The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
March 2011 – Vol. 14 Issue 1
The snow-covered street was cold and completely deserted. It was the middle of winter, if I remember rightly, long ago, in the little fishing village at the edge of the former Zuider Zee, where I lived at the time. The handsome bell tower rolled nine sonorous strokes through the inky darkness. The sound, carried hither and yon on clouds of fog, continued to reverberate before dissipating into space. Houses and ships assumed strange and mysterious shapes; the soft gleam of a gas light cast a hazy luminescence on the housefronts, creating fantastic shadows that appeared to be dancing through one another, becoming in turn darker and lighter. The day’s noises had almost died away. Then, in the silence, one could hear – first from far away but slowly coming closer through the winter night – the almost magical calls of flocks of wild geese flying overhead. It is a call that stimulates another dimension of consciousness, and at times you can feel this very strongly.
We may well wonder what it is that really stirs us, that makes us look up and listen so intently. Is it not the essence of that Presence which thrills through infinity and is the cause of the awe-inspiring radiance of the firmament, to which these birds also react and by which they are guided in their migration? And does it not also set a soul-string vibrating in the depths of our own heart, so that in a flash we feel the oneness of all that exists? We then know with certainty that not the smallest thing can be disturbed without affecting the greatest, nor can the disturber fail to reap what he deserves.
The truly universal oneness of all that lives, visibly and invisibly, is a very, very ancient thought which at this time has revived because of a deeply felt longing in the human soul, whether we are aware of it or not. It works to change the false notion that “I am different and better than you,” which we have built up, by reaching out from heart to heart. The realization of this portent into a living force among us seems more hopeful than ever before; with its help and with faith in ourselves justified, we will restore mutual trust and respect and reinforce it in the future among individuals as well as among nations: a spontaneous and cleansing communication, with or without words, will above all serve toward uniting mankind instead of separating each person from others.
We can do it, if we want to, by our free will, because each human being who opens himself to this can be guided by the Presence – the great mystery – which we call the divine and whereof an indestructible core is inborn, described by John as the Light within us. Today there is challenge and great opportunity; for just “when the night is darkest, the stars shine brightest.” The essence of the Light of the “star” in that Silence and stillness abides in the depths of our hearts. – Wim Rinsma
Interfaith Discussion: Tending Adam’s Garden Study/Dialogue Circle continues Sunday, January 9, with “What Must Humans Do/ Be to Resolve Conflict Peacefully?” It will be from 3:30 - 6 p.m. at St Peter's United Methodist Church, 17222 NE 8th Street, Bellevue. For more information or to RSPV, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. (flier)
Join us one Tuesday a month for informal conversations exploring major ideas that have influenced human thought and actions through the ages. The Unconscious and Subconscious will be our topic this month. We’ll be discussing such questions as: How great is the role of unconscious perception and cognition in our motivation, choices and awareness? How has the concept of the unconscious developed, and what are researchers today learning about it? How is it related to conscious awareness and our sense of self? Is language necessary for consciousness? What are some useful models for representing the human mind? Would it be an advantage to be more aware of the contents and functioning of the unconscious? Is there a collective unconscious? What about subliminal perceptions, dreams, hypnosis, suggestion, automatic writing? (Quotes on this topic.) We hope to see you there!
April 5: The Atomic Theory
May 3: The Examined Life
In the 1950s marketers sponsored tests on whether the detergent in a blue box or the one in a yellow box was better. The yellow-boxed soap won hands down, with people listing many specific pluses. The detergent in both boxes, however, was the same! The box color influenced users’ judgment without their knowing it, and their minds made up all kinds of reasons to justify how they felt.
How much do such environmental factors affect our actions, judgments and choices unawares? Cognitive research has demonstrated that “most of a person’s everyday life is determined not by their conscious intentions and deliberate choices but by mental processes that are put into motion by features of the environment and that operate outside of conscious awareness and guidance” (Bargh and Chartrand). A few examples: after students were subtly exposed to words associated with age stereotypes they walked more slowly and gave more conservative opinions; those exposed to “polite” words were more cooperative on the following task, while those exposed to rude words were more aggressive; and those subtly primed with remarks about professors performed better at Trivial Pursuit. None of these people realized that they’d been influenced or that they had changed their behavior.
