How Much Control Do We Really Have?

Our Conscious Behaviors May Not Be So Conscious After All

Brent Atkinson

Atkinson_opener-smAt the tail end of a sweltering, humid Chicago day in 1993, I took my family to the community pool for a dip. As the children splashed gleefully, I sat nearby reading Robert Ornstein’s new book, The Evolution of Consciousness, unaware that my life was about to change.

Seven years earlier, I’d emerged from my doctoral studies utterly dissatisfied with existing answers to the question of why people continue to behave in self-defeating, irrational ways despite clear evidence that their methods aren’t working. Few questions were more important to the enterprise of psychotherapy, yet the answers at that time were highly speculative—running the gamut from unresolved childhood issues to low ego strength to family homeostasis to secondary payoffs, with little scientific evidence to support any of them. Deeply discouraged, I wondered if I’d chosen the wrong career.

From the first page of Ornstein’s book, it was clear to me that he was on to something new. Using hard neuroscience data, he proposed that we behave irrationally because our brains are simply not set up to produce rational behavior. Throughout history, he argued, we’ve been operating under a great deception—we tend to believe that our thoughts and actions result largely from our conscious intentions, when, in fact, the inclinations that fuel our perceptions, interpretations, and actions primarily come from neural processes that operate beneath the level of awareness. The fact that most of us have fallen for the great deception isn’t our fault. Because we’re aware only of our conscious thoughts, we readily assume that they’re the prime movers in our brains. We’re a bit like the men in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who think that because they consider themselves the “head of the house,” they’re in charge. But remember Maria’s famous quote? “The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.” In the brain, nonconscious urges and impulses are the neck, and conscious thought is merely the head.

To support this idea, Ornstein cited the work of Benjamin Libet, the University of California San Francisco researcher who found that by monitoring brain activity, he could tell when subjects were going to initiate simple wrist-flicking movements before the subjects were aware of deciding to flick their wrists. Libet’s findings ran contrary to the way most of us experience ourselves. Most of us think, “When I move, it’s because I decided that I was going to move.” But Libet’s studies showed that impulse and inclination preceded conscious intention. Initially, Libet’s study stirred a storm of controversy, but over the next few decades, his findings would be replicated time and time again, with more and more sophisticated technologies, leading to him winning a Nobel Prize for his contributions.

The sun was setting by the time I reached the end of The Evolution of Consciousness. I hauled the kids out of the pool and herded them into the car. On the drive home, I remember thinking that if Ornstein were right, I’d need to rethink my assumptions about nearly everything concerning human behavior, including psychotherapy. For me, reading his work was a genuine eureka moment. But figuring out a way to actually use this new brain knowledge in my work would turn out to be tough, painstaking work. Still, I decided that I was up for the challenge—if my clients were.

Find the full article by Symposium 2014 presenter Brent Atkinson, "The Great Deception: We are Less in Control than We Think," in the January/February 2014 issue of Psychotherapy Networker magazine.

Tags: brain science | conscious behavior | consciousness | neuroscience | Unconscious brain

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6 Comments

Thursday, December 11, 2014 3:11:44 PM | posted by Jeannine
I do not know whether it's just me or if everybody else encountering issues with
your blog. It looks like some of the written text
in your posts are running off the screen. Can somebody else please comment and
let me know if this is happening to them too?
This might be a issue with my internet browser because
I've had this happen before. Kudos

Thursday, April 24, 2014 12:33:31 AM | posted by First Name Last Name
I haven't read Ornstein either but Freud may have mentioned the unconscious in his work from so many years ago :-)

Friday, January 31, 2014 3:40:18 PM | posted by Ben Toma
some of us have these aha moments later, some sooner :) Good thing we can have them and share.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014 6:51:37 PM | posted by Carol Horton
Or, even Freudian theory??

Tuesday, January 28, 2014 4:54:54 PM | posted by Andrew Schwartz
How might the author deal with the fact that, though we are limited by physiological and neurological realities, we do nonetheless experience multiple motivated action potentials on a relatively frequent basis?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014 4:38:04 PM | posted by Chris Hancock
I haven't read Ornstein's book, but, it strikes me funny that the central premise is being presented as a kind of missing explanatory link. Isn't the idea of human behvior as being vastly unconsciously directed the very essence of Ericksonian thought?