WhyHumanLifeMakesSense.com - Chapter summaries - 3. How does our mind work?
Chapter summaries

3. How does our mind work?

I begin this chapter with questions whose answers are profoundly revealing. Here is the first question: Can you decide to know something? I invite you to pause to answer the question.

The answer is no. We can try to learn something, but we can't decide to know something. For example, you know that you're reading this page, but you didn't decide to know that you're reading it. A person who says that they can decide to know something is insane. This reveals that cognition is involuntary.

Here is another question: When you're awake, you can decide not to evacuate your bladder, but when you're asleep, how does your mind prevent evacuation?

And here is another: When you hear a language that you donít understand, you hear a sequence of sounds, not a sequence of words. By contrast, when you hear a language that you understand, you hear a sequence of words, not a sequence of sounds. Why?

The answers to the questions reveal that in addition to the volitional, conscious facility of our mind, whose activity we directly observe and control, we also have an automatic, unconscious facility, whose activity we don't directly observe or control. I refer to this model of mind as the automatic-volitional theory (AVT).

The adage practice makes perfect illustrates the relation between the volitional unit and the automatic unit. The volitional unit imposes the discipline of practice on the mind so that the automatic unit will learn the respective skill to perfection. The operations of the automatic unit are essential for skill development in all activities: perceptual, intellectual, and behavioral.

Under the supervision of the volitional unit, the automatic unit is continuously engaged in predicting observations in order to competently execute operations in order to achieve the goals of the mind. Although the volitional unit periodically sleeps, the automatic unit never sleeps, always maintaining the basic bodily functions that are essential to life, as well as maintaining learned functions, such as bladder control.

Decision-making works as a continuous flow of propensities that are generated by the automatic unit under the supervision of the volitional unit. When it comes time to make a decision among alternative goals that we are considering, we flow with the alternative having the greatest propensity.

The volitional unit supervises the automatic unit using two processes: focusing attention and approving or disapproving an urge to act. The volitional unit can focus the attention of the automatic unit, and the volitional unit can approve or disapprove a proposal of the automatic unit. We feel such a proposal as an urge or impulse.

Cognitive coherence theory (CCT) provides a simple, unifying explanation for all altered states of consciousness, whether caused by sleep, drugs, oxygen deprivation, or anything else. Cognitive coherence theory is as follows. Under the supervision of the volitional unit, the automatic unit strives ó in terms of the mindís goal tree ó to make sense of the ongoing brain activity, whatever it may be.

Decades before Sigmund Freud, Henry Maudsley developed a model of the automatic, unconscious operations of the mind. Using the concept of automaticity, we can predict both unconscious innate propensities and unconscious learned propensities. Freudís ideas of ego, id, and superego are unnecessarily complex constructs that we can discard. Furthermore, rather than viewing the mind as fundamentally dysfunctional and uncontrollable, in view of AVT, we can appreciate the mind for the competence, the efficiency, and the grace that human intelligence is known for.

Reference citation.  Philip Bitar, adapted from Why Human Life Makes Sense, Editions 2/3, 2012/2015, p. 144-145/94-95, 189-190/181-183, posted at www.WhyHumanLifeMakesSense.com, 2012-10-15, updated 2015-03-18.