THE COGNITIVE UNCONSCIOUS

By Gregory Mitchell

In a little cited article by Jean Piaget entitled 'The affective unconscious and the cognitive unconscious (1973),' Piaget said, "I am persuaded that a day will come when the psychology of cognitive functions and psychoanalysis will have to fuse in a general theory which will improve both, through mutual correction." This process of combining the most workable of behavioral and cognitive psychologies and the various psychoanalytic theories is still continuing today. Understanding the personality often seems like solving a puzzle from which important pieces are missing, pieces which are impossible even to describe.

An analogy is the puzzle which asks you to make four equilateral triangles with six matches. At first, if you think of the matches as lying flat the problem appears and actually is quite insoluble. But as soon as you think of solving it in a three dimensional space, by forming a pyramid, you find the solution.

The solution to the puzzle of psychopathology and indeed of human behavior in everyday life appears if we free ourselves from thinking in the traditional two dimensions of a person's behavior in relation to his affective life, and instead think in three dimensions: behavior, affective mechanisms, and what has been so sorely overlooked, their relationship to cognitive mechanisms.

It's no wonder that so much has seemed confusing and unintelligible - without understanding the cognitive processes a whole dimension of awareness and responsiveness is missing. If a person's behavior so often seems opaque and inscrutable to observational analysis, this is not simply because of the presence or absence of a particular behavior, but because it derives from an unconscious process below and behind the overt behavior - not ordinarily seen on the surface at the level of the observed.

The Layers of Consciousness
Sigmund Freud divided the mind into layers. Perceptual awareness, he termed the conscious state - the realm of the personal identity or Ego, moderated by the conscience or Superego. But a large part of a person's inner life goes on outside awareness. This unconscious part of the mind includes some material which has been dissociated from conscious thinking, and some that can relatively easily become conscious - the Preconscious contents. The Preconscious is described as having no sense of awareness but it's contents are available for recall. The unconscious contains memories which have been repressed, and under normal circumstances cannot be recalled. The unconscious also contains fundamental creative, sexual and destructive drives, empowered by energy or life force (Libido). The Id is the striving to bring about the satisfaction of these instinctual needs in accordance with the pleasure principle: the desire for immediate gratification.

Suppression, invalidation and refusal to acknowledge what is perceived and real are all defense mechanisms - used to submerge the truth, to keep it from consciousness, to maintain the status quo, to avoid confronting reality or one's true feelings. They are used unconsciously, habitually, automatically - attached to anything we don't want to emerge, to look at or know about: the unacceptable. This, then, is the content of the Subconscious mind - normally unconscious memories, feelings and beliefs that may however rise into consciousness when circumstances call them into memory. The traumatic memories described earlier are one typical example.

Cognitive processes need to be viewed in a new way, from a different perspective, the omission of which gives rise not only to incomplete understanding but to faulty conclusions concerning a person's behavior. Just as Sigmund Freud's momentous discovery consisted of revealing the subconscious and unconscious processes in a person's affective life, the affective unconscious, so now we must go below the surface and reveal the subconscious and unconscious processes in a person's cognitive life that are called the cognitive unconscious. Since the cognitive unconscious is just as allusive as the affective unconscious, its exploration opens up a new dimension both theoretically and from the point of view of psychotherapeutic technique, up to quite recently uncharted and all but ignored by psychoanalytic theory.

The notion that unconscious processes are important elements of mental life is commonly ascribed to Sigmund Freud, but in fact it was an old idea before Freud was even born. W. B. Carpenter ('Mental Physiology' 1862) first used the term "unconscious cerebration" to express the activity of the cortical neurons which are not associated with conscious changes. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the idea of a cognitive unconscious had all but been forgotten. After Freud, the focus moved entirely to the affective unconscious. Carpenter's initial discovery was revived in the 1970s due to the work of child psychologist Jean Piaget and clinical psychologist Melvin L. Weiner, who was versed in both cognitive and depth psychology. Both psychologists recognized and described the cognitive unconscious.

Over the past two decades, a new picture of the cognitive unconscious has emerged from a variety of disciplines that are broadly part of cognitive science. According to this picture, unconscious processes seem to be capable of doing many things that were thought to require intention, deliberation, and conscious awareness. Moreover, they accomplish these things without the conflict and drama of the psychoanalytic unconscious. These processes range from complex information processing, through goal pursuit and emotions, to cognitive control and self-regulation.

