's the idea that you need to attend to something to be aware of it. Except, if attention is an absolute gateway to awareness, how do you know where to attend? There are a few different arguments here; e.g., you attend to what's salient in the scene (ok, so you must have some awareness of the world beyond the focus of your attention, but "salient" is kind of a nebulous term), or your attention is captured by whatever is relevant to the task at hand (how this works, and when it works is a separate question), or you use all the information you're taking in to guide attention to where you need to know more about something in the scene.

What he's arguing is a really strong form of the attention = awareness argument, except there's no room in it for how attention knows where to go. Basically, you magically become aware of things (like the Dalmatian blending in to the background) without any mechanism for how vision (and therefore your conscious visual perceptions) get to that endpoint. He thinks the destination is all that matters, without realizing that the journey is essential.
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 11:58 AM on July 27, 2018 [12 favorites]

When I was taking Real Analysis in college, the professor assigned five problems (usually proofs) due every class, which met three times per week. My strategy was to do as many as I could before bed. Usually one or two remained unsolved. A surprising number of times I would wake up in the middle of the night with the answer to at least one of the problems. That sure seems like the unconscious mind was at work to me. I believe some mathematicians refer to this phenomenon as turning over the problem to “the night shift.”
posted by haiku warrior at 12:00 PM on July 27, 2018 [9 favorites]

I'm not even close to being a neuroscientist, but in my experience, supposedly "new" ideas come to me as a writer all the time when I'm simply walking down the street listening to music. I'm focusing most consciously on the music, not at all thinking of the piece; in fact, I haven't even begun thinking about the piece before taking the walk. I attribute this to subconscious synthesis of information and emotion into metaphors, which are then woven into a narrative.

Maybe I misunderstood his argument, but I don't see how that relates to his example of actively focusing on visual recognition of patterns, then momentarily revisiting it and suddenly visually recognizing a pattern in an instant. Generating a creative idea, which involves the synthesis of so many pieces of information and so many levels of translating and connecting one concept to the next while doing something else is far different than visual recognition of a seemingly distorted/obscured pattern.
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 12:40 PM on July 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

Hmm, I don't know about this. I know that I've written songs, or heard mystery music in dreams woken up and played the music and had a new song.
posted by evilDoug at 1:14 PM on July 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

I don't necessarily disagree with the author, I do think that often-times a "flash of inspiration" is attributable to putting down a problem and coming back to it with a fresh slate. But I don't understand his argument that the brain mechanically can't process two things at the same time, because each neuron wouldn't "know" which problem it was working on. But then he says:

Routine and highly practiced activities aside, the cycle of thought can attend to, and make sense of, only one set of information at a time.

That's a pretty big caveat to just set aside. His implicit argument is that composition or developing mathematical proofs is something that can't become routine or highly practiced. It seems obvious to me that they are, so if I can drive a car through a new area without consciously thinking about all the steps of driving a car, why can't I solve a novel proof without consciously thinking through all the steps of the proof?

A “flash of inspiration” is better termed a “flash of suspicion.”

This is where I fucking lost it. I think this guy is taking the reporting of subjective experiences way too literally. I think anyone who has had a "flash of inspiration" that worked out, can also say they've had "flashes of inspiration" that didn't work out.
posted by muddgirl at 1:27 PM on July 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

Peter Watts would disagree.
posted by Splunge at 1:29 PM on July 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm with the folks who aren't finding his argument persuasive at all.

Among the many other issues, there is the fact that the tests mentioned at the end of the article are don't support his conclusion as to the examples he gives.

Essentially, his premise is that the brain can only do one thing at a time, and uses those tests, and misguided assumptions about how the synaptic activity in our brains corresponds to its higher functions, to support that idea.

All that those tests do support is the idea that the brain can't perform a task "unconsciously" while performing a similar task consciously. Combined with variant tasks, one might even be able to show that brains aren't good at performing one intellectually intensive task unconsciously while performing another consciously.

But the idea that our brains (or at least mine, I can't speak for everyone else) don't process unconsciously is, frankly, ridiculous. The phenomenon we call muscle memory is largely a matter of us not having activity going on in our brain that doesn't enter our consciousness, isn't it?

When I walk, I don't have to think about walking. I don't even necessarily have to think about where I'm going, if it's habitual enough. I can arrive at my destination and have no memory of the walk there, if I'm sufficiently engaged in other thoughts. But my brain was most definitely managing my legs that whole time.

