Timothy Wilson’s Stranger to Ourselves :: review

I finished reading Strangers to Ourselves for the second time, initially exploring this as a result of reading Malcolm Gladwell‘s Blink. Timothy Wilson, a Professor of Psychology at UVA, argues that the adaptive unconscious limits our ability to perceive and understand our motivations, feelings and judgments. I highly recommend this book as an intro into modern science’s understanding of psychology and the unconscious. What you’ll get out of reading this, is a new perspective about how you and those around you behave. And an appreciation for what people may not be aware of.

The adaptive unconscious argues against prior psychological theories about the self. So Wilson explains the limitations of Freud’s approach, and how it makes evolutionary sense that certain mental processes operate outside of awareness. He also clarifies how adaptive unconscious differs from conscious thinking. For instance, the former generally deals with information rapidly, across several systems, and in a rigid manner. The latter operates in opposite ways.

Then Wilson reviews different aspects of psychology, and how the adaptive unconscious could be applied to understanding each one: e.g., personality, emotions, motivations, and judgments.

Wilson could have spent more time addressing whether people behave with certain thoughts because of culturally acquired ideas, or because of physiological functions within the brain. It seems that psychology in general, is still in confused state of empirical observation, with little to zero understanding of what actually is happening in the brain. In other words, there is a fundamental gap in understanding between neuroscience and psychology. Ideally these fields will merge as we learn more!

Also his “suggested solutions” for developing self-awareness also fall very short. There is basically zero mention of meditative practices here!

As I look forward, I would like to explore this question: do “Eastern” approaches to self-awareness, such as those practiced by Buddhist monks, allow for the mind to overcome these perhaps artificial (or culturally encouraged) divisions between conscious and unconscious existence? Some evidence already points in this direction. E.g. it is clear that Wilson’s arguments break down, for highly self-aware persons. These people are able to reconcile both their implicit and explicit understandings of self. For next time – I want to examine the literature around monks and self-awareness. In the meantime, here’s what I’m exploring as an off-shoot:

I think there are much larger ideas here, I just haven’t received them yet.


One comment

  1. very interesting. i’m adding in RSS Reader


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