Timothy Wilson enters the structure erected by Sigmund Freud a century ago bearing a wrecking bar and fresh wall paint. Freud's concept of the unconscious is in dire need of updating, Wilson contends, but not demolished entirely. The construction can be refurbished with modern research. Instead of the unconscious being hidden away until a psychotherapist teases it back into view, says Wilson, its effects can be detected by new observing techniques - even done in the laboratory setting. In fact, the author argues, much of the unconscious is there to help us through our daily lives. We just don't perceive its role or influence. In an easily read and nearlycomprehensive account of how over the past century psychology has revised the Freudian construction, Wilson has produced a shiny, almost new edifice. Sadly, the structure lacks a foundation.
Wilson points out that our brains are the result of life's evolutionary process. There is the ancient, rapidly responding elements inherited from ancient ancestors. There is also the rather cumbersome, plodding segment, more recently acquired by our species. In fact, it may be that which distinguishes our species. The ancient parts drive us to jump back when we see a long, slim, dark shape on the ground while walking in the woods. The newer, slower cognitive functions allow us to detect the object has bark and knots - it's a twig, not a snake. Although Wilson is anxious for us to understand our brains are based on an evolutionary foundation, he's quick to dismiss the nascent science of evolutionary psychology as "too extreme" in comparing us to other animals. His field is psychology, not ethology, and he's not willing to surrender his role. He's also unwilling to "reduce" the mind to something in common with other animals - or allow it to be compared with computers.
His concept of "adaptive unconscious" is a compromise between Freud's dark realm and the realities of evolutionary biology - tilting toward the Freudian side. Wilson demonstrates how in many ways our "adaptive unconscious" influences us. There's confabulation - contriving reasons for behaviour we can't immediately explain. Wilson deems us "the ultimate spin doctor" for projecting how good we are - both to others and to ourselves. There's the problem of whether emotion is reflected in changes of body condition - or vice versa. The wide variety of expressions of adaptive unconscious behaviours is amply and ably spelled out in this book. Perhaps no topic drives his thesis home more vividly than the segment "Are You Racist", still a major topic in Wilson's [and other] nations. The section is a glaring example of what is going on within our minds without our being aware of it.
Wilson's underlying theme is that the adaptive unconscious is the ultimate multi-tasking device. It is not a single entity, as Freud would have us believe, but a complex mix of motivating and reacting mental elements that play a significant role in our lives. At the bottom, it's things like breathing and heartbeat; at higher levels, it's rapid breathing and faster heartbeat in time of stress. The adaptive unconscious goes beyond our sense of self, however. It's also fundamental in how we deal with others. We may "rationalise" our behaviour in our own minds, but we act as our own "spin doctor" in actions toward family, friends or workmates. It's the latter that concerns Wilson in turning our mental "CEO" into a responsive, cooperating social element. If we can rationalise improper or inept behaviour, why not reverse the process and tell our adaptive unconscious how to react. Wilson doesn't say we're able to utterly reverse personalities, but we can choose which actions to emphasise and repeat. "Do good to be good" is a common saying and the author thinks that can work. However, given that we've only just shed Freud's "subconscious" with this book, it will be a long time to see if this new form of "operant conditioning" actually works. Let alone how.
What is missing in this otherwise fine overview is discussion of the underlying roots of what is driving the systems. The information on brain science touching on these topics is nil. In a science where brain mapping and data on the flow of neurotransmitters is almost daily news, this is a glaring omission. Even the single case of testing students in their reactions to a film while injected with either a stimulant or a depressive only indicates to Wilson that reactions vary. This is an unfortunate aspect in an otherwise good summary. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]