When I injured my hand badly, I couldn't get into some of my accounts for a while, because I didn't know my passwords. I would just decide to type my password and do so. I didn't need to know it. I was able to piece them together, eventually, by somaticizing (?) ( whatever the somatic equivalent of visualizing is) the act of typing in the password.

Relatedly, when I type, I don't think about the finger motions, or even the letters I'm typing. I only conscious of the words. This leads to me typing random homophones at times. I have to skim everything I write for (to, two,too) and (their, they're, there), if the words are really flowing.

I also have a non-motor skill related example. When my kids were tiny, I would sometime need to sing to them to get them to sleep. And they both went through stages when this could take an hour or more. They'd get past the point where they needed active attention, they just needed the soothing sounds, so I would read, while continuing to sing. When I reached the end of a song, I'd have to stop reading for a moment to pick a new one, or loop the same one, but during the song, I was really only aware of what I was reading. To the point that sometimes I'd be surprised when I reached the end of the song. The song that I was singing.

Are more intellectual tasks not subject to this? It could be possible, I suppose, but the author doesn't provide any persuasive evidence that that would be the case. I remain unconvinced.
posted by Tabitha Someday at 1:36 PM on July 27, 2018 [9 favorites]

I was taking an advanced undergraduate abstract algebra course from a professor whom I liked and admired, and which was graded one third homework, one third in class tests, and one third final exam.

I missed a couple of classes early in the semester, and because the prof knew me and had expectations of me, I felt guilty and didn't go back until the first exam, on which I did well, and the same for the second exam, on which I didn't do quite as well, and by this point I hadn't done any of the homework though I'd looked at it and was confident I could do most of it at least.

So on the weekend before the last week of the class prior to final exam week, I did all the homework -- and quite a few of the problems were a lot trickier than I had expected -- went to class and handed it in, and the prof accepted it, but with very much a raised eyebrow.

But I was pretty sure I had to do very well on the final to preserve my straight A record in my math major, but of the eight problems on the exam there was one I could not solve even though I'd spent almost 40 minutes of the 90 minute exam period on that problem alone. For the last 20 minutes of the exam it was just me and the professor in that stark white room, because all fifteen other students had finished and left.

With a couple of minutes left, I despaired and said "I can't get that group theory proof!" and put down my pencil; he looked up and said "well, you still have a couple of minutes", but I was just done, and yet I found myself picking up the pencil and writing down about five lines which were mere alphabet salad with equals signs, and l left thinking 'well, there goes that'.

But when I got the exam back, I'd gotten a perfect score, the only one in the class, and he'd written "very elegant!" next to my letter salad -- but I still could not understand it -- and it took more than an hour and lots of looking through my books that night at home before I was convinced that I (or somebody!) had proved that theorem.

And that's actually been a motif of my entire life.
posted by jamjam at 1:53 PM on July 27, 2018 [17 favorites]

On the sidebar there's a link to This Man Says the Mind Has No Depths in which the kernel of truth on which this tissue of lies is constructed is more clearly evident. The various unconscious parts of the mind do not, in general, have quite so much in common with the type of conscious thought he identifies as being all of thought as is sometimes assumed. Neither, I would suggest, does conscious thought.
posted by sfenders at 2:01 PM on July 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

According to the biographical snippet at the end, Nick Chater is a professor at a business school.

And since the validity of Laissez Faire economics depends on assuming all economic actors are fully rational, which seems scarcely compatible with the existence of an unconscious, I think we can't be too surprised that he denies an unconscious exists.

Is he up for tenure anytime soon?
posted by jamjam at 2:26 PM on July 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

Essentially, his premise is that the brain can only do one thing at a time

Obvsly he's not a full-time parent.
posted by Thella at 2:58 PM on July 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

My assumption on seeing this post was that this article, which I still haven't read, is primarily pixel bitching about the definition of the word unconscious, and judging by the comments I was not that far off.
posted by Caduceus at 4:05 PM on July 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

I’ve been using the phrase “arguing over pixels” since my web development job at excite.com in 1999, I love your term way better Caduceus.
posted by nikaspark at 4:07 PM on July 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Honestly, I’m not 100% sure there’s such a thing as conscious thought. So much of what we think we do “consciously” seems to just be our conscious mind taking credit for shit it had nothing to do with. Maybe that’s all there is....
posted by edheil at 4:11 PM on July 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