Contemporary research in cognitive psychology reveals the impact of nonconscious mental structures and processes on the individual's conscious experience, thought, and action. Research on perceptual-cognitive and motoric skills indicates that they are habituated through experience, and thus rendered automatic or unconscious. In addition, research on subliminal perception, implicit memory and hypnosis indicates that events can affect mental functions even though they cannot be consciously perceived or remembered. These findings suggest a tripartite division of the cognitive unconscious into truly Unconscious (inaccessible) mental processes operating on knowledge structures that may themselves be Preconscious (just below the surface of consciousness and therefore accessible) or Subconscious (accessible given an appropriate stimuli). These processes not only co-exist but also interact in complex ways. Conscious percepts, concepts, rules, knowledge, and so on emerge from unconscious processes, in a bottom-up fashion. It has been suggested that this is the essential way by which consciousness emerges.

In addition, further types of cognitive unconscious function have been described by eminent psychologists. Jung identified the Collective Unconscious (accessible in deep sleep) which connects the individual mind to the wider network of human unconscious thinking; and Assagioli identified the higher unconscious or Superconscious (accessible at moments of heightened clarity and insight) which supports our spiritual intelligence.

The psycholinguist Noam Chomsky argued that human language was mediated by 'deep' grammatical structures which are inaccessible to conscious introspection, and can be known only by inference. Clinical psychologist Nathaniel Branden talks of this in a different way: the subcognitive aspects of thinking. What happens in those few hundreds of milliseconds between a person asking a question and receiving an answer? This is a refractory period in which no apparent conscious thought is taking place, however much is going on, as can be revealed with special skin resistance meters, EEG equipment and brain scans. The thought that comes into a person's mind at the end of that period, a thought that is eventually communicated with a greater or lesser amount of editing, is a final product of a long chain of processes that are essentially unconscious.

It was mentioned in Ken Ward's article about the Unconscious Mind, the meditative practices and in-depth psychoanalysis have in common the desire to open up the depths of unconsciousness to introspection, but they lack means to test the meaning of uncovered images and concepts. Their object is to strengthen the Ego, to make it more independent of the Superego, to widen its field of vision, and to extend its organization that it can take over portions of the Id and direct the Libido. Where Id was, there shall Ego be, and also in aligment with the Superconscious Self. But the guidance of guru or psychoanalyst may be lacking objectivity.

Unconscious intelligence
William Sidis, who had an exceptionally high IQ at just 15 years of age, foreshadowed the idea of the Cognitive Unconscious:

In March, 1911, while walking along a street, I suddenly began thinking about Virgil's Aeneid, and my attention became fixed on the expression "alma Venus" that I then remembered having read in that poem. In that expression I thought particularly on the meaning of the first word. After a few minutes (while I was still on the same block) I began wondering why I thought about that expression so suddenly. Looking around, I discovered that, among the things in the field of vision that I had not consciously noticed was an apartment house called "The Alma." I certainly had no knowledge of the process which I know must have occurred, namely, the reading of the word, the memory that it was Latin, and the memory of the particular expression in which it occurred. Since, therefore, this process had occurred, and it was not within my consciousness, it was evidently a subconscious process. Accordingly, the "unconscious intelligence" within my brain can read and remember, and furthermore, it can remember for half a year, since it had been that time since I had seen that passage from Virgil.

Again, in August, 1913, I was walking through a square in which there was a book-store. This book-store was at some distance from where I was walking, so that I could not reasonably notice what was in the show-window without looking quite hard. That night I dreamed of seeing a book with indistinct lettering on the cover. In the morning, passing the book-store at closer range, I found in the show-window a book with exactly the same sort of cover as the dream-book. This shows that I must have seen that book the preceding afternoon, but I certainly did not notice it. I must have seen it subconsciously, and my "unconscious intelligence" remembered it at least till two o'clock in the morning, when the dream occurred. The appearance of the book in the dream shows moreover that the memory was not only of the fact of having seen the book, but that it was also of the way the book looked: even the indistinct lettering in the dream was probably due to the fact that I had passed the store from a distance.

