Evaluating the discipline of the unconscious mind

In my last post, I made an analogy that compared the unconscious mind to work dogs (sheep dogs in particular).   I’m using the term unconscious mind to refer to the part of the mind that can autonomously carry out actions (such as balancing on a bicycle) that required previous training but does not require conscious instruction for the performances.

The unconscious mind is trained like the sheep dogs were, but once trained it is on its own when confronting a task involving the real world that can sometimes present unexpected challenges.    The unexpected challenge for the sheep dog may be the sheep taking a different path than intended and the dog needs to react on its own to get them back on track.   The unexpected challenge for the bicyclist’s unconscious mind is suddenly hitting an unexpected bump and immediately reacting to keep the bicycle balanced.   While the basic principles were trained, the ability to react to unexpected conditions comes from an independent mind that determines a course of action to get things back to the intention of what had been trained.   That corrective action is not trained, but comes from some innate mental capacity that is outside of the trainer.

I like the analogy of distinctions the conscious and unconscious minds as like the human and his domesticated animal (pet or work animal).   From my personal (sample size of one) experience, the analogy is very relevant.  The unconscious mind has its own thoughts and objectives but it agrees to obey the conscious mind and perform actions that the conscious mind trained it to do.   Unlike the domesticated animal that at least theoretically has the option to leave the human owner, the unconscious mind is fixed in the same physical body as the conscious mind.   Despite that, the unconscious mind has power over the conscious mind and it will use it.   One example may be of the bicyclist hitting an unexpected bump may involve a corrective action that may contradict the intentions of the conscious mind to follow a straight line.   Other examples are deeper and would take too many words to describe, but it is analogy to the work-dog scenario again where the dog will inform the owner when it needs attention, rest, drink, or food.

In the shepherd example, the team of the shepherd and his dogs is successful because there is a two-way relationship involving a strong bond.  For example, the shepherd provides for the dogs needs even when there is no immediate work to be done.  When there is work to be done, the shepherd rewards the dogs by giving them tasks that they can do, perhaps even some tasks involving sheep that he could do himself.  Again based on my own experience only, I believe the same thing happens between the conscious and unconscious mind.   We see this with people who train physically with set routines for running, bicycling, or other sports out of habit.   Perhaps the routine started with a conscious goal of some achievement (such as winning some competition) but that opportunity either has been achieved or is no longer realistic.  And yet, we continue that routine without much thought.   We do it because the animal unconscious needs it, not because of some rational decision of that being the best use of time at the moment.

This is a difficult claim to make because we can always rationalize such a diversion, but it will involve forgoing something that would provide more immediate satisfaction to the conscious mind.   An outdated example, is from decades ago of having to abandon an interesting broadcast TV show in order to walk the dog.   Similarly, we often cut short other activities in order to perform physical exercise sometimes without knowing why except as habit.

Another illustration of this distinction of the conscious and unconscious mind as a human – animal relationship occurs in modern gyms equipped with televisions or video simulations.  The unconscious mind is content with its exercises but the conscious mind welcomes the video or audio entertainment.  The conscious mind accommodates the unconscious mind with the exercise while finding conscious entertainment while exercise is occurring.

The conscious and unconscious minds participate in a committed relationship.   The objection to this statement is that there is no choice: both are trapped in the same body.   The unconscious mind does not have the pet’s options such as running away.   Perhaps there is some analogy in sleep where the unconscious minds will interrupt the sleep when it is upset, or it will allow a satisfying sleep to be interrupted to answer conscious needs such as getting ready for another day of work.   Maybe there is a combat of wills of the two minds going on in medical comas where somehow the conscious mind is unable to regain control over the body as if the unconscious mind refuses to let go.

From personal experience, I suspect the unease I feel in certain situations is coming from the unconscious mind especially when there is no rational basis for that unease.  Returning to the sheep dog analogy, imagine a situation where the shepherd signals a command that the dog will see will send the sheep into a hazard that the shepherd does not see.   In the previous post, the linked video showed a few occasions where the collie required repeated commands before it would obey.  I wonder what the collie saw that told it that the initial commands were wrong.  I think this is in fact what happened because these instructions were specifically for the purpose of a demonstration to an audience.   In its normal duties, the dog would not have rested at that time because the sheep were not where they normally should be or were not yet at the point of needing a rest.   However, after repeated commands the dog does obey the command to sit. Perhaps during that time it is wondering what is going on with the unusual requests.

Imagine a command where the owner knows of a hazard.  An analogy occurs with police dogs accompanying an officer to confront a threatening situation, or a rescue dog being sent into a hazardous situation.   In the first case, the dog willingly obeys the command that can put the officer’s life also in danger.   In the second case, the dog goes into the situation with all of the risks on itself.   There are multiple ways to interpret this kind of obedience.  Perhaps the dog obeys out of trust for the human’s ability to assess the situation, or perhaps it is simply automatic response that does not involve any kind of choice.   I suggest an interpretation that the dog recognizes the hazard and probably harbors some doubts but proceeds any way.   My interpretation introduces discipline as part of this relationship: discipline on the part of the animal or of the unconscious mind.

