Queen Mary University of London: To what extent are we ruled by unconscious forces?

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Date: May 28, 2021
From: ENP Newswire
Publisher: Normans Media Ltd.
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,896 words
Lexile Measure: 1290L

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ENPNewswire-May 28, 2021--Queen Mary University of London: To what extent are we ruled by unconscious forces?

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Release date- 27052021 - Dr Magda Osman, Reader in Experimental Psychology at Queen Mary University of London, provides her perspective on this question in an article for the Conversation's new series, Life's Big Questions, co-published with BBC Future.

Sometimes when I ask myself why I've made a certain choice, I realise I don't actually know. To what extent we are ruled by things we aren't conscious of? - Paul, 43, London

Why did you buy your car? Why did you fall in love with your partner? When we start to examine the basis of our life choices, whether they are important or fairly simple ones, we might come to the realisation that we don't have much of a clue. In fact, we might even wonder whether we really know our own mind, and what goes on in it outside of our conscious awareness.

Luckily, psychological science gives us important and perhaps surprising insights. One of the most important findings comes from psychologist Benjamin Libet in the 1980s. He devised an experiment which was deceptively simple, but has created an enormous amount of debate ever since.

People were asked to sit in a relaxed manner in front of an adapted clock. On the clock face was a small light revolving around it. All people had to do was to flex their finger whenever they felt the urge, and remember the position of the light on the clock face when they experienced the initial urge to do so. At the same time as that was all happening, people had their brain activity recorded via an electroencephalogram (EEG), which detects levels of electrical activity in the brain.

What Libet was able to show was that timings really matter, and they provide an important clue as to whether or not the unconscious plays a significant role in what we do. He showed that that the electrical activity in the brain built up much earlier than people consciously intended to flex their finger, and then went on to do it.

In other words, unconscious mechanisms, through the preparation of neural activity, set us up for any action we decide to take. But this all happens before we consciously experience intending to do something. Our unconscious appears to rule all actions we ever take.

But, as science progresses, we are able to revise and improve on what we know. We now know that there are several fundamental problems with the experimental set up that suggest the claims that our unconscious fundamentally rules our behaviour are significantly exaggerated. For example, when correcting for biases in subjective estimates of conscious intention, the gap between conscious intentions and brain activity reduces. However, the original findings are still compelling even if they can't be...

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