The "unconscious intelligence" can therefore both remember and reason... it has the two properties most characteristic of consciousness. Laboratory studies of subliminal perception, problem solving, and creativity point to a cacophony of intelligent voices murmuring just below our conscious levels of awareness yet influencing our behavior in subtle ways we are only just beginning to understand. Guy Claxton (in Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind) argues persuasively that this unconscious intelligence is just what we need to handle complex situations, and that our culture's misplaced emphasis on logic and reason to the exclusion of all else is foolish, and even hypocritical, as most scientists will readily admit to abandoning their left-brains on occasion for bursts of nonlinear, inspired thinking. Your intuition is part of your unconscious intelligence and it complements rational thinking and decision making. Antonio Damasio, a neurologist who has studied the links between cognitive and emotional intelligence, believes that intuition is the glue that holds together our conscious intellect and our intelligent action.

In recent years, it has become apparent that the cerebellum (which has traditionally been associated with motor functions) is also heavily involved with memorized information, stored facts, learned skills, and procedures. It is a super high-speed co-processor for the brain, and appears to be the seat of unconscious intelligence, what has been called the "Cognitive Unconscious," and to be particularly involved with the execution of automatized cognitive processes. Thus, brain researchers Henrietta C. Leiner and Allen Leiner call the cerebellum the brain's computer. The cerebellum is essentially a parallel distributed system that represents and processes information in an amodal and holistic manner. Given this, one might expect that the cerebellum would be involved in cognitive processing at a fundamental level. Studies have indicated that the cerebellum contributes to IQ through higher order cognitive processes including the skilled manipulation of symbols, conceptual reasoning and complex planning activities. The cerebellum does not operate at the normal level of consciousness but rather at an unconscious level. The cerebellum and cerebrum may be considered complementary and facilitate optimal cognitive performance by the brain as a whole.

The cerebellum acts to streamline the speed and efficiency of all thought processes. Recent research by Larry Vandervert has explained the abilities of child prodigies in terms of the collaboration of working memory and the cognitive functions of the cerebellum. Vandervert provided extensive argument that, in the child prodigy, the transition from visual-spatial working memory to other forms of thought (language, art, mathematics) is accelerated by the unique emotional disposition of the prodigy and the cognitive functions of the cerebellum.

One of the goals of Mind Development's structural approach is to bring the underlying affective and cognitive structures into awareness and disclose their mode of operation. When the cognitive and affective subconscious are made conscious, a person can develop new structures and fundamentally new ways of feeling, perceiving, thinking and behaving. And with the reality-testing provided by biofeedback tools, the weaknesses of introspection can be supported, to guide the student toward genuine insight.

There is a deep Unconscious of primary experience that is non-experienced - it has not been consciously experienced; this may have elements connected to the human race, through DNA or other mysterious means, as Jung described. Overlying that is a cognitive Subconscious, which is left brained by and large, and an affective subconscious, which is by and large right brained - though there is evidence that the right brain is capable of some types of cognitive tasks with a spatial nature, and the left brain is capable of some emotions such as interest and certain aesthetic considerations. Over and above that there is the Preconscious, which includes our recallable memories and store of knowledge, and which provides a context for the subconscious cognitive and affective resources that emerge given the appropriate stimulation or reminder - a meaning, perception, or feeling that is associated with subconscious content. This enables us to shine the light of consciousness on the deeper mind and draw intuitive insights and creative inspiration, at which moments we are in touch with our Superconscious mind.

The Effect of Trauma on Intelligence
In recent studies, exposure to violence and trauma-related distress in young children were associated with substantial decrements in IQ and reading achievement. A decrement of 7.5 IQ points, as the consequence of trauma, was an average although in severe cases, when children have been picked on and bullied the decrement could be as much as 15 IQ points. According to Bruno Bettelheim in his book Surviving, children experiencing a violent and traumatic home life could be as much as two years behind their peer group in mathematics and reading standards. Some Vietnam Vets suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder were 20 to 25 points down.

