walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Strangers to Ourselves_, Timothy D. Wilson

Again, many thanks to byrdie who looked at my Amazon wish list, picked something I'd wanted for a long time but still didn't have, and got me a copy.

Subtitled: _Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious_

In order to make any sense out of this book, you need to have some idea of the Freudian conception(s) of the unconscious. The unconscious is where stuff gets shoved that is painful to think about, and the unconscious can cause us to act on that stuff in ways that are not what we want and quite possibly really bad for us. Wilson is attempting to replace this conception of the unconscious with one that has other characteristics. The "adaptive" part is that the unconscious isn't just making trouble for us and preventing us from fitting into our prescribed social slot; the unconscious is capable of and often doing very useful, beneficial things for us. It is unconscious not because it's where we shove stuff that is painful to think about -- it is unconscious because its contents are not available to introspection.

_Why_ the contents are not available to introspection depends on which particular component of the unconscious Wilson has in mind at the moment. This book suffers from the Kuhnian "paradigm" problem: the definition starts out somewhat sloppy and gets murkier as the book proceeds. Things like proprioception are included, and I would suppose the autonomic nervous system (altho I don't know that he specifically mentioned that). But a lot of other stuff is stashed in his adaptive unconscious also, including quite a lot of things that I would consider available to a form of introspection, particularly if you allow self-observation and meditative states.

Wilson recognizes that some pieces of the unconscious are trained over time, but he mistakenly asserts that this kind of learning or training is effort-less. I complained about this in earlier posts; I didn't continue complaining primarily because my computer developed disk problems and has been in and out of the shop for the last few days (it is now working, thank you, Apple Store). He doesn't give any indication that he knows about what, say, martial arts instructors or coaches do to help train the adaptive unconscious of their pupils or team members. And while the Neuro Linguistic Programming crowd has some awareness of Wilson, the reverse appears not to be the case.

I was especially disturbed by the analysis of real estate agents on and around p 165. Wilson describes some friends and acquaintances who make pro/con lists and then find it difficult if not impossible to settle upon a decision. He describes real estate agents who more or less ignore the lists couples generate of what they need/want in a house, and just look at their non-verbal reactions to actually seeing houses -- then showing the couples more of what makes them go all gooey. "The couple eventually bought a house in a new development outside of town, rather than the older house in the city they said they had always wanted. My agent's wisdom is shared by other real estate professionals, so much so that there is a common saying in the business: "Buyers Lie."" I don't dispute the assertion that buyers think one thing and emote another -- I know I do. I luuuurrrrrvvveee old houses: I love their proportions, their architectural details, the layout of the rooms. I go all gooey over old. But I've lived in a house that was about a hundred years old and spent a fair amount of time in and around houses that were that age or older. I know I don't actually _like_ living in old houses. They are drafty, pest prone, have questionable wiring, plumbing and HVAC systems. What it takes to make an old house the kind of house I want to live in is a whole lot of money and a whole lot of time and a really, really, really good contractor with excellent subs and attention to detail. You can't tell if it was done right, because you can't actually _look_ at the bits that really matter -- and I don't want to supervise the work myself. So no old houses for me.

That doesn't stop me from emoting very positive things about old houses, so I avoid real estate agents because they show me old houses once they see that reaction. It pisses me off. So I find what I want and deal with the seller's agent, because I cannot stand what buyer's agents do. I'm not alone in this -- a whole lot of people in the cohort after me are acting the exact same way. If Wilson can't make a pro/con list help him make a decision, that's not the fault of the list: that's the fault of the person who is abusing the list making technique. The list is supposed to include the things you actually care about, and nothing else -- it isn't supposed to include any damn thing that springs to mind or that someone else suggests.

My takeaway from this book is simple: I know of no obviously better book that supplies a theoretical structure for thinking about why people (including myself) think and say one thing but feel and emote another thing. There are _way_ better books out there for detecting what is going on, learning how to train your feeling/emoting systems (and proprioception and other automatic responses), improving your introspective capacity and so on. The flaws in the theory supplied are many, some in the details and some in the generalities, but the thesis in its simplest form (your feeling/emoting selves are useful) is a valid one and he pokes around the edges of it in a way that might provoke insight in the reader.

An incredibly qualified recommendation. I'll probably hang onto my copy, at least for a while.

In a previous post, I included a link to a paper I wrote for an English class as a junior in high school. That paper was my effort to depict my experience of introspection. In many, many details, it is a better depiction of aspects of the "adaptive unconscious" than Wilson's book -- and a direct assault on several details of his thesis (that consciousness is unitary, for one), including his description of some of the limitations of introspection.
Tags: book review, non-fiction

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