Dual processing, unconscious and what we are aware of

Our bodies do a whole lot of things we didn’t ask them to.

Eventually they get old, but even before that, our bodies produce all kinds of urges, pains and stomach growls in highly inopportune situations. Of course, usually this is right when we’re on that important date or business meeting.

Likewise with our minds. When we go through, say, our everyday morning routines, we can go through the movie we watched last night in our minds while our hands go through the motions of making coffee. We can also go through the movie in our minds during an important work meeting and miss the part where the boss told us what we’re supposed to for the project do this afternoon.

Our minds have an inseparable connection with our bodies, or more accurately, our nervous systems. We can focus on the part of our surroundings and our bodies that we need to observe or control really closely, but the vast majority of what is going on in our bodies is unconscious. Likewise with our minds: thoughts seem to follow a certain track of their own unless we expend conscious effort to make them do otherwise.

A lot of the time our thinking consists of just noticing what pops up in our minds and going along, whether it is to remind ourselves to book an appointment to the dentist or to act in a welcoming manner around the new guy at work. Even what our minds are drawn to, what grabs our attention, happens without us ever making conscious choices. To illustrate the only partially conscious nature of what is going on in our minds, Carl Jung likened our consciousness to an island in the middle of a sea of unconsciousness.

All thought is not alike

Research in cognitive psychology suggests that our thinking falls into two broad categories. These are the autonomous but quick-acting, and the consciously controlled but slower kind, which are often called Type 1 and Type 2 thought (or cognition).

Type 1 thought is what we would call intuition. It is based on previous experience and decision-making rules-of-thumb or heuristics. It doesn’t require mental effort, and in fact happens all the time whether we want it or not. So, most of the time we end up operating under Type 1 thought. Learned skills become automatic as the brain codes experience into connections between different areas of the brain. Eventually we no longer need to pay attention to things we have done countless times. We also learn to perform complex tasks like driving a car, by making parts of it automatic under conscious practice. This is how our common thought-patterns form: by repetition.

However, Type 1 thought is based on what we already know. As such, it is prone to lead to mistakes in novel situations. It will give us the kind of answer that has always worked for us in the past, but that’s not always what we need.

For situations that require a new kind of response, we use Type 2 thought. It is effortful and has a limited capacity, so we won’t be able to engage in it for too long and we cannot use it to work on infinitely complex problems. This kind of thought never happens without conscious control, but it is our only way of reaching new kinds of solution and to correct the behaviors and thought patterns that are giving us bad results. This way, we are able to relate new ideas to our behavior and try new things – which we will then be able to use under autonomous Type 1 thought once we repeat them often enough.

A good description of the relationship between the two types of thought is that Type 1 gets us in the right neighborhood, while Type 2 gets us at the right door. Also, since Type 2 thought requires us to think actively, and as we experience every thought-operation that we take under it, we identify with Type 2 thought. Type 1 thought, on the other hand, feels like it ‘just happens’ so it doesn’t produce a similar feeling of agency, of being in control of our thoughts.

The broad strokes of thought

The overall situation with our thinking seems to be that whatever our minds are drawn to and what motivates us to act ‘happens to us’; if we can get it using the means we have always used we will do that. If we don’t, we have to formulate a new strategy, learn a new skill and apply it under Type 2 thought. If it works, we will keep using it in similar situations, which will cause the strategy or skill to become automaticized so we will be able to use it under Type 1 thought. We will then have learned something new that will enable to get results that we didn’t have access to before.

Importantly, Type 2 cognition includes our highest-order thought, known as the executive functions. These include self-regulation, inhibition, strategic thinking and reasoning – how we control our own track of thought. Overall, Type 2 cognition is what we want when we try to make sure we are doing the things that produce the kinds of result that we want in the long run.

Another implication of the dual-process view is that unless you stop and engage in consciously controlled thought before you act, you will do the same thing as you have always done. If you engage in Type 2 thought you will definitely know you did, just because it doesn’t happen otherwise and it is effortful and demanding. For the same reason, as a rule you don’t do so. Instead we tend to keep trying to apply old answers to new problems, and often it doesn’t cross our minds that we could do things differently.

Research on these dual cognitive processes tends to emphasize the fact that Type 1 cognition produces errors in thinking when compared to logical rules or probabilities. This is, of course, important in the context of professional decision-making.