The human brain clearly is not skillful at realizing what affects it, but it is very good at finding patterns and being self-consistent. These fixed patterns or stereotypes arise from everything around us, not just deliberate teaching. From what people – and especially children – observe and hear at home and school, in the neighborhood, at religious services, on television and the internet, in movies, magazines, newspapers, books, and games, they unconsciously abstract patterns and “rules” about different people, places and activities. This includes groups they belong to, and there is a strong unconscious effort to be consistent with these patterns that are built on a society’s power dynamics, attitudes, and behaviors.
Internalized stereotypes are triggered by environ-mental clues and dramatically affect people. For instance, on a spatial rotation test, female students did worse when it was presented as predicting ability for male-dominated fields, men lost their advantage when it was presented as predicting ability in female-dominated activities, and there was little difference when people were primed with gender irrelevant material. Although in America math and science are considered male fields, this is not true everywhere, and differences in performance by gender on tests reflects a country’s attitudes – in some nations, women routinely outperform men. Such variations on standard tests apply not only to women but to minorities, and in fact to any group who finds itself on the wrong side of a social stereotype. The triggers can be subtle: even checking a box at the top of a test to indicate gender or race can change the person’s performance, as can being outnumbered in the room by the higher-achieving group or being exposed to negative stereotypes right before the test. On the other hand, when students were primed with the idea that they were all part of an elite private college, the gender and racial score discrepancies disappeared. Also, students given erroneous information that contradicted stereotypes did not have impaired performance.
Can internalized stereotypes be overcome? Research shows that people can compensate for stereotypes about others that they are aware of, often overcompensating. Those who are not aware of holding stereotypes commonly think they are free of them, but testing has shown that such unconsciously held beliefs trump conscious views. It is hardest for people to overcome the effects of stereotypes they’ve internalized concerning their own group.
Perhaps self-discipline and seeking to embody what we believe are two keys. A more just, harmonious and brotherly world will not happen until enough people begin to live the principles that allow such a world to exist. That beliefs we’ve internalized come into play unconsciously makes progress more challenging, but the process is the same as with any skill people want to acquire: desire and determination combined with lots of practice, and inevitably a lot of falling short, until what we wish be-comes a habit. This requires change of priorities and actions reinforced by vigilance and feedback, since without reliable feedback we can’t know whether we are moving toward our goal or simply fooling ourselves with the moral equivalent of rationalizations about yellow and blue soap boxes.
We regard the rich expanse of the ego all too narrowly when we leave out the enormous realm of the unconscious, this genuine inner Africa. Within the entire wide globe of memory, hardly a few illuminated mountaintops revolve at any one time in the mind; the rest of the world remains shrouded in their shadow. Were we completely conscious of ourselves, we would be our own creators and infinite. [Yet there is] something dark that is not our creation but instead our creator. – Jean-Paul Richter 
Today we can hardly conceive of ourselves without an unconscious. Yet between 1700 and 1900, this notion developed as a genuinely original thought. The “unconscious” burst the shell of conventional language, coined [by Platner, 1776] as it had been to embody the fleeting ideas and the shifting conceptions of several generations until, finally, it became fixed and defined in specialized terms within the realm of medical psychology and Freudian psychoanalysis. – Nicholas T. Rand (2004)
I [distinguish] three main historic-philosophical tradition-lines of the unconscious, which are outlined below. The first of these is the tradition-line of the cognitive unconscious, which stems from the era of the Enlightenment. [Leibniz, Herbart, Fechner, Helmholts, Lipps] … A second (Romantic) tradition-line arose from the fear that the Enlightenment would stagnate into a flat and lifeless rationalism if the emotional, natural, biological, fantastic, and irrational dimensions of human experience were not taken into account [Harman, Herder, Goethe, Schelling, Carus] ... Finally, a third tradition-line developed in opposition to the two main streams of post-Kantian German idealism [Schopenhauer, Von Hartmann, Nietzsche] … – G. Gödde (2010)
… most of a person’s everyday life is determined not by their conscious intentions and deliberate choices but by mental processes that are put into motion by features of the environment and that operate outside of conscious awareness and guidance. – J. A. Bargh and T. L. Chartrand (1999)
The division of the psychical into what is conscious and what is unconscious is the fundamental premise of psychoanalysis; and it alone makes it possible for psychoanalysis to understand the pathological processes in mental life … and to find a place for them in the framework of science…. We have found – that is, we have been obliged to assume – that very powerful mental processes or ideas exist … which can produce all of the effects in mental life that ordinary ideas do … though they themselves do not become conscious. – S. Freud (1923)