The discipline of the dog is to proceed into a dangerous situation with no assurance of safety or success.   The discipline within the human mind may be exemplified by the warrior instinct to run toward the sound of gun fire.   The conscious decision to offer assistance requires the unconscious cooperation to do the actual running in a way that successfully arrives in time to be of some help.   The unconscious mind is aware of hazards and its skill is to avoid them or to respond to recover from them.  My earlier example of the bicyclist reacting to an unexpected destabilizing bump illustrates the self-preservation thinking of the unconscious mind.   Even the running toward the sound of gun fire needs to successfully avoid tripping, or when tripped the unconscious mind needs to manage fall in a way to avoid braking bones or straining muscles.   The unconscious mind is aware of the hazard it is running toward, but it has the discipline to proceed in spite of that knowledge.

In my last post, I asked the question of learning the intelligence of the unconscious mind.   That question involved discovering what the unconscious mind knows.   I asserted that we can only discover this information by observing the unconscious mind performing some real task with tangible risks and rewards.

Another key piece of information we would like to learn from an interview is the discipline of the unconscious mind.  Discipline occurs when the rewards and risks are swapped: the successful completion of a task risks or incurs injury while the unsuccessful completion of a task would result in a more comfortable condition.   In the interview scenario, we would like to know the discipline of the worker to employ his capabilities in a way that will make him uncomfortable.

Often the success of an employment involves this kind of discipline although it is rarely as dramatic as rushing into life-threatening situations.   I have frequently heard stories that go something like the following.   A person is hired for their demonstrated skills for the specific job, but these skills are most needed just a couple times of the year.  Most of the year, the job has a comfortable workload that results in predictable work hours where the pace of work is not stressful.   However, for a couple times a year, the workload is very high requiring intense stressful work with no clear definition of when the day will end or if the day will end at all (perhaps spending all week in the office).   The anecdote points to this highly qualified individual deciding to arrange a vacation or calling in a sick time during this period when the skills are most needed.   The vacation may be arranged by an unanticipated surge period that the employee sees coming.   Alternatively, the option for taking emergency or sick leave is usually available.   The employee’s skills are not available at exactly the time when the employer will most benefit from those skills.

The skills are not available because the employee lacks the discipline to participate when the work is really stressful and difficult.   As stated in the above outline, the discipline is a conscious one where there was a rational decision to avoid the work place.   There is also an unconscious element of discipline for when the employee does agree to participate in the stressful situation, but in this situation, he does not perform as well as he does normally.   The stressful environment may explain making more mistakes or being less diligent in performing duties.   The employee also exposes the lack of discipline of his unconscious mind when he fails to employ his skills at all.   He is there but he is not fully participating.

I have been in such circumstances with no rationalization for the avoidance of contribution.  The conscious mind wants to help but the unconscious mind completely fails to see where it can help.   In fact, it could help a lot, but it just doesn’t see this.    An analogy may be a technical writer whose skills are in writing final versions of proposals is involved in a proposal team.   Although the proposal is due in just a couple days, all of the materials so far are too preliminary and changing too quickly to write anything about.  The skilled technical writer is at a loss of where he can contribute when all the present work is in arguing competing ideas about what should go into the proposal.   The discipline of the unconscious mind is the ability to find new ways to use skills in a way that can be immediately relevant.   This discipline volunteers a new activity that can productively employ ones skills in a way that will make that individual busier and more engaged in the stressful task.

The newness of the opportunity and the volunteering of its service distinguishes this from learning from prior experience in similar circumstances.  The innovation to find a new way to get busy comes from the discipline of the unconscious mind.  The unconscious mind has the option of not volunteering this new way to help because it has never been done before.  Instead, it identifies the opportunity and then volunteers to do it even though it recognizes that this will result in more stressful time.   In my above anecdote, the volunteering of the final-copy technical writer in an earlier stage does not relief him of his principle task of preparing the final copy that he may have to do alone in the narrowest possible time-frame.    The unconscious mind discipline involves volunteering in an activity that may make the actual duty even more challenging by prior physical exhaustion.

This is not quite the same life-and-death scenario of warriors running to the sound of gun fire, but it does involve a similar commitment by the unconscious mind to take on more tasks even though that does not relieve them of their primary duties.   Taking the new tasks involves pain (at least in terms of more exhaustion at the end of the period) and risks of that pain making the assigned duties more challenging.

In the work place, we see the lack of discipline in failing to get involved in a project either because it is not his normal job or he doesn’t see where to help.  Alternatively, a person will leave the project early because he had started his day much earlier than everyone else so his day is done (I’m referring to those jobs where he is not obligated to leave at this precise time).   This discipline may be expressed consciously as in asserting “that is not my job”.   However, I frequently see it expressed unconsciously where there is no evidence at all that the person even sees an opportunity of where he may help or why his continued help is essential.  It seems that the idea of participation does not even occur to him.

I recall being asked in an interview about my after-work commitments.  They wanted to know whether I would extend may work day at a moments notice because something urgent comes up.   I answered this question with a conscious answer in the affirmative and gave examples in my past when I did just that.   I assume my answer was acceptable but I doubt it was sufficient.   What really mattered what whether my extended day would benefit them at all.  A consciously constructed response can not answer whether my unconscious mind has the discipline to engage productively and creatively to an unexpected challenge.

To answer whether the unconscious mind is disciplined, we need to demonstrate that it finds ways to contribute in new ways when it otherwise would not have anything to do.   We also need to demonstrate that our immediate volunteering of efforts will not impede out normal duties that will commence the following day, or we will be able to assess the diminished abilities to alert the team of this consequence.  Evaluating the unconscious mind requires giving it a real task with tangible risks and rewards.  Evaluating the discipline requires reversing the pain and benefits.  We would like to see the individual demonstrate a skill when the risk of failing to employ a skill could be more beneficial to the individual than the reward of success.


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