Also, scientists correct me if I'm wrong, but if there were no sub-level of consciousness, wouldn't we be aware of all the activities that the brain is directing in our body while we're thinking of something? And wouldn't we be aware of all the simultaneous processes as they happen in real time? IE me being aware of how I'm visually processing this page? If we weren't completely bombarded by all this information, then where would it be processed?
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 4:15 PM on July 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

How would he describe the work of real-time translators? Aren't they essentially parallel-processing what they are hearing and what they are saying?
posted by muddgirl at 4:28 PM on July 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'd say you've got it right, GospelofWesleyWillis . My favorite version is "Do you consciously construct the world by stitching it together across your eye movements?"
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 4:42 PM on July 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

METAFILTER: primarily pixel bitching about the definition of the word unconscious
posted by philip-random at 5:29 PM on July 27, 2018

God, there is pretty literally no sentence in this piece that doesn't manage to annoy me. This is shallow, it's pretentious, it's arrogant in its constant implication of 'let me explain'. It's the worst kind of pop sci. It makes very little connection to actual science, and it uses philosophy only as a source of fancy words. Which are all slightly diminished in content now, just because this exists. Gah.

Worst of all, it keeps buying into all the ideas it's trying to refute. Let me explain, using introspection, how introspection sucks as a tool of scientifically examining the mind. Which is a fact that has been known for many decades, but it's certainly interesting as a novel technique to bite yourself in the ass. Also, let's assume the mind divides neatly into conscious and unconscious thought. Then let me annoyingly explain that the thing whose existence I just assumed for the sake of my argument can't possibly exist, given my initial assumption. Gah.

The one interesting thing is the Hindemith concept of a whole landscape being revealed in on flash of lightning... which, counter to intuition, is physiologically impossible, and not how vision works at all. Which could have been used in support of something here, but predictably wasn't. Gah. Fuck this.
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 6:03 PM on July 27, 2018 [7 favorites]

Another example of humans parallel processing similar tasks: I once read about American intelligence analysts during the cold war who'd work duty shifts listening to intercepted Eastern European radio. Two stations per person, one for each ear of the headphones. Plus taking notes for whatever they thought was important.
posted by traveler_ at 6:59 PM on July 27, 2018

"I have on at least three separate occasions solved some computer programming bug I'd been working on while I was asleep, dreaming, and awoke still remembering what the dreamt (and correct!) solution was."

Going off at a right old tangent here, but only last week I had a lesser version of this where I didn't actually solve any problems but I did dream I'd invented and played a funny little anagram game, yet when I woke up I could still remember it and unlike 99% of dreamstuff it still just about made sense.

The game was trivial, take it in turns to find short words (5 letters is best) such that the first and last letters form a "word" (of sorts) and so do the remaining middle letters. A lot of latitude is allowed, the examples I remembered dreaming were "merry = MY ERR" and "happy = HY APP", which I could just about imagine/excuse as a "Hello, World!" message from a beginner mobile developer. I suspect in the waking world skill in justifying your phrase to the other players might be the main focus of the game.

Trying to think of a good, different one now all I've come up with is the eternal exhortation of the librarian, i.e. "south = SH OUT". Like I said, off on a complete tangent, but I'm glad you mentioned your experiences and so reminded me to write ("write = WE RIT") mine down somewhere ("where = WE HER") which I forgot to do at the time.

God help me I swear I am going to read the article and other (other = "OR THE") comments to find out what we're all meant to be talking about now.
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 7:24 PM on July 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

I've just realised that "doctor = DR OCTO" and my mind is blown and I am stopping this derail here, sorry.
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 7:28 PM on July 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

This essayist is fond of blanket, unsupported statements and appears profoundly uninformed. For example, he says "Until Freud, the very idea that there could be thoughts we are not aware of would have seemed bizarre to most people. The idea that the brain is teeming with activity which is just like conscious thought, but not actually conscious was a radical idea". He appears entirely unfamiliar with the legacy of several hundred years of Western theory and the philosophers and psychologists proceeding Freud who elaborated the unconscious, such as Leibniz, Kant, Herbart, or Nietzsche for example. It's not even that difficult because there are books conveniently named The Unconscious before Freud. The Germans were busy publishing studies such as The Philosophy of the Unconscious in 1870.
posted by meehawl at 7:40 PM on July 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

Blimey, I unconsciously managed to poop in this thread. I will say that comments unsympathetic to the article here are of a better standard than those over there.
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 7:50 PM on July 27, 2018

I still don't see those pictures to be what he says they obviously are.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:33 PM on July 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Last week, I had a dream I was sitting on my bed getting ready to eat a piece of pork on a plate, and a policeman in uniform suddenly came into the bedroom. I asked him if he wanted some, cut the meat in half and gave half to him on another plate along with some napkins.Then he was abruptly on the bed, and somehow got the sheet so wrapped around him I could only see his eyes.