The cognitive unconscious is very different from the dynamic [psychoanalytic] unconscious…: rather than being a powerful unitary system, it is fragmented across a large number of informationally encapsulated and narrowly focused specialist computational mechanisms; it is not populated with personal-level mental entities such as beliefs, desires, and memories, but subpersonal mental representations that carry information relevant only for highly circumscribed perceptual and cognitive tasks; and its representations are inaccessible to consciousness by virtue of architectural constraints rather than the operation of a repressive force. – G. O’Brien and J. Jureidini (2002)
[On asking in medical school what produces consciousness] Curiously, I always got the same answer; language did it. I was told that creatures without language were limited to their uncognizant existence but not we fortunate humans because language made us know … The answer sounded too easy, far too simple for something which I then imagined unconquerably complex, and also quite implausible, given what I saw when I went to the zoo. – A. Damasio (1999)
To make consciousness dependent upon language entails a drastic simplification of the stream of thought that automatically consigns much of the complexity and subtle richness of experience to the domain of the unconscious. This is especially true of the life of feeling, where our verbal resources seem especially inadequate and we most often find ourselves at a loss for words. We have far richer language for distinguishing the varieties of mosses and moths than the subtleties of human emotions. Indeed, [Wm.] James … warns that if we attend only to the things we can name, we will end by invoking occult intellectual processes to supply the connections we have thereby ignored, but which were nonetheless present in experience all along. – M. J. Woody (2002)
The essential argument here seems to be the ongoing attempt to explain the messiness of human motivation and behavior in terms of neural mechanisms and, more recently, computer and information processing models. The enterprise is laudable, but the sticking point always seems to be the problem in moving from biological process to meaning and semantics…. Psychodynamic explanations may be wrong (however defined) in detail or even in large part, but psychodynamic theory engages thought, emotion, and action at the symbolic and personal level, and until a process explanation can make that leap to the world of worry, desire, and affection, it will fall short in its attempts to render psychodynamics superfluous. – J. Kroll (2002)
Freud’s emphasis on the Unconscious, to the detriment of the Conscious, now seems even more well founded than he knew. Awareness of an external change lags several hundred milliseconds behind the stimulus onset, and substantially behind the cortical processing that establishes the nature and significance of the external change. Moreover, by the time the individual, that is, the brain, is conscious of the input, decisions for corresponding action, if any, have already been made. Again, some hundreds of milliseconds elapse before the brain is aware of the decision-making already in progress. Our brains, these self-organizing, self-stabilizing adaptive devices, both analyze the situation and select adaptive action before they (i.e., we) are aware of any of this. Once we realize that the business of the brain is essentially conducted preconsciously, we can be more open to the idea that what is conscious is substantially predetermined and biased unconsciously. – M. Kinsbourne (1998)
Subjective consciousness exists, and it would be a tragedy indeed if science were to exclude it once more from the natural order of things, simply because the manner in which the perceptual apparatus is constructed (and the scientific technology that has flowed from the manner of its construction) makes it easier for us to study the mind as an object in the external world than as the interior of a living subject. That the danger of excluding subjectivity from neuroscience indeed exists is reflected in Oliver Sacks’ memorable comment (in 1984) to the effect that “neuropsychology is admirable, but it excludes the psyche.” He elaborated: “Neuropsychology, like classical neurology, aims to be entirely objective, and its great power, its advances, come from just this. But a living creature, and especially a human being, is first and last … a subject, not an object. It is precisely the subject, the living ‘I,’ which is excluded.” – M. Solms (1998)
At times thoughts will not develop or let themselves be clearly grasped while we pay full attention to them. Yet long afterwards they will appear, of their own accord, in the greatest clarity just when we are not in search of them, so that it seems as though in the interim they has grown unnoticed, like a plant, and now suddenly stand before us in their full development and bloom. Many a conception ripens gradually within us until, freeing itself from the mass of obscure ideas, it suddenly emerges into the light. – J. G. Sulzer (1774)
Jung states that the primordial images of the collective unconscious are inherited, but by this he does not mean that a person has consciously appropriated the images that his ancestors had, but rather than he shares with his ancestors the same predispositions for experiencing the world. For example, basic fears of the dark or of snakes or of monstrous shapes are not learned but acquired through heredity. As these typical situations are repeated again and again, archetypes – the contents of the collective unconscious – are produced and manifest themselves in the forms of myths and symbols. – W. Kelly (1991)