To understand how our minds operate, I like to think that the primacy of Type 1 cognition means we shouldn’t assume that people generally follow formal decision-making rules. Instead, these are valuable skills that must be learned and then applied again and again in specific contexts, and they cannot be taken for granted indefinitely. Doing the smart thing is usually hard, but it tends to produce better results.

The correct reference point of ‘correct’ thinking

Using whether people follow formal decision-making rules or not as the norm is not the correct point of view for understanding how any of us think. For that purpose, our social roles and performance are not the correct starting point. These roles form the exception and not the rule, though we often evaluate the quality of thought based on them since in professional situations we except people to perform according to their roles.

The correct point of reference in this sense is our organisms that form part of the flow of time and nature, as that is who made the choice to acquire this particular profession and made its associated skills and knowledge part of its nervous system by learning it. Looking at who we are in terms of social roles or thinking learned in social contexts and basing our expectations on them is putting the cart before the horse.

We make use of socially acquired and shared knowledge, roles and decision-making skills, but we aren’t them. Society runs on the active effort required to act according to its conventions, but the effortless, autonomous existence of not trying to make a certain end result happen is the basic, default state. Following our language-based socialization, we tend to pay attention to the thoughts in our head more than the world right in front of us.

The socially acquired, language-based thought is only parts of the whole situation going on at any given moment. They exist in our minds and in patterns of social interaction. But even when we only see our thoughts, the rest of what is going on does not simply vanish. It is just that our awareness is fused with our thoughts and their meaning, and as a result we lose awareness of the rest that is there. For avoiding cognitive fusion as well as the higher-order executive control of our thoughts, we have to be aware that we have the ability to change our thoughts.

Quite the big picture

Consider this:

According to the Big Bang theory, the entire universe was contained in a single spot with infinite density and heat.

That would contain every particle of matter currently in your body, as well as every particle in the food you will eat next week, and every atom that leaves your body by whichever means.

And here you are, thinking about the singularity, which contained everything – including all the matter and energy that you now consider to be ‘you’.

What is going on here?

If you find that odd, it’s because you ran into an unusual aspect of ‘you’.

‘You’ is a word, and you use it for thinking and for communicating with others. You use the word according to how people around you use it, just like everyone else.

Reality and experience of reality

Alan Watts, a highly significant influence in opening these philosophies up to Western thought in the 1960s and 70s, gave wonderfully illuminating lectures on the words we use to refer to ourselves. Modern scientific cosmology and the metaphysics of Eastern religions – Daoism, Hinduism or Buddhism – are interestingly compatible.

Words or ideas refer to something outside themselves, but in our minds we treat the words as reality itself and don’t even notice it. The way we’re socialized, thoughts – knowledge, opinions – about the real world are emphasized over direct experience.

Eastern philosophies on the other hand place direct experience as the starting point of thinking, not its formal content or meaning. As the Buddhist teaching goes, when you see a finger pointing at the moon, you’re supposed to look at the moon and not the finger.

We also experience the words that appear in our mind. We experience them by hearing or seeing them in printed form as we learn them, and they are stored in our brain and experienced again in the form of memories. When we use language, part of its meaning comes from the situation at hand, which comes to us as part sense-experience, part memory. Like everything else, we can only experience language as our sensory organs can receive it and as our brain processes it.

In this sense the reality, the ‘moon’ that the metaphor guides us to pay focus on, is subjective. We cannot know ‘reality itself’, since we will always only experience it in the form our body can give to it. When we talk about reality, we necessarily talk about our experience of reality. ‘Objective reality’ essentially means that our individual, limited perceptions and any other kinds of measurements we make agree.


Language is a physical phenomenon. In communication language is transmitted between people as sound waves in the air or as readable words on a surface. Language is also stored in our memories, which reflect the structure of our brains. In our thinking and its representation in the brain, conceptual thinking is connected with non-conceptual mental contents such as sensory memories or emotions. That is how we are able to recognize a word when we hear or read it and connect it with, for example, memories not in linguistic form.

Expressing non-linguistic objects in language also gives form to their relationships with other ideas, as then they are able to form logical relationships. These are a property of the formal content of language, but not reality itself, as it requires splitting reality that is fundamentally continuous into separate objects according to the ideas in our heads.

