Strangers to Ourselves

Consider that at any given moment our five senses are taking in more than 11,000,000 pieces of information.  Our eyes alone send over 10,000,000 signals to our brains each second.  Yet, even the most liberal  estimate is that we can process consciously about 40 pieces of information per second.  So it is obvious that a vast amount of information is outside our awareness.  How do we deal with this enormous amount of information that is outside our awareness?

Strangers to Ourselves:  Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious   by psychologist Timothy D. Wilson addresses this question.  It is only fairly recently that psychologists have become aware of this question.  Freud posited the unconscious in his psychodynamic theory, but this is in the clinical context.  The unconscious is ubiquitous and, hence, we are strangers to ourselves.  Strangers to Ourselves is an academic book, yet it is eminently readable.  It also addresses techniques for learning about this vast territory of unconsciousness in ourselves.

Wilson provides historical background in psychology and philosophy.  Whatever it is, this unconsciousness is adaptive.  Without it, we never would have survived as a species.  He has a chapter titled “Who’s in Charge?” as there are those who would maintain that our conscious mind is all an illusion.  We are like passive viewers of a movie that develops in our unconsciousness mind.  They would argue that explanations of what we did and why we did it are post conscious explanations based on what was seen in the movie.  Although there are times when data indicate that this might be the case, this is certainly not Wilson’s view.  Wilson argues that we should be in charge, but to do so we need to become familiar with our unconscious selves.

He has a chapter on knowing who we are.  He reviews relevant research and provides guidance on getting a better understanding of who we are.

Another chapter is on knowing how we feel.  Now you might think that this is a stupid question as, of course, we know how we feel.  Wilson will present evidence that this is not always the case, and we need to make an effort to come into contact with our true feelings rather than how we might think we feel, as our thinking might be misleading.

Introspection and self-narratives are techniques that can be used to come in contact with ourselves.  Wilson reviews research and techniques.  We can also learn about ourselves by looking outward and using how others react to use to foster a better understanding of our own self.

The final chapter is on observing and changing our behavior.  This is difficult to do, but it is an exercise that we should engage in throughout our lives, and Wilson provides sound guidance on how to do this.

I think this book should be read by everyone capable of understanding it,  and it should be  translated into as many languages as possible.  Courses on this topic should be offered in colleges.  And I would argue further that these topics and concept should be introduced in high school.  Were these activities undertaken, the ramifications could be impressive and widespread.

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