The dulling, repressive effect of traumatic memories can, on average, reduce a person's IQ by ten to fifteen points, and in some cases twice that! This methods taught in Mind Development Courses serve to reduce the need for repression of traumatic memories into the unconscious. They do so by developing and strengthening the Ego so that he or she can face up to experiences with equanimity; by increasing inter-hemispheric communication so that traumatic memories are easier to access and reappraise - the memories can then be reintegrated with accompanying revised beliefs and emotional energy; and further by increasing mindfulness so that consciousness rules over reactive emotional responses - and thereby also increasing emotional intelligence (EQ).

The Importance of Intelligence
But what difference can a change in IQ make to a person's life? An IQ of 106 is above average. It means your IQ is higher than 67% of the population. IQ testing is designed to gauge how well you would perform in a school environment. With an IQ of 106 and considerable hard work and motivation, you should be able to obtain a college bachelor's degree.

Even small IQ increases can be significant. We need only look at the statistics concerning the measured IQ of criminals. Law abiding citizens have an average IQ of 102, however the average IQ of convicted criminals is 92, which is 10 points lower than the general population's. In many cases, the low IQ among criminals is reported to be the result of trauma in infancy. If a person is extraverted due to suppressed painful feelings, not to mention peer pressure to conform to a concrete, consumerist, go-getting outlook on life, it is harder to introvert: to look inwards and compare his or her feelings with those of others, so there is reduced empathy for others, such as potential victims. At the extreme this is an autistic state. There is also reduced IQ: less ability to see reason, cause and effect, consequences of actions, right and wrong, since these cognitive abilities require the ability to introspect.

Hirschi and Hinderlang (1977), writing from a social control theory perspective, suggest that lower verbal IQ and lower self-control results in poor school performance, leading to negative attitudes to school and to the possibility of success in life through legal means. The individual then drops out of school and does not obtain reasonable employment. Delinquent activity then results.

Individuals with an IQ of 100 or below are therefore a vulnerable group. The five to ten points IQ advantage they could gain from doing the Basic Courses of Mind Development, would transform their prospect of a successful career.

The average score nationally (USA) for police officers, as well as office workers, bank tellers and salespeople, is an IQ of 104.

While Intelligent Quotient (IQ) tests remain controversial, there is no longer much dispute as to their general capacity to measure certain capabilities. Perhaps the best explanation is provided by the psychologist Brigitte Berger, who claims IQ tests measure not so much 'intelligence' as what she calls 'modern consciousness'. This is the capacity to operate in the highly specialized worlds of modern technology and rationally organized bureaucracies. These core institutions of modern society are produced by, and in turn produce, peculiarly modern cognitive styles: the ability to operate on high levels of abstraction; to break reality down analytically into components; to keep multiple relationships in mind simultaneously; and, especially significant for IQ testing, to relate present tasks to possible future consequences. It's important to realize that even small variances from the norm can have massive ramifications in terms of 'life performance'.

For example, a randomly selected group of Americans with an average IQ of 103 had a poverty rate 25% lower than a group with an average IQ of 100, and disparities of a similar scale were recorded for high school drop-out rates, social welfare dependency and crime. Research has shown low IQ to be the single most important determinant of these undesirable social outcomes.

It is not just the lowest IQ people who are limited in their life achievements. A person with an IQ of 110 can achieve much in America - but they will almost never be doctors, physicists, or college professors. They will be denied entrance to any of the elite US colleges. They will not be mathematicians or brain surgeons. For example, every Ivy League college, for all of their liberal leanings, rigorously enforces the practice of limiting entrance based on IQ (via SAT and ACT tests which are heavily loaded with testing for IQ). Therefore, IQ places limits on one's potential achievements.

Even a small increase in IQ, say 5 or 10 points, could have a considerable effect on life success. A full program of Mind Development could be expected to raise a person with average IQ up to approximated 125. Richard Feynman, widely regarded as one of the most brilliant physicists of recent time who expounded the theory of Quantum Electrodynamics, had an I.Q. of 125. A bright student with an IQ of say 125 could move into the ranges well above 150 and then anything is possible, given appropriate education, motivation and support.

Various kinds of mind development are, therefore, used to heal our woes and develop our artistic and scientific skills. With full mindfulness, the unconscious mind no longer has power to dictate and rule over the conscious mind; the two can cooperate for the greater good.