When we think or communicate in logical terms, the words contain those aspects of experience that can be sufficiently put to words. However, words alone cannot contain the experience that we want to share. In person we supplement words with gestures and non-verbal communication. We also experience emotions, we simply sense some things, and we have vague intuitions that we may not be able to put into words at all. We don’t need to have words for everything; only that part of our experience that we communicate to others.

What is it that we experience?

As mentioned before, sense-experience only comes to our awareness as our bodies are able to receive it and present it to our minds. What we are aware of is experience of our bodies from the inside. There are aspects of the external world that we cannot be aware of, but other animal species can. Animals experience a completely different world than human beings, having very different sensory systems, but we don’t live our lives feeling like we’re missing out on something. (The animals likely don’t feel that way either.)

More than that, animals with echolocation or lateral line sense, for example, have entire dimensions of experience that human beings cannot really imagine. This is similar to how we cannot access another person’s experiences, memories or feelings. We can talk about what is happening in the world and seemingly agree on it, but we can never know for sure if what another person means by the colour red really looks the same as what we call red.

Seen this way, we realize that our bodies is inseparable from the events we experience. This contrasts with the everyday conception of reality as we experience it. Reality is not at all what we think it is. No matter what we think reality itself is, it isn’t. When you think about ‘reality itself’ that is there when you do not experience it, you are imagining it based on past sense-experience.

This is similar to how really is no way to know just by looking if the light in the refrigerator goes off when the door is closed. The question is meaningless if you only accept direct sense-experience as an answer, since it is impossible to get it. However, once you learn there is a mechanism that turns the light off, you can accept that the situation as a whole makes sense.

The experience of thoughts

What we experience is our bodies being acted on by outside forces, such as light on the receptors in your eye. These forces appear in our minds as we have deduced them of based on regularities in our experience about the world, and as we have described them using words or other kinds of symbols, such as mathematical ones. However, our awareness of these experiences is separate from what we are experiencing. Even when there is a world full of sense-experience right in front of us, we can exlude it and focus on our thoughts instead.

We can lose ourselves in our experiences, thoughts and memories, but we can also detach them and notice that we were lost in them. There is a psychological concept called cognitive fusion, which means losing awareness that our thoughts are thoughts and not reality. This is not different from being absorbed in sense-experience, or in other words, taking in events in the outer world just like we usually do and forget that we are observing them – where we don’t feel like we’re being absorbed in anything. Since both the sensory stimulation and the thought happen within the body, in both of these cases our awareness is lost in something taking place in the body itself.

Thoughts about experience

Our bodies are continuous with the rest of the world. Like the rest of the universe, we are the matter and energy from the singularity that was thrown into expansion in the big bang. Our bodies are in constant flux as they rebuild themselves from matter from the environment, and shed used or worn material. For a large part of our adult lives the change is so slow that we are not aware of it, but there is not a single cell in your body now that was there ten years ago. Our bodies are also inhabited by a vast cadre of micro-organisms which are separate from our bodies themselves.

The distinction between ‘me’ and ‘not me’ is conceptual. It is there only when we think about it. Alan Watts explained human existence as a pattern in the whole of the universe using the analogy that human beings are an integral part in a universe that produces human beings in the same manner as apple trees produce apples. There is no definite way to pin ‘you’ down in words because you are not a definite thing, and you do not keep a definite form over time.

Thinking of ourselves using words means being aborbed in the pattern of concepts used in communication between people and stored in our brain structures and patterns of social interaction. This is part of being ourselves. Making mental and linguistic pictures is something human beings do, but we are not those pictures. What we are is simply what is right here right now, regardless of whether we think about it or not.

When you use a concept to make sense of something in the world, what your thinking is “making sense of” is the concept. That is, the neural, linguistic, social representation – that is where your awareness is focused on when you think conceptually – and not the thing itself.

No matter how clever a conceptual definition that we suppose is about reality itself we come up with, this will always only lead to more thoughts about thoughts, and more words about words. The only way out in the conceptual sense is to realize this is the case. However, that will only change your conceptual system, and what it refers to is no different than it was before. So the pragmatic solution is not to bother yourself thinking about it too much and simply live your life.

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