At that point I woke up and asked aloud, rhetorically: "what the hell was that?", and an inner voice answered: 'undercover cop!' rather impatiently, and then, more diffidently: 'pig in a blanket', though that's a term I think it's wrong to use against police at any level.
posted by jamjam at 12:02 AM on July 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

So, this guy seems to have no understanding of what Freud even meant by the unconscious (or why it is important). The unconscious is fundamentally Other to the conscious self, not an extension of it, or a background processor to handle other business. He seems to think that the unconscious ("if it existed") would be under the control of the conscious mind, that we'd be able to give it tasks to do and let it go off and do them on its own -- that it would apply the same problem solving techniques that we would consciously apply to the task. Like it's a little helper, a Mini-Me conveniently located in your brain. But that's exactly NOT what the unconscious is or what it does, so this guy is starting from the wrong premise to begin with.
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:49 AM on July 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Task: demonstrate that there is no such thing as unconscious thought.

Method: handwave furiously while using the words "thought" and "consciousness" more or less interchangeably until your audience has become sufficiently distracted from the usefulness of the distinctions usually drawn between their referents.

Job done, tick.
posted by flabdablet at 1:30 PM on July 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

I'm actually of the opposite opinion - that there's no such thing as conscious thought, but rather a ragbag of habits, twitches and flinches we've developed to interface with the world, rather like a hermit crab's "shell". This is most obvious to me when I find my mouth is saying the opposite of what I actually think, but I find I can't stop it.

Anyway, the author of this piece is an example of someone who thinks that there's nothing more to him than that personality mechanism, rather like a receptionist who believes they're the CEO because they talk to all the customers and important contacts as they go in and out.

There may well be a governing consciousness in me, but I'm convinced you're not going to find it in the bundle of habits that eats too much ice-cream, surfs the internet compulsively and witters on endlessly about things of which it's completely ignorant. This comment being a case in point, I suspect.

(Please note: this point of view is unscientific in the extreme and philosophically unsound, but it makes me happy, so I don't care.)
posted by Grangousier at 3:10 AM on July 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

The first time I took the GRE was when they were still on paper. During that section with all the logic problems* I'd faithfully draw out my diagram and manage to reason my way to answer about 3 of the 5 or so questions for each problem. I'd give up at that point, turn to the next problem and start it, then turn back to the first one, look at the questions, and instantly know the answer to the two I'd left blank, without having consciously thought about them for a few minutes.

I got an 800 on that section. You can't tell me that there wasn't some reasoning going on beneath the surface. And then the next time I took the GRE, it was on a computer, where you're not allowed to turn back to problems you hadn't finished and I hated my eventual score so much I don't remember it. Bah.

*I don't remember the name of it, but it was full of problems like "Alf, Barbara, Cecily, Evan, and Frank are at dinner. The one in purple is having the pork, Alf is across the table from the vegetarian, Cedric and Evan are brothers, so which guest drove the Buick?" That sort of thing.
posted by telophase at 1:12 PM on July 29, 2018

telophase: I believe it was called "Logical Reasoning" or perhaps "Logic Games." They removed it many years back and replaced it with the writing section. The LSAT has a "Logic Games" section; it's basically the same thing as the old GRE's version.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:28 PM on July 30, 2018

"I'm actually of the opposite opinion - that there's no such thing as conscious thought, but rather a ragbag of habits, twitches and flinches we've developed to interface with the world, rather like a hermit crab's "shell". "

I am of the belief our thoughts themselves are merely complex internal reckonings with our bodies actions. You make decisions before you even consciously decide to decide anything, most of the time we're retrofitting our actions in the frame of free will, which is just a crazy illusion we do for ourselves.
posted by GoblinHoney at 12:47 PM on July 31, 2018

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