Welcome to the Sacred Podcast, staying connected to your deepest values as you work for change.
More and more people are hearing about and learning details of how we humans are affected by unconscious bias. Believing ourselves to be good moral people and learning about this reality can be jarring, unsettling, and even confusing. If it's true that we often speak and act because of the way our unconscious minds make automatic connections, what does it mean to be a good person? What can a reasonable person be expected to do with this information?
Now, I've had my own ideas about this based on personal experience, listening to others who have been negatively affected by people acting out unconscious biases and by reading and watching videos based on the research into this phenomenon. Most recently, I've been reading a new book. It's titled, Strangers to Ourselves, Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, and was written by Timothy D. Wilson. I was intrigued by that term, adaptive unconscious. It speaks to my own thoughts about what a dilemma we humans face. The dilemma that something which is often very destructive, that gets in the way of living our values, is at the same time essential to our survival and a key to becoming better able to live by our values.
Now Wilson lays out his purpose in writing the book on pages 15 and 16 when he writes, "The mind is a wonderfully sophisticated and efficient tool, more so than the most powerful computer ever built. An important source of its tremendous power is the ability to perform quick, non-conscious analyses of a great deal of incoming information, and to react to that information in effective ways. Even while our conscious mind is otherwise occupied, we can interpret, evaluate, and select information that suits our purposes. That's the good news. The bad news is that it is difficult to know ourselves because there is no direct access to the adaptive unconscious, no matter how hard we try. Because our minds have evolved to operate largely outside of consciousness, and non-conscious processing is part of the architecture of the brain, it may not be possible to gain direct access to non-conscious processes."
Well, if he's right, how then are we to live up to our values as we go about living every day?
An important thing, I think, to think about. Is the way we construct stories about ourselves and our place in the culture around us. We do this on a conscious level. If someone asks you about yourself, whether in a personal conversation or job interview, you can answer them even without thinking a lot about it.
That is because we all are immersed in cultures where we are taught to explain things, using a common logic, that creates connections over time and space and easily weaves it into a narrative. Our unconscious minds also use story. We make instantaneous connections about what we perceive in the world around us and how it might affect us.
This causes us to avoid or move toward a person or situation, and we're not even aware of this on a conscious level most of the time. In effect, we are constantly creating and reacting to stories arising in our unconscious minds. I'll use a recent situation in my own life to illustrate this. I have been doing purposeful walking exercise for several years, for two reasons. I have a desk job and need to get up and walk to stay healthy and productive, and I recently had open heart surgery and my doctors and physical therapists say I need to walk up to 10,000 steps a day and, also do 30 to 45 minutes of brisk walking five times a week.
They advise having some way to keep myself honest whether I am consistently doing these exercises. So I purchased the smartwatch that connects to an app on my smartphone and record steps I take, calories used, heartbeat, and whether I have done the 30 minute brisk walking sessions.
It also records how many hours I sleep and what portions of sleep are deep, REM, light, and how long I was awake during the total sleep period. I used the watch to help me to be regular about these walking exercises, but after about 18 months, I realized it is not very accurate. It regularly underreports how much time I sleep and it is useless for the times I replace walking with time spent on my recumbent exercycle. I found it to be more effort than it is worth trying to combine the two forms of exercise on the app.